vi for Beginners

Many new Linux administrators find the vi editor complex and daunting. It is not as user friendly as other editors that they may have used before, but with a little practice, vi can be a powerful tool for managing files.

This article is not intended to make you a master of vi. Instead, it tries to get you comfortable with the editor so that you can learn the more advanced tools as you need them.

Background

vi was originally called the "VIsual editor" because it allowed the entire file to be seen on screen at once. It was first developed in a world without function keys and a mouse. Administrators had just the basic keyboard keys and so had to make the most of what they had to work with. Every key has a function within vi, but how do you separate the text from the commands?

Modes

vi has two modes: command and input.

Command mode is the default when you first opens a file. In this mode, your keystrokes perform different actions within the editor. Be careful, however – in order to extend the number of possible commands, vi is case sensitive, so the upper- and lowercase letters almost always have different behaviors. Certain characters – most notably the colon (:) and forward slash (/) – activate an in-application command line for multi-character commands.

Input mode allows text to be entered in the file. You activate this mode with a set of command mode characters. A status bar at the bottom of the screen indicates which input mode is in use. The <esc> key exits input mode and returns the editor to command mode.

Movement

Although you can use arrow keys to move through a file in modern incarnations of vi, part of the editor's strength is that you never need to move your hands from the home keys. This means less wasted movement and better efficiency.

The simple movement keys are h, j, k, and l.

CommandActionMnemonic
hcursor leftKey is at left of the group on the keyboard
jcursor down“Jump down”
kcursor up“Kick up”
lCursor right(lowercase letter l) Key is at the right of the group on the keyboard

Many administrators only use these four keys to navigate their files. Once comfortable with the basic movements, the next step is to learn how to move more efficiently.

CommandAction
0(zero) Go to the front of the current line
$Go to the end of the current line
wAdvance a single word
bGo back a single word
GGo to the last line of the file

Managing Text

Multiple commands start input mode, depending on where and how the text is placed in the file.

CommandAction
iInsert text before the current cursor position
aAppend text after the current cursor position
I(uppercase I) Insert text at the front of the current line
AAppend text at the end of the current line
rReplace the letter at the current cursor position
RReplace individual characters as the administrator types
o(lowercase letter o) Open a line below for adding text
O(uppercase letter O) Open a line above for adding text

To manipulate text, the major commands are x (character delete or "strike out"), d (delete), y (copy or "yank"), and p (paste). The y and d commands require additional characters to indicate the amount of text to copy or delete. Prepending a number will repeat an action that number of times.

CommandAction
xDelete the character after the cursor position
dwDelete an entire word
ddDelete an entire line
ywYank an entire word
yyYank an entire line
y$Yank to the end of the current line
pPaste copied or deleted text after current cursor position
PPaste copied or deleted text before current cursor position
4dwDelete the next four words
uUndo the last action
UUndo all changes since you last entered the current line
.Repeat the last action

Closing a File

Like an text editor, vi allows you multiple ways to exit a file, with and without saving. Some of the files require the : character which allows you to see the commands you type on screen.

CommandAction
:qQuit a file (will prompt if a save is needed)
:q!Quit a file forcefully (discards unsaved changes)
:wWrite (save) the file
:w <filename>Write the file and rename to <filename>
:w!Write forcefully (overrides read-only files that you own)
:wqWrite file, then quit
zzWrite file, then quit (also called “putting the file to bed”)