Using Macros in Vim

Jan 26 2021

For a long time, macros in Vim were a huge mystery for me. I knew they existed, but I didn't know how or why you'd use them. A recent task of mine involved replacing the unsafe operator (!!) in a large kotlin codebase with a null-safe operator (?). This game me a good opportunity to learn about macros. This is a snippet I encountered numerous times:

mLeftButton!!.text = "Left"
mLeftButton!!.visibility = View.VISIBLE
mRightButton!!.text = "Right"
mRightButton!!.visibility = View.VISIBLE

You could go ahead and change each line individually, or use the IDEs built in "multi-cursor" tool to save you some work. But, let me show you how I automated this using a Vim-Plugin for Android Studio. Not that the plugin matter, it will work in every Vim-like editor.

A macro in Vim works like this:

  1. Record any sequence of keystrokes and assign them to a key
  2. Execute that sequence as often as you wish

So let's see how we'd do that.

Recording a macro

To record a macro in Vim, you press q (In normal mode) followed by a key you want to assign the macro to. So, if you wanted to record a macro and save it to the q key, you'd press qq. Vim will notify you that a macro is being recorded. Now, you can press the keystrokes that define your actions. When you're done, press q in normal mode again to quit your macro.

Coming back to my task, I would want to do the following:

  1. qq Record a macro and save it to the q key
  2. _ - Jump to the beginning of the line
  3. f! - Find next occurrence of !
  4. cw - Change word (Delete word and enter insert mode)
  5. ?. - Insert the new characters
  6. <esc> - Enter normal mode
  7. j - go down a line
  8. q - Finish macro

If everything went right, this line:

mLeftButton!!.text = "Left"

Should now look like this:

mLeftButton?.text = "Left"

and your macro should be saved under the q key.

Using the macro

In order to use a macro in vim, you press the @ key, followed by the key the macro is saved under. Since our macro is defined as q, we'd press @q, and the macro is executed immediately.

Let's take this further. You might have noticed that I went down a line before closing the macro. This becomes handy when you want to execute it many times. In our case we have 6 lines we want to refactor. 1 line has already been altered, so we have to execute it 5 more times. As per usual with vim, you can execute an action n times by specifying a number before doing the action. Let's press 5@q to execute the macro 5 times. And voila! Our unsafe code is now null-safe.

mLeftButton?.text = "Left"
mLeftButton?.visibility = View.VISIBLE
mRightButton?.text = "Right"
mRightButton?.visibility = View.VISIBLE

Macros are really satisfying to watch, if you ask me!

This is post 007 of #100DaysToOffload.

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Garrit Franke

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