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Andy Gnias
Andy Gnias

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Interpreting a Basic .vimrc File

If you're anything like me, you:

  • Like Vim a lot
  • Know that a .vimrc file can make Vim work the way you want it to
  • Copy-pasted a bunch of commands into your .vimrc to make it functional but don't really know what they all do

Today I decided to clean up my .vimrc to create something that's pretty bare bones, but does what I want and need it to do. Even better, I actually know what each line does!

TL;DR: The File

If you're just looking for a starter .vimrc with some comments, copy-paste this file and run away.

" From:

" Don't make efforts to make Vim VI-compatible
set nocompatible

" Turn on filetype detection
:filetype on

" Turn on syntax highlighting if more than 1 color is available
if &t_Co > 1
    syntax enable

" Turn on auto-indentation for C-syntax languages
:au FileType c,cpp,java set cindent

" Show matching brackets
set showmatch

" Set one depending on terminal type
set background=dark
" set background=light

" Makes backspace behave as expected
set backspace=2

"Set the tab key to 4 spaces
set tabstop=4
set softtabstop=4
set shiftwidth=4
set expandtab
set smarttab

" Turn on visual wrapping
set wrap

"Wrap at 120 characters
set textwidth=120

" Turn on highlighting for searching
set hlsearch

" Show cursor line and column position
set ruler
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode


Below are some of the finer details of what all these commands actually do.


A staple for any .vimrc file is set nocompatible. It basically gives you some of the more useful features of Vim at the cost of making it less compatible with Vi. If you've never used Vi and / or are not sure why you would want this setting, add this to your .vimrc.


Most of the syntax settings are explained clearly enough with the comments provided (Anything preceded by a " is a comment). The only outlier here is the if statement wrapping syntax enable. It's based on the condition that &t_Co is greater than 1. t_Co represents the number of terminal colors, so we're saying, "turn on syntax highlighting as long as we have more than 1 color to work with".

Tabs, spaces, and backspaces

Tabs can be a controversial subject. Personally, I find it easiest to go with the most common paradigm, at least in 2020, and use 4 space characters as my indentation marker. This .vimrc is set up so that hitting the tab key will auto-generate 4 spaces and not a tab character. The settings that make that happen are included below. The Vim help guide and this article really helped me understand them better.

  • tabstop - Number of columns that a tab displays as
  • softtabstop - Number of columns to indent when hitting the tab key
  • shiftwidth - Number of columns to indent when using shift operations
  • expandtab - Convert tab key to specified number of spaces
  • smarttab - Insert blanks when hitting tab in front of a line

The Vim help guide does make a note that setting tabstop to a value other than 8 can "make your file appear wrong in many places (e.g., when printing it)", but personally I have not had issues with using a different tabstop value.

Last thing to note here is the set backspace=2. In some instances, the backspace and delete keys will not work as you expect them to. Fortunately, this can typically be resolved through some troubleshooting with the help of the Vim Backspace and delete problems Wiki. Working on Ubuntu, I had some issues using the backspace key not erasing at the end of a line, and enabling this setting fixed that issue for me. A more general setting as suggested in the guide, such as set backspace=indent,eol,start should be good enough to resolve most issues for most users.


Obviously there's much more you can do to with this file to improve your Vim experience. Many Vim users have provided some fantastic, and detailed, .vimrc files. My only recommendation in using someone else's settings is to understand what their commands are actually doing, which can usually be found out through a Google search or by using the help command in Vim (ex. :help some_weird_setting_I_dont_understand). If you're just starting out, or have been using and loving Vim for a while, hopefully this gives you a greater appreciation of what a basic .vimrc can do for you and how it does it.

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