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created March 12, 2004 · complexity intermediate · author mdmiller · version 6.0

If you're like me, you don't want a colorful editor. I spent hours looking for a "turn off all those colors right now!!" command and I couldn't find any help. After some poking around for a while, I found the commands you need. Just put these at the end of your vimrc file.

syntax off
set nohlsearch
set t_Co=0

If you don't have a vimrc file, simply create one in your home directory.


If you want coloring sometimes but want an easy way to turn it off occasionally (while editing) type

:set syntax=

What's wrong with

:syntax off

With "syntax off" alone Vim will still use colored highlighting when you search for things. For those who simply think colors are yucky, that's reason enough. For me, there's also the fact that I usually lose interest in a search term a few minutes after I find it. (i.e. find where a variable is used, examine the use of that variable, then move on to something unrelated.) I find it disconcerting to have something highlighted when it is no longer important to me. Yes, I know there is a way to turn off the highlight from the previous search, but it takes more keystrokes than I want to mess with. And I could simply search for something that isn't in the file I'm editing, but such a kluge of an answer disturbs me.

So the next thing I tried was "syntax off" + "set t_Co=0", and that made vim comepletely colorless, but search result highlighting was accomplished through alternate means - I believe bold or italics or some such thing. To clarify what I wrote in the previous paragraph, the emphasis of a currently uninteresting search result is the thing I dislike, not the means of the emphasis. So this option was not good enough for me.

I also tried "syntax off" + "set nohlsearch". This option is nice most of the time, but vim still used colors to emphasize some of its error messages. By the time I discovered this, I was so frustrated with vim that I wanted to beat it into submission. I wanted no colors, no emphasized text, nothing that looked at all different than traditional vi. (I know, this is a silly emotional reaction. But when you use technology all day, it needs to be comfortable. And "comfort" is a word that can only be completely defined in an emotional context.)

For my purposes, "syntax off" + "set nohlsearch" + "set t_Co=0" is the only satisfying option. Leaving out any ingredient gives me something that is not good enough. Given that "syntax off" + "set t_Co=0" will produce a colorless vim, perhaps I did not choose the best title for my tip, but people seem to be enjoying it, so I have no regrets.

Now you know what is wrong (from my personal point of view) with just typing "syntax off".

  • Additionally:

For a more practical reason to include set t_Co=0 than just "to beat it into submission," consider that, without this line, vim not only uses color for some error messages, but also for control characters (e.g. tabs and line endings under set list, or characters made visible via ^V). If the colors are hard to read on a given terminal, the ability to turn them off can be crucial.

  • An alternative viewpoint:

I couldn't get "syntax off" to work reliably enough for me (admittedly this was years ago, so it might be an old problem). Here's what I use:

set nohlsearch
set noincsearch
filetype off

The thing that's turning the syntax highlighting on in the first place is the vim plugin system that reacts to the filetype it determines the file to be. So this disables that altogether (which theoretically should make it load files faster, although honestly the difference--if there even is one--is so small it's unnoticeable). Plus turning the annoying searching stuff off.

That doesn't disable all the highlighting completely, but I find that whatever is leftover is fine. YMMV, natch.

  • An alternative viewpoint:

On debian 6 based system, I found a /etc/vim/vimrc.local file had syntax on and this was overriding what I had in VIMINIT environment variable. My solution was to comment out "syntax on" in the /etc/vim/vimrc.local file. The previous two sentences was written 3/5/2014 re: vim 7.2.