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Tip 983 Printable Monobook Previous Next

created September 4, 2005 · complexity intermediate · author JimD · version 5.7

There are several tips surrounding numbering here in the collection. This is an effort to summarize and consolidate them.

One of vi's unique features is the ability to display line numbers alongside our text. :set number (or :set nu for short) enables this mode. Obviously this is most useful when dealing with code and when using ex ranges (:xxx,nnn ...). However, it does tend to push all of the text several columns to the right which can make for quite a bit of ugly line wrapping when dealing with text that was already wrapped close to the width of your text.

Switching the mode on or off can be tedious (8 or 10 keystrokes). The following pair of mappings reduces that to just two:

:map gn :set nu<CR>
:map gN :set nonu<CR>

Those are so simple they'll work in any version of vi (not just vim).

Alternatively we can just make one macro (vim specific) which toggles the number mode state:

:map gn :set invnu<CR>

(The functions in VimTip 757 aren't necessary; if we've read VimTip 37 which covers using the inv prefix to boolean settings to "invert," or toggle, their current state).

To make a toggling macro like this in an older version of vi we could use a moderately ugly hack. In our .exrc file we'd set the initial macro/state:

map gn :set nu<CR>:so ~/.exrc.nonu<CR>
... and then in our ~/.exrc.nonu file we toggle it:
map gn :set nonu<CR>:so ~/<CR>

In other words; we use the :source command to remap the macro each time it's called. (That trick can be used generically for toggles and for cycling among lists of states, if we're willing to clutter our home directory with all those little fiddly bits. Thankfully this is vim and we can dispense with all that.

Of course these examples are following the common convention of using "g" as a prefix for our custom mappings since the "g" key is unused in standard vi and the n and N bindings don't conflict with any vim defaults. We could bind them to "zn" and "zN" (since "z" is the other common vi mapping prefix). However we would be over-riding a couple of vim specific mappings (for foldenable related settings).

When vi students ask me about line numbering I have to clarify if they want the numbers displayed or if they want numbers inserted into selected sequences of their text. vi can handle either case with alacrity. The following macro will filter a sequence of lines from the "n" mark to the current one through the UNIX nl (number lines) filter.

:map g# :'n,. !nl<CR>

So simple it's almost not worthy of a tip. Of course one could use 'cat -n' or any simple 'awk' or Perl script in lieu of the 'nl' utility and one could certainly customize this with custom arguments controlling the width and number formatting options, at least with the GNU version of 'nl.' (The Perl script in VimTip 569, "Insert line numbers or filter thru perl", would be equivalent to GNU: nl -w3 -s:)

Note I use the "n" marker for this to emphasize that I'm intent on NUMBERING a range of lines. That's handy because I usually use the "a" mark first for general purposes such as yanking or deleting. Using "n" here minimizes the risk that I'll inadvertantly number a large range of lines to one of my general purpose marks. (VimTip 28 offers a function using vim native built-ins for users on non-UNIX systems without the 'nl' utility. However my advice to them is: install Cygwin!).

(VimTip 65 offers an unecessarily complex suggestion for numbering all the lines of a file. One can simply use :%!nl[Enter] for that. Only six keystrokes for something which is not a common requirement. The g# macro above is useful for programmers and programming instructors or technical writers when including and discussing excerpts of code).

VimTip 124 provides a more elaborate function which can take arguments for starting indices, and offers other features. However, it's elaborate enough that I'd probably never remember to call it when I needed it.

In cases where I need to generate a sequence of similar lines which differ only in a few places by embeded numbers, I generally just write a simple shell command using a for loop, the GNU 'seq' utility (which, can be implemented in about 5 lines of shell if you're on a machine that lacks it) and echo statements). For example I sometimes find myself editing DNS zone and reverse zone files and using simple commands like:

:r! for i in $(seq 5 200);do echo -e "dyn$\t\tIN A 192.168.1.$i"; done

to generate most of my text.

VimTip 150 tells us how to generate a column of increasing numbers using Ctrl-V block/visual and a script. It's nice but I have to admit I resort to something a bit more crude. I create my template line with some unique string such as "xxx" to be replaced by the numeric sequence. I then duplicate that using normal vi commands like 100p (to put in a hundred copies of the template line, for example). Then I simply use something like !} (filter from here through the end of the paragraph) and type is a moderately ugly command like:

awk '{sub(/xxx/,n++);print}'

as the filter (assuming I want to start with zero). More tedious versions are easily concocted using things like:

awk 'BEGIN {n=100};{sub(/xxx/,n-=3);print}'

to do things like count down from 100 by threes. Thankfully I rarely have occasion to need this sort of thing for more than a half dozen lines where it's generally easier to just type such things by hand. Otherwise I'd save the specifics to a short script and possibly map the filtering to another macro like the g# shown above.

A couple of odd vim specific bindings that appear in other tips are Ctrl-A and Ctrl-X (VimTip 30 and partially duplicated in VimTip 287, and mentioned in passing in VimTip 305). These find the number nearest to the cursor and increment or decrement it respectively. I've never used that and will probably never quite remember it when I would and will probably never quite remember it when I would.


Numbering seems to be popular subject, and this makes for a nice article or commentary on various related tips. It's a pity that the linking format wasn't used in the tip. I've collected all of the references above and included them below.

  • VimTip28 add a line-number to every line without cat or awk alike utilities
  • VimTip28 Cool trick to change numbers
  • VimTip30 Best of VIM Tips (VIM's best Features)
  • VimTip150, handles dates!)
  • script#145 - increment.vim - Stanislav Sitar
  • script#156 - increment.vim - Srinath Avadhanula
  • script#842 - increment.vim - William Natter (sequences on a substitution character)
  • script#189 - renumber.vim - Neil Bird (only re-sequences, but handles hex)
  • script#821 - blockwork.vim - John Aldridge
  • script#1046 - monday.vim - Stefan Karlsson (increments month and weekday names)