Learn Vimscript the Hard Way

Basic Syntax Highlighting

Now that we've gotten the boilerplate out of the way it's time to start writing some useful code for our Potion plugin. We'll start with some simple syntax highlighting.

Create a syntax/potion.vim file in your plugin's repo. Put the following code into the file:

if exists("b:current_syntax")

echom "Our syntax highlighting code will go here."

let b:current_syntax = "potion"

Close Vim, and then open your factorial.pn file. You may or may not see the message, depending on whether you have any other plugins that perform commands after this one gets run. If you run :messages you'll definitely see that the file was indeed loaded.

Note: Whenever I tell you to open the Potion file I want you to do it in a new Vim window/instance instead of in a split/tab. Opening a new Vim window causes Vim to reload all your bundled files for that window, whereas using a split does not.

The lines at the beginning and end of the file are a convention that prevents it from being loaded if syntax highlighting has already been enabled for this buffer.

Highlighting Keywords

For the rest of this chapter we'll ignore the if and let boilerplate at the beginning and end of the file. Don't remove those lines, just forget about them.

Replace the placeholder echom in the file with the following code:

syntax keyword potionKeyword to times
highlight link potionKeyword Keyword

Close the factorial.pn file and reopen it. The to and times words will be highlighted as keywords in your color scheme!

These two lines show the basic structure of simple syntax highlighting in Vim. To highlight a piece of syntax:

  • You first define a "chunk" of syntax using syntax keyword or a related command (which we'll talk about later).
  • You then link "chunks" to highlighting groups. A highlighting group is something you define in a color scheme, for example "function names should be blue".

This lets plugin authors define the "chunks" of syntax in ways that make sense to them, and then link them to common highlighting groups. It also lets color scheme creators define colors for a common set of programming constructs so they don't need to know about individual languages.

Potion has a bunch of other keywords that we haven't used in our toy program, so let's edit our syntax file to highlight those too:

syntax keyword potionKeyword loop times to while
syntax keyword potionKeyword if elsif else
syntax keyword potionKeyword class return

highlight link potionKeyword Keyword

First of all: the last line hasn't changed. We're still telling Vim that anything in the potionKeyword syntax group should be highlighted as a Keyword.

We've now got three lines, each starting with syntax keyword potionKeyword. This shows that running this command multiple times doesn't reset the syntax group -- it adds to it! This lets you define groups piecemeal.

How you define your groups is up to you:

  • You might just toss everything onto one line and be done with it.
  • You might prefer to break the lines up so they fit within 80 columns to make them easier to read.
  • You could have a separate line for each item in a group, to make diffs looks nicer.
  • You could do what I've done here and group related items together.

Highlighting Functions

Another standard Vim highlighting group is Function. Let's add some of the built-in Potion functions to our highlighting script. Edit the guts of your syntax file so it looks like this:

syntax keyword potionKeyword loop times to while
syntax keyword potionKeyword if elsif else
syntax keyword potionKeyword class return

syntax keyword potionFunction print join string

highlight link potionKeyword Keyword
highlight link potionFunction Function

Close and reopen factorial.pn and you'll see that the built-in potion functions are now highlighted.

This works exactly the same way as keyword highlighting. We've defined a new syntax group and linked it to a different highlighting group.


Think about why the if exists and let lines at the beginning and end of the file are useful. If you can't figure it out, don't worry about it. I had to ask Tim Pope to be sure.

Skim over :help syn-keyword. Pay close attention to the part that mentions iskeyword.

Read :help iskeyword.

Read :help group-name to get an idea of some common highlighting groups that color scheme authors frequently use.