Faster Vim search/replace

Entering search patterns and replacement strings in Vim can sometimes be a pain, particularly if the search or replacement text is already available in a register or under the cursor. There are a few ways to make working with search and replace in Vim quicker and less cumbersome for some common operations, and thereby save a bit of error-prone typing.

Insert contents of a register

As in command mode or insert mode, you can insert the contents of any register by pressing Ctrl+R and then the register key. For example, to directly insert the contents of register a, you can type Ctrl+R and then a while typing a search pattern or replacement string.

Reference contents of a register

Similarly, if you want to use the contents of a register in a pattern or replacement but don’t want to directly insert it, you can instead reference the contents of register a with \=@a:


Both of the above tips work for both the search and replacement patterns, and for special registers like " (default unnamed register) and / (last searched text) as well as the alphabetical ones.

Insert word under cursor

If you happen to be hovering over a word that you want to use as as a search or replacement string, as a special case of the above you can do so by typing Ctrl+R and then Ctrl+W for a normal word, or Ctrl+R and then Ctrl+A for a space-delimited word.

Empty search string

You can use the previous search as a search pattern or replacement string by including it from the special / register, in the same way as any other register above, by inserting it with Ctrl+R and then /, or representing it with \=@/. There’s a convenient shorthand for this however in just using an empty search string:


This will replace all occurences of the previous search string with replacement. It turns out to be a particularly convenient shorthand when searching for words by pressing * or #.

Smarter directory navigation

Shell autocompletion of directory and file names makes navigating through your filesystem quite a bit quicker than if you had to type all of the paths in full, but there are a few other ways to make navigating through and between long pathnames on your filesystem a little bit easier.


As a first note, typing cd with no arguments will take you straight back to your HOME directory; you don’t actually need to type cd ~ or cd $HOME in most cases.

cd ~username

You can move to any particular user’s HOME directory with the general form cd ~username.

cd -

To navigate to the directory you were in before the last cd call, you can use cd -. This will both move you back into that directory and echo the pathname it was on for you.

$ pwd
$ cd projects
$ pwd
$ cd -


If you are working mostly within one directory and need to change to another briefly for some reason, rather than using cd you can use pushd to move to that directory and add it onto the directory stack. You can move to further directories with pushd successively, and then when you’re done in each one, popd will take you a step backward again. Each time you call pushd or popd, it will print the current contents of the directory stack:

$ pushd projects
~/projects ~
$ pushd /usr/local/bin
/usr/local/bin ~/projects ~
$ popd
~/projects ~
$ popd


By default, you can move around relatively in the filesystem tree by typing cd dir for any subdirectory of your working directory, rather than its full path. You can generalise this to provide a list of directories to check successively for matching subdirectories:

$ export CDPATH=.:~

In this case, if I were to type cd projects, if there were no subdirectory of the working directory by the name of project but there was one called /home/tom/project, I would be sent there instead. This probably isn’t a good thing to set in any non-interactive terminal, but it can be a nice shortcut for interactive shells. Note that the first part of the list should always be ., for the working directory.

This has the side effect of printing the complete path to which you just moved on a line before your prompt if it’s used. I happen to find this quite helpful.

Tolerate typos

In an interactive shell, if you make a small mistake in typing a path for cd that means it doesn’t resolve to an actual directory, it’s generally safe to have the shell correct mistakes for you and move you into the directory you most likely intended:

shopt -s cdspell

This will correct things like dropped or swapped characters in the path you typed:

$ cd /home/tmo


If you know you’re going to be switching back and forth between several directories, it often makes sense to put them into variables for quick changing, or even just editing files directly without having to move around at all:

$ acnf=/usr/local/apache/conf
$ abin=/usr/local/apache/bin
$ sanc=/var/www/sanctum
$ vim "$acnd"/httpd.conf
$ vim "$sanc"/index.html
$ cd "$abin"
$ ./apachectl configtest
$ ./apachectl restart

This last one may seem like a very elementary trick, or something that you’d typically only do within a shell script. However, if you use consistent variable names or even put them into a startup file like .bashrc, it’s actually quite surprising how much time it can save you; you start to realise how much time you were spending typing out paths.

High-speed Bash

One of my favourite technical presentations I’ve read online has been Hal Pomeranz’s Unix Command-Line Kung Fu, a catalogue of shortcuts and efficient methods of doing very clever things with the Bash shell. None of these are grand arcane secrets, but they’re things that are often forgotten in the course of daily admin work, when you find yourself typing something you needn’t, or pressing up repeatedly to find something you wrote for which you could simply search your command history.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing, as I think even the most experienced shell users will find there are useful tidbits in there that would make their lives easier and their time with the shell more productive, beyond simpler things like tab completion. Here, I’ll recap two of the things I thought were the most simple and useful items in the presentation for general shell usage, and see if I can add a little value to them with reference to the Bash manual.

History with Ctrl+R

For many shell users, finding a command in history means either pressing the up arrow key repeatedly, or perhaps piping a history call through grep. It turns out there’s a much nicer way to do this, using Bash’s built-in history searching functionality; if you press Ctrl+R and start typing a search pattern, the most recent command matching that pattern will automatically be inserted on your current line, at which point you can adapt it as you need, or simply press Enter to run it again. You can keep pressing Ctrl+R to move further back in your history to the next-most recent match. On my shell, if I search through my history for git, I can pull up what I typed for a previous commit:

(reverse-i-search)`git': git commit -am "Pulled up-to-date colors."

This functionality isn’t actually exclusive to Bash; you can establish a history search function in quite a few tools that use GNU Readline, including the MySQL client command line.

You can search forward through history in the same way with Ctrl+S, but it’s likely you’ll have to fix up a couple of terminal annoyances first.

Additionally, if like me you’re a Vim user and you don’t really like having to reach for the arrow keys, or if you’re on a terminal where those keys are broken for whatever reason, you can browse back and forth within your command history with Ctrl+P (previous) and Ctrl+N (next). These are just a few of the Emacs-style shortcuts that GNU Readline provides; check here for a more complete list.

Repeating commands with !!

The last command you ran in Bash can be abbreviated on the next line with two exclamation marks:

$ echo "Testing."
$ !!

You can use this to simply repeat a command over and over again, although for that you really should be using watch, but more interestingly it turns out this is very handy for building complex pipes in stages. Suppose you were building a pipeline to digest some data generated from a program like netstat, perhaps to determine the top 10 IP addresses that are holding open the most connections to a server. You might be able to build a pipeline like this:

# netstat -ant
# !! | awk '{print $5}'
# !! | sort
# !! | uniq -c
# !! | sort -rn
# !! | sed 10q

Similarly, you can repeat the last argument from the previous command line using !$, which is useful if you’re doing a set of operations on one file, such as checking it out via RCS, editing it, and checking it back in:

$ co -l file.txt
$ vim !$
$ ci -u !$

Or if you happen to want to work on a set of arguments, you can repeat all of the arguments from the previous command using !*:

$ touch a.txt b.txt c.txt
$ rm !*

When you remember to user these three together, they can save you a lot of typing, and will really increase your accuracy because you won’t be at risk of mistyping any of the commands or arguments. Naturally, however, it pays to be careful what you’re running through rm!