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Rants of a geek

linduxed's ramblings

Vim search and replace in bulk

Every once in a while you’ll have some word or phrase that is present in multiple files across your project. Finding all of instances can be done with tools like grep outside of Vim. You could probably also use sed, awk or some other tool to perform a substitution inside these files.

While there’s nothing wrong with this approach, what if you wanted to do this kind of multi-file search and replace inside Vim?

The following methods are by no means the only ways of doing things, it’s just how I tend to solve this problem.

Finding stuff

When in a terminal, if you wanted to find all instances of FoobarQuux in a project, you’d probably run one of these commands:

grep "FoobarQuux" $(git ls-files)
git grep "FoobarQuux"
ack "FoobarQuux"
ag "FoobarQuux"

Let’s look at alternatives.


The built-in equivalent that Vim has is vimgrep. A search similar to the ones above would be this:

:vimgrep /FoobarQuux/ `git ls-files`

You’ll notice a couple of things here.

First of all, the command uses slashes to encapsulate the regex and grave accents for eval. I’m pretty sure the $() syntax doesn’t work here.

Secondly, the results aren’t highlighted in the way that a regular search performed with / would be. Instead, the Quickfix-list is populated with the results and you can go through them with :cnext and :cprevious (quicker bindings for that with tpope’s unimpaired).

Lastly, and most importantly, you’ll notice that vimgrep is remarkably slow. I don’t know why that is and I don’t particularly care since there are alternatives.


We can speed things up by using the ack.vim plugin, which you can find over on Github. I’m going to assume that you’ve already got a preferred method of installing plugins, but in case you’re new to them, here’s a helpful Stack Overflow question.

You’ll have to install the ack package for whatever OS you use, then you’ll be able to run commands like this in Vim:

:Ack "FoobarQuux"

This is just like running ack FoobarQuux from the command line, but the results get loaded into a Quickfix-list. This time however, there’s a noticeable increase in performance.


Mr. ggreer once said “But who has the time?”, and lo and behold, the_silver_searcher was created. If you’re not familiar with the_silver_searcher, it’s basically ack but even quicker. What’s even nicer is that you don’t need another plugin for using it (although you can get one), you just change the command which ack.vim runs. Add this to your .vimrc and you’re good to go:

if executable("ag")
    let g:ackprg = 'ag --nogroup --nocolor --column'

I like to use this solution because I’ve found that on distros like Debian, ack is readily available in the repositories while ag isn’t, so it’s a bit more portable.

Replacing the stuff you’ve found

So now your Quickfix-list list is filled with lines that contain some word or phrase you want to change. Here’s an interesting fact for you then:

Vim has bufdo for running a certain command in all open buffers. It also has windo for all open windows, tabdo for all tabs and argdo for all files in the arglist. All these things, but no quickfixdo.

If bufdo doesn’t overlap with the files you wish to perform replacements on (it sometimes does), you can use the following plugin to populate the arglist with the contents of the Quickfix-list. The creator of the plugin gives an example:

:Ack FoobarQuux
:argdo %s/FoobarQuux/Cranberries/gc
:argdo update

That works, and lets us see every change due to the confirm flag at the end of the third line.

But what if there was one command for doing it all?

greplace – global search and replace

This plugin is pretty old and there might be newer alternatives, but it does what it should and that’s all I need.

From the help page:

The following commands are provided by this plugin:

:Gsearch         Search for a given pattern in the specified
                 group of files and display the matches in
                 the replace buffer.
:Gbuffersearch   Search for a given pattern in all the buffers
                 in the Vim buffer list.
:Gargsearch      Search for a given pattern in all the files in
                 the Vim argument list.
:Gqfopen         Use the results from the quickfix list.
:Greplace        Incorporate the modifications from the
                 replace buffer into the corresponding files.

So if you were to do :Gsearch you’d get to input the regex, then input what files you wish to apply this to and then you’ll get an editable with every found line!

When you’re done editing the found line, you run :Greplace and then you’ll get to approve each change in the actual file.

Regardless of how often this scenario pops up for you, you ought to try it to see how nice this plugin is. I might also add that when you’re in that editing buffer, you could probably improve your experience even more by using the :Subvert command from tpope’s abolish plugin, functionality which is explained in this Vimcast.