Syntax Highlighting

One of Vim’s strongest enhancements to vi is its syntax highlighting. Vim’s syntax formatting relies heavily on the use of color, but it also degrades gracefully on screens that do not support color. In this section we discuss three topics: getting started, customizing, and rolling your own. Syntax highlighting for Vim contains features that go beyond the scope of this book, so we focus on providing enough information to get you familiar with it and enable you to extend it to fit your needs.


Because the impact of Vim’s syntax highlighting is most dramatic in color, and this book isn’t (in color), we strongly encourage you to try syntax highlighting to fully appreciate the power of color in defining context. I have never met a user who tried it and then did not continue to always use it.

Getting Started

Displaying a file’s syntax highlighting is simple. Just issue the command:

:syntax enable

If all is well, and if you edit a file with a formal syntax, such as a programming language, you should see text in various colors, all determined by context and syntax. If nothing changed, try turning syntax on:

:syntax on

Enabling syntax should be enough by itself, but we have encountered situations where the additional command was required to turn on the syntax highlighting.

If you still see no syntax highlights, Vim may not know what your file type is and thus not understand which syntax is appropriate. There are a number of reasons this happens.

For example, if you create ...

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