vimrc from Scratch: Debian Defaults

Using the default Vim configs in Debian as a starting point for a clean-slate custom vimrc.

My ~/.vim/ directory has evolved over many years and it works well enough for my day-to-day development and admin tasks, but I feel there is some cruft in there that isn’t necessary anymore and some settings that could be improved or organized a little better.

The impetus for taking on this project was the ALE plugin. I’ve always used pathogen for managing package installation, but if you have Vim 8 or NeoVim, ALE recommends using Vim native package management to install the plugin. I heard that Vim added package management into the core, but had never looked into it. So I read this and decided to replace pathogen. One thing led to another and I ended up doing a little yak shaving and here we are😃

Seriously though, I’ve never taken the time to really dive in to become an “expert” in Vim configuration, and I strongly believe there is a lot of advantage in deeply understanding the tools I use. This series of posts are an attempt at getting a little closer to that “expert” status.

Debian Default Config

Debian is my Linux distro of choice, so the first thing I want to understand is what do the default settings look like right after sudo apt install vim-gtk3 (I use vim-gtk3 instead of vim or vim-nox because I need system clipboard integration for copying and pasting from a web browser, etc.) A lot of thought has presumably gone into these default configs, so they should make a good starting point. At a minimum, understanding the defaults will at least let me make informed decisions when my settings contradict them.

The first config file that gets processed is /etc/vim/vimrc. Besides a bunch of comments (which are a good read), it just loads $VIMRUNTIME/debian.vim and then /etc/vim/vimrc.local (if it exists). The comments also explain that $VIMRUNTIME/defaults.vim is loaded afterwards if the user does not have a vimrc file.

Most of the commented out suggestions are covered in debian.vim or defaults.vim below, but a few are worth noting here:

" /etc/vim/vimrc
" All system-wide defaults are set in $VIMRUNTIME/debian.vim and sourced by
" the call to :runtime you can find below.  If you wish to change any of those
" settings, you should do it in this file (/etc/vim/vimrc), since debian.vim
" will be overwritten every time an upgrade of the vim packages is performed.
" It is recommended to make changes after sourcing debian.vim since it alters
" the value of the 'compatible' option.

" This line should not be removed as it ensures that various options are
" properly set to work with the Vim-related packages available in Debian.
runtime! debian.vim

" Vim will load $VIMRUNTIME/defaults.vim if the user does not have a vimrc.
" This happens after /etc/vim/vimrc(.local) are loaded, so it will override
" any settings in these files.
" If you don't want that to happen, uncomment the below line to prevent
" defaults.vim from being loaded.
" let g:skip_defaults_vim = 1

" Uncomment the next line to make Vim more Vi-compatible
" NOTE: debian.vim sets 'nocompatible'.  Setting 'compatible' changes numerous
" options, so any other options should be set AFTER setting 'compatible'.
"set compatible

" Vim5 and later versions support syntax highlighting. Uncommenting the next
" line enables syntax highlighting by default.
"syntax on

" If using a dark background within the editing area and syntax highlighting
" turn on this option as well
"set background=dark

" Uncomment the following to have Vim jump to the last position when
" reopening a file
"if has("autocmd")
"  au BufReadPost * if line("'\"") > 1 && line("'\"") <= line("$") | exe "normal! g'\"" | endif

" Uncomment the following to have Vim load indentation rules and plugins
" according to the detected filetype.
"if has("autocmd")
"  filetype plugin indent on

" The following are commented out as they cause vim to behave a lot
" differently from regular Vi. They are highly recommended though.
"set showcmd		" Show (partial) command in status line.
"set showmatch		" Show matching brackets.
"set ignorecase		" Do case insensitive matching
"set smartcase		" Do smart case matching
"set incsearch		" Incremental search
"set autowrite		" Automatically save before commands like :next and :make
"set hidden		" Hide buffers when they are abandoned
"set mouse=a		" Enable mouse usage (all modes)

" Source a global configuration file if available
if filereadable("/etc/vim/vimrc.local")
  source /etc/vim/vimrc.local

Next, lets look at $VIMRUNTIME/debian.vim first, but where is $VIMRUNTIME? To find out, open vim and type:


On my machine, it prints /usr/share/vim/vim80.

A quick summary of what this file does:

" /usr/share/vim/vim80/debian.vim
" Debian system-wide default configuration Vim

set runtimepath=~/.vim,/var/lib/vim/addons,/usr/share/vim/vimfiles,/usr/share/vim/vim80,/usr/share/vim/vimfiles/after,/var/lib/vim/addons/after,~/.vim/after

" Normally we use vim-extensions. If you want true vi-compatibility
" remove change the following statements
set nocompatible	" Use Vim defaults instead of 100% vi compatibility
set backspace=indent,eol,start	" more powerful backspacing

" Now we set some defaults for the editor
set history=50		" keep 50 lines of command line history
set ruler		" show the cursor position all the time

" modelines have historically been a source of security/resource
" vulnerabilities -- disable by default, even when 'nocompatible' is set
set nomodeline

" Suffixes that get lower priority when doing tab completion for filenames.
" These are files we are not likely to want to edit or read.
set suffixes=.bak,~,.swp,.o,.info,.aux,.log,.dvi,.bbl,.blg,.brf,.cb,.ind,.idx,.ilg,.inx,.out,.toc

" We know xterm-debian is a color terminal
if &term =~ "xterm-debian" || &term =~ "xterm-xfree86"
  set t_Co=16
  set t_Sf=[3%dm
  set t_Sb=[4%dm

" Some Debian-specific things
if has("autocmd")
  if has('gui')
    " Make shift-insert work like in Xterm
    autocmd GUIEnter * if empty(maparg("", "nvso")) | execute "map  " | endif
    autocmd GUIEnter * if empty(maparg("", "ic")) | execute "map!  " | endif

" Set paper size from /etc/papersize if available (Debian-specific)
if filereadable("/etc/papersize")
  let s:papersize = matchstr(readfile('/etc/papersize', '', 1), '\p*')
  if strlen(s:papersize)
    exe "set printoptions+=paper:" . s:papersize

Next up is the Vim defaults. If you have a custom vimrc file, these settings are not loaded, but they are worth looking at because they make a sane starting point for a custom vimrc.

Briefly, this file (skipping stuff already described in debian.vim):

" /usr/share/vim/vim80/defaults.vim
" The default vimrc file.
" Maintainer:	Bram Moolenaar <>
" Last change:	2016 Sep 02
" This is loaded if no vimrc file was found.
" Except when Vim is run with "-u NONE" or "-C".
" Individual settings can be reverted with ":set option&".
" Other commands can be reverted as mentioned below.

" When started as "evim", evim.vim will already have done these settings.
if v:progname =~? "evim"

" Bail out if something that ran earlier, e.g. a system wide vimrc, does not
" want Vim to use these default values.
if exists('skip_defaults_vim')

" Use Vim settings, rather than Vi settings (much better!).
" This must be first, because it changes other options as a side effect.
set nocompatible

" Allow backspacing over everything in insert mode.
set backspace=indent,eol,start

set history=200		" keep 200 lines of command line history
set ruler		" show the cursor position all the time
set showcmd		" display incomplete commands
set wildmenu		" display completion matches in a status line

set ttimeout		" time out for key codes
set ttimeoutlen=100	" wait up to 100ms after Esc for special key

" Show @@@ in the last line if it is truncated.
set display=truncate

" Show a few lines of context around the cursor.  Note that this makes the
" text scroll if you mouse-click near the start or end of the window.
set scrolloff=5

" Do incremental searching when it's possible to timeout.
if has('reltime')
  set incsearch

" Do not recognize octal numbers for Ctrl-A and Ctrl-X, most users find it
" confusing.
set nrformats-=octal

" For Win32 GUI: remove 't' flag from 'guioptions': no tearoff menu entries.
if has('win32')
  set guioptions-=t

" Don't use Ex mode, use Q for formatting.
" Revert with ":unmap Q".
map Q gq

" CTRL-U in insert mode deletes a lot.  Use CTRL-G u to first break undo,
" so that you can undo CTRL-U after inserting a line break.
" Revert with ":iunmap <C-U>".
inoremap <C-U> <C-G>u<C-U>

" In many terminal emulators the mouse works just fine.  By enabling it you
" can position the cursor, Visually select and scroll with the mouse.
if has('mouse')
  set mouse=a

" Switch syntax highlighting on when the terminal has colors or when using the
" GUI (which always has colors).
if &t_Co > 2 || has("gui_running")
  " Revert with ":syntax off".
  syntax on

  " I like highlighting strings inside C comments.
  " Revert with ":unlet c_comment_strings".
  let c_comment_strings=1

" Only do this part when compiled with support for autocommands.
if has("autocmd")

  " Enable file type detection.
  " Use the default filetype settings, so that mail gets 'tw' set to 72,
  " 'cindent' is on in C files, etc.
  " Also load indent files, to automatically do language-dependent indenting.
  " Revert with ":filetype off".
  filetype plugin indent on

  " Put these in an autocmd group, so that you can revert them with:
  " ":augroup vimStartup | au! | augroup END"
  augroup vimStartup

    " When editing a file, always jump to the last known cursor position.
    " Don't do it when the position is invalid or when inside an event handler
    " (happens when dropping a file on gvim).
    autocmd BufReadPost *
      \ if line("'\"") >= 1 && line("'\"") <= line("$") |
      \   exe "normal! g`\"" |
      \ endif

  augroup END

endif " has("autocmd")

" Convenient command to see the difference between the current buffer and the
" file it was loaded from, thus the changes you made.
" Only define it when not defined already.
" Revert with: ":delcommand DiffOrig".
if !exists(":DiffOrig")
  command DiffOrig vert new | set bt=nofile | r ++edit # | 0d_ | diffthis
		  \ | wincmd p | diffthis

if has('langmap') && exists('+langremap')
  " Prevent that the langmap option applies to characters that result from a
  " mapping.  If set (default), this may break plugins (but it's backward
  " compatible).
  set nolangremap

I now have a solid understanding of all of the default settings in play when I install Vim so I’m prepared to distill those defaults down to a good base .vimrc file. In a future post, I’ll show the result.