Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Now You Know When To Macro

Use macros to reformat multi-line text
that would be too finicky
with :ex's linewise commands.

What Are Macros?

Macros are just recorded keystrokes of what the user would normally do manually when faced with the given editing task. As such, they do not represent much of a conceptual challenge and therefore the barrier to adoption is quite low. Once users gingerly try their first few macros, they're hooked and look for new and interesting screws to bang with their dull new hammer.

Regular expressions, on the other hand, are a mess of complicated hieroglyphics to the layman. Like nothing they've used or done before, they appear opaque and unfathomable. The meaning of various atoms within a regular expression are overloaded (they take on different meanings within different contextual sections of the expression) which only adds to the surprise and frustration of those who make the effort to learn them. Let's not even mention Vim's silly variable magic-ness.

For a great many editing situations, though, regular expressions are the sharpest tool in a Vimmer's toolbox. It slices and dices text cleanly and, when you master them, efficiently. I urge every Vimmer to vault the regex wall; glory awaits you on the other side.

For the right task, however, macros are the right tool - a better tool than regular expressions (alone).. But... what is the right task? In my opinion, macros should be used for multi-line edits where Vim's :ex commands (the :substitute (regular expression driven search & replace command) among them) prove fragile and stubborn.

A quick duck around the net revealed several good explanations and examples of macros being used correctly. It also produced a few cases of macros being used where the better choice would have been one or several regexes.

I won't bore you with yet another contrived example here, I'll simply point to some good ones:

Actually... As I was readying to publish this, I just noticed a macro that I always use. Moving to the first paragraph, I type:


I then run it on the second paragraph with @a and the subsequent ones with @@. I don't make it crawl over the whole file automatically because the asciidoc multi-line headings, lists and admonition blocks get messed up with this macro. for the length of my articles and the builtin } command to move to the next paragraph, it's not a big deal.

Recursive Macros

One neat trick about macros is that they can be recursive. This is often used to make the macro auto repeat without having to specify a range or count of lines when executing it. While it is fairly trivial to specify a range of lines for a macro to execute over, I'd suspect that if it _were_ that easy then using a macro in the first place was probably the wrong choice. With a macro that utilises a find up front to set the position of the subsequent edits and then calls itself as the last step, you have a simple and neat solution that finds and changes all occurrences for you.

Here is a simple example of a recursive macro:

And I've discussed recursive macros before too.

Cases Where Macros Were The Wrong Tool

Of the many poor examples of macros, I'll highlight why I consider macros to be a poor choice with the following two cases (chosen randomly):

The source data is all on separate, unrelated lines. This is a clear signal that plain :ex (in this case, a regex :substitute) should be employed instead of a macro.

Original source lines:


Desired destination lines:

  <label>First:</label><input type="text" name="First">
  <label>Last:</label><input type="text" name="Last">
  <label>Phone:</label><input type="text" name="Phone">

Simple regex solution:
  :%s/.*/<label>&:<\/label><input type="text" name="&">

Again, the source data is strictly single-line, requiring again, a simple :substitute.

  %s/^\d\+ -- \(.*\)\( (\d\{4})\)$/<li><em>\1<\/em>\2<\/li>/

.Follow up with some normal commands to wrap the list:

I've tried to show in this article the following things:
  • Vim's macros are cool when used in the right place - where the source involves complex, interdependent multi-line text.
  • Don't use a macro when the source does not consist of multi-line, interdependent text. Use an :ex command, like :substitute then.
  • LEARN regular expressions. They'll save you a LOT of time in the long haul.