Vim: filter text with external programs

One of the reasons Vim1 is powerful is that it gives you easy access to your shell. If you’ve invested in developing your skills with the Unix shell, and in writing shell-scripts, that work also pays off in Vim.

Here’s a simple example that I use frequently: let’s say I find a slow SQL statement in my Postgres logs, and I’d like to rewrite it. To rewrite it, I first want to read it, so I’d like to turn this:

select person.first_name, person.last_name,,,,, perm.created_at from person join person_permission on = person_permission.person_id join permission on person_permission.permission_id = where person.last_name like 'Fl%one';

into something I can read.

Happily there’s a command-line tool called sqlformat that formats SQL queries tidily. I don’t want to leave Vim to use this command-line tool, and I don’t have to: Vim has ! filter commands. I can run sqlformat on my query by selecting the line with !! (a special case of the more general ! to run an external program on the current line) and running this command:

sqlformat -r -

This asks sqlformat to reformat the SQL query supplied on standard input. Vim will pipe the selected text to sqlformat’s stdin, and replace the selected text with the output of sqlformat -r - (on stdout), which is:

select person.first_name,
from person
join person_permission on = person_permission.person_id
join permission on person_permission.permission_id =
where person.last_name like 'Fl%one';

This may not seem like a big deal at first: you could also do this directly from a terminal. If you copy the SQL query into your clipboard, you can run:

$ pbpaste | sqlformat -r - | pbcopy

and paste that back into your editor. If you do it often, you could write a shell script to automate it and perhaps even bind it to a keyboard shortcut. Even if you do all that though, you still don’t get the immediate in-place replacement that Vim affords with !.

If you find that your ! maneuver went badly (perhaps you typoed your command-line), you can always undo the error and try again.

You may have a query that spans multiple lines. In such cases I use !ip to run the filter on the entire “paragraph” (!: filter, ip: inside paragraph).

What if you have multiple queries in one text file? You can run !ip once, and use . repeat to repeat it for other occurrences.

While I’ve talked about sqlformat here, that’s just one example. Here are some other examples:

Reformat JSON in Vim

If you have machine-output JSON that you’d like to pretty-print in-place, you can use jq.

For instance, given


!a}jq (!: filter, a} around the JSON’s curly-brackets, run: jq) will reformat it.

If you work with JSON a lot, consider Tim Pope’s vim-jdaddy plugin

Run SQL queries

If you have a SQL query in your editor that you’d like to run on a Postgres database, you can use psql

SELECT 90 ^ 3

!!psql will evaluate it. (The obvious caveats apply: psql on the command-line must take you to your preferred database.)

Run code

If you have some Python code you’d like to evaluate:

print(33 ** 5)

You can use !!python to run it.

Use visual mode when unsure

When you’re new to Vim, you may not be confident in what text you’re electing to run the external program on. Visual mode is handy when you’re building your intuition of Vim’s motions and text objects: vip will select the query as before, but visually highlight it so you can confirm you’ve selected what you want before you hit !.

An important catch with visual mode is that it doesn’t play well with repeating commands with ., and it encourages you to read the visual selection to cross-check what you’re doing. For things you do often, avoid visual mode: you’ll work faster.

  1. I’ll write “Vim” here, but this applies exactly as much to other powerful text editors like Emacs. If you use evil-mode in Emacs, you can use the same syntax as you would in Vim. ↩︎