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Highlight multiple words

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Tip 1572 Printable Monobook Previous Next

created 2008 · complexity basic · version 7.2

Vim provides a simple way to highlight all occurrences matching your last search, but it doesn't provide an easy way to highlight more than one search. This tip provides a script to make it easy to highlight multiple words in different colors. In addition, you can search for the next highlighted word.


The script uses matchadd() which requires Vim 7.2 (actually version 7.1.040 or later). You will probably need gvim to display the colors specified in the script. In addition, the script assumes you have a numeric keypad and a system that allows you to map keys on that keypad (for example, the command :map <k0> :echo 'Hello'<CR> would display Hello when you press 0 on the numeric keypad).

You need the script (highlights.vim) and the file that defines the highlight groups (highlights.csv); these are given below.



The script defines highlight groups named hl1, hl2, ... hl9 (and more). Once enabled, pressing one of the keys 1, 2, ... 9 on the numeric keypad will highlight the word under the cursor with the colors defined in the corresponding highlight group (for example, press 4 on the keypad to highlight the current word with the hl4 group).

Type \m (assuming the default backslash leader key) to toggle mapping of the keypad on/off. At startup, the numeric keypad operates normally because only \m is mapped.

After typing \m to enable the mappings, you could use the keypad to:

  • Press 1 to highlight the current visually selected text, or the current word (if nothing is selected). Highlight group hl1 is used.
  • Press 2 for highlight hl2, 3 for highlight hl3, etc.
  • Press 0 to remove all highlights from the current visually selected text, or the current word.

For example, if you place the cursor on the word "rain" and press 4 on the keypad, all occurrences of "rain" will be highlighted (use :hi hl4 to show the colors). No highlighting will occur in words like "rainbow".

Alternatively, place the cursor on "rain" and press viw to select the word, then 4. All occurrences of the visually selected text will be highlighted, including the "rain" in "rainbow".

Each window has its own set of highlights: if you use :split to show two windows, you can have one set of highlights in the top window, and a different set in the other window.

With the mappings enabled, you could use the keypad to:

  • Press - to remove all highlights in the current window.
  • Press + to restore the highlighting when - was last used in the current window.
  • Press * to restore the highlighting when - was last used in any window.

For example, suppose you are displaying two windows and you want the same highlighting in each window. In the first window, apply the wanted highlighting. Then (using the numeric keypad keys):

  • Press - to remove all highlights in the first window.
  • Press + to restore them.
  • Switch to the other window and press * to apply the highlights from the first window.


After using \m to enable mappings, you can search for the next or previous occurrence of highlighted text. Patterns highlighted with the :match or :2match commands are also found.

Type \f to find the next match, or \F to find backwards. This has no effect on search highlighting or history.

Alternatively, type \n or \N to search forwards or backwards. Now you can press the normal search keys n or N to find the next or previous occurrence.

Highlight commandEdit

The script defines a :Highlight n pattern command where n is a number (1..99) and pattern is the text you want highlighted. Depending on your system, you may be able to use the abbreviation :Hi rather than :Highlight.

The following examples use different colors to highlight various patterns:

:Highlight 4 hello
:Highlight 5 \<hello\>
:Highlight 6 Hello World
:Highlight 7 \c\<th

The second example is the same as placing the cursor on "hello" then pressing 5 on the numeric keypad. The last example highlights th occurring at the beginning of a word, not case sensitive.

The following command will list all active highlights (group names and patterns):


Other commandsEdit

After using \m to enable the keypad mappings, you can press 1..9 on the keypad to highlight the visual selection (if any), or the current word. For example, pressing 4 on the keypad will highlight using the hl4 group.

In addition, you can press a digit 1..9 on the main keyboard before pressing 1..9 on the keypad. For example, if you press 2 on the main keyboard before 4 on the keypad, the hl24 highlight group will be used.

The :Hclear command can clear highlights. After typing :Hclear, you can enter an argument, or you can press Space then Tab for command completion (highlighted patterns). Examples:

" Remove highlight for visual selection (if any), or current word.
" Remove highlight 24.
:Hclear 24
" Remove all highlights for pattern '\c\<th'.
:Hclear \c\<th
" Remove all highlights.
:Hclear *

The following command will create a scratch buffer showing all the defined highlights:


The following commands can be used to save or restore the current highlights:

:Hsave anyname
:Hrestore anyname

Replace anyname with any name you would like to use. These commands use uppercase global variables (anyname is converted to uppercase), which Vim will save providing you have the ! flag in the 'viminfo' option (:set viminfo^=!).

After typing :Hsave or :Hrestore, you can press Space then Tab for command completion.


Copy this text into Vim to test word highlighting:

777  888  999   111 222 333 444 555 666 777 888 999
444  555  666   999 111 222 333 444 555 666 777 888
111  222  333   888 999 111 222 333 444 555 666 777
111222 333444 555666 777888999 111222 333444 555666

Use :sp to split the window and view the above text in both windows. Use \m to enable mappings, then apply some matches in the top window. Switch to the bottom window and apply some different matches: each window maintains a separate list of highlight matches.

In the next step, you must use the -+* keys on the numeric keypad. While in the bottom window, press - to clear highlighting in that window. If wanted, press + to restore highlighting. In the top window, press * to apply the highlighting from the bottom window.


Create file ~/.vim/plugin/highlights.vim (Unix) or $HOME/vimfiles/plugin/highlights.vim (Windows) containing the script below, then restart Vim.

" Plugin to highlight multiple words in different colors.
" Version 2008-11-19 from
" File highlights.csv (in same directory as script) defines the highlights.
" Type '\m' to toggle mapping of keypad on/off (assuming \ leader).
" Type '\f' to find the next match; '\F' to find backwards.
" Can also type '\n' or '\N' for search; then n or N will find next.
" On the numeric keypad, press:
"   1 to highlight visually selected text or current word
"     using highlight group hl1 (defined below)
"   2 for highlight hl2, 3 for highlight hl3, etc
"     (can press 1 to 9 on keypad for highlights hl1 to hl9)
"   0 to remove highlight from current word
"   - to remove all highlights in current window
"   + to restore highlights cleared with '-' in current window
"   * to restore highlights (possibly from another window)
" Can press 1 or 2 on main keyboard before keypad 1..9 for more highlights.
" Commands:
"   ':Highlight' list all highlights.
"   ':Highlight [n [pattern]]' set highlight.
"   ':Hsample' display all highlights in a scratch buffer.
"   ':Hclear [hlnum|pattern|*]' clear highlights.
"   ':Hsave x', ':Hrestore x' save/restore highlights (x any name).
" Saving current highlights requires '!' in 'viminfo' option.
if v:version < 702 || exists('loaded_highlightmultiple') || &cp
let loaded_highlightmultiple = 1
" On first call, read file highlights.csv in same directory as script.
" For example, line "5,white,blue,black,green" executes:
" highlight hl5 ctermfg=white ctermbg=blue guifg=black guibg=green
let s:data_file = expand('<sfile>:p:r').'.csv'
let s:loaded_data = 0
function! LoadHighlights()
  if !s:loaded_data
    if filereadable(s:data_file)
      let names = ['hl', 'ctermfg=', 'ctermbg=', 'guifg=', 'guibg=']
      for line in readfile(s:data_file)
        let fields = split(line, ',', 1)
        if len(fields) == 5 && fields[0] =~ '^\d\+$'
          let cmd = range(5)
          call map(cmd, 'names[v:val].fields[v:val]')
          call filter(cmd, 'v:val!~''=$''')
          execute 'silent highlight '.join(cmd)
      let s:loaded_data = 1
    if !s:loaded_data
      echo 'Error: Could not read highlight data from '.s:data_file
" Return last visually selected text or '\<cword\>'.
" what = 1 (selection), or 2 (cword), or 0 (guess if 1 or 2 is wanted).
function! s:Pattern(what)
  if a:what == 2 || (a:what == 0 && histget(':', -1) =~# '^H')
    let result = expand("<cword>")
    if !empty(result)
      let result = '\<'.result.'\>'
    let old_reg = getreg('"')
    let old_regtype = getregtype('"')
    normal! gvy
    let result = substitute(escape(@@, '\.*$^~['), '\_s\+', '\\_s\\+', 'g')
    normal! gV
    call setreg('"', old_reg, old_regtype)
  return result
" Remove any highlighting for hlnum then highlight pattern (if not empty).
" If pat is numeric, use current word or visual selection and
" increase hlnum by count*10 (if count [1..9] is given).
function! s:DoHighlight(hlnum, pat, decade)
  call LoadHighlights()
  let hltotal = a:hlnum
  if 0 < a:decade && a:decade < 10
    let hltotal += a:decade * 10
  if type(a:pat) == type(0)
    let pattern = s:Pattern(a:pat)
    let pattern = a:pat
  let id = hltotal + 100
  silent! call matchdelete(id)
  if !empty(pattern)
      call matchadd('hl'.hltotal, pattern, -1, id)
    catch /E28:/
      echo 'Highlight hl'.hltotal.' is not defined'
" Remove all matches for pattern.
function! s:UndoHighlight(pat)
  if type(a:pat) == type(0)
    let pattern = s:Pattern(a:pat)
    let pattern = a:pat
  for m in getmatches()
    if m.pattern ==# pattern
      call matchdelete(
" Return pattern to search for next match, and do search.
function! s:Search(backward)
  let patterns = []
  for m in getmatches()
    call add(patterns, m.pattern)
  if empty(patterns)
    let pat = ''
    let pat = join(patterns, '\|')
    call search(pat, a:backward ? 'b' : '')
  return pat
" Enable or disable mappings and any current matches.
function! s:MatchToggle()
  if exists('g:match_maps') && g:match_maps
    let g:match_maps = 0
    for i in range(0, 9)
      execute 'unmap <k'.i.'>'
    nunmap <kMinus>
    nunmap <kPlus>
    nunmap <kMultiply>
    nunmap <Leader>f
    nunmap <Leader>F
    nunmap <Leader>n
    nunmap <Leader>N
    let g:match_maps = 1
    for i in range(1, 9)
      execute 'vnoremap <silent> <k'.i.'> :<C-U>call <SID>DoHighlight('.i.', 1, v:count)<CR>'
      execute 'nnoremap <silent> <k'.i.'> :<C-U>call <SID>DoHighlight('.i.', 2, v:count)<CR>'
    vnoremap <silent> <k0> :<C-U>call <SID>UndoHighlight(1)<CR>
    nnoremap <silent> <k0> :<C-U>call <SID>UndoHighlight(2)<CR>
    nnoremap <silent> <kMinus> :call <SID>WindowMatches(0)<CR>
    nnoremap <silent> <kPlus> :call <SID>WindowMatches(1)<CR>
    nnoremap <silent> <kMultiply> :call <SID>WindowMatches(2)<CR>
    nnoremap <silent> <Leader>f :call <SID>Search(0)<CR>
    nnoremap <silent> <Leader>F :call <SID>Search(1)<CR>
    nnoremap <silent> <Leader>n :let @/=<SID>Search(0)<CR>
    nnoremap <silent> <Leader>N :let @/=<SID>Search(1)<CR>
  call s:WindowMatches(g:match_maps)
  echo 'Mappings for matching:' g:match_maps ? 'ON' : 'off'
nnoremap <silent> <Leader>m :call <SID>MatchToggle()<CR>
" Remove and save current matches, or restore them.
function! s:WindowMatches(action)
  call LoadHighlights()
  if a:action == 1
    if exists('w:last_matches')
      call setmatches(w:last_matches)
  elseif a:action == 2
    if exists('g:last_matches')
      call setmatches(g:last_matches)
      call s:Hrestore('')
    let m = getmatches()
    if !empty(m)
      let w:last_matches = m
      let g:last_matches = m
      call s:Hsave('')
      call clearmatches()
" Return name of global variable to save value ('' if invalid).
function! s:NameForSave(name)
  if a:name =~# '^\w*$'
    return 'HI_SAVE_'.toupper(a:name)
  echo 'Error: Invalid name "'.a:name.'"'
  return ''
" Return custom completion string (match patterns).
function! s:MatchPatterns(A, L, P)
  return join(sort(map(getmatches(), 'v:val.pattern')), "\n")
" Return custom completion string (saved highlight names).
function! s:SavedNames(A, L, P)
  let l = filter(keys(g:), 'v:val =~# ''^HI_SAVE_\w''')
  return tolower(join(sort(map(l, 'strpart(v:val, 8)')), "\n"))
" Save current highlighting in a global variable.
function! s:Hsave(name)
  let sname = s:NameForSave(a:name)
  if !empty(sname)
    let l = getmatches()
    call map(l, 'join([, v:val.pattern, v:val.priority,], "\t")')
    let g:{sname} = join(l, "\n")
command! -nargs=? -complete=custom,s:SavedNames Hsave call s:Hsave('<args>')
" Restore current highlighting from a global variable.
function! s:Hrestore(name)
  call LoadHighlights()
  let sname = s:NameForSave(a:name)
  if !empty(sname)
    if exists('g:{sname}')
      let matches = []
      for l in split(g:{sname}, "\n")
        let f = split(l, "\t", 1)
        call add(matches, {'group':f[0], 'pattern':f[1], 'priority':f[2], 'id':f[3]})
      call setmatches(matches)
      echo 'No such global variable: '.sname
command! -nargs=? -complete=custom,s:SavedNames Hrestore call s:Hrestore('<args>')
" Clear a match, or clear all current matches. Example args:
"   '14' = hl14, '*' = all, '' = visual selection or cword,
"   'pattern' = all matches for pattern
function! s:Hclear(pattern) range
  if empty(a:pattern)
    call s:UndoHighlight(0)
  elseif a:pattern == '*'
    call s:WindowMatches(0)
  elseif a:pattern =~ '^[1-9][0-9]\?$'
    call s:DoHighlight(str2nr(a:pattern), '', 0)
    call s:UndoHighlight(a:pattern)
command! -nargs=* -complete=custom,s:MatchPatterns -range Hclear call s:Hclear('<args>')
" Create a scratch buffer with sample text, and apply all highlighting.
function! s:Hsample()
  call LoadHighlights()
  setlocal buftype=nofile bufhidden=hide noswapfile
  let lines = []
  let items = []
  for hl in filter(range(1, 99), 'v:val % 10 > 0')
    if hlexists('hl'.hl)
      let sample = printf('Sample%2d', hl)
      call s:DoHighlight(hl, sample, 0)
      let sample = '        '
    call add(items, sample)
    if len(items) >= 3
      call insert(lines, substitute(join(items), '\s\+$', '', ''))
      let items = []
  call append(0, filter(lines, 'len(v:val) > 0'))
command! Hsample call s:Hsample()
" Set a match, or display all current matches. Example args:
"   '14' = set hl14 for visual selection or cword,
"   '14 pattern' = set hl14 for pattern, '' = display all
function! s:Highlight(args) range
  if empty(a:args)
    echo 'Highlight groups and patterns:'
    for m in getmatches()
      echo m.pattern
  let l = matchlist(a:args, '^\s*\([1-9][0-9]\?\)\%($\|\s\+\(.*\)\)')
  if len(l) >= 3
    let hlnum = str2nr(l[1])
    let pattern = l[2]
    if empty(pattern)
      let pattern = s:Pattern(0)
    call s:DoHighlight(hlnum, pattern, 0)
  echo 'Error: First argument must be highlight number 1..99'
command! -nargs=* -range Highlight call s:Highlight('<args>')

Defining highlight groupsEdit

The script reads a CSV file with the same directory/name as the script, but with .csv extension. Each line should consist of five comma-separated fields, where the first field is a number from 1 to 99 inclusive (any other lines are ignored).

For example, the line "5,white,blue,black,green" would define a highlight group named hl5 which color terminals would display as white on blue, and gvim would display as black on green.

Create file ~/.vim/plugin/highlights.csv (Unix) or $HOME/vimfiles/plugin/highlights.csv (Windows) containing the sample below, then restart Vim.


See alsoEdit



A recent edit added a note regarding the script that "Selected text can not be highlighted in unmodifiable buffers; "normal! gy" does not work". I guess "gvy" was intended, rather that "gy". However, I can select text in a Help buffer (which is ":set nomodifiable"), then highlight all occurrences of that text using the script in this tip. I have removed the note pending some further information (what is it exactly that does not work?). JohnBeckett 04:09, March 5, 2011 (UTC)

Hi John,

I assume you created this awesome VIM script. If that is true, can I ask for your permission to use some of the codes for my own VIM script? I plan to do almost the same thing (multiple highlights), but the search text is taken from a configuration file (highlight.csv) and supports case sensitivity. I plan to share it out to the community through my blog, so is there any caveat? Thanks.

Daniel --January 27, 2015

Certainly, everything here is available for re-use! I did not start this tip but I did do a lot of work to extend it to its current form. JohnBeckett (talk) 20:31, January 30, 2015 (UTC)
Thanks, John. I have completed the script and let me know if you would like me to share it here too.

The basic features are:

(1) Highlight multiple regex based on configuration file (to cater for user that needs to read files of a certain format often)



(2) Configuration can be changed dynamically and take effect immediately by pressing <leader>m without the need to reopen the input file

(3) The user can opt to switch to another configuration file using (:UsrCfg <configfile>) on the fly without needing to reopen the input file.

~ Daniel ~

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