UnixWorld Online: Tutorial: Article No. 009

The vi/ex Editor, Part 6: Addresses and Columns

By Walter Alan Zintz.

By popular demand I'm trying something new in the tutorial, starting with this installment. The e-mail I receive from tutorial readers most often asks me how to do some specific type of editing job, using whatever editor tools are needed. So, I'm now mixing my general-principle explanations with in-depth coverage of particular work areas.

The first application area I'm covering is the one readers ask about most often, by far: editing files where columns are a major factor. Future areas are up to you readers. If you have an application area you'd like to see explained in some depth, e-mail me your suggestion.

Screen-Mode Addresses

You use them all the time. They're the address targets that tell screen-mode commands like c d y which stretch of your file to act on. And even more often you use such addresses without commands, to move around in the file.

For starters, I'll tell you some basics of screen-mode addressing that aren't particularly clear to most editor users. Then it's on to a few powerful but obscure addresses that most of us rarely or never use.


The first fact of screen-mode range addresses is simple enough: one end of the range to be affected by the command is always marked by the cursor itself. The address you give the command (always a single address) indicates where the other end of the affected range is to be. The address target can be either forward or backward from the cursor position, in most cases. But exactly how the cursor and the target terminate the two ends of the range is variable.

At the start we have to distinguish between line addresses and character addresses. Line addresses are very straightforward: the command affects the entire line the cursor is on, the entire line where the address point is located, and all the lines in between. If you are using an address without a command, in order to move the cursor, a line address generally puts the cursor on the first non-whitespace character in the line addressed.

But line versus character addresses affect a lot more than exactly what's included in the range. As one example, if you yank or delete text using a line address and then place that text somewhere with a p or P command, that text will appear on a new line or lines, above or below the line you are on, respectively. But if you yanked or deleted with a character address, when you put the text back in, it will appear within the line you are on, just just ahead of or behind the cursor. And to dispose of one editor fallacy here and now, it does not make a bit of difference that the range of text you yanked or deleted with a character address amounts to exactly one or more lines -- it will still behave as any other text yanked or deleted with a character address.

So which addresses are line addresses? That depends on what your command is.

Besides the three commands I cited as examples above, there are four other, less-used commands -- ! < > = -- that also take addresses. The only thing you have to know right now about these four commands is that they can act only on entire lines; that's inherent in what they do. So with these four commands, every address is a line address. (Except a handful of addresses, such as ``f'', that cannot be used with these commands at all.)

With the three more-used commands c d y or with an address used by itself to move the cursor, an individual address is either always a line address or always a character address -- usually. There are exceptions to this rule also, such as the address ``j'', which is a character address when you are just moving the cursor, but a line address to any command.

So just where does a character address take you? When you are just moving around in the file, the cursor lands on the character that is the target you sought. Or if the target was a string of characters, the character address puts the cursor on the first of these.

When you are using a character address with a command, the situation is more complex. The one firm rule is that if the character address is farther down in the file than the cursor position, the cursor position is included in the range the command affects; while if the address target is earlier in the file than the cursor, the cursor position is not included in the range.

The question of whether the address target is included in the command's range, like all the other open questions raised in the last few paragraphs, will have to be answered separately for each address. (But the usual rule is that if the address target is forward of the cursor, the target is not included; if the target lies backward from the cursor, the target is included.)

Note also that a count given with any of these seven commands is passed to the address. You may give the count before or after the command character itself, but always before the address. What the address does with the count, if anything, is also a case-by-case question.


There are four addresses that together resemble a miniaturized, localized version of the / and ? search patterns. In each case, the search takes place only in the current line, and only for a single character. To use any of them, you type one of the four letters designating the kind of inline search, immediately followed by the character to be searched for. (There are no metacharacters used with these addresses.)

The letter ``f'' means that the search will go forward in the current line and stop on the character typed next. ``F'' makes the search run backward within the current line, otherwise the same as ``f''. A ``t'' search is the same as an ``f'' search except that the search stops with the character just short of the one you type after the ``t'', and a ``T'' search is like a ``t'' search but running backward within the current line. Any of these addresses can take a preceding count, which tells the search not to stop at the first instance of the character sought, but to go on to the nth, where n is the count.

Any of these search commands, including the repeat-search commands mentioned below, are character addresses and can be used as an address for any of the three range commands that does not require a line address. In every case, the character on which the cursor would have landed had there been no command is the furthest character included in the range the command will affect.

A few examples. ``Fp'' would cause a search that went backward and landed on the closest prior letter ``p''. ``3f-'' would make the search run forward within the current line and stop on the third instance of a hyphen. ``2T '' would cause a backward search that ended one character short of the second closest space character.

This search system has its own repeat-search characters, which use storage buffers completely independent of those used for storing previous / and ? search strings. A semicolon ``;'' repeats the last inline search, in the same direction. A comma ``,'' repeats the last search but reverses the direction. Any count to the original search is not included in the repeat, but you can give a count to either repeat character which will be passed to the search command that is repeated. While a search is limited to the current line, you can run a search, move to another line, then use a semicolon or comma to repeat the original search on the new line.

Another very useful address that operates within a single line is the vertical bar ``|''. When preceded by a count, this address takes the cursor to the nth character on the current line, where n is the count, regardless of where the cursor was when the address was given. (In this address, n is absolute, not relative, starting from character one at the left edge of the text.)

This address can also be used with a command. If the target character position is forward from the cursor position, the furthest character affected will be the last one before the target character. If the target is backward from the cursor, the target character as well as all those between it and the cursor will be affected by the command.

Editing in Columns

Although the Vi/Ex editor was not specifically designed to deal with columnar material, there are ways to use it effectively for this kind of work. Your choice of techniques will depend on whether you are dealing with single-character columns wherein each character in a line is in a separate column, or multi-character columns where the columns are set apart from each other by a separator character.


Here I'm using ``columns'' the way most programmers do. A column in this sense is simply the characters in a vertical section of a file, one character wide. That is, the first character on each line of the file is in the first column, the second character of each line is in the second column, and so on. You'll find this usage in systems that use punch-card images, such as early Fortran programs; in the blocked records in certain databases, such as the ones used for very large mailing lists; etcetera.

The essential point is that the systems that use these records absolutely depend on each piece of information being entirely within a certain column or range of columns, and nothing else being within those columns except padding characters to fill up any column positions not needed for the information in a particular record.

For example, a mailing list may require that a suite or apartment number be in columns 122 through 125 in each record (line), with any padding following the actual number, so that an address printing program that finds ``316 '' in those columns will print ``, #316'' at the end of the street address line. If it finds ``3A  '' it will then print ``, #3A'', etcetera. Should the suite number be even partially shifted out of the designated columns, the system will either print garbage as the suite number or issue an error message and skip that address altogether. The principle is the same, and even more important, with computer programs in punch-card image form.

When you are making changes in existing records, and editing visually, the first important point is to be sure your are at the start of the particular field you need to modify. The ``|'' address I've explained above takes care of that -- wherever you are in a line, typing 122| brings the cursor to the 122nd column. Unless there are not 122 columns in that line: then the cursor will be placed in the last column that does exist, without any warning or error message. But files of this sort have generally been checked for exact block sizing, and if yours have not been, it's easy to check visually.

To check visually that all the lines in the file are of the proper length, start by running a :se list command, which will display a dollar sign at the end of each file line. Then scan through the file to check that all those dollar signs are aligned vertically. If so, then check that the uniform line length is the correct one -- if your line length should be 66 characters (not counting the nonvisible newline), then run a 65| command on any line, and make sure that the cursor lands one column away from the end of the line.

When you are at the start of the field to be changed, you have a choice of ways to change it. If the change area is 12 characters long, then typing 12cl followed by the 12 new characters and then the escape key will do it. But if you miss the count by even one character; if the actual number of characters you type in is 11 or 13; then all the subsequent fields on that line will be shifted one character out of place, which is probably a recipe for disaster.

To avoid this hazard, make use of the little-known R command. It starts like the familiar r command, in that when you type the letter ``R'' in visual command mode the system waits to see what character you type next, and whatever that next character is, it replaces the character that was under the cursor. But instead of then returning you to command mode, the R command then moves the cursor one character to the right and again waits to see what character you type next -- the character you now type replaces the character that is now under the cursor. This process continues until you stop it by hitting the escape key. So if your cursor is on the capital P in the following line:

but the greatest ancient Greek was Plato, who

and you type in ``RHomer'' followed by the escape key, your line will now read:

but the greatest ancient Greek was Homer, who

and the cursor will be on the letter r at the end of ``Homer''. This character at a time replacement is the way to make sure you don't inadvertently shift any fields. Just be certain that you don't keep typing replacement characters beyond the existing end of the line; you would extend the line length that way. You can give a count to the R command, but you don't want to in this use because the count will multiply the number of times the new character string is inserted. That is, in that example above about replacing ``Plato'' with ``Homer'', if you had typed 3R instead of R your revised line would read:

but the greatest ancient Greek was HomerHomerHomer, who

Entering completely new lines of information is another matter. You should just type them straight across, as you would with any text entry, but if the existing lines are cryptic to human eyes you may not be able to tell by looking just where one field ends and another begins. You can try to keep count of the characters, of course, but a single mistake will throw all the subsequent fields in that line out of position.

What you need here is an on-screen template to show you what goes where. You can make one on the spot, just by typing a template line into your file, entering each data line just above it, and deleting that template line when you are finished adding lines. For example, suppose you are adding to a name file where each record (line) starts with a month, day and year, continues with a source code (each of the preceding as a two-digit number, with a leading zero to pad it if necessary), and then has fields for a last name, first name, and middle initial. It would not be practical to judge where fields break just by looking at the existing data lines, which might look like this:

07215854von TarekenstuttLeopold  J
12077338Henderson-Blyth La Toya  P
10108972Thistlethwaites Geraldine

But a simple template line can clear it all up. Here is one for the job above:


It has mnemonic characters to remind you of what goes in each field, and the ``|'' to indicate the last position of each field more noticeably. I've even used a lower-case letter for each field that takes numeric characters right justified and zero padded, and a capital letter for each field that takes alpha characters left justified and space padded.

The way to use this template is to start entering data lines immediately above the template line. That way, as you hit return to start a new line, that new line replaces the one you've just finished in the position right above the template line. Yes, eventually the template line will be driven down off the bottom of the screen, but returning to command mode and typing the lower-case letter ``z'' followed by the return key will move the template line and the lines around it to the top of the screen.

But there will be times when you don't want to spend time making individual changes that you should be able to handle globally. Suppose an obsolescent operations code has been replaced, and you now need to change every ``B27'' to ``K53'' throughout your file, but only when the ``B27'' appears in the operations code columns, which are columns 9 through 11. Th is odd-looking command will do it:


Those eight consecutive dots in the search pattern guarantee that a match will occur only when there are exactly eight characters between the beginning of the line and the ``B27''. So of necessity, the ``B'' must occur in column 9, and so on. The ``\1'' puts those eight characters right back in again, so only the ``B27'' is actually replaced.

If your columnar file has all lines of equal length, as most do, you can use this technique from the right side, too. If all lines in the file have 66 characters, then typing that last command as:


will accomplish the changes in a case where the operations code columns are 61 through 63, without the need to type (and carefully count) sixty consecutive dots.

But there will be times when the columns to be changed are in the middle of horrendously long record lines. There are still a couple of tricks you may be able to use. One is to find a landmark somewhere in mid-line. Does column 158 always contain either a ``*'' or a ``|'' character, neither of which can appear anywhere else in the lines? Then you can make the above change in columns 163 through 165 by typing:


Failing a landmark, let the editor count out a long string of dots for you. To use this technique, you must first create your substitution command as a text line within the file you are editing, next write that line as a separate file (and then delete the command line from your original file), and finally use the :so command to pull in that one-line file and run it as a line-mode command. If you need a string of 92 consecutive dots in your command, create a blank line at the end of your file, next type:


to put those 92 dots there, and finally put the rest of the command around that dot string.


The other meaning of ``editing in columns'' has to do with text rather than data files. It refers to tables of data such as you might find accompanying a technical article, columns of text and/or illustrations running in parallel as you'd find on a newspaper page, and the like.

Yes, Unix formatting utilities and some word processing programs will format your final output into columns. But you may not have all these utilities, you may not want to spend time trying to get the results you want from those benighted programs, or you may plan to direct your output where formatters won't work.

Visually editing the columns of data in a table requires little explanation. The one thing to remember: use the R as far as possible, to avoid shifting subsequent columns out of alignment inadvertently. This holds for creating tables, too; start by setting up a rectangular block of space characters, then replace spaces with the column entries you want, to keep your next entry from misaligning previous ones. This is also the best way to create pictures, diagrams, graphs and maps using ASCII characters.

Things become problematic when you want to shift whole columns around -- there are no built-in Vi facilities for doing this. Here is what it is practical to do in the editor. As a real life example, consider the piece below, which I use as the tail end of Usenet (Net news) posts that announce Indonesian classical music and dance performances at a local restaurant:

   It's at the Dutch East Indies Restaurant       ;,,,,;,,,,;,,,,;,,,,;  
on Oakland's downtown waterfront.  The food      /%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%\ 
there is very good Indonesian cuisine at        /%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%\
reasonable prices - dinners $8.95 to $17.50.     "|""|"""|"""""|"""|""|" 
Views are spectacular from the second floor      _|__|___|_   _|___|__|_ 
picture windows, out over the water to Jack      =|==|===|=====|===|==|= 
London Square, Alameda and San Francisco.       ~~~~~~~~~~~( (~~~~~~~~~~~
Formality is medium - cloth napkins and oil                 ) )
candles at the tables, but no supercilious
waiters, and the wall decorations are mostly Indonesian handicrafts.
The phone number for information and reservations is 510/444-6555.

( ( (             | Broadway ||I      The Dutch East Indies Restaurant is
 ) ) )Jack London |==========||==  in Jack London Village, a boutiques &
( ( ( Square      |E         ||8   bistros cluster that is just down the
 ) ) )            |m         ||8   estuary from Jack London Square.  Jack
( ( ( JACK LONDON |b         ||0   London Village is rustic, picturesque,
 ) ) )VILLAGE     |a         ||    quiet and safe.  To get there from the
( ( (        Alice|r Amtrak  ||f   Interstate 880 freeway heading north,
 ) ) ) -----------|c station ||r   take the Oak Street exit and turn left;
( ( (       Street|a         ||e   five blocks will bring you to Embarca-
 ) ) )            |d  Jackson||e   dero on your right, just before Oak
( ( ( parking lot |e   ------||--  curves away to the left.  (Going south
 ) ) )            |r   Street||w   on I-880, take the Jackson Street exit
( ( (             |o         ||a   and go two blocks straight ahead before
 ) ) )            |          ||y   you turn right on Oak Street.)  Turn
( ( (           -------------||--  right onto Embarcadero and go three
 ) ) )             Oak Street||    blocks, until you go under an overpass
                                   of Victorian ironwork.  Immediately
turn left onto Alice Street, where you will see Jack London Village on
your right, and a large lot that offers validated parking on the left.
Walk into the Village's central courtyard, and you'll see the Dutch East
Indies on the estuary side, toward the right, and upstairs.

To create this, I started by drawing the stylized building and then the map. In each case I created a large rectangular block of space characters, then began trying ideas with the R command until I had something that satisfied me. (The pavilion sketch eventually became wider than I had planned, so I had to run a :%s/.*/ & / command to give me more working space.) Next I put additional blocks of space characters on the left of the drawing and the right of the map, to make a place for the text I wanted to include. Then I started replacing spaces with text, rewriting the text as I went along to fit it in nicely. When the text reached the bottom of the figure I was fitting it to, I went to full-width text lines, entering them the usual way. A tedious labor, but pretty straightforward.

Now suppose I decided to redo this piece, by moving the picture to where the map is now, and vice versa. A few well chosen substitution and deletion commands would make copies of the two figures minus the text, and I could just as easily copy the text without the two figures. But how would I recombine them?

Short of typing the text in again from scratch, the best I could do is to yank the lines of each figure, one at a time, and put them after (or before) the appropriate text lines, one at a time. Not that I would have to move back and forth between files with each yank and put; I could yank up to 26 lines into the named buffers, then move to the other file and put all 26 in their proper places. But there is no Vi command to yank a rectangular block of characters.

Also take note that I should yank using addresses that are not line addresses, even though I will be yanking whole lines. If I should yank with line addresses, putting the pieces into the other file must make those pieces separate lines -- then I would have to join each pair of lines to create the columns I want.

Next Time Around

In the next part of this tutorial, I will go over host of complications and opportunities that come from allowing the replacement commands I've discussed to use metacharacters. Then I'll answer a couple of questions from readers that should be of use to quite a few of you from time to time.

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