Vim’s ftplugin system

(This is part three in a seven-part series on efficiently writing LaTeX documents.)

This article covers a few concepts related to Vim plugins and file-type plugins and was last modified on 1 October 2023.

Contents of this article

The goal of this article…

…is to briefly explain a few Vim concepts that will help you better understand how to configure the VimTeX plugin (covered in the next article) and how to write filetype-specific Vim configuration.

This article covers:

  • What is a Vim plugin?
  • Vim’s runtimepath
  • Filetype-specific Vim plugins

If these terms are familiar to you, you can probably skip to the next article.

What is a plugin?

Officially, using the definitions in the Vim docs:

  • A plugin is the name for a Vimscript (or Lua) file that is loaded when you start Vim (source: see :help plugin). If you have ever created a vimrc, init.vim, or init.lua file, you have technically written a Vim plugin. The purpose of a plugin is to extend Vim’s default functionality to meet your personal needs.

  • A package is a set of Vimscript (or Lua) files (source: see :help packages).

In practice, most people (myself included) use the word “plugin” for both single Vimscript files (which are officially plugins) and collections of Vimscript files (which are officially packages).

Terminology aside, the point here is that plugins and packages are just Vimscript files used to extend Vim’s default functionality, and, if you have ever written a vimrc or init.vim, it is within your means to write more advanced plugins, too.

I use Neovim and write my config in Lua. Where does Lua fit into this discussion?

Basically everything Vimscript-themed in this article also works with Lua, I just focused on Vimscript in this article because

  1. the VimTeX plugin is written in Vimscript and is a bit easier to configure in Vimscript, and
  2. Vimscript works for both Vim and Neovim users.

You can mostly replace any .vim with a .lua equivalent (e.g. replace the Vimscript file ftplugin/tex.vim with a Lua file ftplugin/tex.lua) and (assuming your Neovim is relatively up to date, e.g. 0.7+) Neovim should recognize and source the .lua file out of the box.

Runtimepath: where Vim looks for files to load

Vim’s runtimepath is a list of directories, both in your home directory and system-wide, that Vim searches for files to load at runtime, i.e. when opening Vim. If you want a plugin to load automatically when you open Vim, you must place the plugin in an appropriate directory in your runtimepath.

Below is a selection of some directories on Vim’s default runtimepath—you will probably recognize some of them from your own Vim setup.

Directory or File Description
filetype.vim Used to set a file’s Vim filetype
autoload/ Scripts loaded dynamically using Vim’s autoload feature
colors/ Vim colorscheme files conventionally go here
doc/ Contains documentation and help files
plugin/ Global plugins go here
ftplugin/ Filetype-specific plugins go here
pack/ Vim’s default location for third-party plugins
syntax/ Contains scripts related to syntax highlighting

You can find a full list of runtimepath directories in :help runtimepath, and you can view your current runtimepath with :echo &runtimepath (warning: it is probably long and hard to parse).

plugin and ftplugin

The plugin and ftplugin directories are the most important directories in your runtimepath for the purposes of this series—(we will use these directories for LaTeX-specific Vim configuration.)

Here are the important practical differences between plugin and ftplugin:

  • plugin is intended for global Vim configuration (i.e. config that applies to all filetypes), while ftplugin is intended for filetype-specific configuration.
  • Files in plugin load before files in ftplugin.
  • Files in plugin load once per Vim session; files in ftplugin load every time you switch to a new buffer (and thus can load multiple times per Vim session if you switch between multiple buffers).

For thorough documentation see :help plugin and :help ftplugin.

Vim’s filetype plugin system

You use Vim’s filetype plugin (ftplugin) system for Vim configuration that you want to apply only to a single filetype (e.g. only to LaTeX files, only to Python files, only to Markdown files, etc.).

How to use ftplugin

Here’s how to use the ftplugin directory for filetype-specific configuration (I’ll use LaTeX files for concreteness, but this same recipe works for any filetype):

  1. Vim users: add the following lines to your vimrc (these settings are enabled by default in Neovim—see :help nvim-defaults—so Neovim users can skip this step):

    " This is enabled by default in Neovim by the way
    filetype on             " enable filetype detection
    filetype plugin on      " load file-specific plugins
    filetype indent on      " load file-specific indentation

    These lines enable filetype detection, and filetype-specific plugins and indentation. To get an overview of your current filetype status, use the :filetype command; you want an output that reads:

    " With Vim's filetype-specific functionality enabled, the output looks like this
    filetype detection:ON  plugin:ON  indent:ON

    See :help filetype for more information on filetype plugins.

  2. Identify the Vim filetype keyword for your desired filetype. For LaTeX files the Vim filetype is “tex”.

    Vim filetype? What’s this?

    Vim keeps track of file types using short names (e.g. tex for LaTeX files, lua for Lua files, python for Python files). A file’s Vim filetype is stored in the filetype option; you can view the current value with :echo &filetype. See :help filetype for relevant documentation.

    Be careful: a file’s extension and Vim filetype are separate things, and Vim filetypes do not always agree with the conventional file extension (e.g. python for Python files, which have the conventional extension .py).

  3. Create the file ftplugin/tex.vim and place any LaTeX-specific configuration in this file. That’s it! The contents of tex.vim will be loaded only when editing files with the tex filetype, and not interfere with other filetypes.

Tip: use subdirectories for better organization

You can also split up your tex customizations among multiple files (instead of having a single, cluttered tex.vim file). To do this, use the file structure ftplugin/tex/*.vim. Any Vimscript files inside ftplugin/tex/ will then load automatically when editing files with the tex filetype. As a concrete example, your ftplugin directory might look like this:

# You can split up filetype configuration into filetype-specific
# subdirectories of ftplugin
├── markdown.vim
├── python.vim
└── tex
   ├── foo.vim
   ├── bar.vim
   └── main.vim

In this example the files foo.vim, bar.vim, and main.vim will all be loaded when you edit a tex file.

Optional: how Vim detects file types

If you’re curious, the following sections explain how Vim detects file types and loads filetype plugins. Feel free to skip this section.

Automatic filetype detection

  • Vim keeps track of a file’s type by associating each file (well, technically each buffer, but that is another story) with a filetype option. Both :echo &filetype and :set filetype? will show you the value of a file’s Vim filetype.

  • Once you set :filetype on in your vimrc (enabled by default in Neovim), Vim automatically detects common filetypes (LaTeX included) based on the file’s extension using a Vimscript file called filetype.vim that ships with Vim. You can view filetype.vim’s source code at the path $VIMRUNTIME/filetype.vim (first use :echo $VIMRUNTIME in Vim to determine $VIMRUNTIME).

Manual filetype detection

If Vim’s default filetype detection using filetype.vim fails (which can happen for exotic filetypes), you can also manually configure Vim to detect the target filetype. Note that manual detection of exotic filetypes is not needed for this tutorial (Vim detects LaTeX files without any configuration on your part), so feel free to skip ahead.

You can manually set filetype a few ways using the recipes provided in :help ftdetect. Here is one way to do this, using LilyPond (extension .ly) as an example.

What is LilyPond?
LilyPond is a free and open-source system for elegantly typesetting musical notation using plain-text source files with LaTeX-like commands and macros. Loosely, LilyPond is for music what LaTeX is for math (although the two programs are not officially related).

Here’s how to manually detect and set custom filetypes, using LilyPond as a concrete example:

  1. Identify the extension(s) you expect for the target filetype, e.g. .ly for LilyPond.

  2. Decide on a reasonable value to use for the Vim filetype option for this file type (the choice is up to you). This can match the conventional extension, but doesn’t have to. For LilyPond files I use filetype=lilypond.

  3. Create the file ~/.vim/filetype.vim (or ~/.config/nvim/filetype.vim) and inside add the single line

    " When creating or opening new buffers with the .ly extension, set the
    " value of the `filetype` option to "lilypond"
    autocmd BufNewFile,BufRead *.ly set filetype=lilypond

    Of course replace .ly with your target extension and lilypond with the value of filetype you chose in step 2.

See :help ftdetect for other ways to manually set custom filetypes.

How Vim loads filetype plugins

The relevant documentation lives at :help filetype and :help ftplugin, but is rather long. For our purposes:

  • When you open a file with Vim, assuming you have set :filetype on, Vim tries to determine the file’s type by cross-checking the file’s extension against a set of extensions found in $VIMRUNTIME/filetype.vim. Generally this method works out of the box (filetype.vim is over 2300 lines and covers most common files).

    If the file’s type is not detected from its extension, Vim attempts to guess the file type based on file contents using $VIMRUNTIME/scripts.vim (see :help filetype). If both $VIMRUNTIME/filetype.vim and $VIMRUNTIME/scripts.vim fail, Vim checks the contents of ftdetect directories in your runtimepath, as described in the section Manual filetype detection a few paragraphs above.

  • If Vim successfully detects a file’s type, it sets the value of the filetype option to indicate the file type.

  • After the filetype option is set, Vim checks the contents of your ftplugin/ directory, if you have one. If Vim finds either…

    • a file ftplugin/{filetype}.vim (e.g. ftplugin/tex.vim for filetype=tex), then Vim loads the contents of {filetype}.vim, or

    • a directory ftplugin/{filetype} (e.g. ftplugin/tex for the filetype=tex), then Vim loads all .vim files inside the {filetype} directory.

As a best practice, keep filetype-specific settings in either in a dedicated {filetype}.vim file at ftplugin/{filetype}.vim, or split up among multiple files in ftplugin/{filetype}/*.vim. Think of the ftplugin files as a vimrc for one file type only, and keep your actual vimrc for global settings you want to apply to all file types.

Finding this tutorial series useful? Consider saying thank you!

The original writing and media in this series is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.