8 min read

On Vim and `filetype` Plugins

When writing my recent article On Viewing Documentation in Vim, I found an article that referenced how to cleanup and organize Vim configuration when there are too many autocommand (autocmd) commands (commands that are executed automatically for matching file types). This had me think of my .vim.autocmd file, which was growing out of control.

This of course led me down a rabbit hole, which was of course delightful and edifying. I found out that Vim’s file type plugins ftplugins is what I should have been using, probably twenty years too late! Neat!

What is that .vim.autocmd file? It’s not a standard Vim file!

Years ago, my .vimrc started getting too unmanageable so I had broken similar functionality out into their own files and then sourced them from .vimrc.

Turns out that was a giant hack, at least for the bits that were file type dependent! Awesome!

Before we get started, let’s define some terms.

  • Vim runtime directory
    • By convention, this is usually $HOME/.vim
    • This variable usually isn’t set, and shouldn’t be set, by a user. Instead, it will be automatically set by Vim.
    • By convention, this will usually be the Vim installation directory. On Linux, it’s commonly /usr/share/vim/vim80, where 80 is the version number (8.0).
  • User filetype plugin
    • This refers to a filetype plugin added to the $HOME/.vim/ftplugin location.

Vim Plugins

What is a Vim plugin? From the docs:

A plugin is nothing more than a Vim script file that is loaded automatically when Vim starts.

The two types of plugins are global and filetype, and it is of course the latter with which we’ll be concerning ourselves today.

The filetype plugins will be loaded and parsed automatically for a matching file type, so there is no need to do anything (well, that’s not exactly true, as we’ll see in a minute). Just load your Python script in Vim, and the settings defined in the plugin will be automatically applied.

The ftplugins are loaded in the order determined by the value of runtimepath, which works just like the PATH variable that is searched to find a binary. In other words, if it’s not in the path, Vim won’t find the ftplugin, and ftplugins sourced later will overwrite the same options that were sourced earlier.

Vim Configuration Cleanup

What was the problem with my older configuration that I wanted to change? Well, when setting options for each file type that I worked with, I found myself writing lines like this in .vim.autocmd that kept growing:

autocmd FileType c,cfg,coffee,conf,cpp,css,dockerfile,elm,expect,javascript,go,groovy,haskell,html,json,markdown,php,python,sh,text,tf,typescript,vim setlocal autoindent expandtab shiftwidth=4 tabstop=4 fileformat=unix

And every time I needed to add an option for a file type, I had to wade through the commands to find the appropriate autocommand.

Yeah, not great.

The irony was that I had thought that breaking all of the autocommands into their own file was cleaning up my Vim configuration! What an idiot!

So, to clean this up, I added a {LANGUAGE}.vim file in my new $HOME/.vim/ftplugin/ directory for each file type that was referenced in one of the autocommands.

The end result was the settings for a particular file type are nicely grouped within the appropriate file in a new ftplugin directory that Vim knows to find and source (i.e., it’s not an arbitrarily named directory in an arbitrarily chosen location):

$ ls ~/.vim/ftplugin/
asm.vim   coffee.vim  c.vim           gitconfig.vim  html.vim        markdown.vim  sql.vim   txt.vim
bash.vim  conf.vim    dockerfile.vim  go.vim         javascript.vim  php.vim       text.vim  typescript.vim
cc.vim    cpp.vim     elm.vim         groovy.vim     json.vim        python.vim    tf.vim    vim.vim
cfg.vim   css.vim     expect.vim      haskell.vim    make.vim        sh.vim        tmux.vim  yaml.vim

For an added bonus, the .vim.autocmd file was then small enough that I moved the remaining bits back into .vimrc and removed the .vim.autocmd file entirely. Nice!

Note that you can add as many filetype plugins in the directory as you want, and nothing will be overwritten. Just use the following convention:


For instance, if you have a tremendous amount of options for JavaScript that you wanted to separate into groupings, you could do the following:


See the Using A Filetype Plugin in the Vim docs.

Creating Your Own ftplugin

Creating your own custom filetype plugin is not only instructive, but it easily allows us to see Vim’s established order of precedence for ftplugins and their contents. This order on its location in the filesystem as dictated by the runtimepath value, as described above.

To demonstrate this, I’ll create a new .balls file type, and to keep it simple, I’ve only add a few options to it.


setlocal tabstop=111
setlocal timeoutlen=666

The values are obviously ridiculous, but in so doing it will be easy for us to see which values were overridden, i.e., which ftplugin “won” or was sourced last, and which settings were added/merged with no conflicts.

I’ll drop this into my filetype ftplugins location:

$ cat << EOF > $HOME/.vim/ftplugin/balls.vim
setlocal tabstop=111
setlocal timeoutlen=666

That should be it! Since the location $HOME/.vim/ftplugin is in Vim’s runtimepath, it will be automatically found and sourced. This will Just Work.

$ touch basket.balls
$ vim -c "set tabstop" basket.balls

Hmm, I was expecting the value to be 111, what happened? It’s behaving as though Vim hadn’t sourced the ftplugin.

Let’s see what Vim thinks the file type is:

$ vim -c "set filetype" basket.balls

Say what?!

Looks like we need to tell Vim about our new file type.

Detecting a New File Type

So, how should we proceed?

One possible solution would be to set the file type every time we opened the file (or set it once the file was opened):

$ vim -c "set filetype=balls" -c "set tabstop" basket.balls

That’s really bad, though, I mean, that solution really stinks. Vim will automatically detect the file type and source the right plugin(s), so let’s get that working instead.

There are several ways that we can “tell” Vim how to detect a file.

  • Put it in your .vimrc. This is the easiest way, but it’s not implicitly recommended in the docs.

      autocmd BufRead,BufNewFile *.balls setfiletype balls

  • Create a new directory ftdetect in your user runtime directory and add a file to it.

    mkdir -p $HOME/.vim/ftdetect
    cat << EOF > $HOME/.vim/ftdetect/balls.vim
    au BufRead,BufNewFile *.balls            set filetype=balls
  • Add a filetype.vim file in your user runtime directory.


      " my filetype file
      if exists("did_load_filetypes")
      augroup filetypedetect
        au! BufRead,BufNewFile *.balls        setfiletype balls
        au! BufRead,BufNewFile *.xyz          setfiletype drawing
      augroup END

Note that there is an extremely important yet subtle difference between the different ways of syntactically setting the filetype.

Let’s query the file now:

$ vim -c "set tabstop" -c "set filetype" basket.balls

Ok, that’s more like it.

Order of Precedence

Here is the order of directory precedence on Unix systems:

  1. $HOME/.vim
    • user files
  2. $VIM/vimfiles
    • system files
    • files distributed with Vim
    • usually something like /usr/share/vim/vim80 (80 is the version, i.e., 8.0)
  4. $VIM/vimfiles/after
    • system files
  5. $HOME/.vim/after
    • user files

For demonstration purposes, I’ll install the balls.vim plugin in /usr/share/vim/vim80/ftplugin and pretend as though it were installed along with Vim. I’ll set the same tabstop option, but with a different value so we can easily see which one was applied. I’ll include the shiftwidth option, but I’m not including the timeoutlen option as I did in the user ftplugin location ($HOME/.vim/ftplugin/balls.vim).

$ cat << EOF | sudo tee /usr/share/vim/vim81/ftplugin/balls.vim
setlocal tabstop=333
setlocal shiftwidth=15

Now, when we load our file with the balls file type (extension), let’s see which options were applied.

$ vim -c "set" basket.balls
--- Options ---
  autowrite           helplang=en         number              syntax=balls        ttymouse=xterm
  background=dark     hidden              ruler               tabstop=333         visualbell
  cscopetag           hlsearch            scroll=14           tags=tags;/         t_vb=
  cscopeverbose       ignorecase          shiftwidth=85     notimeout
  filetype=balls      incsearch           showcmd             timeoutlen=666

The result is that when there are same-named options set in the different ftplugin locations, the last ftplugin sourced in the runtimepath will override any others. In addition, all options that are present in one but not another are included and merged.


  • tabstop
    • is taken from /usr/share/vim/vim80/ftplugin/balls.vim
    • it overrides the value from $HOME/.vim/ftplugin/balls.vim that was previously sourced
  • shiftwidth
    • is taken from /usr/share/vim/vim80/ftplugin/balls.vim
    • this option is not included in $HOME/.vim/ftplugin/balls.vim
  • timeoutlen
    • is taken from $HOME/.vim/ftplugin/balls.vim
    • this option is not included in /usr/share/vim/vim80/ftplugin/balls.vim

Let’s add one more balls ftplugin to another location, the last one in the order of precedence above ($HOME/.vim/after/ftplugin).

$ mkdir -p $HOME/.vim/after/ftplugin
$ cp $HOME/.vim/ftplugin/balls.vim $HOME/.vim/after/ftplugin
$ sed -i 's/111/555/' $HOME/.vim/after/ftplugin/balls.vim
$ vim -c "set tabstop" basket.balls

As expected, the last plugin sourced wins, which is the one that we just added with the option and value tabstop=555.

Use Cases

For me, there are two scenarios to consider when deciding to add a plugin to either the $HOME/.vim/ftplugin directory or the $HOME/.vim/after/ftplugin directory.

  • Adding to ftplugin/

    • This seems to be the majority of the cases. The default filetype plugin in $VIMRUNTIME/ftplugin has set many default settings, but it hasn’t set one the one you’re interested in.
    • Adding this option to the user filetype plugin won’t clash with another ftplugin in another location because it hasn’t been set by another ftplugin.
  • Adding to after/ftplugin

    • There is a already a ftplugin for this in the Vim installation location $VIMRUNTIME and it has set the option you’re interested in.
    • In other words, if you set the option in the user location $HOME/.vim/ftplugin it will be overwritten later in the installation ftplugin location.
    • So, add it after everything else has been sourced, and your option will be the one that “wins”, i.e., it will overrule anything that was previously set.


This reinforced my belief that it’s important to always be revisiting past projects to reevaluate the approach taken and to learn more about the tools I use. I almost always discover a native or better way to do something that I previously hacked together!