Vim Syntax Highlighting

Vim is a text editor for creating or modifying any text, script or configuration file and it is the advanced version of vi editor. This editor is installed by default in most of the Linux operating systems. Many new features are added in vim editor which are not available in old vi editor. One of useful features of vim is syntax highlighting. The readability of any source code or configuration file can be increased by using different front and color for different part of the file. This task can be done by using syntax highlighting feature of vim. This feature can be enabled or disabled temporarily and permanently. How you can enable or disable this feature and work with it in vim editor on Ubuntu is shown this tutorial.

Before starting this tutorial, check vim editor is installed or not in the system. By default, vi editor is installed in Ubuntu. Run the following command to install vim editor.

$ sudo apt-get install vim

Run the following command to check the version of the installed vim editor.

$ vim –version

Create or open any script file in vim editor to check the current look of the file content before enabling syntax highlighting. Here, a bash file named with the following content is used.


echo "Type your username"
read username
echo "Type your password"
read password

if [[ ( $username == "admin" && $password == "secret" ) ]]; then
echo "Authorized user"
echo "Unauthorized user"

Run the following command to open the file in vim editor.

$ vim

Enable or Disable Syntax highlighting

Syntax highlighting is on for vim editor by default. The content of will be displayed with the following format when the syntax highlighting is on. After opening file in vim editor, press ESC key and type ‘:syntax on’ to enable syntax highlighting. The file will look like the following image if syntax highlighting is on.

Press ESC key and type, “syntax off” to disable syntax highlighting.

Enable or disable syntax highlighting permanently

You have to create or edit .vimrc file and add command text to enable syntax highlighting permanently in vim editor. Run the following command to open .vimrc  file by using vim editor.

$ sudo vim ~/.vimrc

Add the text, “syntax on” anywhere in the file to enable syntax highlighting permanently for vim editor. Save and close the file by typing ‘:x’.

For disabling the feature, just re-open .vimrc file, change the text “syntax on” to “syntax off” and save the file.

Change color scheme

Different vim files of color scheme exist after installing vim package. These color scheme files are located in the location, /usr/share/vim/vim*/colors/. Run the following command to show the list of vim color scheme files.

$ ls -l /usr/share/vim/vim*/colors/

The following output shows that the installed vim package contains 18 color scheme that can be applied in the vim editor. The use of some color schemes is shown in the next part of this tutorial.

Suppose, the user wants to change the color scheme for a html file named hello.html with the code.


<title> Welcome </title>
<p> Hello Everybody, Welcome to our site </p>

Run the following command to open the html file from the editor.

$ vim hello.html

Press ESC and type “:colorscheme morning” to change the current color scheme of the file.

The looks of the editor will be changed like the following image after applying the new color scheme. But this change is temporary and the color effect will be removed after closing the editor.

If you want to set a particular color scheme and background for the editor permanently then open .vimrc file again and add the following command text. Here, evening color scheme will be set for syntax highlighting and the background color is set to dark.  Save and close the file by pressing, 😡 to apply the color effect in the editor.

color evening
set background=dark

Now, re-open the html file in the editor to check the color scheme and background color effect. The editor will look like the following image.

Set syntax languages

You can select syntax language after opening a file in vim editor. Many syntax languages exist for the vim editor, such as “php”, “perl”, “python”, “awk” etc. Open a python file named in the vim editor. The content of the file looks like the following image by the default syntax of vim editor.

Type “:syntax=perl” after opening the file and press Enter. The text color of some part of the file will be changed by the syntax of the perl language like the following image. Here, the colors of input, int, print and round text are changed.

:set syntax=perl

Set Highlighting key-value

There are nine syntax highlighting groups for vim editor. These are mentioned below.

Group Name Description
Identifier It belongs to the variable names of the source code
Statement It belongs to any programming language statement, such as if, else, do, while etc.
Comment It belongs to the comments part of the program
Type The datatype of the variables is defined by this group, such as int, double, string etc.
PreProc It belongs to any preprocessor statement, such as #include.
Constant It belongs to any constant value, such as numbers, quoted strings,  true/false etc.
Special It belongs to any special symbol, such as ‘\t, ‘\n’ etc.
Underlined It belongs to any underlined text.
Error It belongs to any source code error

There are some highlighting key-value pairs that can be used with any highlighting groups to change the specific color of the source code in vim editor. The use of Statement group in vim editor is shown in the next part of this tutorial.  Open a python script file named in vim editor. This file looks like the following image by default syntax highlighting.

Type “:hi Statement ctermfg=red ” to change the color of programming statements of the script into red color.  Here, the color of if and else is changed to red.

:hi Statement ctermfg=red


Different syntax highlighting options of vim editor is explained in this tutorial by using various examples. Hope, the tutorial will help new vim users to apply syntax highlighting properly to make the source code more readable.

About the author

Fahmida Yesmin

Fahmida Yesmin

I am a trainer of web programming courses. I like to write article or tutorial on various IT topics. I have a YouTube channel where many types of tutorials based on Ubuntu, Windows, Word, Excel, WordPress, Magento, Laravel etc. are published: Tutorials4u Help.