How to stop vim from overriding your configuration



I'm really grateful to the developers who've made vim such a great tool that it's been indispensable to me for over a decade. I appreciate its utility, its minimalism and the fact that I can sit in front of virtually any UNIX machine and be comfortable and productive.

It has saddened me greatly that modern versions of the program install with the infuriating behaviour of overriding preferences defined in ~/.vimrc.

This article briefly outlines vim's configuration system with an eye to working around this behaviour. The discussion is based on the Gentoo install, but I see no reason why other installation layouts shouldn't be conceptually similar. I may update this article as I use other machines and have to sanitise their vim configurations.

If this article doesn't shed light on your configuration issue, vim's set-verbose may be a good start. We type:

:verbose set formatoptions
and vim responds with:
          Last set from /usr/share/vim/vim70/ftplugin/perl.vim
showing that the ftplugin perl.vim is overriding our chosen formatoptions.

The problem explained, and a solution

The root of the problem seems to be that vim now has the notion of configuration based on filetype via plugins: vim configuration files that are loaded when a file of a given type is opened with the editor. Because the plugin configurations are loaded after the global and user rc files, settings are overridden and woe ensues.

The simple and totalitarian fix is to completely disable the filetype plugins. Simply place the following at the end of your ~/.vimrc:

" Disable all filetype specific behaviour
filetype off

This has the unfortunate effect of turning syntax highlighting off - and activating syntax highlighting has the unfortunate effect of reactivating filetype-driven behaviour. A more useful approach is to specifically turn off the indentation and plugin behaviour in ~/.vimrc:

" Disable filetype-based indentation settings
filetype indent off

" Disable loading filetype-based general configuration
filetype plugin off

" These may be combined for brevity (disabling both)
filetype plugin indent off

Once this has been done, syntax highlighting will still operate, the filetype plugins and indentation settings will not be loaded and your ~/.vimrc settings will not be overridden; now you simply have the task of turning off whichever features your package maintainer has helpfully enabled (in /etc/vim/vimrc) that you dislike.

Some of the filetype plugin configuration that we've disabled may be useful, however - we'd rather just have a method to set the configuration options we like without them being overridden. To get some understanding of how we can do this, let's quickly run through how vim is configured.

The global configuration file: /etc/vim/vimrc

The /etc/vim/vimrc file holds the system wide vim configuration provided by the package maintainer. I imagine that other systems might install a file like this as /etc/vimrc or /usr/local/etc/vimrc.

Unfortunately, the default setting of vim under Gentoo is to fold functions in this file when opened by a user. You can expand the folded functions with zo (o for open) and close them again with zc (c for close), or simply turn off folding with :set nofoldenable if you would like to read the file. It looks like the folding is enabled by a modeline, which are not executed by root as a security measure.

Gentoo provides a nice way to override or extend the contents of this file on a system wide basis: /etc/vim/vimrc.local. The local file is simply included at the end of /etc/vim/vimrc:

" {{{ vimrc.local
if filereadable("/etc/vim/vimrc.local")
  source /etc/vim/vimrc.local
" }}}

The user configuration file: ~/.vimrc

The local configuration file allows us to override settings in the global config file, as per the standard behaviour of rc files.

This is how I generally set vim up to behave:

" ~/.vimrc
" Per-user vim configuration

" Enable vim enhancements
set nocompatible

" Don't highlight search terms
set nohlsearch

" My preferred autoindent features
filetype indent off
set autoindent
set nocindent

" Insert spaces when the tab key is hit
set expandtab

" Tab spacing of 4
set tabstop=4

" Configure behaviour of the backspace key in insert mode
set backspace=indent,eol

" Alternative syntax highlighting colours for a dark background
syntax on
set background=dark

The filetype plugin configuration files: $VIM/ftplugin

File type plugins (ftplugins) enable the execution of extra configuration commands when files of a given type are opened. It seems that the developers of the distributed file type plugins think that it is reasonable for these files to do things by default like configure their favourite indentation mode and turn on comment autoprefixing, along with various other surprising options.

Configuration files for ftplugins live under $VIM/ftplugin; for my version of vim under Gentoo, that is /usr/share/vim/vim71/ftplugin. The configuration file for filetype based indentation is located at $VIM/ftplugin/indent.vim.

File type plugins are enabled via the command:

filetype plugin on
somewhere in your vim configuration, and may similarly be disabled using:
filetype plugin off

Running commands after the filetype plugin configuration: ~/.vim/after/ftplugin/vim.vim

Simply disabling the file type plugins to avoid their annoying behaviour is a seductive solution, but we should consider that some of the options enabled in the filetype plugins might be genuinely useful.

An alternative option of editing the systemwide plugin files is initially attractive, but suffers from the drawbacks of:

A better solution is available. Vim provides the opportunity to execute configuration commands subsequent to the execution of the ftplugins via its default inclusion of two "after" paths in its runtimepath variable:


By providing files in these directories for vim to execute, we can have commands executed after the vim runtime executes. In order to override the effects of specific commands in ftplugins, we can add a file that will be executed after that plugin.

For example, to override the behaviour of the vim config file type plugin, we can create ~/.vim/after/ftplugin/vim.vim with the following contents:

" ~/.vim/after/ftplugin/vim.vim
" Execute commands after the vim config filetype handler has been run

" Make sure automatic continuation of comments is disabled
" Aggregating these doesn't seem to work consistently
setlocal formatoptions-=o formatoptions-=r

This does the job of allowing us to use the editor as we know it and love it, while taking advantage of whatever niceties the ftplugin author has provided us with.

The problem now, of course, is that since we always want to disable these particular options, we need to create one of these file type handlers for every type of file we ever expect to encounter. This would be a maintenance headache, but we can create one central "after" configuration file and use symbolic links to make this painless.

Making one link to our config file for each ftplugin should work nicely. Using a bourne shell (eg. /bin/sh):

# At the (bourne) shell prompt
mkdir -p ~/.vim/after/ftplugin
rm -i ~/.vim/after/ftplugin/*
for file in /usr/share/vim/vim71/ftplugin/*.vim
    ln -s ~/.vimrc-after ~/.vim/after/ftplugin/`basename $file`

Now create ~/.vimrc-after, which will be executed after any ftplugin is run!

" ~/.vimrc-after
" Execute commands after vim's file type plugins have been run

" Make sure automatic continuation of comments is disabled
" Aggregating these doesn't seem to work consistently
setlocal formatoptions-=o formatoptions-=r

" My preferred autoindent features
set autoindent
set nocindent


We now have two ways to disable those options that just seem to keep resurrecting themselves:

  • filetype indent plugin off, and
  • ~/.vimrc-after

I'll close by mentioning the Big Bertha of manual formatting in vim:

:set paste

Paste mode is designed to allow pasting into a terminal and disables all automatic formatting and keyboard handling functions.