More about vim's formatlistpat, formatoptions and comments options

I recently changed my vimrc file to set the formatlistpat variable explicitly for markdown files. Before making this change, I had to dive into the vim help pages and find out what option I really needed to change to get un-ordered lists to start working write.

The Problem

I like Markdown a lot. I take all my daily notes at work and at home in Markdown. It works well for me. Also, I recently discovered the Docker image that will help me convert from Markdown to any format effortlessly using a simple docker oneliner and the docker image jagregory/pandoc-docker.

One of the things that’s literally a part of everything that I start writing is a list. My over-all file is structured as a list, so I care a lot about the indentation of list entries. Before I made the change I started this post with, my lists looked something like this:

- This is a list item
- This is a very long list item that wraps
to a second line
- This is another list item

See how the second item starts from the beginning of the file and not from the first alphabet in the previous line? I realized that this was strange when I wrote this:

1. Task 1
2. Task 2: Keep track of the changes you made
   in Task 1
3. Task 3: Perform in parallel with Task 2;
   Might need help from someone else

and indented it with vim’s gq. I realized that Vim was capable of understanding lists and formatting list items properly. Every time I have tried to indent an un-ordered list in Vim with gq, it absolutely fails and I just have to go around and do it myself. But this great behaviour with numbered lists showed me that there some option I could change to fix this.

The Deep Dive

First, I started looking for an add-on that unordered lists well. I started with plasticboy/vim-markdown. It is one of the most popular markdown plugins for vim and I have never really tested it properly. So, I started off with it. But it didn’t really solve the problem, I got the feeling that it even made it worse somehow. I started looking online for other people who had run into this problem and this is where I started reading about Vim options.

I reached this incredibly enlightening vim-markdown issue: Rewrapping a bullet point inserts new bullet points => This was happening to me every time I tried to write a multi-line list item and wrap it with gq.

This issue had a few great vim options which were mentioned during the discussion around the bigger problem:

All three options seemed to be somehow connected to lists and their automatic formatting when writing the text, and their formatting when explicitly formatting with gq over that part or the whole file.

I started looking through vim options and trying to find where this difference between numbered and unordered lists stemmed from. The in-built :help command is really good and the descriptions of most of the configuration options are not confusing at all! Some of them are confusing, admittedly. But the descriptions for these three were at least fairly simple.

comments: A comma separated list of strings that can start a comment line

For markdown, the only character that behaves even remotely like a comment is the > character used to create a blockquote. Often when writing blockquotes which run multiple lines, it’s useful if the editor would just wrap the text and insert the > characters at the beginning of each line as blockquotes tend to be a single paragraph and a quick gqip fixing that is very useful. So, this was the first option I changed. I changed it to be just b:>. I don’t really undersatnd what the b: is, but this immediately fixed the formatting of numbered lists whenever I tried to do that! Unordered lists were still not working well.

Sidenote: Running :put=&comments puts the value of the comments configuration into the current buffer! I found this extremely useful when trying to inspect the configuration value of a regex without having to stare at the bottom line where the values are generally displayed.

formatlistpat: A pattern that is used to recognize a list header. This is used for the “n” flag in ‘formatoptions’. default: “^\s\d+[]:.)}\t ]\s

Aha! formatlistpat and formatoptions are related! And the default regex is pretty easy to understand: it matches things of the form 1. or 1); i.e. numbered lists only! WHAT! I checked the value of formatlistpat for the markdown buffer I was writing my notes through this dive in:


I didn’t really understand this regex. I could see that it was trying to read numbered and unordered lists, but the third section in this regex with the \ze eluded me. In any case, I figured that if I could simplify this regex and write one myself which solved only the case that I cared about (unordered lists starting with a -), then I could change it later as I saw fit. So, I replaced it with just the middle part of the regex: ^\s*[-*+]\s. I inserted the unlimited number of optional whitespaces at the beginning of the line because nested lists are definitely part of my note-taking style.

Now, as I tried wrapping list items, I saw that it worked as I expected!

- This is a list item
- This is a very long list item that wraps
  to a second line
- This is another list item

I still didn’t quite understand the formatoption configuration though.

formatoptions: This is a sequence of letters which describes how automatic formatting is to be done. See |fo-table|

The formatoptions value in my editor was: tcqln. Looking at the fo-table, I saw that it did most of the things that I was taking for granted:

The meaning of the n option was particulary interesting to me. The help text clearly specifies that although the option is called n for “numbered list formatting”, lists are identified using formatlistpat which can identify any kind of list that you might come up with. (If you start your list items with letters, instead of hyphens or numbers, just set up formatlistpat!)

At this point, I had two more things that I wanted to do:

  1. Improve the regex to recognize numbered lists
  2. Improve the regex to recognize lists of TODO items in markdown ```sh
    • Todo Item 1
    • Todo Item 2: This is a long todo item ```

I am still working on the second part of this. For the point about numbered lists, I have really started re-evaluating if I even need numbered lists. I don’t ever write numbered lists if I can help it. (The ordering of lists is quite clear from the fact that we read text vertically downwards and it wouldn’t make sense for the third list entry to be the first point when writing the same list in an un-ordered format)

Another on-going problem that has been slighlty more annoying has been vim’s strange formatting whenever the content inside a parentheses goes beyond a single line or I end the previous line with a , (comma). I am not yet sure which option is causing this particular problem, but whatever that option is, I am going to find it and I am going to change it.