Editing Lisp and Scheme files in vi


   But then, when was the last time you heard
   of a lisp programmer that used vi?
                   — Paul Fox, vile developer

The ability to automatically indent code is indispensable when editing files containing s-expression-based code such as Racket, Common Lisp, Scheme, ART*Enterprise, and other Lisps. The text editor family vi provides the option lisp, which in conjunction with the options autoindent and showmatch provides a form of Lisp indenting, but except in the improved vi clone Vim, this support is poor in at least two respects: (1) Escaped parentheses and double-quotes are not treated correctly; and (2) all head-words are treated identically. Even the redoubtable Vim, which has improved its Lisp editing support over the years, and provides the lispwords option, continues to fail in strange ways (see vim-indent-error.lisp).

Fortunately, both vi and Vim let you delegate the responsibility for indenting such code to an external filter program of your choosing. I provide here two such filtering scripts: scmindent.rkt written in PLT Racket, and lispindent.lisp written in Common Lisp. The two scripts are operationally identical: you can use either script to indent any Lisp. Henceforth, I will refer to just scmindent.rkt with the understanding that everything mentioned applies equally to lispindent.lisp.

scmindent.rkt takes Lisp text from its standard input and produces an indented version thereof on its standard output. (Thus, it is possible to use scmindent.rkt as a command-line filter to “beautify” Lisp code, even if you don’t use vi.)

Put scmindent.rkt in your PATH.

In Vim, set the equalprg option to the filter name, which causes the indenting command = to invoke the filter rather than the built-in indenter.

You might want to make the equalprg setting local to the filetypes that need it:

    autocmd filetype lisp,scheme,art setlocal equalprg=scmindent.rkt

In vi’s other than Vim, use the ! command to invoke the filter on part or all of your buffer: Type ! to declare you’ll be filtering; a movement command to scoop up the lines you’ll be filtering; then the filter name (scmindent.rkt) followed by Return.

How subforms are indented

Lisp indentation has a tacit, widely accepted convention that is not lightly to be messed with, so scmindent.rkt strives to provide the same style as emacs, with the same type of customization.

By default, the indentation procedure treats a form split over two or more lines as follows. (A form, if it is a list, is considered to have a head subform and zero or more argument subforms.)

1. If the head subform is followed by at least one other subform on the same line, then subsequent lines in the form are indented to line up directly under the first argument subform.

    (some-user-function-1 arg1

2. If the head subform is a list and is on a line by itself, then subsequent lines in the form are indented to line up directly under the head subform.


3. If the head subform is a symbol and is on a line by itself, then subsequent lines in the form are indented one column past the beginning of the head symbol.


4. If the head form can be deduced to be a literal, then subforms on subsequent lines line up directly under it, e.g.

    (1 2 3
     4 5 6)


However, some keyword symbols are treated differently. Each such keyword has a number N associated with it called its Lisp indent number, which influences how its subforms are indented. This is almost exactly analogous to emacs’s lisp-indent-function, except I’m using numbers throughout.

If the i’th argument subform starts on a subsequent line, and i ≤ N, then it is indented 3 columns past the keyword. All subsequent subforms are indented simply one column past the keyword.

    (defun some-user-function-4 (x y) ;defun is a 2-keyword
      body ...)
    (defun some-user-function-5
        (x y)
      body ...)
    (if test ;if is also a 2-keyword

scmindent.rkt pre-sets the indent numbers of many well-known Lisp keywords. In addition, any symbol that starts with def and whose indent number has not been explicitly set is assumed to have an indent number of 0.


You can specify your own Lisp indent numbers for keywords in the file .lispwords in your home directory. ~/.lispwords can contain any number of lists: The first element of each list is the Lisp indent number that is applied to the symbols in the rest of the list. (Note that in contrast to Vim’s flat list of lispwords, ~/.lispwords allows for different categories of lispwords. Vim’s lispwords are all of Lisp indent number 0.)

For example, a lot of users prefer the keyword if to have its then- and else-clauses indented the same amount of 3 columns. I.e., they want it to be a 3-keyword. A .lispwords entry that would secure this is:

    (3 if)

To remove the keywordness of a symbol, you can assign it a Lisp indent number < 0. E.g.

    (-1 if)

would also cause all of if’s subforms to be aligned. (This is because −1 causes subforms on subsequent lines to line up against the first argument subform on the first line, and that happens to be 3 columns past the beginning of a 2-column keyword like if. The only difference between −1 and 3 here is what happens when the if is on a line by itself, with the test on the line following. −1 indents subsequent lines one column past the beginning of the if, whereas 3 continues to indent them three columns past the beginning of the if. Further differences emerge between 3 and −1 when the if has more than three argument subforms, as allowed by emacs lisp, where 2 and −1 immediately prove to be better choices than 3. The author has made 2 the default because it is the only option that has the merit of indenting the then- and else-subforms by differing amounts.)

Last modified: 2014-08-22