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Preparing Vim for Apple’s Touch Bar

Written by on CSS Wizardry.

Table of Contents
  1. Background
  2. Remap Other Keys
    1. Using CapsLock
      1. Update 2017-05-24
  3. Alternatives to <Esc>
    1. What’s the Difference?
  4. Expert Mode

Apple recently announced their updated MacBook line, introducing the Touch Bar that would be replacing the physical function row, including the escape key. If, like me, you’re a Vim user, that might have quite an impact: how best to prepare for it?


Vim is a modal editor. Unlike most text editors⁠—⁠where you’re ready to type as soon as it opens⁠—⁠Vim loads itself in Normal mode, and you have to make a conscious choice to enter Insert mode in order to begin typing. Once you’ve finished typing, you need to get yourself back into Normal mode again. To do this, one of the most common options is to hit Escape, or <Esc>.

The reason <Esc> is used is because Bill Joy, the author of Vim’s predecessor, Vi, used an ADM-3A terminal whose <Esc> key was located where today’s <Tab> is⁠—⁠far more convenient than its top-left location today.

There are actually many other modes besides Insert and Normal, and switching from them back into Normal mode usually requires hitting <Esc> as well. Here you can see Vim users’ predicament… the Escape key is very important to us.

How can we switch between modes without having an Escape key?1

Remap Other Keys

For almost as long as I’ve been using Vim⁠—⁠which is a long time now⁠—⁠I’ve been using jj and jk to leave Insert mode. These mappings are on the Home Row, so always easy to reach, and the letter pairs very rarely (if ever) occur in the English language. If there were words that contained jj and jk next to each other then I would be flung straight into Normal mode any time I tried to write them. (The reason I haven’t mapped kk to Escape is because it does occur within words, e.g. bookkeeper. (Although I think that might be the first time I’ve ever actually written the word bookkeeper. (Interestingly, bookkeeper is the only English word that has three consecutive double letters.)))

This means that any time I’m typing, hitting either jk or jj gets me back into Normal mode and leaves my fingers primed for moving up or down. I always use this instead of <Esc> to get from Insert to Normal.

You can do this too by adding these lines to your .vimrc:

" Make `jj` and `jk` throw you into normal mode
inoremap jj <esc>
inoremap jk <esc>

This creates an insert mode non-recursive map from jj and jk to <Esc>. For more information on mapping either run :help map.txt, or see the online documentation.

This only really helps us out if we’re in Normal mode though: if we’re in Visual mode it’s just going to move our selection up or down, and Command mode will literally write the characters out. What else can we do?

Using CapsLock

A lot of people also like to map CapsLock to <Esc>, however that needs to be done at OS level with a number of different third-party tools. I personally don’t like the idea of having a system-wide keyboard change for the sake of just my text editor, but that’s just me.

Update 2017-05-24

If you’re running macOS Sierra, you can now natively map CapsLock to <Esc>:

Remap CapsLock to Escape in System Preferences View full size/quality (120KB).

Alternatives to <Esc>

Whereas jj and jk are remapped to act like <Esc>, it turns out that there are some native alternatives to <Esc> that we can use across modes.

As I mentioned, hitting jj and jk in Command mode will be interpreted literally, and in Visual mode they will navigate, so in these modes we can use either Ctrl-[ (or <C-[> in Vim-speak) or Ctrl-C (or <C-c> in Vim-speak).

The Vim help even says:

Note: If your <Esc> key is hard to hit on your keyboard, train yourself to use Ctrl-[.

So, whenever you’re in any modes other than Insert, reach for <C-[> or <C-c> instead of <Esc>. <C-c> is probably going to be a little easier to remember, because you probably recognise it as the cancel signal in from your shell, however there are some subtle differences between the two…

What’s the Difference?

<C-[> acts almost universally identically to Esc, so there’s nothing real of note there. What does need a little further mention is <C-c>.

<C-c> is a cancel signal, so its job is just to get you straight out of whatever you’re doing and back into Insert mode as fast as possible. This means that <C-c> will not complete any pending abbreviations or send the InsertLeave signal back to Vim (which some of your plugins may depend on).

This doesn’t mean that <C-c> is bad or should be avoided; it’s just the most heavy handed of the two. Your mileage may vary.

Expert Mode

We’ve got alternatives to the <Esc> key now, so we can gradually begin phasing it out of our workflow, but how about we make things a little more difficult for ourselves? We could disable the <Esc> key fully. Let’s take the training wheels off.

To do this, we can just map <Esc> to no operation, or <nop>. There isn’t a remap-in-every-mode command, so we need to drop both of these into our .vimrc which will cover all possibilities:

" Map `Escape` to ‘nothing’ in Normal, Visual, Select, Operator-pending modes
noremap: <esc> <nop>
" Map `Escape` to ‘nothing’ in Insert and Command modes
noremap!: <esc> <nop>

Again, you’ll want to exercise some caution with this: there can be some unexpected side-effects as outlined in this Stack Overflow answer.

  1. I know the Touch Bar can have a virtual Escape key, but there’s no real replacement for physical feedback. Plus Esc is miles away, so it’s better in the longrun to have a more efficient alternative. 

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Hi there, I’m Harry Roberts. I am an award-winning Consultant Web Performance Engineer, designer, developer, writer, and speaker from the UK. I write, Tweet, speak, and share code about measuring and improving site-speed. You should hire me.

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