Unexpected Vim behavior when repeating indent

Composability of commands in Vim

The reason that Vim is my text editor of choice is because Vim commands are composable. Each command has a verb and an object so every time I learn a new verb, I already know how to use it with each object. Whenever I learn a new object I already have a lexicon of verbs to use with it. This idea is summarized well in [this article] (https://medium.com/@mkozlows/why-atom-cant-replace-vim-433852f4b4d1).

The notion of [count]

A feature of many Vim commands is that they optionally accept a count. This number tells the command how many times it should happen. For example, to go down five lines, you could hit j five time. Or you could hit 5j. This feature lets you cut down on key mashing and get right to the meat of text editing.


The > command is a verb that can be read “indent by one line.” It take a motion and indents everything between the cursor and the destination by one shiftwidth. Some examples are >ip for “indent all lines of this paragraph” or gg>G for “indent the whole file by one shiftwidth”

Weirdness with [count]»

Recently I wanted to indent a line by three shiftwidths. I’d never done this particular action before but with my understanding of [count] I assumed the right thing to do was 3>>.

To my surprise, this command indented the next three lines by one shiftwidth each. If I had wanted that I would have used >2j. I tried several variations on these commands and found that 2>j and >3> both did the same thing.

Looking at the Vim help documentation (:help <<), I found that this behaviour was documented.

>> Shift [count] lines one 'shiftwidth' rightward.

Here I also found some sequences that did I wanted - shift the current line right by three shift widths.

{Visual}[count]> Shift the highlighted lines [count] 'shiftwidth'

So one solution to my original problem is v3>>. This distinction doesn’t feel good to me. It feels like a waste of entering visual mode and there is no intuition why the effect is different in visual versus normal.

:[range]> {count} [flags]
      Shift {count} lines one 'shiftwidth' right, starting
      with [range] (default current line |cmdline-ranges|).
      Repeat '>' for shifting multiple 'shiftwidth's.

Another solution is to use command mode. :>>> indents the current line by 3. This sequence also feels bad to me.

Similarities to y and closing

The y command (copy) has very similar semantics to the > command. In normal mode [count]yy yanks [count] lines. In visual mode, [count]yy yanks the selected text (we can think of this as happening [count] times for convenience.)

However for the y command, repeating an action on the same line doesn’t do anything. With the indent action, repeating several time on the same line makes sense and is sometimes desirable. The interaction of [count] and > in normal mode is well documented and consistent. I feel that a doccumented design mistake is still a mistake. In the grand scheme of things it is pretty minor but I think it would be more intuitive and more in the spirit of Vim of [count]>> indented the current line count times.

Written on November 15, 2015