In vim, I sometimes have occasion to replace the first few occurrences of a match on a line, but not every one like g would. e.g.:

a a a a a


b b b a a

I know I could use :s/a/b/[enter]:[up][enter]:[up][enter], but that's tedious enough at three repetitions, I have lines with potentially 10+ substitutions.
I've tried:

  • :s/a/b/3g: vim complained of trailing characters.
  • :s/a/b/3: changes the first occurrence on this and the following two lines.
  • 3:s/a/b: same as previous.
  • :s/a/b/g3: changes all occurrences on this and the next two lines.
  • :3s/a/b: changes the first occurrence on line 3.
  • :/a/,3/a/s/a/b: changes first occurrence on each line between the next a and the third line containing a in the file (prompting to reverse if necessary).
  • :/a/,/\([^a]*a\)\{3\}/s/a/b/: changes the first occurrence on each line between this and the next with 3 as on it (and this wouldn't have been easily extensible to a multi-character search).

And various other addressing patterns, none of which worked. I must say, I've learned a fair amount about the :s command trying to find an answer to this problem, but I still haven't solved it.

Anyone know how to do this?

(bonus points for specific range, e.g. second through fourth occurrences)

  • 2
    I'm pretty sure you can't do that in vim, but to make it less tedious, do you know about "n" and "." in visual mode? That is, you use /pattern/ to find the thing to change, change it using "cw" or whatever, thn use "n" (just n, no quotes) to find the next pattern and hit "." (just period, no quotes) to perform the last edit.
    – user732
    Commented Dec 19, 2011 at 19:55
  • @BruceEdiger I did know about n and ., though I didn't think to use them here. Certainly an improvement, thanks.
    – Kevin
    Commented Dec 19, 2011 at 20:02
  • s/a/=something/ should do the trick (:help sub-replace-=). I'm not fluent enough in Vim to write something right off the bat. Commented Dec 19, 2011 at 23:29
  • Note: :[up][enter] can be replaced with &, which still isn't ideal but at least is less painful.
    – Kowh
    Commented Dec 20, 2011 at 0:14

4 Answers 4


Building on the :s/pattern/replacement/gc idea from Samus_ (which seems to be the simplest way to ensure correct operation when pattern is contained within the replacement string), to replace the 2nd through 4th occurrences on a single line:

:call feedkeys("nyyyq") | s/pat/string/gc

feedkeys() is a function that stuffs the input string into the keyboard input queue. The point is to do the counting upfront so you don't have to worry about losing count or getting interrupted.

For a more general case, to replace the Mth through Nth occurrences on a single line for N greater than or equal to a very large M:

:call feedkeys(repeat("n", M-1) . repeat("y", N-M+1) . "q") | s/pat/string/gc

Replace M and N with the values you want (you can even let vim do the trivial mental arithmetic if you don't want to do it yourself). Note that . is VimL's string concatenation operator. Obviously this only saves keystrokes for large M. If you use this functionality frequently, it may save you time to put the above in a custom command or function of some sort, as it is quite a bit to type.

  • Hmm. I like this one. I should be able to write a function for it too.
    – Kevin
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 16:32

For the first question I would do:


The second is trickier, I don't know a way to do it automatically but you can make vim prompt you on each match like this:


Then you reply "no" to the first n matches and "yes" to the others.

  • Hmm, I forgot about c, that might be the best solution proposed yet. I'd still have to count, but I think it's the first option that would work with replacements that contain the search string.
    – Kevin
    Commented Dec 20, 2011 at 16:56
a a a a a
a a a a a
a a a a a
a a a a a
a a a a a
a a a a a
a a a a a

:3,6g/^/let i=0 | while i<3 | s/a/b/ | let i+=1 | endwhile

a a a a a
a a a a a
b b b a a
b b b a a
b b b a a
b b b a a
a a a a a
  • 1
    This is good, but it still suffers from the problem Gilles pointed out (on another post, which since seems to have been deleted), that it only works if the replacement doesn't contain the pattern. Though I do like the scripting idea.
    – Kevin
    Commented Dec 20, 2011 at 15:46
  • A thing of beauty!
    – bishop
    Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 20:42

I think this might work, replace first, then repeat 2 times:


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