nano has a useful bit of syntax highlighting that actually highlights whitespace (tabs and spaces), under two conditions: (1) the whitespace does not have a non-whitespace character between either the last character or the beginning of the line and it, and (2) that the file is source code and not plain, plain text (as in a shopping list). How can I emulate this kind of behavior in vim?


I use set list and set listchars in .vimrc to show tabs and trailing white spaces, you can use a condition for selective file type like this.

if !(&filetype == "txt")
  set list                " show special characters
  set listchars=tab:→\ ,trail:·,nbsp:·

So my files look like this when those charaters are present.

function someFunc() { // no trailing spaces here
→   var a = "hola"; // 3 trailing spaces.···
    alert(a); // this line starts with spaces instead of tab
// next a line with 4 white spaces and nothing else
// next a line with a couple tabs
→   →   

Note: · is not .


So to answer to your comment, you can do that by adding this to your ~/.vimrc, make sure to add it after the colorscheme, or it will be hi clear'd.

if !(&filetype == "txt")
  highlight WhiteSpaces ctermbg=green guibg=#55aa55
  match WhiteSpaces /\s\+$/

You can change the highlight colors and refine the regular expression as needed. /\s\+$/ will match trailing spaces or tabs and lines that contain nothing but either of those 2 characters. If you only want to highlight lines with just tabs and spaces use /^\s\+$/ instead.

  • 1
    nano, I just realized, doesn't replace the tabs and spaces, but changes them to the "black/white on green" coloring, which makes them appear as green bars. Is there a way that I can do this instead of inserting a separate character? – fouric Jan 27 '13 at 23:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.