How can you replace one match with multiple instances of a character (like \t)?

It's no problem to replace multiple characters with one. But I did not find the answer for the opposite.

For example: I want to change

Items: item1 item2 item3 item4



and for the whitespace I want to use \t tabstop (for example). Something like:


does not work.

  • Curly braces need to be escaped in patterns: \{5}; unless you use \very magic. (But that won't make it work in the replacement part, where you want to use it.) Dec 29, 2016 at 16:26

1 Answer 1

  • You are probably best off just hitting dat Tab key 5 times in your example:
    :%s/\s\(item.\)/\r    TabTabTabTabTab    \1/g
    (The tabs display as ^I in the Command-line.)

  • More elegantly, you can have vim repeat that typing for you. But with its ≥7 keystrokes and a bit of thinking effort, this technique is only economical for a bigger number of repetitions or characters to be repeated:
    :%s/\s\(item.\)/\r    Ctrl-f 5a \t Ctrl-c    \1/g

  • The most literal and technical answer to your question is – at the cost of even much more verbose syntax – using \= for substituting by an expression [:help sub-replace-expression], in which you could then employ the repeat() function:
    :%s/\s\(item.\)/\= "\n" . repeat("\t", 5) . submatch(1)/g   (Readability spaces not required.)

Unfortunately, vim does not provide syntactic sugar for repetition (\{5} or otherwise) in the replacement part of the :substitute command; almost none of the special regex syntax for pattern matching [:h pattern-overview] is available for the replacement: :h sub-replace-special

(PS: TabTabTabTabTabTabTabTabTabTabTabTabTabTabTab)

  • 1
    the number of "5" was just exemplary. I should have written 15 :) Thanks for the helpfull and comprehensive answer. I really like your idea to use the <c-f> shortcut to generate the command for repetition! (stumpled over this useful shortcut some weeks ago but did't thought about it in this case) Awesome!
    – MacMartin
    Dec 30, 2016 at 6:24
  • @eli, hey, thank you for your nice feedback! :) I'm glad it was helpful! (I updated the PS part to reflect the new number. ;) ) Dec 30, 2016 at 14:58

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