I have a .cpp file in which I would like to change all less-than symbols to double quotes but maintain any instances of double-greater-than symbols, i.e. change < to " while leaving all occurrences of << alone.

I am very new to vim and as such am still trying to figure out the best way to replace characters in situations like this.

  • So far I have tried the command :g/(<<)\@<!</s/</" but the result comes out like this: < << < becomes: " "< " Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 20:24
  • Maybe this? %s/\(^\|[^<]\)<\($\|[^<]\)/\1"\2/g Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 21:05
  • @JoãoA.Toledo That worked perfectly. Thanks! Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 21:11
  • 1
    @JoãoA.Toledo make that an answer! Id suggest the very-magic flag \v to cut down on the pattern noise though.
    – D. Ben Knoble
    Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 23:45

3 Answers 3


Just to make an answer out of my comment above: you could substitute all ocurences of < without a successor <:


Or, using the very-magic flag, as suggested by @d-ben-knoble:


That means:

%s substitute in all lines

/\v starts search pattern and use very-magic flag, so we don't need to escape some characters

(^|[^<]) searches for a start of line (^) or one characters that is different from <

\< then searches for a < (the escape character here is needed)

($|[^<]) and finally searches for an end-of-line or a character that is different from <

/\1"\2/g and replaces all the findings with the first character, then " and the second character.


Use lookarounds

I think the simplest :substitute command might be to use lookarounds:


This replaces every < character that is neither preceded nor followed by another < character.

How it works

It uses a :substitute command (See :help :substitute) to replace strings that match the regular expression <\@<!<<\@! with " characters.

The regular expression is reasonably simple when broken down. It consists of three parts:


In the middle is a single < character. This is what we want to match.


Before that is: <\@<!. This is a second < character followed by Vim's atom for negative lookbehind: \@<!, which means that our central < will only be matched if we didn't match a < here.


At the end we have: <\@!. This is a third <, this time followed by Vim's atom for negative lookahead: \@!:our < will only be matched if it is not followed by a <.

See :help \@! and :help \@<! for more details of Vim's negative lookaround atoms.

  • Ah I see what's happening there. I tried something very similar to this before, but didn't use \@! when dealing with the third <. This seems like a clean way of solving this. Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 21:02

It's tricky to match single <, you have to consider behind and after character, which might also be start of line or end of line. An alternative is to match both of them, use \= to deal with <<

  • \V<<\|< match << or < if no << exists
  • \=submatch(0)=='<'?'"':'<<' replace < with ", << with <<
    • \= substitute with an expression, check :h sub-replace-expression
    • submatch(0) the whole matched text in current :substitute command.
    • submatch(0)=='<'?'"':'<<' return " for <, << for <<
  • 1
    I don't think you need the very-nomagic switch \V: your expression works without it. Also, I'd argue that <<\? is simpler than `<<\|<` but I guess that's a matter of preference.
    – Rich
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 13:59
  • Thanks, <<\? is simpler, it's better then |. I add \v or \V to all my regex, their rule is simple.
    – dedowsdi
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 14:14

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