From :h E65 we can see that Vim doesn't allow more than 9 capture groups in a substitution command.

For example the following command will work:


But this one with one more capture group will fail:


My question is not about why it fails (it's a Vim hard limit) but about why does Vim have this limit at all?

Also, I'm aware that a real life regex with more than 9 capture group would probably be pretty monstrous to read and to maintain but I'm still curious.

  • 2
    Maybe not related only to Vim: stackoverflow.com/a/10993346/2558252
    – nobe4
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 15:59
  • 1
    @nobe4: Interesting! So maybe people creating these tools considered that more than 9 groups were useless...
    – statox
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 16:01
  • 1
    I suppose this limit comes from vi, which inherited the limit from ed/sed. Some years ago I made a patch to support up to 99 groups, but it was not included Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 16:06
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    @ChristianBrabandt A more useful addition would be to implement numeric flags like in sed: s/.../.../3 would replace only the 3rd occurrence of the pattern. This is probably the feature I miss the most in Vim. Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 16:18
  • 4
    Supporting named captures would be another way to alleviate this problem. That being said, most times I've seen anywhere near 9 capture groups was when people didn't know they could use non-capturing groups -- \%().
    – jamessan
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 20:06

1 Answer 1


The obvious reason is that groups with two or more digits are ambiguous: should \12 be taken as group 12, or as group 1 followed by the string 2?

There are other reasons related to efficiency (exponential matching time and the like). These were a show stopper when ed was written. Better algorithms have been discovered since then.

  • This is a good possibility, do you have any reference/reading regarding this?
    – nobe4
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 16:11
  • 2
    @nobe4 For the ambiguity part: no, but IMO it's obvious. For the efficiency part, you'd have to read about the early implementations of regexps. It was a well-known problem at the time. I don't have exact citations, but they shouldn't be hard to find. Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 16:15
  • Indeed that sounds totally plausible.
    – statox
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 16:16
  • 5
    Yes, it's almost definitely that the parser was written to look for a single digit after backslash, and never changed. This was common enough, a long time ago. Other languages have come up with ways around this (for example, only considering \11 a reference to a capture if there are at least 11 of them, which is inconsistent but usually okay; and things like \g{11} for backreferences and ${11} for substitutions), but vim has never introduced any of those.
    – hobbs
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 17:07
  • They could maybe change the parser to look for [0-9a-Z], this would give an additional 52 groups without ambiguity by referencing \1, \a, or \B.
    – dan
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 15:48

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