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authorbrian m. carlson <>2019-05-27 19:29:42 +0000
committerbrian m. carlson <>2019-05-27 19:29:42 +0000
commit427ceb8c9470a754a87285a975c17aedbcefd197 (patch)
parenta8dd42a04adfb84cace6720ebfd219448f86d274 (diff)
Add post on VISUAL and EDITOR
Signed-off-by: brian m. carlson <>
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+layout: post
+title: "The EDITOR and VISUAL environment variables"
+date: 2019-05-27 19:06:29 +0000
+categories: tech unix
+On most Unix systems, there are two environment variables that control the user’s choice of text editor: `EDITOR` and `VISUAL`.
+They have different historical purposes, but are generally interchangeable today.
+`EDITOR` is the older variable, and the one you should generally set if you only set one.
+It lists the name of your text editor, optionally with flags.
+`VISUAL` is a bit different.
+If it’s set, it overrides `EDITOR`, unless you’re using a dumb terminal.
+When `vi` was created, people would set their `EDITOR` value to `ex` and VISUAL to `vi`.
+If they were on a dumb terminal, they’d get `ex`, but if they were on a terminal with graphics support, they’d get `vi`.
+Nowadays, just setting `EDITOR` is fine, since you’re practically never going to run into a dumb terminal (unless you use gvim’s `:shell` command).
+However, your editor should be a value that stays in the foreground until you quit it; otherwise, most tools (including Git) will assume you haven’t edited the file.
+If you use gvim, like me, then you need to set `EDITOR` to `gvim -f`.
+If the user hasn’t specified `EDITOR` or `VISUAL`, the default is `vi`.
+That’s a particularly cruel and heartless default for newbies, but it’s what people expect when working on Unix systems.
+Defaulting to something else means that people who need to run an occasional editor-invoking command on an infrequently accessed server will be surprised.
+Sysadmins don’t like surprises.
+There’s frequently confusion as to whether the variables should be interpreted by the shell.
+The answer is emphatically _yes_, for several reasons.
+First, if your program doesn’t pass the command to the shell, people have to use shell scripts to get things like `gvim -f` to work.
+Second, on some platforms, like Cygwin, using commands with spaces in the path is quite common, and using shell interpretation allows a standard way to make that work.
+Finally, Debian’s sensible-editor helper and Git pass the command to the shell.
+Since Debian recommends the `sensible-editor` script for packages by default, other packages should emulate its behavior.
+Similarly, Git is a tool that’s widely deployed, and it also invokes the shell.
+It's tempting to want to parse the command yourself with a shellword parsing library in your language of choice, but it's valid to put a small amount of literal shell scripting in the variable.
+You really do need to invoke the shell in order to handle things correctly, and it should be the default POSIX shell on your system (usually `/bin/sh`).
+If you’re interested in how Git implements this, you can look at[its editor.c file], which provides the (relatively simple) logic.
+If you have a Debian or Ubuntu system, `/usr/bin/sensible-editor` demonstrates how to do it in shell.