Helpfile generation for vim
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Latest commit 00ae18b Feb 2, 2017

Vimdoc - Helpfile generation for vim plugins

Vimdoc generates vim helpfiles from documentation in vimscript files. You annotate vimscript like this:

" This is my function. It does different things to the {required} argument,
" depending upon the [optional] argument.
function! myplugin#MyFunction(required, ...) abort

and you get helpfiles that look like this:

FUNCTIONS                                              *myplugin-functions*

myplugin#MyFunction({required}, [optional])         *myplugin#MyFunction()*
  This is my function. It does different things to the {required} argument,
  depending upon the [optional] argument.

This allows you to keep all of your documentation in one place (the code!) and generate nicely formatted help files without manually aligning text and adding tags and so on.

To see an example of vimdoc in use, see maktaba, specifically the helloworld example plugin therein, which shows some of the basics.

Vimdoc is unstable. It's a collection of regexes and hacks masquerading as a complete vim documentation tool. But it works, and it's useful, and it will continue to be useful while it gets cleaned up.


Use to install vimdoc in the usual way. On most systems, this is:

python config
python build
sudo python install


Run vimdoc on a directory containing a plugin. It will generate a help file in the 'doc' directory of that plugin. For example:

vimdoc plugins/myplugin

will generate the helpfile



Vimdoc operates on comment blocks, which are a continuous group of lines starting with the "" header:

" Documentation for function
function! ...

Vimdoc automatically recognizes the type of these blocks. It can detect the following:

  • function definitions
  • command definitions
  • global settings
  • maktaba flags
  • plugin descriptions (at the top of plugin files)

The names of functions/commands/settings are automatically detected from the line below the comment block. The arguments for functions/commands are automatically deduced from the body of the text and (in the case of functions) from the name of the arguments in the function definition, as follows:

  • If the names of all mentioned required arguments in the comment block match the names of the arguments in the function definition, then the required arguments are ordered according to their placement in the function definition.
  • Otherwise, the names used in the comment block are used instead of the names used in the function definition, in the order of mention in the comment block.
  • Optional arguments (which cannot be named in a function definition, as their existence is indicated only by an ellipsis) are used as named in the comment block, in the order of mention.

These defaults are usually correct, but can be overridden.

Vimdoc has a number of builtin directives, which are marked by @ signs.

It also detects your plugin's addon-info.json file if present (see the documentation and relevant VAM help).

Block Directives

Block directives take up an entire line in the comment block. They look like this:

" @usage req1 req2 \[opt1] \[opt2]
" description...
function! MyFunction(badName1, badName2, ...)

Available block directives include:

  • @stylized name allows you to define the stylized version of a plugin name (for example, myplugin could be stylized as "My Plugin").
  • @library marks your plugin as a library plugin. This makes functions public by default.
  • @public marks a function public. In most plugins, functions are private by default, though this default may be overridden on a per-plugin basis.
  • @private marks a function private.
  • @section name[, id] allows you to write a new section for the helpfile. The id will be a lowercased version of name if omitted.
  • @parentsection id defines the current section as a child of the given section. Must be contained within a @section block.
  • @subsection name defines a subsection (heading) within a section block.
  • @backmatter id declares a block to be rendered at the end of the given section.
  • @order ... allows you to define the order of the sections. Sections with a @parentsection may not be included here.
  • @dict name (above blank lines) allows you to define a new dictionary.
  • @dict dict.fn (above a function) allows you to add a function to a dictionary.
  • @usage ... allows you to rename and reorder the arguments of a function or command.
  • @all denotes that the remainder of the block will be included in all usages (in the case of multiple overloaded usages).
  • @function ... allows you to alter the function tag directly, for when @usage does not offer enough control.
  • @command ... allows you to alter the command tag directly, for when @usage does not offer enough control.
  • @setting name declares a setting (global or per-buffer configuration variable).
  • @default arg=value describes the default value of an optional arg.
  • @throws exception describes the type of exceptions that a function or command may throw.
  • @deprecated reason marks a command or function as deprecated and excludes it from the docs.

The global directives (@stylized, @order, and @library) are all detected from inside a @section block (usually the Introduction section).

Inline Directives

Inline directives occur in the body of comment blocks. Most take one argument enclosed in parenthesis.

  • @function(name) generates a link to a function defined in the plugin.
  • @command(name) generates a link to a command defined in the plugin.
  • @flag(name) generates a link to a flag defined in the plugin.
  • @setting(name) generates a link to a setting defined in the plugin.
  • @section(id) generates a link to a section defined in the plugin.
  • @dict(name) generates a link to a dictionary defined in the plugin.
  • @plugin(attr) Outputs some plugin data, such as the name or author. attr must be one of stylized, name, or author. If the attr (and parenthesis) are left off, stylized is used.

Other Metadata

Some metadata for your plugin is not configured via vimdoc directives, but comes from other sources.

By default, the name for the plugin is the name of its top-level directory. If an addon-info.json file is present and contains an explicit "name" field, vimdoc will use that plugin name instead. This is important if the plugin lives in a directory with a "vim" prefix or suffix, such as "vim-dispatch". This plugin name will appear in the helpfile header and determine the name of the helpfile itself.

Vimdoc will also take the author and description values from the "author" and "description" fields in addon-info.json.


Vimdoc syntax is reminiscent of helpfile syntax.

  • Use quotes to reference settings, such as 'filetype'.
  • Use brackets to reference [optional] function arguments.
  • Use braces to reference {required} function arguments.
  • Use |pipes| to link to tags in other helpfiles.

Helpfile Structure

The generated helpfile for a plugin has the following structure:

Table of Contents
1. Introduction
2. Configuration
3. Commands
5. Settings
6. Dictionaries
7. Functions
8. Mappings
9. About

All of these (except Header and Table of Contents) are optional and predicated upon the comment blocks existing in the right places in the file. You may eliminate sections by omitting the comment blocks. You may add custom sections with the @section directive.


The header is a simple line or two following the vim helpfile style guide. It looks something like:

*myplugin*     My Plugin’s Tagline
author                                                *Stylized-Name*

Table of Contents

Of the form

CONTENTS                                          *myplugin-contents*
  1. Introduction                                    |myplugin-intro|
  2. Configuration                                  |myplugin-config|

And so on for each section.


The introductory comment block is used to populate this section.


This section contains descriptions of all the flags and settings that were annotated by vimdoc comment blocks.

Any global let command with a doc comment will automatically be detected as a setting:

" Enable a thing.
let g:myplugin_enable_thing = 1

You can use the @setting block directive to declare settings vimdoc doesn't recognize:

" @setting g:myplugin_secret_number
" A secret number.
echo 'The number is' get(g:, 'myplugin_secret_number', b:changedtick)

" @setting b:myplugin_enable_thing
" Enable a thing in the current buffer.

Maktaba flags with doc comments are also automatically recognized:

" Supported things.
call s:plugin.Flag('things', ['a', 'b'])


Contains a list of commands available to the user. Vimdoc understands -bang, -nargs, -range, -count, -register, and -buffer. (It ignores -bar.) It will parse out the arguments in the order that they are mentioned in the comment block above the command and will generate a usage line for the command. For example, the following comment block:

" Spawns two new zerglings from the given {hatchery}
" Attacks all units in the selected [range] upon spawning.
" [larva], if given, will be used to spawn the zerglings.
" Otherwise a larva will be selected at random.
" [!] forces the zerglings to spawn even if you don’t have enough
" overlords. Caution: this may make your swarm uncontrollable.
command -range -bang -nargs=+ -bar SpawnZerglings
    \ call zerg#spawn(ZERGLINGS, '<bang>' == '!', <f-args>)

will generate the following usage line:

:[range]SpawnZerglings[!] {hatchery} [larva]

You can override the usage line with the @usage command, which takes a list of arguments. Any arguments that look like vim variable names (\I\i+) will be assumed to be parameters, and their required-ness will be inferred from the docs. You can force required-ness by providing arguments that look like vim variables wrapped in curly (required) or square (optional) brackets. Empty curly brackets stand in for the remainder of the inferred required variables. Empty square brackets stand in for the remainder of the inferred optional variables. For example:

" @usage {} [first] []
" Start with {base}, add [second] to [first] and divide by [third].
command SomeCommand ...


:SomeCommand {base} [first] [second] [third]

For more advanced usage, you may use the @command directive. This is useful either when your command takes a non-standard argument list (like :substitute) or when your command is not recognized by vimdoc (when you :execute 'command' s:name).

The @command directive takes one argument, which is the entire usage line. {} expands to all of the inferred required parameters, [] to all of the inferred optional parameters, and <> to the complete inferred command name with built-in flags included. For example:

" @command <>/{pattern}/{string}/[flags] [count]
command -range -bang -nargs=1 Substitute ...

generates the usage line:

:[range]Substitute[!]/{pattern}/{string}/[flags] [count]

An argument which may be given multiple times should be suffixed with an ellipsis. For example, {arg...} documents an argument that may appear once or more and [arg...] denotes an argument that may appear zero or more times.

Sometimes you want a command to have more than one usage. For that you may use more than one usage directive. Example:

" @usage {list} {index} {item}
" Add {item} to {list} at {index}.
" @usage {dict} {key} {value}
" Set {dict} {key} to {value}.
" @all
" WARNING: Will launch the nuclear missiles.

This will generate two docs for the command: one for list, one for dicts. An @all directive denotes that the remainder of the block will be included in all usages. In the above example, the warning will be included in both the list and the dict version of the command docs.


Vimscript kinda-sorta supports object oriented programming via dictionaries with functions attached. (See :help Dictionary-function.) Vimdoc helps you group these dictionaries and their methods in one place in the documentation.

You may describe a dictionary object type using the @dict annotation in a comment block that is above a blank line. Then you may annotate the dictionary functions with the @dict directive to have them grouped with the dictionary description. (Such functions will not be listed in the functions section.)


Function documentation is very similar to command documentation.

The order of required parameters is inferred by looking at the function declaration.

The order of optional parameters is inferred by the order they are mentioned in the comment block. Use the @usage command as described in the Command section to correct the order of optional arguments.

Functions may have multiple usages just like commands. Functions are not exposed in the help docs by default. Use @public to make them public by default.

@function can be used to tell vimdoc about a non-obvious function (such as one created by :execute). (), {}, and [] expand as in @command.