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Turn On or Off Color Syntax Highlighting In vi or vim Editor

How do I turn on or off color syntax highlighting in vi or vim text editor on a Linux or Unix-like operating system?

Vim or vi is a text editor. It can be used to edit all kinds of plain text files, editing programs, and UNIX/Linux configuration files. Vim supports additional options and it includes a lot of enhancements above old good vi text editor.

Syntax highlighting is nothing but a feature of vi/vim text editors that displays text, especially source code, in different colors and fonts according to the category of terms.

Task: Turn on color syntax highlighting

Open a file, for example open existing file called file.c, enter:
$ vi file.c

Now press ESC key, type “: syntax on” i.e. type as follows:
:syntax on
C source code editing while syntax highlighting is on in vi or vim:

Fig.01: Turn on or off color syntax highlighting in vi or vim

Fig.01: Turn on or off color syntax highlighting in vi or vim

Task: Turn off color syntax highlighting

To turn it back off, press ESC key, type : syntax off
:syntax off

How do I make the syntax highlighting permanent?

You can edit ~/.vimrc file and add append vim command syntax on to it. This ensures that vim will start with color syntax highlighting option:
$ cd
$ vi .vimrc

Append the following line:
syntax on
Save and close the file.

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{ 61 comments… add one }
  • trojan March 10, 2007, 1:22 pm

    Hey this Syntax-highlighting works!!
    Looks cool

  • yoander May 12, 2008, 2:16 pm

    In vim editor you can use syntax enable too.

    Inside vim in command mode press shift : and write syntax press space and press tab and vim go through out different syntax command

  • Bobby June 10, 2008, 5:51 pm

    I believe that the exact syntax is “set syntax=on”. At least that is how it works for mine.

    • Satya Prakash March 3, 2011, 10:56 am

      To me as well. set syntax=on is working and not just syntax=on

  • Garratt November 13, 2008, 8:51 am

    @ Bobby, while it may work, I’m guessing you have an extra command after typing vim filename, that is because it’s asking for extra info…and can be avoided by hitting enter the correct way is:

    set ts=4
    set sw=4
    set spell
    set spl=en
    syntax on
    set wrap
    set ai


    • Kent August 1, 2014, 1:12 pm

      @Garratt thank you for including the set command list. It is a great edition to this good tutorial. It all worked for me on a Mac OS X Mavericks.

  • Khader December 23, 2008, 10:40 pm

    All of the obove suggestions may not work since on most flavors of linux vi is pointing to vim. unalias vi.
    $ which vi
    $ unalias vi
    $ which vi

  • Steve February 28, 2009, 5:48 am

    FINALLY I got syntax highlighting turned on. I had no idea how to do it. It wasn’t in the man page at all or anywhere else I had looked online until I found it here. Thanks!

  • rob March 11, 2009, 3:50 pm

    For Ubuntu, you probably have the package “vim-tiny” installed by default.
    To check this run:
    dpkg -l vim*

    So install the real vim with:
    sudo apt-get install vim
    sudo apt-get install vim-full

    On Debian Etch I originally just had vim-tiny, but I now have:

    svn@svn:infrastructure$ dpkg -l vim*

    | Status=Not/Installed/Config-files/Unpacked/Failed-config/Half-installed
    |/ Err?=(none)/Hold/Reinst-required/X=both-problems (Status,Err: uppercase=bad)
    ||/ Name                   Version                Description
    ii  vim                    7.0-122+1etch3         Vi IMproved - enhanced vi editor
    ii  vim-common             7.0-122+1etch3         Vi IMproved - Common files
    un  vim-doc                                 (no description available)
    un  vim-full                                (no description available)
    un  vim-gnome                               (no description available)
    un  vim-gtk                                 (no description available)
    un  vim-lesstif                             (no description available)
    un  vim-perl                                (no description available)
    un  vim-python                              (no description available)
    un  vim-ruby                                (no description available)
    ii  vim-runtime            7.0-122+1etch3         Vi IMproved - Runtime files
    un  vim-scripts                             (no description available)
    un  vim-tcl                                 (no description available)
    ii  vim-tiny               7.0-122+1etch3         Vi IMproved - enhanced vi editor - compact version
  • Narendra March 12, 2009, 8:29 pm

    Hey Vivek,

    Thanks:) it’s working!!!!!!

  • saritha April 3, 2009, 8:53 am

    I am using fedora 5.My editor is VIM 6.4.7.I wanted to highlight keywords of my C program.I tried adding “syntax on” to your $HOME/.vimrc file which is copied from /usr/share/vim/vim64/gvimrc.examples…

    and I tried the above mentioned tips also….pls help

  • Senthil April 13, 2009, 7:04 am


    This doesn’t work in vi. any idea why? i don’t use vim and is there any setup required to use vim?


    • Daniel Brockman March 2, 2011, 7:19 pm


      :syntax on and :syntax off don’t work in vi. They are features of vim. vi is ancient, emerging from work by George Colouris and Bill Joy circa 1973 to 1979. It had no color and no understanding of syntax at all. This was an epoch before color was available on computers (except for government supercomputers used to track incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles, perhaps). Vim arrived much later, the first versions appearing in the early 1990s.

      Ref: http://www.softpanorama.org/Editors/Vimorama/history.shtml

    • Chris G October 11, 2014, 7:22 pm

      On many systems, the vi command is linked to vim. So you may be using vim and not even know it. You could try doing this:

      vi –v

      And see what the version is. If it says something like mine:

      VIM – Vi IMproved 7.4 (2013 Aug 10, compiled Aug 12 2013 00:27:34)

      then you have VIM. However, if you are still not getting highlighting, then you might be using a compact version of VIM (vim-tiny). So see the post above from
      rob on March 11, 2009 at 3:50 pm to find out more about that.

      Good luck!

  • Zuquirio Ámaur April 17, 2009, 4:13 am

    Thanks, this works for me on ubuntu 8.10

  • Arturo April 19, 2009, 3:16 pm

    It’s great! Thanks.

  • andy September 18, 2009, 10:24 pm

    I am using Vim on fedora.. How do you turn off yellow highlight between space (text) in vim file?

    what command turn off yellow highlight?

    • Anonymous August 9, 2011, 9:01 pm

      to turn it off

      • dave bratton February 29, 2012, 7:40 pm

        This worked for me

      • Priya April 11, 2012, 2:56 pm

        This worked for me. Thanks a ton. Saved a lot of my time.

      • Gayathri March 6, 2014, 5:01 am

        thank a lot……….

  • Titus September 24, 2009, 5:46 pm

    I turned off the colorization. Whew. Now I would like to get rid of the highlighted
    matching braces. When I put the cursor on an open curley brace it highlights that
    brace and the matching closing brace. Rescue me!

    Titus sends

  • sumit September 25, 2009, 9:19 am

    Even I had searched online a lot before but nothing worked..thankfully I landed here today and it finally worked..:) Thanks

  • Ben January 1, 2010, 11:35 pm

    Hey. If you are using a dark background for your terminal you may want to
    ” set background=dark “

  • Bubnoff February 9, 2010, 7:47 pm

    ‘syn on/syn off’, instead of typing ‘syntax’, works as well in vim.

    Imagine what your boss would think if he/she found out you were getting paid while typing
    those three extra letters!!!


  • Imran May 25, 2010, 12:30 pm

    I got syntax highlighting turned on on linux VI editor. Thanks!

  • shijitht August 5, 2010, 12:47 pm

    add a file name .exrc in home dir
    set cindent ” for c indentation(correct spacing)
    syntax on ” coloring according to c syntax
    set nu ” line numbers

  • dilu August 6, 2010, 7:09 pm

    thanks all,,,,,, i was using vi in cygwin and syntax on worked…….. lol……….

  • Manoj September 9, 2010, 4:28 am

    I am using fedora 13.I wanted to highlight keywords of my C program, i tried all the above told but i am still unable..pls help me out,I am new to linux

  • George January 16, 2011, 5:04 am

    What kind of idiot decided that we need syntax highlight ?

    • Daniel Brockman January 28, 2011, 12:54 am

      I’m very glad to have found this blog and to have learned to use syntax off. Those colors were a profound interference for me.

    • Erik August 22, 2012, 5:51 am

      Indeed. Thank you.
      Some completely other kind of idiot than me, apparently.

  • Dave January 18, 2011, 10:25 pm

    Thanks! Worked well.

    Syntax highlighting is a huge benefit to me. It makes commented and uncommented lines different colors in config files. Much easier for finding which options are enabled.

    • Daniel Brockman March 2, 2011, 7:23 pm

      I’m colorblind, and the syntax highlighting just makes the code hard to read.

      I hope the next version of VIM lets me specify what color I want for background and what color I want for foreground instead of requiring me to choose from their predefined templates.

      Hey! Maybe VIM already lets me specify bg and fg colors! Does anyone know the syntax for the command?

  • Ahamed ishak January 19, 2011, 6:25 pm

    I try. but i didn’t got it. its not working in my Linux OS.
    I use Fedora 14.
    Plz give me a help to solve this problem

    • Gobikrishnan January 31, 2011, 6:30 pm

      1st checkl you have installed vim by connanding
      yum install vim-enhanced
      if you got message like “already installed and latest version
      Nothing to do”
      if not install it ,
      then open your .c/ .cpp file and command
      :set syntax=on

  • johan March 1, 2011, 10:47 pm

    Thank you very much very helpful.

  • Rajasekhar July 12, 2011, 9:00 am

    Its working Nice..!! Thank you..!!

  • Indie July 14, 2011, 4:36 pm

    If you use sudoedit to edit a file, vim won’t be able to determine what syntax to apply so you need to also do

    :set syn=php
  • Ginso July 25, 2011, 9:43 pm

    hi, when i open a new .tex document, i have a different syntax than, when i open an already existing .tex document. I like the first one better, but typing :set syn=tex gives me the ugly one. Any ideas how i get the other one?

  • Sourav Chakraborty September 21, 2011, 8:10 am

    Thanks for the great tip!

  • Diwanker Pandey September 21, 2011, 10:38 am

    how to compile c program in fedora 15?

    Can anybody help?????

  • Theresa July 20, 2012, 6:14 pm

    Hooray! Thanks, Rob who commented in 2009. I had syntax on and had adjusted the color settings, from 8 colors to 256, but the final key was to kill vim-tiny. Running Ubuntu and had installed vim-full but I was still apparently using vim-tiny. Just ‘sudo apt-get remove vim-tiny’ed. This post helped me with color settings http://stackoverflow.com/questions/3761770/iterm-vim-colorscheme-not-working

  • Abi August 24, 2012, 10:03 am

    Thanks. The syntax highlighting finally works for me when I type :syntax on.
    I use Vim Editor in Cygwin. 1.7.16-1(Latest version). But I am unable to make it default. I tried editing the $vi .vimrc. It just doesn’t work. Help would be appreciated.

  • Mark November 1, 2012, 2:34 pm

    One other piece of this puzzle, for those who are using the correct syntax to turn highlighting on, but are still not getting color: you might need to tell vim what syntax highlighting to use. It can’t always figure out the correct one.
    For example, when editing a config file in vim, type
    :set syntax=sh
    That sets it to “shell script” highlighting. The syntax highlighting configs available are: c perl java html cpp sh csh
    so if you’re editing a perl file, you’d type :set syntax=perl

  • praveen November 23, 2012, 7:11 pm

    hey..i m getting syntax comman not found

    • dpeach December 7, 2015, 2:50 pm

      You have to do this inside of a file you are editing in vim, not from the command line before opening a file.

  • Simon December 12, 2012, 2:07 am

    Cool. Good to know. Thanks.

  • UncaAlby January 15, 2013, 6:32 pm

    I’m happy to turn the syntax highlighting OFF

    It gets confusing with all the damn colors. I can never tell where the cursor is!

    Now I need to turn off the colors that highlights EVERY DAMN MATCH when you search for text! Then that STAYS ON when you exit and return later.

    Look, that’s a nice feature, but it deserves its own distinct command. Usually when I’m searching for something, I only want the NEXT one. And again, it makes it difficult to find the cursor, so I always end up making changes in the wrong place.

  • Splendid Bill May 22, 2013, 3:32 pm

    To turn off highlighting :noh
    If anyone is still not getting colour or getting shades of grey (I was using securecrt) the doing :set term=ansi before :syntax on gave me colours. (Sinclair ZX Spectrum colours lol )

  • Reefersleep October 30, 2013, 10:18 am

    Thanks for the hint, I’ve been using vim in the terminal on my Mac for a while now and have wondered why everything was just black and white! Just put “syntax on” in my ~/.vimrc, and it worked right away. Cheers :)

  • Lee Xiang Wei December 2, 2013, 3:54 pm


  • ron July 16, 2014, 12:55 pm

    /etc/vim/vimrc is the path to the config on debian.
    Uncommenting the syntax on line enables the functionality.

  • Kent August 1, 2014, 1:21 pm

    This all worked for me on a Mac OS X with Mavericks. I used the following options in my ~/.vimrc file:
    1 syntax on –> for syntax highligting
    2 set ts=4 –> for tab spaces set to four per tab character
    3 set sw=4 –> Set the shift width to four spaces
    4 set spell –> set spellchecking on
    5 set spl=en –> Set spelling language to english
    6 set ai –> Enable auto indentation
    7 set nu –> Enables line numbers

    You will notice I have line numbers set with ‘set nu’. I did not type in the numbers one through seven though they were put there by VIM. Then, when I copied and pasted the text it gave me line numbers!

    Thanks to all who contributed to this post.

    P.S.: When using the options from my post make sure to remove the line numbers and my comments that are all prefixed with ‘–>’ since they are not real VIM comments. I added them to this post after copying and pasting from VIM.

  • Gabe S. April 23, 2015, 3:19 pm

    Is there a way to selectively disable syntax highlighting on a line-by-line basis, I mean shut it off only for a couple of lines here and there within a file, while keeping it on for the rest of the file I am editing?

    Btw using ‘vim-gtk’ package under Debian sid.

  • Vijay July 22, 2015, 3:30 am

    Thanks for the simple explanation. it works.

  • anonymous October 26, 2015, 9:17 am

    Good article.

    My 50 cents. You can redefine any color theme after “syntax on”

    # cat /root/.vimrc 
    map  :w\|!sh % 
    map  :w\|!bash % 
    map  :w\|!python % 
    map  :w\|!python % &
    " http://vimdoc.sourceforge.net/htmldoc/syntax.html#:colorscheme
    highlight RedundantWhitespace ctermbg=DarkBlue guibg=red
    match RedundantWhitespace /\s\+$\|\t/
    syntax on
    highlight Comment ctermfg=green

    Now, all comments will be green, not a dark blue. Much clear.


  • Karen April 20, 2016, 8:14 pm

    Wow, this doc really helps !!! THANKS !!!

  • Karen April 20, 2016, 8:16 pm

    When I simply do “ls -l ” in one dir, some links show colors.
    How can I turn on and off colors for “ls ” ?
    I need all files , dirs listed white, while my background is black.

    Thanks !

  • ranga May 2, 2016, 1:55 pm

    thank you very much it worked

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