7 min read

perl6.vim gets more love

tl;dr: Some tuits came my way, so Vim’s syntax highlighting of Perl 6 is much better and faster now. Try it!

<timotimo> hoelzro: i just skimmed the perl6 vim syntax and … oh crap

<timotimo> there’s just no way i could even make a dent in that thing

* psch usually turns off highlighting in vim because it’s so slow :/

<sorear> perl 6 is not really syntax-highlightable

So…yeah, perl6.vim is a bit of a beast.

Recent history of perl6.vim

Sometime in 2008 or so, I got interested in Perl 6, and I really wanted it to be nicely higlighted in my editor (Vim) as I learned. As it turned out, there was already a Vim syntax file for it, in the Pugs SVN repository. This was mostly the work of lpalmer++ and moritz++. It worked decently, but as I learned about more nooks and crannies of Perl 6 (there sure are enough of them) I started finding the limitations of the highlighting to be frustrating.

I wanted to make it better, so I started learning all about Vim’s regexes and syntax highlighting support. I began hacking on perl6.vim, and soon enough it grew to be the largest Vim syntax file in existence. Perl 6 is hard enough to parse already. Having to do so with Vim patterns, doubly so. I made some progress but eventually the performance of the highlighting suffered as it grew to support ever more complicated syntax.

In 2009, alester++ created the vim-perl repository on Github to consolidat Perl support for Vim. perl6.vim gained a new home shortly thereafter when he imported it from the Pugs repo. Around the same I discovered Text::VimColor and used it to create a test harness for the syntax highlighting of perl.vim and perl6.vim. I fixed a few Perl 5 highlighting bugs and added some tests for them, but I never got around to doing the same for Perl 6.

Since then, a few contributors (hoelzro++ et al) have continued to fix bugs in perl6.vim. In the meantime, Perl 6 has also evolved, and some of the assumptions perl6.vim has made are no longer valid.

A few weeks ago I went to FOSDEM 2015, where Larry announced that this Christmas would be The One™. That rekindled my interest in perl6.vim, and I’d like to share with you some of the progress I’ve made with it.


Vim 7.4 ships with a profiler for its syntax highlighting. I used it to identify a lot of inefficient patterns in the syntax file. I tried to reduce the use of zero-width assertions (lookarounds) and to make more use of nextgroup instead when possible. I also optimized many patterns to reject matches as soon as possible. As a result, Vim now needs to attempt much fewer matches, and the ones it does attempt are taking less time to do their work. Editing most Perl 6 files feels pretty snappy now, even STD.pm6.


In ftplugin/perl6.vim, I added the apostrophe and high-bit alphabetical characters (æóð...) to the list of characters vim recognizes in keywords (iskeyword) This allows all valid Perl 6 identifiers to be used in Vim commands that depend on matching keywords.

I also cleaned up the highlighting of Perl 6 idenfifiers, in particular adding support for the high-bit characters and better support for dashes, so these are now highlighted correctly in sub/package/variable/etc names.

Multiline comments

These have been updated to recognize the new #` prefix, and to be allowed at the beginning of a line. Previously, multiline comments with stacked delimiters (««, <<, <<<, etc) were not highlighted by default. Some profiling showed that doing so does not have a noticable performance impact, so I changed it to always highlight them.


I added highlighting of heredocs with qto, qqto, q:to, qq:to, q:heredoc, and qq:heredoc, for most commonly used delimiters.

Setting functions and methods

* TimToady wishes all these highlighters wouldn’t treat setting functions and methods as reserved words; they’re just functions and methods`

<moritz> TimToady: agreed

* flussence wishes perl6.vim didn’t highlight Test.pm functions as reserved words either…

By popular request, I removed highlighting of builtin functions and methods. This makes sense since there’s no way to avoid highlighting user-defined methods that happen to share the name of a builtin one.


Highlighting these is one of the trickiest jobs of the syntax file. Yet it’s one of the most crucial because if you let e.g. a stray R< or [/ go unhighlighted, they will screw up the highlighting of the rest of the file by starting a string where there isn’t one.

I managed to make great improvements to the highlighting of reduce ([+]), hyper (»+«), post-hyper (@foo».bar), reverse/cross/sequence/zip (Rdiv, R<, etc), and set operators ((<), (>=)). All the spec tests for metaoperators I have looked at are now highlighted without issues.

Strings and patterns

Another part of the language that presents a challenge is /foo/, <bar>, <<baz>>, and «quux». Determining when these are not actually numeric division, less-than, or a hyperoperators is tricky. These things are now matched much more accurately. I also added support for the qqx and qqw operators.


Grammars are a whole other language in their own right, and this is where there is still the most room for improvement (of both performance and accuracy) in the syntax file. I still don’t know grammars well enough, but I’ve fixed all the highlighting issues I’ve found. STD.pm6 in its entirety is now highlighted properly, although Vim can still get confused occasionally until you scroll a bit or tell it to redraw the screen.


The biggest change here is that I added highlighting of indented Pod blocks. As part of the indentifier improvements mentioned above, Pod block names containing hyphens or high-bit alphabetical chars are now correctly highlighted.


I added rudimentary support for syntax-based folding (disabled by default).


  • I improved highlighting of numbers and version literals
  • Fixed a few issues where interpolated things weren’t highlighted as such
  • Made big improvements to highlighting of transliteration (tr///, tr{}{}, etc) operators
  • Added highlighting of bare/anonymous sigils in more places
  • Highlighted the Unicode set operators (, , et al)
  • Certain keywords (like die, state, etc) are no longer highlighted where they shouldn’t be, e.g. as method calls ($foo.state)


Of course, I added tests for every improvement and bugfix listed above, so at least the highlighting should not be getting worse from now on.


All open vim-perl Github issues relating to Perl 6 highlighting bugs have been resolved. If you discover any more problems, please open new issues.

I tried patching perl6/doc to add an option to use Text::VimColor to highlight code blocks in the documentation. While it does result in richer and more accurate highlighting than the default pygments-based highlighter, it is painfully slow to generate. This is because Text::VimColor (and 2html.vim, on which it is based) extracts Vim’s highlighting by calling the synID() function at every character position in the file, which is very slow. So while it may only take Vim a few dozen milliseconds to highlight an entire file, extracting the highlighting state into something usable by an external tool takes several seconds. I wonder how difficult it would be to patch Vim (or NeoVim) to export an entire file’s highlighting in a more efficient manner…

To close, here is a sample of some meaningless code that used to get perl6.vim confused but just looks nice now:

class Johnny's::Super-Cool::Module;

my $cööl-páttérn #`[why hello there] = /foo+/;
sub infix:«foo» { }

sub foo-bar (Int $a where * > 3, @bar, Str $b = 'foo') {
    my $document = qto/END/;
        you there

    my $document = qq:heredoc/END/;
        and $b

    my $result = qqx/ls -l bla/;
    my @bla = [+] @bar;
    my @list = @bla Z, @bar;
    say "yes" if $set1 (<) $set2;

    =for Pro-tip
    Pay careful attention to the following code

    if $a !< 4 {
        @bar».bla: "this &nice-func() thing";
    my $bin = -0b01010;

    say $@foo.perl;

sub foo (Int:D $bla) is cached { }
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