BBEdit Really Doesn’t Suck

Recently, with version 11, BBEdit introduced a demo mode so I thought to take another look at the big brother of TextWrangler. I have to say BareBones Software’s tag line for BBEdit is true “BBEdit – It doesn’t suck!”.

There are two tasks that I use an editor for, writing Python and writing Markdown so those are the two that I looked at.

There are a number of things you can do to improve BBEdit as a Python IDE. The first is to install Dash. This is a brilliant tool for searching documentation sets and can be easily searched from BBEdit. Just select a library call and choose “Find In Reference…” under the Search menu and BBEdit will pass the search to Dash. Dash will search across all your documentation sets but it is easy to set the sort order so the Python entries are close to the top and in the Dash results window there is a little Python icon next to the Python results.

The other neat item under the Search menu is “Find Definition”, this will find where in your file a function is defined – useful if you have a long source file.

But how does that work if our project is in multiple source files? Well, Unix has long known of that problem and had a solution. It’s a tags file, first used in vi. This is a file that lists all the function definitions and variables used in all the files in a directory tree. Not only can BBEdit use a tags file but it can (using the open source utility cats) generate them. At the top of your project directory tree, on the command line bbedit --maketags will generate a tags file and now “Find Definition” will work across all the Python files in the tree.

BBEdit can also run a syntax check across your source. You will find “Check Syntax under the ”#!“ menu which also allows you to run your Python code. The final entry in this menu ”Show Module Documentation” displays a new text window with the output from running pydoc across your file. I love this, it encourages me to properly document my code as I write with pydoc strings for each function. The output is extremely useful as a memory aide for large programs and modules.

Next up is running a lint across our Python source. BBEdit comes with another command line tool, bbresults which turns formatted error output from Unix command-line tools into a BBEdit results windows. This is an exceptionally neat trick. At the command line flake8 | bbresults will give you a window in BBEdit with each of the errors and warnings listed and a click on one will take you to the exact spot in your source. If you don’t have flake8 installed then you can install it with conda or pip.

By the way, this works because the bbedit and bbresults command line tools understand the +n argument syntax for going to line n in a file. Sublime Text and other editors on the Mac could learn this.

A final tip for programmers, BBEdit recommends setting the $EDITOR shell variable to bbedit -w where the -w flag has the bbedit command line tool wait till you close the window before exiting. If you add the --resume flag as well then when you close the window in BBEdit it will return the Terminal to the front. Exceptionally handy.


One complaint I would make, and I make it about a number of editors, is that the Markdown syntax highlighting is on the stupid side. This is generally due to the flaws in using nothing but regular expressions to do the highlighting. The most obvious flaw is that underlines in such things as a URL will trigger highlighting for italics.

If you want you can “lint” your prose using proselint and bbresults. Personally I find proselint rarely throws up something I actually want to change but your mileage might vary, it’s a good tool for looking at prose text.

BBEdit has no special facilities for writing Markdown such as inserting the codes for text styles or formatting but it does have the ability to use “Clippings”, a short piece of text, and clippings can be kept in sets and a clipping can have a keyboard shortcut. I don’t use it, I have a few Keyboard Maestro macros for such things as web links and otherwise just type the few extra keystrokes.

BBEdit also has “Text Filters”, which allow you to run the current selection through a script. For Markdown I have one that turns tab separated text into a Markdown table, incredibly useful for tables copied from a spreadsheet. Not sure where I got it but I suspect it was from Brett Terpstra’s blog.

BBEdit is a good editor, well worth the $50 purchase price and has a number of advantages over it’s free little brother TextWrangler. As both a general purpose editor and an editor for programming I’d have to say that it is the best editor available on the Mac at the moment though Sublime Text comes close.


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