Self-Closing Pairs: Dancing with the VBE

A few months ago I merrily announced the first Rubberduck feature that actively interfered with typing code in the VBE. It wasn’t the first opportunity though: a rather long time ago, I flirted with the idea of triggering a parse task at every keypress, so that Rubberduck’s parse trees would always be up-to-date – but back then the parse task cancellation mechanics weren’t as fine-tuned as they are now, and it ended up being a bad idea. Interfering with typing in any way that introduces any kind of lag, or exacerbates a memory leak, can only be a bad idea.

But auto-completion was different. If done right, it would be the single best thing to happen to the VBE since Smart Indenter came along, two decades ago. So in less than two weeks I whipped up something I thought would work, got ecstatic over how awesome seeing blocks automatically completing, I announced the feature… and as feedback from the pre-release builds started coming in as bug reports, I started to realize the reason why no other VBE add-in offered a feature like this: the feature is far from trivial, and any mistake or oversight means interfering with typing code in an utterly annoying and disrupting way – the margin for error is very thin, as is the fine line between being incredibly intuitive & helpful, and being a complete pain in the neck.

The VBIDE API wasn’t made for this. The VBE wasn’t made to be extended that way.

But I’m not letting that stop me.

So I scrapped most of my hasty work, went back to the drawing board, rolled up my sleeves, and started over. At the time of this writing, block completion still hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, for I decided to start round 2 with self-closing pairs.

As of this writing, I can confidently say that the feature is going to be rock-solid.

Fighting the VBE

The Visual Basic Editor has a soul of its own. And when you twist its arm, it slaps you back at every chance it has. To fight it, you need to know how it moves. You can’t prevent its mischievous deeds; to win, you need to embrace them, anticipate them. The extensibility API won’t let us inject a single character on the current line of code: we need to replace the entire line – and then dance with the devil.

man doing boxing
Photo by Pixabay on


With the code panes subclassed to pick up keystrokes, VBENativeServices fires up an event that the AutoCompleteService handles (assuming settings have autocompletion enabled – failing which the event isn’t even fired). At this point if the IntelliSense drop-down is shown or the current selection isn’t at a single-character position, we immediately bail out. Otherwise, we run the self-closing pairs feature proper.

Cue Eye of the Tiger backing track…

Know where you are

We need to get the integral text of the current logical line of code (i.e. accounting for line continuations), take note of the caret position relative to the beginning of this logical line of code; take note of the line position relative to line 1 of the module as well – we encapsulate this data into a CodeString – a class that represents a logical line of code, a caret position in that logical line, with the position of this logical line in the module: that’s the original, and only the first real punch…

Know where the VBE is

The original is a trap though. If you don’t tread carefully here, you’ll take a serious one in the ribs. The problem is that because the original code is currently being edited, it’s e.g. “msgbox|” (where | would be the caret), if the keypress was " then when you mean to write “msgbox"|"” by replacing the entire current line of code, the VBE inserts that string but then the caret is now on the next line and you need to explicitly set the ICodePane.Selection value. Now dodge this: between the moment you replace the current line msgbox with msgbox"" and by the next moment you want to place the caret back to msgbox"|", if you skipped a step you have an uppercut to dodge, for at that point what’s really in the VBE is MsgBox "", so the caret ends up here: MsgBox |"". If you counter with offsetting the caret position by one, you just broke the case where the user would have typed that whitespace: msgbox "" would be off by one also: MsgBox ""|.

The solution is Judoesque: let the VBE come at you with everything it can. Embrace the flames. Fight fire with fire. The whole “prettification” trick is encapsulated in a specialized ICodeStringPrettifier object, whose role is to tell the VBE to bring it.

At the core of the prettifier, this:

module.InsertLines(original.SnippetPosition.StartLine, original.Code);

Hit me with your best shot. To work out the “prettified” version of the code, we determine the original caret position in terms of non-whitespace character count. Then we make the VBE modify the code, get the new prettifiedCode, and the caret position we want  to be at should be at the index of the nth non-whitespace character, where n is the original count. And that should get us out of trouble.

The only problem is that we don’t know which self-closing pair we’re dealing with, so it’s too early do intervene now – now that we know where the VBE stands, we need to know if we want to deliver a left or a right.

Find an opening

Once we know which SelfClosingPair to test for a result, it’s still too early to pull the prettifier trick – first we need to be sure our pair produces an output given the input, so we Execute it once, against the original code. If the pair returns a result, then we get the prettified original caret position… that way we don’t ruin the show by swinging into the void 3 times for every one time we land a hit.


If we just hit once with everything we’ve got, the VBE will beat us again. We need a combo. First we replace the current logical line (“snippet”) with the result we got from the second Execute of the pair, which ran off the prettifier code:

result = scpService.Execute(selfClosingPair, prettified, e.Character);

module.InsertLines(result.SnippetPosition.StartLine, result.Code);

Here the VBE will prettify again, so you need to take it by surprise with a second blow – if the re-prettified code isn’t the code we’ve just written to the code pane, then we’re likely off by one and the final Selection will have to be offset:

var reprettified = module.GetLines(result.SnippetPosition);
var offByOne = result.Code != reprettified;
var finalSelection = new Selection(result.SnippetPosition.StartLine, 
                                   result.CaretPosition.StartColumn + 1)
                     .ShiftRight(offByOne ? 1 : 0);
pane.Selection = finalSelection;

If we dodged every bullet up to this point, we win… round 1.

Round 2: Backspace

Handling the pair-opening character is one thing, handling the pair-closing character is trivial. Handling backspace is fun though: we get to locate the matching character for our pair, and make both the opening and closing characters to be removed from the logical code line that we write back. Round 2 is just as riveting as round 1!

So if you have this:

foo = (| _
    (2 + 2) + 42

If the next keypress is BACKSPACE then you get this:

foo = | _
(2 + 2) + 42

Or given this:

foo = ( _
    (|2 + 2) + 42

You’d get:

foo = ( _
    2 + 2 + 42

We won’t be handling the DELETE key, but we’re not done yet: we can deliver another blow.

Round 3: Smart Concatenation

By handling the ENTER key and knowing whether the CTRL key was also pressed, we can turn this:

MsgBox "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet,|"

if the next keypress is ENTER, into this:

MsgBox "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet," & _

and if the next keypress is CTRL+ENTER, into this:

MsgBox "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet," & vbNewLine & _

The VBE will only fight back with a compile error if the logical line of code contains too many line continations. We don’t have anything to do: the VBIDE API will throw an error, but Rubberduck’s wrappers simply catch that COM exception, making the line-insert operation no-op: the new line ends up not being added, no annoying message box, and the caret ends up on the next line, at the same indent.

Ding Ding Ding!

Rubberduck wins this fight for self-closing pairs, but the VBE will be back for more soon enough: it is anticipated to put up a good fight for block completion as well…


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