Introducing nvim-ts-rainbow2

Two months in the making, it is time to finally release my new Neovim plugin officially: nvim-ts-rainbow2 (GitHub mirror). This plugin uses Neovim's built-in Tree-sitter support to add alternating highlighting to delimiters. This is usually known as “rainbow parentheses”, but thanks to Tree-sitter we are not limited to parentheses, we can match any kind of delimiter, such as tags in HTML or begin/end blocks in some programming languages.

This plugin is actually a fork of nvim-ts-rainbow, hence the number two in the name.

Motivation for forking

The original project was declared abandoned in early January of 2023. Before that I was working on a patch which would allow to highlight only the portion that the cursor is currently in. I vaguely remember seeing once an animation of such a feature in Emacs. The user was editing a piece of Lisp code and only the expression which contained the cursor had rainbow parentheses. With every delimiter highlighted the source code can easily start looking like a Christmas tree, so local highlighting was something I really wanted in Neovim.

I had written a somewhat hacky patch and was prepared to open a pull request when I found that the plugin had been abandoned. So I did a hard fork and restructured pretty much the entire thing over the course of two months to fit my vision.

What's new?

TL;DR: we now have separate queries and strategies which we can mix and combine per language. The query tells us what to match while the strategy tells us how to highlight those matches.

I find that software is best not when there are no more features to add, but when there are no more features to remove. Case in point, the last phase before the release was me taking an axe to the API and just chopping off what I could do without. This means nvim-ts-rainbow2 has fewer options than the original, but all of the remaining options are more powerful.

Here is an example configuration:

local rainbow = require 'ts-rainbow'
require("nvim-treesitter.configs").setup {
  rainbow = {
    query = {
      html = 'rainbow-tags'
    strategy = {,
       commonlisp = rainbow.strategy['local'],

Here we highlight all parentheses by default. However, in HTML we highlight tags instead and in Common Lisp we highlight only the current cursor position.


The original plugin had an extended_mode setting; turning it on would in some languages match more complicated patterns like HTML tags. This has a number of problems:

  • Not all languages support an extended mode

  • There might be multiple possibilities for what an extended mode could entail

  • The highlighting code now has to handle special cases depending on the language

My solution was to instead leverage Neovim's query support. A query is a set of patterns that describe what parts of the document match which parts of a pattern, such as the opening and closing parentheses of a function call. The user only has to name the query and Neovim will use it in matching, no need for special cases in our code. We can have any number of queries per language, so we are no longer locked into a binary either-or choice. Users can write their own queries if they don't like the default ones or if they want to support a new language.


The strategy defines how to perform the matching. Since this is Lua and we can have executable code in our configuration, each strategy is a table with two functions. There are two strategies included:

  • The global strategy highlights the entire buffer

  • The local strategy only highlights the part containing the cursor

Separating queries and strategies lets us combine them arbitrarily. This further removes the need for special cases in the implementation. The strategy is only concerned with highlighting the matches it receives from the query, not with what the query does.

Correct levels out of the box

The original plugin had a table which contained the names of nodes to highlight. This was brittle because not all nodes had names and because the level of ancestry between nodes was not the same for all languages.

The fork uses knowledge of the order of matches returned by Tree-sitter to always do the right thing. This makes determining the level of nesting much more robust because it is automatic now. I am actually quite proud of this one because knowing the order of matches also enabled a number of other optimizations.

Everything comes at a price

The individual features are more powerful, but they are also more complicated to implement. The end user won't notice any difference, but those who implement queries and strategies will have more work to do.

Queries now define up to four capture groups: the container which is delimited, the opening and closing delimiters, and intermediate delimiters. Here is what a pattern for variable expansion in Bash looks like:

  (("${" @opening)
   (":-" @intermediate)?
   ("}" @closing))) @container

This is more complicated than the queries of the original plugin, and we have to write similar patterns for any other type of container even if the delimiters all look the same. This was the only way to have enough semantic information to make informed decisions in the strategy.

A strategy is a table with two functions, one called when attaching to a buffer and one called when detaching from a buffer. This is similar to implementing a protocol (or interface if you come from Java) in object-oriented programming.

local my_strategy = {
  on_attach = function(bufnr, settings)
    -- ...
  on_detach = function(bufnr)
    -- ...

Help wanted

There are only so many languages that I know well enough to write queries for. Some nice people have already provided queries for some other languages, but there is still lots of work to do. Unlike previous rainbow plugins we cannot fall back on some generic regular expression, each language needs custom queries.

If you are interested in contributing and know enough about Tree-sitter you can try your hand on writing a query. The user manual explains how to write them and the CONTRIBUTING file has additional information.

I recommend first adding the query to your personal configuration and using it for a while. New queries do not need to be part of this plugin. As long as Neovim can find a query, it can be used by the plugin. When you are satisfied with the result please consider sending it upstream.

I hope you all find this plugin as useful as I do.