Fuzzy Finding with Levenstein Distance

Brian Hicks, October 6, 2020

When I'm navigating around a codebase I know, I prefer to use a fuzzy file finder instead of browsing a directory tree. Lowering the barrier to navigating between files is really helpful for me to move around a codebase quickly and get work done. Ideally, I type a few characters and end up in the file that I was thinking of, quick as that.

But in late 2019, I got fed up trying to fuzzy-find files in my main repo at work. It has something like 8,000 checked-in files and 170,000 untracked files (bundled gems, node_modules, etc.) so it took a long time to load all the files. To add to that, fzf's default configuration favors short matches near the beginning of the string. When I'm deep in the project hierarchy, I want long matches with my term near the end first!

In short: my fuzzy matches became both slow and irrelevant. Not a good combination for a tool meant to save me time!

Both of these things are fairly easy fixes on their own (I could sub in git ls-files for find to get matches and configure fzf to sort by long/end instead of short/beginning.) But I decided that I wanted to improve my experience: in addition to end-of-filename matching, I want to favor matches for equivalent test files. If I'm in a file and I type "spec" or "test" (depending on the language conventions) I should ideally get to the relevant test code.

Given that most test files have some name symmetry to the files they test (e.g. app/models/user.rb, spec/models/user_spec.rb), what I want is files that are named similarly to the file I'm currently editing. Enter Levenshtein distance, an algorithm which calculates the amount of edits you'd have to change to change a string into another string. For example:

You can do this with any two strings, although it requires more calculations as the strings get longer. Let's apply this to filenames! Starting from app/models/user.rb, spec/models/user_spec.rb has an edit distance of 8, but a less similarly-named file, app/controllers/admin_controller.rb, has an edit distance of 22.

If we sort our candidate files by their edit distance from the source string, we can tell fzf that the input files are already in preference order (--tiebreak=index) and get exactly the editing experience I was after!

So, does this work? I'm happy to report that it totally does! I've been using similar-sort for about a year and a half now with no modifications, and I anticipate being able to use it as long as I need!

And now you can grab it as well at That repo includes instructions for building and installing, as well as integration with Kakoune and Vim.

It's licensed CC BY-SA 4.0 (since that's the license for the implementation of the Levenshtein distance implementation I grabbed from Wikipedia.)

Enjoy, and let me know if you use it!

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