A book about the command line for humans.
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  1. the command line as literary environment ===========================================

There're a lot of ways to structure an introduction to the command line. I'm going to start with writing as a point of departure because, aside from web development, it's what I use a computer for most. I want to shine a light on the humane potential of ideas that are usually understood as nerd trivia. Computers have utterly transformed the practice of writing within the space of my lifetime, but it seems to me that writers as a class miss out on many of the software tools and patterns taken as a given in more "technical" fields.

Writing, particularly writing of any real scope or complexity, is very much a technical task. It makes demands, both physical and psychological, of its practitioners. As with woodworkers, graphic artists, and farmers, writers exhibit strong preferences in their tools, materials, and environment, and they do so because they're engaged in a physically and cognitively challenging task.

My thesis is that the modern Linux command line is a pretty good environment for working with English prose and prosody, and that maybe this will illuminate the ways it could be useful in your own work with a computer, whatever that work happens to be.

terms and definitions

What software are we actually talking about when we say "the command line"?

For the purposes of this discussion, we're talking about an environment built on a very old paradigm called Unix.

-> <-

...except what classical Unix really looks like is this:

-> <-

The Unix-like environment we're going to use isn't very classical, really. It's an operating system kernel called Linux, combined with a bunch of things written by other people (people in the GNU and Debian projects, and many others). Purists will tell you that this isn't properly Unix at all. In strict historical terms they're right, or at least a certain kind of right, but for the purposes of my cultural agenda I'm going to ignore them right now.

-> <-

This is what's called a shell. There are many different shells, but they pretty much all operate on the same idea: You navigate a filesystem and run programs by typing commands. Commands can be combined in various ways to make programs of their own, and in fact the way you use the computer is often just to write little programs that invoke other programs, turtles-all-the-way-down style.

The standard shell these days is something called Bash, so we'll use Bash. It's what you'll most often see in the wild. Like most shells, Bash is ugly and stupid in more ways than it is possible to easily summarize. It's also an incredibly powerful and expressive piece of software.

twisty little passages

Have you ever played a text-based adventure game or MUD, of the kind that describes a setting and takes commands for movement and so on? Readers of a certain age and temperament might recognize the opening of Crowther & Woods' Adventure, the great-granddaddy of text adventure games:








You can think of the shell as a kind of environment you inhabit, in much the way your character inhabits an adventure game. The difference is that instead of navigating around virtual rooms and hallways with commands like LOOK and EAST, you navigate between directories by typing commands like ls and cd notes:

$ ls
code  Downloads  notes  p1k3  photos  scraps  userland-book
$ cd notes
$ ls
notes.txt  sparkfun  TODO.txt

ls lists files. Some files are directories, which means they can contain other files, and you can step inside of them by typing cd (for change directory).

In the Macintosh and Windows world, directories have been called "folders" for a long time now. This isn't the worst metaphor for what's going on, and it's so pervasive by now that it's not worth fighting about. It's also not exactly a great metaphor, since computer filesystems aren't built very much like the filing cabinets of yore. A directory acts a lot like a container of some sort, but it's an infinitely expandable one which may contain nested sub-spaces much larger than itself. Directories are frequently like the TARDIS: Bigger on the inside.


When you're in the shell, you have many tools at your disposal - programs that can be used on many different files, or chained together with other programs. They tend to have weird, cryptic names, but a lot of them do very simple things. Tasks that might be a menu item in a big program like Word, like counting the number of words in a document or finding a particular phrase, are often programs unto themselves. We'll start with something even more basic than that.

Suppose you have some files, and you're curious what's in them. For example, suppose you've got a list of authors you're planning to reference, and you just want to check its contents real quick-like. This is where our friend cat comes in:

$ cat authors_sff
Ursula K. Le Guin
Jo Walton
Pat Cadigan
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
Vanessa Veselka
James Tiptree, Jr.
John Brunner

"Why," you might be asking, "is the command to dump out the contents of a file to a screen called cat? What do felines have to do with anything?"

It turns out that cat is actually short for "catenate", which is a long word basically meaning "stick things together". In programming, we usually refer to sticking two bits of text together as "string concatenation", probably because programmers like to feel like they're being very precise about very simple actions.

Suppose you wanted to see the contents of a set of author lists:

$ cat authors_sff authors_contemporary_fic authors_nat_hist
Ursula K. Le Guin
Jo Walton
Pat Cadigan
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
Vanessa Veselka
James Tiptree, Jr.
John Brunner
Eden Robinson
Vanessa Veselka
Miriam Toews
Gwendolyn L. Waring


We're working with three filenames: authors_sff, authors_contemporary_fic, and authors_nat_hist. That's an awful lot of typing every time we want to do something to all three files. Fortunately, our shell offers a shorthand for "all the files that start with authors_":

$ cat authors_*
Eden Robinson
Vanessa Veselka
Miriam Toews
Gwendolyn L. Waring
Ursula K. Le Guin
Jo Walton
Pat Cadigan
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
Vanessa Veselka
James Tiptree, Jr.
John Brunner

In Bash-land, * basically means "anything", and is known in the vernacular, somewhat poetically, as a "wildcard". You should always be careful with wildcards, especially if you're doing anything destructive. They can and will surprise the unwary. Still, once you're used to the idea, they will save you a lot of RSI.


There's a problem here. Our author list is out of order, and thus confusing to reference. Fortunately, since one of the most basic things you can do to a list is to sort it, someone else has already solved this problem for us. Here's a command that will give us some organization:

$ sort authors_*
Eden Robinson
Gwendolyn L. Waring
James Tiptree, Jr.
John Brunner
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
Jo Walton
Miriam Toews
Pat Cadigan
Ursula K. Le Guin
Vanessa Veselka
Vanessa Veselka

Does it bother you that they aren't sorted by last name? Me too. As a partial solution, we can ask sort to use the second "field" in each line as its sort key (by default, sort treats whitespace as a division between fields):

$ sort -k2 authors_*
John Brunner
Pat Cadigan
Ursula K. Le Guin
Gwendolyn L. Waring
Eden Robinson
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
James Tiptree, Jr.
Miriam Toews
Vanessa Veselka
Vanessa Veselka
Jo Walton

That's closer, right? It sorted on "Cadigan" and "Veselka" instead of "Pat" and "Vanessa". (Of course, it's still far from perfect, because the second field in each line isn't necessarily the person's last name.)


Above, when we wanted to ask sort to behave differently, we gave it what is known as an option. Most programs with command-line interfaces will allow their behavior to be changed by adding various options. Options usually (but not always!) look like -o or --option.

For example, if we wanted to see just the unique lines, irrespective of case, for a file called colors:

$ cat colors

We could write this:

$ sort -uf colors

Here -u stands for unique and -f stands for fold case, which means to treat upper- and lower-case letters as the same for comparison purposes. You'll often see a group of short options following the - like this.


Did you notice how Vanessa Veselka shows up twice in our list of authors? That's useful if we want to remember that she's in more than one category, but it's redundant if we're just worried about membership in the overall set of authors. We can make sure our list doesn't contain repeating lines by using sort, just like with that list of colors:

$ sort -u -k2 authors_*
John Brunner
Pat Cadigan
Ursula K. Le Guin
Gwendolyn L. Waring
Eden Robinson
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
James Tiptree, Jr.
Miriam Toews
Vanessa Veselka
Jo Walton

But there's another approach to this --- sort is good at only displaying a line once, but suppose we wanted to see a count of how many different lists an author shows up on? sort doesn't do that, but a command called uniq does, if you give it the option -c for count.

uniq moves through the lines in its input, and if it sees a line more than once in sequence, it will only print that line once. If you have a bunch of files and you just want to see the unique lines across all of those files, you probably need to run them through sort first. How do you do that?

$ sort authors_* | uniq -c
      1 Eden Robinson
      1 Gwendolyn L. Waring
      1 James Tiptree, Jr.
      1 John Brunner
      1 John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
      1 Jo Walton
      1 Miriam Toews
      1 Pat Cadigan
      1 Ursula K. Le Guin
      2 Vanessa Veselka

standard IO

The | is called a "pipe". In the command above, it tells your shell that instead of printing the output of sort authors_* right to your terminal, it should send it to uniq -c.

-> <-

Pipes are some of the most important magic in the shell. When the people who built Unix in the first place give interviews about the stuff they remember from the early days, a lot of them reminisce about the invention of pipes and all of the new stuff it immediately made possible.

Pipes help you control a thing called "standard IO". In the world of the command line, programs take input and produce output. A pipe is a way to hook the output from one program to the input of another.

Unlike a lot of the weirdly named things you'll encounter in software, the metaphor here is obvious and makes pretty good sense. It even kind of looks like a physical pipe.

What if, instead of sending the output of one program to the input of another, you'd like to store it in a file for later use?

Check it out:

$ sort authors_* | uniq > ./all_authors
$ cat all_authors
Eden Robinson
Gwendolyn L. Waring
James Tiptree, Jr.
John Brunner
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
Jo Walton
Miriam Toews
Pat Cadigan
Ursula K. Le Guin
Vanessa Veselka

I like to think of the > as looking like a little funnel. It can be dangerous --- you should always make sure that you're not going to clobber an existing file you actually want to keep.

If you want to tack more stuff on to the end of an existing file, you can use >> instead. To test that, let's use echo, which prints out whatever string you give it on a line by itself:

$ echo 'hello' > hello_world
$ echo 'world' >> hello_world
$ cat hello_world

You can also take a file and pull it directly back into the input of a given program, which is a bit like a funnel going the other direction:

$ nl < all_authors
     1	Eden Robinson
     2	Gwendolyn L. Waring
     3	James Tiptree, Jr.
     4	John Brunner
     5	John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
     6	Jo Walton
     7	Miriam Toews
     8	Pat Cadigan
     9	Ursula K. Le Guin
    10	Vanessa Veselka

nl is just a way to number lines. This command accomplishes pretty much the same thing as cat all_authors | nl, or nl all_authors. You won't see it used as often as | and >, since most utilities can read files on their own, but it can save you typing cat quite as often.

We'll use these features liberally from here on out.

--help and man pages

You can change the behavior of most tools by giving them different options. This is all well and good if you already know what options are available, but what if you don't?

Often, you can ask the tool itself:

$ sort --help
Usage: sort [OPTION]... [FILE]...
  or:  sort [OPTION]... --files0-from=F
Write sorted concatenation of all FILE(s) to standard output.

Mandatory arguments to long options are mandatory for short options too.
Ordering options:

  -b, --ignore-leading-blanks  ignore leading blanks
  -d, --dictionary-order      consider only blanks and alphanumeric characters
  -f, --ignore-case           fold lower case to upper case characters
  -g, --general-numeric-sort  compare according to general numerical value
  -i, --ignore-nonprinting    consider only printable characters
  -M, --month-sort            compare (unknown) < 'JAN' < ... < 'DEC'
  -h, --human-numeric-sort    compare human readable numbers (e.g., 2K 1G)
  -n, --numeric-sort          compare according to string numerical value
  -R, --random-sort           sort by random hash of keys
      --random-source=FILE    get random bytes from FILE
  -r, --reverse               reverse the result of comparisons

...and so on. (It goes on for a while in this vein.)

If that doesn't work, or doesn't provide enough info, the next thing to try is called a man page. ("man" is short for "manual". It's sort of an unfortunate abbreviation.)

$ man sort

SORT(1)                         User Commands                        SORT(1)

       sort - sort lines of text files

       sort [OPTION]... [FILE]...
       sort [OPTION]... --files0-from=F

       Write sorted concatenation of all FILE(s) to standard output.

...and so on. Manual pages vary in quality, and it can take a while to get used to reading them, but they're very often the best place to look for help.

If you're not sure what program you want to use to solve a given problem, you might try searching all the man pages on the system for a keyword. man itself has an option to let you do this - man -k keyword - but most systems also have a shortcut called apropos, which I like to use because it's easy to remember if you imagine yourself saying "apropos of [some problem I have]..."

$ apropos -s1 sort
apt-sortpkgs (1)     - Utility to sort package index files
bunzip2 (1)          - a block-sorting file compressor, v1.0.6
bzip2 (1)            - a block-sorting file compressor, v1.0.6
comm (1)             - compare two sorted files line by line
sort (1)             - sort lines of text files
tsort (1)            - perform topological sort

It's useful to know that the manual represented by man has numbered sections for different kinds of manual pages. Most of what the average user needs to know about lives in section 1, "User Commands", so you'll often see the names of different tools written like sort(1) or cat(1). This can be a good way to make it clear in writing that you're talking about a specific piece of software rather than a verb or a small carnivorous mammal. (I specified -s1 for section 1 above just to cut down on clutter, though in practice I usually don't bother.)

Like other literary traditions, Unix is littered with this sort of convention. This one just happens to date from a time when the manual was still a physical book.


wc stands for word count. It does about what you'd expect - it counts the number of words in its input.

$ wc index.md
  736  4117 24944 index.md

736 is the number of lines, 4117 the number of words, and 24944 the number of characters in the file I'm writing right now. I use this constantly. Most obviously, it's a good way to get an idea of how much you've written. wc is the tool I used to track my progress the last time I tried National Novel Writing Month:

$ find ~/p1k3/archives/2010/11 -regextype egrep -regex '.*([0-9]+|index)' -type f | xargs wc -w | tail -1
 6585 total
$ cowsay 'embarrassing.'
< embarrassing. >
        \   ^__^
         \  (oo)\_______
            (__)\       )\/\
                ||----w |
                ||     ||

Anyway. The less obvious thing about wc is that you can use it to count the output of other commands. Want to know how many unique authors we have?

$ sort authors_* | uniq | wc -l

This kind of thing is trivial, but it comes in handy more often than you might think.

head, tail, and cut

Remember our old pal cat, which just splats everything it's given back to standard output?

Sometimes you've got a piece of output that's more than you actually want to deal with at once. Maybe you just want to glance at the first few lines in a file:

$ head -3 colors

...or maybe you want to see the last thing in a list:

$ sort colors | uniq -i | tail -1

...or maybe you're only interested in the first "field" in some list. You might use cut here, asking it to treat spaces as delimiters between fields and return only the first field for each line of its input:

$ cut -d' ' -f1 ./authors_*

Suppose we're curious what the few most commonly occurring first names on our author list are? Here's an approach, silly but effective, that combines a lot of what we've discussed so far and looks like plenty of one-liners I wind up writing in real life:

$ cut -d' ' -f1 ./authors_* | sort | uniq -ci | sort -n | tail -3
      1 Ursula
      2 John
      2 Vanessa

Let's walk through this one step by step:

First, we have cut extract the first field of each line in our author lists.

cut -d' ' -f1 ./authors_*

Then we sort these results

| sort

and pass them to uniq, asking it for a case-insensitive count of each repeated line

| uniq -ci

then sort again, numerically,

| sort -n

and finally, we chop off everything but the last three lines:

| tail -3

If you wanted to make sure to count an individual author's first name only once, even if that author appears more than once in the files, you could instead do:

$ sort -u ./authors_* | cut -d' ' -f1 | uniq -ci | sort -n | tail -3
      1 Ursula
      1 Vanessa
      2 John

tab separated values

Notice above how we had to tell cut that "fields" in authors_* are delimited by spaces? It turns out that if you don't use -d, cut defaults to using tab characters for a delimiter.

Tab characters are sort of weird little animals. You can't usually see them directly --- they're like a space character that takes up more than one space when displayed. By convention, one tab is usually rendered as 8 spaces, but it's up to the software that's displaying the character what it wants to do.

(In fact, it's more complicated than that: Tabs are often rendered as marking tab stops, which is a concept I remember from 7th grade typing classes, but haven't actually thought about in my day-to-day life for nearly 20 years.)

Here's a version of our all_authors that's been rearranged so that the first field is the author's last name, the second is their first name, the third is their middle name or initial (if we know it) and the fourth is any suffix. Fields are separated by a single tab character:

$ cat all_authors.tsv
Robinson	Eden
Waring	Gwendolyn	L.
Tiptree	James		Jr.
Brunner	John
Tolkien	John	Ronald Reuel
Walton	Jo
Toews	Miriam
Cadigan	Pat
Le Guin	Ursula	K.
Veselka	Vanessa

That looks kind of garbled, right? In order to make it a little more obvious what's happening, let's use cat -T, which displays tab characters as ^I:

$ cat -T all_authors.tsv
Tolkien^IJohn^IRonald Reuel
Le Guin^IUrsula^IK.

It looks odd when displayed because some names are at or nearly at 8 characters long. "Robinson", at 8 characters, overshoots the first tab stop, so "Eden" gets indented further than other first names, and so on.

Fortunately, in order to make this more human-readable, we can pass it through expand, which turns tabs into a given number of spaces (8 by default):

$ expand -t14 all_authors.tsv
Robinson      Eden
Waring        Gwendolyn     L.
Tiptree       James                       Jr.
Brunner       John
Tolkien       John          Ronald Reuel
Walton        Jo
Toews         Miriam
Cadigan       Pat
Le Guin       Ursula        K.
Veselka       Vanessa

Now it's easy to sort by last name:

$ sort -k1 all_authors.tsv | expand -t14
Brunner       John
Cadigan       Pat
Le Guin       Ursula        K.
Robinson      Eden
Tiptree       James                       Jr.
Toews         Miriam
Tolkien       John          Ronald Reuel
Veselka       Vanessa
Walton        Jo
Waring        Gwendolyn     L.

Or just extract middle names and initials:

$ cut -f3 all_authors.tsv


Ronald Reuel


It probably won't surprise you to learn that there's a corresponding paste command, which takes two or more files and stitches them together with tab characters. Let's extract a couple of things from our author list and put them back together in a different order:

$ cut -f1 all_authors.tsv > lastnames
$ cut -f2 all_authors.tsv > firstnames
$ paste firstnames lastnames | sort -k2 | expand -t12
John        Brunner
Pat         Cadigan
Ursula      Le Guin
Eden        Robinson
James       Tiptree
Miriam      Toews
John        Tolkien
Vanessa     Veselka
Jo          Walton
Gwendolyn   Waring

As these examples show, TSV is something very like a primitive spreadsheet: A way to represent information in columns and rows. In fact, it's a close cousin of CSV, which is often used as a lowest-common-denominator format for transferring spreadsheets, and which represents data something like this:

Tolkien,John,Ronald Reuel,

The advantage of tabs is that they're supported by a bunch of the standard tools. A disadvantage is that they're kind of ugly and can be weird to deal with, but they're useful anyway, and character-delimited rows are often a good-enough way to hack your way through problems that call for basic structure.

finding text: grep

After all those contortions, what if you actually just want to see which lists an individual author appears on?

$ grep 'Vanessa' ./authors_*
./authors_contemporary_fic:Vanessa Veselka
./authors_sff:Vanessa Veselka

grep takes a string to search for and, optionally, a list of files to search in. If you don't specify files, it'll look through standard input instead:

$ cat ./authors_* | grep 'Vanessa'
Vanessa Veselka
Vanessa Veselka

Most of the time, piping the output of cat to grep is considered silly, because grep knows how to find things in files on its own. Many thousands of words have been written on this topic by leading lights of the nerd community.

You've probably noticed that this result doesn't contain filenames (and thus isn't very useful to us). That's because all grep saw was the lines in the files, not the names of the files themselves.

now you have n problems

To close out this introductory chapter, let's spend a little time on a topic that will likely vex, confound, and (occasionally) delight you for as long as you are acquainted with the command line.

When I was talking about grep a moment ago, I fudged the details more than a little by saying that it expects a string to search for. What grep actually expects is a pattern. Moreover, it expects a specific kind of pattern, what's known as a regular expression, a cumbersome phrase frequently shortened to regex.

There's a lot of theory about what makes up a regular expression. Fortunately, very little of it matters to the short version that will let you get useful stuff done. The short version is that a regex is like using wildcards in the shell to match groups of files, but for text in general and with more magic.

$ grep 'Jo.*' ./authors_*
./authors_sff:Jo Walton
./authors_sff:John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
./authors_sff:John Brunner

The pattern Jo.* says that we're looking for lines which contain a literal Jo, followed by any quantity (including none) of any character. In a regex, . means "anything" and * means "any amount of the preceding thing".

. and * are magical. In the particular dialect of regexen understood by grep, other magical things include:

<tr><td><code>+</code>    </td>  <td>one or more of the preceding thing  </td></tr>
<tr><td><code>?</code>    </td>  <td>0 or 1 of the preceding thing       </td></tr>
<tr><td><code>*</code>    </td>  <td>any number of the preceding thing   </td></tr>

<tr><td><code>(foo|bar)</code></td>  <td>"foo" or "bar"</td></tr>
<tr><td><code>(foo)?</code></td>     <td>optional "foo"</td></tr>
^ start of a line
$ end of a line
[abc] one of a, b, or c
[a-z] a character in the range a through z
[0-9] a character in the range 0 through 9

It's actually a little more complicated than that: By default, if you want to use a lot of the magical characters, you have to prefix them with \. This is both ugly and confusing, so unless you're writing a very simple pattern, it's often easiest to call grep -E, for Extended regular expressions, which means that lots of characters will have special meanings.

Authors with 4-letter first names:

$ grep -iE '^[a-z]{4} ' ./authors_*
./authors_contemporary_fic:Eden Robinson
./authors_sff:John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
./authors_sff:John Brunner

A count of authors named John:

$ grep -c '^John ' ./all_authors

Lines in this file matching the words "magic" or "magical":

$ grep -iE 'magic(al)?' ./index.md
Pipes are some of the most important magic in the shell.  When the people who
shell to match groups of files, but with more magic.
`.` and `*` are magical.  In the particular dialect of regexen understood
by `grep`, other magical things include:
use a lot of the magical characters, you have to prefix them with `\`.  This is
Lines in this file matching the words "magic" or "magical":
    $ grep -iE 'magic(al)?' ./index.md

Find some "-agic" words in a big list of words:

$ grep -iE '(m|tr|pel)agic' /usr/share/dict/words

grep isn't the only - or even the most important - tool that makes use of regular expressions, but it's a good place to start because it's one of the fundamental building blocks for so many other operations. Filtering lists of things, matching patterns within collections, and writing concise descriptions of how text should be transformed are at the heart of a practical approach to Unix-like systems. Regexen turn out to be a seductively powerful way to do these things - so much so that they've crept their way into text editors, databases, and full-featured programming languages.

There's a dark side to all of this, for the truth about regular expressions is that they are ugly, inconsistent, brittle, and incredibly difficult to think clearly about. They take years to master and reward the wielder with great power, but they are also a trap: a temptation towards the path of cleverness masquerading as wisdom.

-> ✑ <-

I'll be returning to this theme, but for the time being let's move on. Now that we've established, however haphazardly, some of the basics, let's consider their application to a real-world task.