If you aspire to be a developer, sys-admin, or some other profession that relies on computers outside of word documents and excel spreadsheets then you ought to be comfortable with a command line.
Software and IT professionals love their command-lines as it is much more powerful than any GUI could ever be. This article aims to get you started from no prior knowledge.
If this is completely new material for you, I recommend that you keep a Finder/Windows Explorer/etc. window open to understand what’s going on in familiar environments.
The difference between shells and terminals
A terminal is a program with a menu bar and icon in your application bar etc. that provides a window into a shell. For the purpose of this article, a ‘shell’ is a low-level program that executes commands. The shell we’ll be discussing in this article is the de facto industry standard; ‘Bash’ (Bourne-Again SHell), although shells like Zsh (my personal favourite) and Fish are often used among professionals.
Examples of Terminals to run Bash in:
Windows: All Windows computers ship with a proprietary terminal called ‘cmd’, and recent releases of Windows also ship with the ‘Windows Powershell’. Neither of these can run Bash easily, and the content of this article does not apply to these. Author’s opinion: Both of these terminals/shells are crude and immature, although cmd much more so than Powershell. You can install other terminals on Windows as well, with the most popular one being Cygwin. To get Cygwin up and running quickly (its own installer is definitely non-trivial for beginners) I suggest you install Git and thereby also Git-Bash.
Mac: All Macs ship with a pretty good terminal application called ‘Terminal’. There is also a free and more powerful terminal called ‘iTerm2’. Using just Terminal is fine for the purposes of this article.
Linux: ‘gnome-terminal’, ‘guake’, ‘xterm’, ‘konsole’, ‘terminator’, ‘termite’… If you’re running Linux you probably have a favourite already. Basically any Linux terminal will work for the purposes of this article.
cd: Navigate around in the file system
To navigate between directories you use
cd <path to directory> (“Change directory”)
will take you to the Documents directory inside your current directory. To navigate to nested directories in a single command separate the directory names with a forward-slash.
/(forward-slash): On Macs and Linux computers (Unix-like operating systems) the
/path is called ‘root’, and is the highest directory you can go to. All directories and files exist somewhere below
/. Windows is a bit different because it exposes disk drives as separate entities, and therefore
/may not make much intuitive sense.
~(tilde): The Home directory of the current user. Most of the files and directories you’re familiar will exist here. E.g. Music, Documents, Downloads etc.
.(single full stop): The current directory. It may not be obvious just yet why this is useful, but it will with time (you are encouraged to look it up if you’re curious). For now just remember the difference between
..(two full stops): The directory above the current one. If you keep running
cd ..you end up at
-(dash): The previous directory you
# Navigate to the home directory of the current user cd ~ # An even easier shortcut for 'cd ~' cd # Navigate to the highest level directory cd / # Navigate to Documents within your home directory cd ~/Documents # Navigate to current directory (~/Documents - does nothing) cd . # Navigate up one from Documents, i.e. your home directory cd .. # Navigates back to ~/Documents cd -
ls: See the contents of the current directory
ls (“List”) command is useful for seeing what’s in the current directory.
ls README.md package.json package-lock.json public/ static/
Depending on your configuration files and directories may be coloured differently.
echo: Print to screen
You can use the
echo command to print to the terminal. On its own this isn’t very interesting, but it is very powerful when combined with other commands and variables.
# Read the USER environment variable echo "My name is $USER" My name is kinbiko
> and »: Create file with command output
We can take the above command, and redirect the output to a file using
echo "My name is $USER" > echo-example.txt
This won’t print the output anymore as we’ve told Bash to redirect output to the file
echo-example.txt. Open the file in a text editor to verify that this is indeed the case.
On the other hand, the
>> command will append to the file you specify, whereas > will overwrite it entirely.
echo "My name is $USER" >> echo-example.txt
echo-example.txt file will contain the same line twice.
Try the original command again, and verify that the file only has one line.
echo "My name is $USER" > echo-example.txt
rm: Remove file
Let’s remove the file we just created in the above example.
ls # Verify that you see the file rm echo-example.txt ls # Verify that the file is gone
There, gone. This is a very powerful command, and won’t simply move things to your Rubbish Bin or similar if your operating system supports this feature. The file is gone forever. Make sure you only run
rm on files you are absolutely sure you want to get rid off.
mkdir: Create a directory
To create a directory use the
mkdir (“make directory”) command.
mkdir repos ls # Verify that a directory called 'repos' has been created
rmdir: Remove directory
To remove a directory we use
rmdir (“Remove directory”). Let’s remove the directory we created above.
ls # Verify that you see a directory called 'repos' rmdir repos ls # Verify that this directory is no longer there
Note, this command does not work if the directory is not empty. This is a measure to prevent you from shooting yourself in the foot.
rm are powerful commands. Once deleted, you won’t get it back.
There is of course a way of deleting a directory along with all its contents, but this is a ridiculously powerful command (to the extent that it’s the centre of many geeky jokes and memes) and therefore will not be covered in this beginner’s article.
cp: Copy file
To copy a file in Bash we use the
cp command with two arguments: The first is the path to the file we want to copy, and the second is the path to the file want to create as a copy.
echo "test" > example.txt # Create a file called example.txt cp example ../example-in-directory-above.txt ls # Should only see one example file here, the original `example.txt` cd .. ls # Should only see one example file here, the copied `example-in-directory-above.txt`
Verify that these files do in fact have the same contents.
mv: Move and rename file or directory
In Bash moving files and renaming files are the same thing. Intuitively, this can be thought of as ‘editing the path of a file’.
Moving files is done with the
mv (“Move”) command, which similar to
cp takes two arguments: the first being the path to the file to move, and the second is the new path the file should have.
echo "example" > example.txt # Create an example file to move mv example.txt ~/test.txt # Move the example file to the home directory, and rename it to test.txt
mv works on both files and directories.
mkdir example-dir mv example-dir ~/test-dir # Move the example directory to the home directory, and rename it to test-dir
clear: Remove old output and commands from your terminal window
This one is one of the commands I run the most often. I like working with a clean screen so that the outputs I see on my screen is relevant to the current context I’m working wtih. To achieve this I run
clear between each contextually different sets of commands that I run.
cd repos mkdir awesome-repo cd awesome-repo echo "# Awesome Repo" > README.md # more work... clear cd # Return to home directory cd Downloads rm img3514.jpeg # Delete a picture I had in my Downloads directory
As you get more used to the command line you’ll pick up more and more commands and Bash tricks. Perhaps you also find new ways of doing things that you prefer over the ones listed here. That being said, you should now know your basic commands and learning new commands should be easier in the future.