Bash is a text-based shell for controlling your computer (or operating system). Bash is actually an acronym which stands for Bourne-Again SHell. It replaced the Bourne shell and "bashed together" the unix programs sh, csh and ksh. From it you can navigate the files on your computer and execute programs.
You can also connect to other computers and basically do everything you can do in your GUI Operating System (like OS X or Windows).
When you open a terminal, you're basically within your file system, or in a directory, just like you are when you open a Finder window or an Explorer window.
If you're using Nitrous, the command line is the area at the bottom of the screen, underneath the text editor and navigation bar.
Open up command prompt or terminal. Type in:
pwd and hit return.
You should see some output describing the directory you are currently within.
/Users/avi (In Nitrous this will be
avi is my username; your own username will appear here.
That output is describing a location on your computer. You have a file system and within that file system are directories and files.
pwd command stands for "print working directory".
/User/avi means that I am currently working within a directory
/Users on the root of my machine, and then within that directory, a directory named
That's my home directory. It belongs to the user I am currently logged in as. The placeholder for a user's home directory is the
~ ("tilde") symbol.
Note: Any time you see the
$ character, you shouldn't type it in. This is just a standard way to represent a bash prompt. Yours may or may not be a
$ cd ..
You should now see that you are one directory above where you were, in my case
cd command stands for "change directory".
.. is a placeholder meaning the directory above the working directory.
$ cd .
You can see you are still in the same directory.
. is a placeholder meaning the current directory.
So here are three default placeholders for your file system:
~ Your home directory
. The current directory
.. The directory in which your current directory is contained—referred to as the "parent" directory.
You can supply any path to the
cd command to navigate to that location.
You should see a list of all the files within your working directory.
ls stands for "li*s*t".
$ cd /Users/avi
The working directory is back to
The path supplied to the
cd command, for example
/Users/avi, is known as an absolute path.
Systems can use either absolute or relative paths.
An absolute path is a path that points to the same location on the file system regardless of the working directory. They start with
/ ("forward slash") because that is the root of your file system.
This is an absolute path:
A relative path is a path relative to the working directory of the user or application, so the full absolute path will not have to be given. They start with the name of a directory or a file.
This is a relative path:
/ to denote levels.
How many levels are within the following path?
Knowing where you are in your terminal - what directory you are working in - is very important.
(If you said 6 levels to the question above you are right!!)
Another cool command you can you use is
touch, which simply creates a new file. Try:
$ touch hello_world.rb
You should see the file you just created,
hello_world.rb, in the working directory. Note that this is an empty file and has nothing inside of it, because you just created it.
From within a shell you can also execute programs. Navigate to where you saved your
hello_world.rb file and try:
$ ruby hello_world.rb
This command is no different than the
cd command. We're executing the
ruby program by supplying a path to a file to execute. Because the
hello_world.rb file you just created is completely empty and has no contents inside of it, there is no program to run and your terminal won't actually produce any output when you tried running it via
Most programs also accept flags, or options for execution.
A flag is denotated by a
- ("dash"). Note: In some programs, options are passed directly to the command and not via flags.
A common flag that nearly all programs and commands accept is a standalone
h, for "help" or "human".
$ ruby -h
Single-character options can typically be combined with each other. For example, in the
h is a suffix on the
l flag meaning "human readable formats." They can be combined with
a meaning "all information including permissions". Try these three together:
$ ls -lah
$ ls -l -a -h
Both are valid input options.
Note: Combining flags is only valid for single-letter options. A "long option" such as
--force is defined with more than one character and must be entered with its own flag.
You have a lot of programs and commands available to you. Useful ones include
open command is interesting because it will trigger the default action associated with the file type. So
$ open . will popup a finder window with the current directory in finder (because remember that
. is an alias to the current directory). Entering
$ open hello_world.rb will open that file in your default editor.
$ cat [file-name] (from "con*cat*enate") reads a file and prints the content to your command line.
$ ps lists the current proce*s*ses being run by your terminal.
As you type in commands you can use tab completion. Tab completion allows the shell to be smart and to try and guess what command you want to run when you hit tab. If there's only one logical way to complete your command it will auto populate, or will show you the possibilities and you can keep typing more letters until you can tab complete your command.
For example let's say we have the following directory structure:
If I'm in my root directory (typing
pwd gives me
/Users/avi) and I type
$ cd f and then hit tab, it will fill in everything up until the conflict so I'll see
$ cd flatiron_. If I then add the
s and hit tab it will fill in
$ cd flatiron_school and I can hit enter.
Every time you open your terminal or a new tab, you are relogging into your shell. Your system has a login routine of things to do when you login. One of the things it does is read a file called
.bash_profile. Try this:
$ cd ~
(This command moves you to your home directory). Then type:
$ ls -lah
You may or may not see a
.bash_profile file listed. If not, don't worry. We'll make one and add some cool stuff to it later.
When you entered
$ ls -lah above, you should have a received a list of files including some that you hadn't seen from entering just
$ ls before:
drwxr-xr-x 6 avi staff 204B Jun 2 11:21 .
drwxr-xr-x 5 avi staff 170B May 28 15:52 ..
-rw-r--r--@ 1 avi staff 6.0K May 28 15:52 .DS_Store
drwxr-xr-x 13 avi staff 442B Jun 2 11:02 .git
-rw-r--r-- 1 avi staff 66B May 28 15:49 .learn
-rw-r--r-- 1 avi staff 11K Jun 2 11:21 README.md
Notice that at the top of the file output there are a bunch of files that start with a
$ open . and just
$ ls, those files, like
.DS_Store, are not listed. That's because files that start with a
. are hidden files. Your
.bash_profile is a hidden file in your home directory. If you want to see the hidden files you can add the
a flag to
ls by typing
$ ls -a.
If you're interested in where this convention came from check out The history of hidden files .
PATH and Environment Variables
You may be wondering what the computer is actually doing when you type a command at the command line. It's running an executable program. But how does the computer know what to do when I type
$ ls whatever? The PATH variable gives the computer an ordered list of directories to search in to find an executable with the name you typed. In our case, it's going to search for the
ls executable. If you type
$ ls /bin, you'll see that this is an actual program or "binary" which is why it's usually found in the
bin directory (short for "binary"). If you're trying to run a ruby program and typing
$ ruby myprogram.rb the computer goes through all the files in the path until it finds an executable called
ruby and then runs that code with the provided argument (
myprogram.rb). If you type
$ echo $PATH you can see what your path is. If you're using RVM (if you don't know what this is at the moment don't worry), it will look something like this:
(This code box is scrollable to the right.)
Each directory in the path is separated by the
: ("colon") symbol.
If you ever get errors where you type something in the terminal and it says it can't be found, the executable you're trying to run needs to be added to the path. If the wrong executable is getting run, the order of directories in your path is wrong.
The PATH variable is an environmental variable. These are variables you can set specific to your computer's environment which can then be used in other programs. For example, in Ruby you can type
ENV[name_of_variable] to access an environmental variable. These are typically set in your bash profile, in a bash script, or at the command line.
Tip: If you want to find out where the program being run is located when you type a command at the command line, use the which command; entering
$ which ruby will tell you where the Ruby binary is located.
Piping, a verb derived from the
| symbol named "pipe", will send the output of one command into the input of another command.
The most common command you'll probably use is piping the proce*s*s list to grep to search for a running program.
$ ps aux | grep ruby
This would run the
ps command with the
x options and send the output of that to
grep (a search utility), which would then search for the term "ruby". You'll notice that
ps is one of the commands that only accepts options without a flag. Try:
$ ps -aux
If you're on OS X, you should have gotten an error — something like
ps: No user named 'x'. Just keep in mind which commands take options with a flag (
-) and which take options without a flag.
If you're curious what the options on
ps mean, enter:
$ man ps
Read about what the
u options do. Notice that the
x option is a suffix on the
a option. The
man ("manual") command reveals very useful reference documentation on the various bash commands. You'll notice that your command prompt has disappeared. Don't panic! You're just inside the documentation. Enter
$ q ("quit") to return to your command prompt.
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