Skip to main content

Shell Basics 1: Files

Part of an ongoing series of essays tentatively entitled Don’t embarrass me, Don’t embarrass yourself: Notes on thinking in C and Unix.

In order to be use Unix well, you need to be proficient in the basic use of a shell [1,2]. What’s a shell? It is more-or-less the command-line interface you use to interact with the operating system. Although most Unix systems provide a variety of shells, bash, the Bourne-again shell is the one you get by default in the MathLAN and the one that many programmers seem to use. I’ll note that my formative years were spent using tcsh, which was an extension of the C-shell [3], and I still find tcsh syntax easier to understand that bash syntax. Nonetheless, I will focus on bash.

What do I consider the basics of shell usage? Six things. First, you should know how to create and use files and directories. Among other things, you should understand the directory structure and the types of files available. Second, you should know about file permissions and how to set the numerically or mnemonically [4]. Third, you should be able to redirect program input and output. For example, you should be able to send the output of a program to a file or to another program, and you should be able to read the input of a program from a file or another program. You should also know the difference between stdout and stderr and how to take advantage of the differences [6]. Fourth, you should know a bit about command-line patterns that you use to reference more than one file. Fifth, you should know how to set and get standard shell and environment variables and why you might do so. Finally, you should know how to take advantage of the shell history.

In this section, we will consider files and directories. In subsequent sections, we will consider the other issues.

There are at least two ways to think about files and directories. You can think of them like a client, as someone who uses files and directories, or you can think of them at the implementation level. We will generally focus on user-level issues. However, we should know that in Unix, a file is essentially a sequence of bytes (or bits) with an associated name [7]. You should also know that the directory associates the file name with the contents.

I’ll assume that you already understand about the basics of the Unix directory structure. That is, the structure of Unix directories is hierarchical. You can refer to a file with an absolute name, in which case you start the path with a slash [8] and also separate directories with a slash. You can also refer to a file with a relative name. In that case, you need no prefix for files in the current directory, but you can use the directory name of . (period). Once again, you separate directories with slashes. And .. is the parent directory.

Listing files

It’s hard to do anything with files and directories unless you can tell what’s there. ls is the standard procedure for listing files. You should know the common flags for ls, including

  • -l (long listing, including permissions, owner, group, size, date, and file name);
  • -a (all, including files whose name starts with a period; those files are traditionally not listed);
  • -t (time, order the files by modification time, rather than name);
  • -R (recursive, traverse subdirectories); and
  • -F (with an extra symbol to give you a bit more information - a slash indicates a directory, a star an executable, and so on and so forth).

Present working directory

In general, you use these commands with what Unix considers your present working directory or current working directory. You can tell what that directory is with the pwd command.

$ pwd

You can change your directory by using either cd (change directory) or pushd (push directory) with another directory as the parameter. If you don’t give cd a parameter, it assumes you want to switch to your home directory. In contrast, pushd needs a directory as a parameter.

$ cd
$ pwd
$ pushd /usr/local/lib
/usr/local/lib ~
$ pwd

What’s the difference between cd and pushd? As the name suggests, pushd keeps a stack of previous directories. Hence, you can get back to a previous location using the popd command. That can be useful if you want to do something quickly in one location and then go back to where you were [9].

Determining file types

You now know (or knew) how to navigate directories and how to figure out what is in each directory. What next? For example, once you know the name of a file, how do you tell its type? There are a variety of mechanisms. The last time I asked my students what ways they could determine the type of a file, we came up with five. First, convention suggests that the file suffix tells you the type of a file. A file that ends in .txt is a text file (usually in Unix or Mac format); A file that ends in .jgg is an image file using the JPEG image format. A file that ends in .c is a text file that contains C code. Second, convention suggests that the first few bytes of the file can describe the content. For example, if the first two bytes correspond to the ASCII values #!, Unix thinks that it’s a script in some language [10]. Third, you can use the file command. Of course, file is basically using the first two approaches, along with some broader knowledge of what different kinds of files look like. Fourth, you can experiment. Can I open it in ….? [11] Finally, you can look at the contents?

Examining files

How do you examine the contents of a file? The cat command (short for concatenate) lists the whole contents of the file. That’s great if it’s a short file, but not so great if it’s a long file. The head command gives the first few lines and the tail command gives the last few lines. The more and less commands allow you to page through a file [12].

But what if the file does not contain ASCII data? It’s not pleasant to use less to page through a .jpg file. In fact, less will generally warn you about such issues, with a prompt like

picture.jpg may be a binary file. See it anyway?

There are a number of options. The most common is to use od (for octal dump), which allows you to inspect the data in a variety of forms. We can see the raw bits in octal if we use no other parameters.

% od picture.jpg | head -5
0000000    154377  160777  034057  074105  063151  000000  044511  000052
0000020    000010  000000  000016  000400  000003  000001  000000  012110
0000040    000000  000401  000003  000001  000000  006612  000000  000402
0000060    000003  000003  000000  000266  000000  000406  000003  000001
0000100    000000  000002  000000  000417  000002  000022  000000  000274
0000120    000000  000420  000002  000013  000000  000316  000000  000422
0000140    000003  000001  000000  000001  000000  000425  000003  000001
0000160    000000  000003  000000  000432  000005  000001  000000  000331
0000200    000000  000433  000005  000001  000000  000341  000000  000450
0000220    000003  000001  000000  000002  000000  000461  000002  000036

The first column lists offsets; the remaining columns are the data, separated for readability. I tend to find it most useful to use -a, for ASCII, or -x, for hexadecimal.

$ od -a picture.jpg | head -5
0000000    ?   ?   ?   ?   /   8   E   x   i   f nul nul   I   I   * nul
0000020   bs nul nul nul  so nul nul soh etx nul soh nul nul nul   H dc4
0000040  nul nul soh soh etx nul soh nul nul nul  8a  cr nul nul stx soh
0000060  etx nul etx nul nul nul   ? nul nul nul ack soh etx nul soh nul
0000100  nul nul stx nul nul nul  si soh stx nul dc2 nul nul nul   ? nul

$ od -x picture.jpg | head -5
0000000      d8ff    e1ff    382f    7845    6669    0000    4949    002a
0000020      0008    0000    000e    0100    0003    0001    0000    1448
0000040      0000    0101    0003    0001    0000    0d8a    0000    0102
0000060      0003    0003    0000    00b6    0000    0106    0003    0001
0000100      0000    0002    0000    010f    0002    0012    0000    00bc

You can read the man page for more information.

Interestingly, most binary files also contain some text. Is there any easy way to find that text? The strings command searches a data file for things that look like text and prints them out. Of course, it’s not perfect. Here are a few examples.

$ strings picture.jpg | head -5
Adobe Photoshop CS6 (Windows)
2016:09:16 12:06:26

$ strings /bin/cat | head -5

Note that the existence of the strings command (and the ability of programmers to write things like strings) is one of the reasons you should never include passwords in your executables. You may think that without the source, no one can tell. But they can!

At times, you may want to associate multiple names with the same file. For example, in developing different versions of the simple C project, I often wanted a change to the .c files to propagate between the different projects, but I wanted the other files to stay the same [14]. In Unix, the way you connect one file to another is with the link command, ln. Unix provides two kinds of links, hard links and soft links. Hard links are links from the file name (the entry in the current directory) to the underlying data. Soft links are links from the file name to another file name.

You create a hard link with


You create a soft link with


You can also create soft links to other directories, but not hard links. What effects do we see when using hard vs. soft links? We’ll explore that in an exercise.

Wrapping up

We’ve seen how to name files and directories and how to look at them. How do we create them and otherwise manipulate them? Traditionally, we create files either by redirecting the output of another program or by saving in an interactive application. We create directories with the mkdir command. We remove files with the rm command. We remove directories with the rmdir command (or, in some cases, with the rm command).

What else should you know about files? You should know that Unix treats a variety of other things as files, including devices. You might want to look up inodes to understand more about the structure, but you don’t really need to.


Explore the difference between soft links and hard links by creating a file and hard and soft links to that file. Then try each of the following.

  1. Edit the original file and determine which file contents change.

  2. Edit the hard-linked alias, and determine which file contents change.

  3. Edit the soft-linked alias, and determine which file contents change.

  4. Delete the original file and determine what happens if you attempt to look at the other two files.

  5. Recreate the original file (same name, different contents) and see what happens to the other two files.

  6. Remove the two aliases and re-link for the next steps.

  7. Overwrite the contents of each file, using a command like echo "Goodbye" > FILE and then determine which changes affect which files.

  8. Summarize what you’ve learned.

[1] I realize that proficient and basic don’t necessarily seem to go together. However, remember that there’s an aphorism that you have to master the basics before you can do anything advanced. As far as I know, mastery is beyond proficiency.

[2] Note that proficiency in shell basics is necessary, but not sufficient, for using Unix well. You need to be able to do other things, too.

[3] Yes, Unix programmers have as bad of a sense of humor as a I do.

[4] Not to be confused with demonically [5].

[5] Or perhaps daemonically. In any case, I’m not sure whether or not we’ll cover Unix daemons in this class.

[6] Yes, it’s okay to have to refer to a reference page once in a while.

[7] Okay, it’s a bit more complex than that, but I’m not interested in getting into the details.

[8] Unless noted otherwise, I use slash for forward slash, or /.

[9] Yes, I realize that you could also open another terminal window.
But sometimes it’s easiest to stay in the same window.

[10] While we often use #!/bin/bash for bash scripts and #!/usr/bin/perl for Perl scripts, you should note that Postscript programs also begin with #!PS-Adobe-2.0 or something similar.

[11] I’m pretty sure that my students came up with the experiment model.

[12] more came first. Then someone decided to extend it and named the variant less. In fact, if you look at the man page for less, you’ll see less - opposite of more. One of the important distinctions is that less allows you to move backward in the file as well as forward.

[14] Yes, I could also do branches and forks of the same repo. But bear with me.

Version 1.0 of 2017-01-14.