Xavier Olive research teaching python blog til cli

Introduction to the command-line interface

2 January 2022

This basic introduction to the command-line interface is designed for people with no previous experience of the terminal. It does not go very much in depth in all the possibilities of the terminal, but provides only a survival kit to the command line.

The command line usually refers to a textual interface to a program, and consists of a series of characters running a program with parameters as input, possibly modifying files in your system and printing output as a series of characters, inside the terminal.

The shell is a program providing a Read-Evaluate-Print-Loop (REPL):

  1. it reads commands passed as inputs;
  2. it evaluates1 that input as a builtin or external program with parameters;
  3. it prints the result as an output;
  4. then loops again to step 1.

The most common shell program is bash, but other shells do a similar job with various flavours, e.g. zsh or fish.

Starting the terminal

When you open a new session without any graphic interface, open a session on a remote computer though a terminal, or simply run the Terminal program locally2, you are welcomed by a prompt:


This slightly verbose prompt displays information about the user you are logged in as (here xo) and the name of the host machine (here midnight).

The reader should run the commands in a terminal on his local computer. In order to facilitate copy-paste, I will not reproduce the prompt in the following examples, unless I need to highlight something specific in the output.

For instance, I can refer to the following command which prints the user you are logged in as:


When the output is of importance, the input command will be prefixed by a lightweight prompt: $ ; before output is printed:

$ whoami  # just in case, comments start with a # character

The name of the host machine can be printed with


By default, the shell starts in your home directory. The command to confirm your current directory goes as:

$ pwd

You may notice here that the usual pattern for the home directory starts with the /home/ prefix. Here the aborescence of your file system is printed with the / character as a separator. Unlike with Windows, there is no such thing as drives (C:\, D:\, etc.) in Linux, and the aborescence starts at the root /.

The ls command lets you list all what is inside the current directory:

  • with option -a, hidden files are also included;
  • with option -l, a detailed output is produced;
  • if you append a path, that directory is listed.
$ ls
$ ls -a
$ ls -l
total 80K
drwxr-xr-x  2 xo xo 4,0K sept.  9 21:14 Desktop/
drwxr-xr-x 22 xo xo 4,0K déc.   9 16:09 Documents/
drwxr-xr-x 15 xo xo  12K déc.  21 15:33 Downloads/
drwxr-xr-x 41 xo xo 4,0K mai   12  2021 Music/
drwxr-xr-x 20 xo xo  12K déc.  14 00:00 Pictures/
drwxr-xr-x  2 xo xo 4,0K mai   12  2021 Public/
drwx------ 19 xo xo 4,0K déc.  17 18:12 snap/
drwxr-xr-x  2 xo xo 4,0K mai   12  2021 Templates/
drwxr-xr-x  8 xo xo 4,0K mai   12  2021 Videos/
-rw-r--r--  1 xo xo 2862 mai   16  2021 readme.md

You do not need to understand all columns, but there are still some patterns to remember:

  • xo xo denotes the owner and the group associated with the file or directory; this is related to permissions;
  • -rw-r--r-- refers to permissions: the first character may be a d if we refer to a directory, then imagine groups of rwx (for read, write, execute): the first block refers to permissions for the user, the second block for the group and the last block for others.

So rw-r--r-- means everybody can read the file, but only the user xo can modify it. Directories being executed drwxr-xr-x means we can enter them. When a directory is executable but not readable, it means it is still possible to go through the aborescence but you must know the path you are going because it is not possible to list the content of those directories.

$ ls /
bin@    dev/   lib@    libx32@      mnt/   root/  snap/     sys/  var/
boot/   etc/   lib32@  lost+found/  opt/   run/   srv/      tmp/
cdrom/  home/  lib64@  media/       proc/  sbin@  swapfile  usr/

Listing the root directory may look cryptic for beginners: you however see here a traditional Unix structure:

  • /boot contains files necessary to start up the system;
  • /etc contains configuration files for the system
  • /home hosts the home folder for all users
  • /media and /mnt are the path where external drives are usually mounted (there is no drive in Linux, if you plug an external hard disk, it will be mounted in your aborescence)
  • etc.

Finally the cd command changes directory:

  • name the directory where you are going to: the path can be relative or absolute (starts with a /);
  • .. goes to the parent directory;
  • . stays in the same directory;
  • - goes back to the previous directory;
  • ~ goes your home directory (same as $HOME or as no argument)
  • ~john goes to john’s home directory

Try the following commands at home:

cd Documents
cd Dropbox  # or any other directory
cd ..  # comes back
cd .
cd Dropbox
cd -
cd Documents/Dropbox
ls ~
ls $HOME
cd $HOME/Documents

Short summary

pwd Print Working Directory
ls LiSt directory
cd Change Directory
/ the root directory
. the current directory
.. the parent directory
~ the home directory, aka $HOME
- only with cd: the previous directory

Create files and directories

The command to create a directory is called mkdir, which stands for “make directory”. Let’s enter that directory for our experiments:

mkdir test_dir
cd test_dir

There is a first way to create empty files with the touch command. You can also use the touch command on an existing file and see its modification time updated:

touch test1
touch test2
ls -l  # check the modification, then wait for a few minutes and repeat

The most common way to create files though would be to redirect the output of the terminal to a file with the > operator:

ls > test3

You can check the content of the test3 file with the cat command:

cat test3  # did you notice that test3 existed when ls was executed?

Usually, the > operator creates a new file, but you can append content to an existing file with the >> operator:

ls >> test3

Observe the new content with the cat command.

You can also add any content to the file thanks to the echo command which only repeats what comes next, text or variables:

$ echo echo
$ echo $HOME

So let’s add more now:

echo many test files >> test3

Short summary

mkdir Create a new directory
touch Create a file or update its modification time
cat Print the content of a file
echo echo

The pipe operator |

The pipe operator | is used to redirect the output of a program to a new program. This is a very convenient tool in the Unix ecosystem which provides many simple, efficient and specialised tools.

Let’s have a look at two new commands:

  • the grep command is used to select lines in a file matching a pattern:
    $ grep many test3
    many test files
  • the sed stream editor is a very powerful tool to edit long streams of text. The most widely used command is the replace command s/:

    $ sed 's/t/z/' test3  # replace t with z
    many zest files

    Did you notice only the first t got replaced? We can add a g switch (for global) at the end of our sed command:

    $ sed 's/t/z/g' test3
    many zesz files

Now let’s look how we can pipe things:

$ cat test3 | grep 'many' | sed 's/t/z/'
many zest files
$ cat test3 | grep -v 'many' | sed 's/t/z/' | sort
$ cat test3 | grep '[12]' | sort | uniq
$ # How many different lines do we have with test1, test2, etc. ?
$ cat test3 | grep 'test[1-9]' | sort | uniq | wc -l

Short summary

grep Only display lines matching a pattern (-v for the opposite)
sed Stream editor, commonly used for “search & replace”
sort Well… sort!
uniq Remove consecutive duplicated lines
wc Word count, option -l for counting lines
> Redirect output to a new file
>> Redirect output to an existing file (append)
| Redirect output to the input of next program

Run programs

It is very common to write script files and to execute them.

Let’s make a program of our last command:

echo "cat \$1 | grep 'test[1-9]' | sort | uniq | wc -l" > count.sh
cat count.sh
bash count.sh test3

The first way to execute a script is to run it with the bash command. But first, we replace test3 with the $1 alias, which means “the first argument passed to the program”. As we echoed the line, it was important to escape the $ with \$ otherwise $1 would have been interpreted before being written into count.sh. (Try to remove it to convice yourself)

If we want to avoid typing bash first, we can make our program executable:

ls -l count.sh
chmod +x count.sh  # make the file executable
ls -l count.sh  # look at the difference

But now:

$ count.sh test3
bash: count.sh : command not found

The thing is that, for security reasons we cannot execute programs which are not located in a list of specified directories. If you want to execute a program located anywhere, you need to specify its full path (relative or absolute). Both option work:

./count.sh test3
/home/xo/test_dir/count.sh test3

There is a way to know what the full path to an executable we know well:

$ which cat
$ which sed
$ which count.sh
count.sh not found

The list of allowed directories is specified in the $PATH variable:

echo $PATH

You may edit the variable with a new folder if need be. This kind of settings is usually located in your Bash settings files (.bashrc or .bashenv)

export PATH=$HOME/.local/bin:$PATH

If you copy or move your program to that directory, then you can execute it from anywhere:

$ cp count.sh $HOME/.local/bin
$ mv count.sh $HOME/.local/bin
$ which count.sh
$ count.sh test3

Short summary

chmod Change permissions
which Displays the full path to an executable in your $PATH
export Set an environment variable
cp Copy a file or directory (Use the -r option for directories)
mv Move a file or directory
rm Remove a file or directory
rm -rf test_dir

Advice for going further

The command line interface paves the way to many possibilities in the terminal. You can access content from the internet (with curl or wget), play music or videos, process images, command your printer, rename, compress and organise batches of files, and much more.

When you find yourself doing some very tedious task on your computer, consider that you can probably program it with few pipes. Look at Google, stack overflow and more resources to see if anybody did that before. There are also many great tools on GitHub written by fellow users who share their work.

Be curious, look at how people write their scripts. If you find nice combinations of commands, consider writing them down and sharing them with the community too!

  1. Note that the program may modify the environment, the contents of files, send or receive data from the Internet, play the music or more, without printing any output to the terminal

  2. Ctrl+Shift+T is a common shortcut in many distributions, but it is not standard either, so you may have to set it up yourself.