The Unix Shell

The Shell is a program which uses command-line interface, instead of graphical user interfaces (GUI), to run other programs rather than doing calculations itself. The most popular Unix Shell is Bash which is accessible by ctrl+alt+t keyboard shortcut in Linux computers. The following are some great Shell tutorials:

This tutorial provides a reference of some practical commands in the Unix Shell and important text editors in Bash.

Tab completion

In the Unix Shell we can use tab completion to type commands faster and easier. To do that press tab after typing the beginning of your command and let Bash complete the command. If there are more than one function or directory corresponded to the beginning that you typed, Bash will not return anything if your press tab once. In this case, if you press tab for the second time Bash will show all the options.


A string is a wildcard pattern if it contains one of the characters ?, * or [. Globbing is the operation that expands a wildcard pattern into the list of pathnames matching the pattern. For more information on globbing pathnames typing man 7 glob.


  • A ? matches any single character. For example, hd? would look for hda, hdb, hdc and every other letter/number between a-z, 0-9
  • A * matches any string, including the empty string. For example, hd* would look for hd, hdf, hd-full, and anything that starts with hd also including hd itself. And m*l could by mail, mall, ml, and anything that starts with an m and ends with an l

Character classes:

  • An expression [ ], where the first character after the leading [ is not an !, matches any of the characters enclosed by the brackets. For example, m[a-d]m can become anything that starts and ends with m and has any character a to d in between.
  • An expression [! ], where the first character after the leading [ is an !, matches any character that is not enclosed by the brackets.

Shell Expansions

  • Brace expansion: is a mechanism by which arbitrary strings may be generated for example echo 1{2,3}4 returns 124 and 134 or echo {1..3} returns 1,2, and 3
  • Command substitution: it allows the output of a command to replace the command itself for example, echo $(date) returns the actual date. Note that for the environmental variables you cannot use (), for example echo $HOME or echo ${HOME} is the correct way

Basic commands

The following is a list of basic Bash commands. You may find a short explanation next to each command.

man <command> # user manual of the command (enter q to exit)
<command> --help # display brief help
uname # print operating system name
alias # show alias 
env # show all environmental variables
w # show current users
hostnme # show the host nsme
whoami # show the user name
id # shows your id
passwd # change user password
nproc # show number of processors
lscpu # list CPU, display information about the CPU architecture
free -h # show amount of memory RAM 
ps # report a snapshot of the current processes
file # determine file type
date # show date and time 
pwd # print working directory
cd # change directory. Use cd .. or ~ or / to go back or home or system dir
ls # lists. Use flages -al to see all files in long formats
cp # copy a file. Use -r to copy a directory recursively 
scp # secure copy a file. Use -r to copy a directory 
sftp # secure file transfer program (SSH file transfer protocol)
wget # the non-interactive network downloader (-O <newname> to rename)
curl # copy a url. Use -o to name the output 
md5sum # compute MD5 message digest. Use -c to check the digits
tar -c/xzf # to archive and create(c)/extract(x) a compressed(z) file(f)
ln # make links between files
mv # move
rm # remove file. Use -r to remove a directory
mkdir # make a directory
rmdir # remove an empty directory
install -dvp # make a directory(d), verbose(v) and parent(p)
cat # concatenate files and print on the standard output
zcat # concatenate compressed (zip) files
diff <file1> <file2> # compare files line by line. Use -y for side by side and -q for report only when files differ
less # to view the contents of a text file one screen at a time (less than a text editor)
touch # generate a new file that contains no data
chmod # change file mode for user(u), group(g) or other(o) to give(+) or take(-) permission for read(r), write(w), or execute(x) (example chmod u+r)
echo # display a line of text ex. echo === $(date)
cut -f <field number> -d <delimiter> # cut field number based on the delimiter
grep # print lines matching a pattern (global regular expression print)
sed # stream editor for filtering and transforming text
tr # translate or delete characters (for example 'tr -d ,' removes comma)
awk # pattern scanning and text processing language
wc # word count; it counts the number of lines(-l), words(-w), and characters(-m) of files 
nl # number lines of files
head -n <number> # output the n first lines of files
tail -n <number> # output the n last lines of files
sort # sort lines of text files (use flag -r for reverse). Use -n to sort numerically
uniq # remove adjacent duplicated lines from input. Use -c to see number of times the line occurred 
find <dir> -name file_name # search for files in a directory hierarchy by name. Use -iname for case insensitive search
which # locate a program file in the user's path
history # show history of commnads
!<number> # rerun the command with the number from history
!! # rerun the last command (bang bang)
bc # Bash calculator language ex. echo '3 + 4' | bc
clear (ctrl+l) # clear terminal
exit (ctrl+d) # to exit

For practice, let’s create two text files including some names and grades by cat command in bash_test directory:

mkdir bash_test
cd bash_text

cat > names.txt
# press `ctrl+d` to exit

cat > grade.txt
# press `ctrl+d` to exit


ls command returns grade.txt names.txt that shows we already made the files. Now, let’s see head, tail and number of lines in both files:

head -n 3 n*.txt
echo ---
tail -n 3 g*.txt
echo ---
wc -l [n,g]*.txt

## Dori
## Ari
## Ashi
## ---
## A-
## A
## B
## ---
##  5 grade.txt
##  5 names.txt
## 10 total

For finding things we can use grep or “global/regular expression/print” command. For example, let’s find lines that contain the letter “D”:

grep D names.txt

## Dori
## Dori

There are several options that we can use for grep command. For example, grep -w is searching for the exact word, -n option shows numbers the lines that match, -i flag makes our search case-insensitive, or -v inverts our search to the lines that do not contain the pattern, or -o print only the matched parts, and -P flag for using Perl-compatible regular expression. To see all the option use man grep. Lets’ try to find lines which do not contain letter “d” or “D”:

grep -inv d names.txt

## 2:Ari
## 3:Ashi
## 4:Jackie

While grep finds lines in files, the find command finds files themselves. For instance, in directory bash_test command find . will shows all files and directories within the current directory. The following command will return number of lines in names.txt and grade.txt files in the directory:

wc -l $(find . -name '[n,g]*.txt')

##  5 ./grade.txt
##  5 ./names.txt
## 10 total

For another example, you may use the command in below to print a divider, like ===, followed by date and hostname:

echo === $(hostname) $(date)
# Or
echo === $(hostname) "date: $(date)"

Pipes and Filters

Now that we know a few basic commands, we can combine the programs and commands in new ways. The following commands let us to use output of a command as an input for another command or store the outputs of commands in a separate file.

first | second # is a pipeline; the output of the first command is used as the input to the second 
command > file # redirects a command’s output to a file (overwriting any existing content)
command >> file # appends a command’s output to a file
< # operator redirects input to a command

For example let’s remove the duplicated names in the names.txt:

sort names.txt | uniq 
echo --- To count number of occurrences ---
sort names.txt | uniq -c

## Ari
## Ashi
## Dori
## Jackie
## --- To count number of occurrences ---
##       1 Ari
##       1 Ashi
##       2 Dori
##       1 Jackie

Or make a new file, count.txt, including number of lines, words, and characters in the text files:

wc [n,g]*.txt > count.txt

Use cat count.txt to see the file content. Also, you may use:

cat count.txt
wc -l < count.txt

##  5  5 12 grade.txt
##  5  5 26 names.txt
## 10 10 38 total
## 3

To find number of lines in the count.txt. Note that you also can use wc -l count.txt to find the number of lines.

Loops and conditional constructs

Loops are key to productivity improvements through automation as they allow us to execute commands repeatedly. Similar to wildcards and tab completion, using loops also reduces the amount of typing and mistakes. The syntax is:

for variable in file1 file2 ...; do command_1 $variable; command_2; ...; done
# Or
for output in $(command);  do command_1 $output; command_2; ...; done

For instance, let’s make a copy of grade.txt and names.txt:

for x in [g,n]*.txt; do cp $x copy-$x; echo copy-$x; done

## copy-grade.txt
## copy-names.txt

Use ls to see new files that start with copy- in your directory. Another example,

for y in $(seq 1 3); do echo "The number is $y"; done
echo --- Same as ---
for y in {1..3}; do echo "The number is $y"; done

## The number is 1
## The number is 2
## The number is 3
## --- Same as ---
## The number is 1
## The number is 2
## The number is 3

Conditional statements help us to write an if construction. In general we can write the test statement by [ Expression ]. The syntax is:

if [ Expression ]; then command; elif [ Expression ]; then command; ...; else command; fi

For example, let’s print “File exist” if count.txt is exist (note that there is a space after [ and before ]):

if [ -e count.txt ]; then echo "File exist"; else echo "File does not exist"; fi
echo --- Or ---
if [ ! -e count.txt ]; then echo "File does not exist"; else echo "File exist"; fi
echo --- Or ---
if [ ! -e count.txt ]; then echo "File does not exist"; elif [ -e count.txt ]; then  echo "File exist"; else echo "NA"; fi

## File exist
## --- Or ---
## File exist
## --- Or ---
## File exist

To see all the test expressions see man test.

Text editors

Most popular text editors in Bash:

  • Vi
  • Nano
  • Emacs

To open the text editors simply run vi, nano or emacs -nw. You may use ctrl+z to suspend the editor and return to the Bash terminal and enter fg in the Bash terminal to return the editor. To exit, in Vi first press esc and then enter :q!, in Nano you may use ctrl+x, and in Emacs ctrl+x ctrl+c. Vi and Emacs have more futures in comparison to Nano but they are more difficult as well.

The following are some important commands in Nano. Note that ^ is ctrl and M- is alt.

  • ^s: save
  • ^o: write out (save with a new name)
  • ^x: exit
  • ^z: suspend nano (if activated)
  • ^k: cut the line
  • M-6: copy the line
  • ^u: uncut/paste the line
  • ^w: where is (search)
  • ^\: search and replace
  • M-g: go to line
  • M-a: select text
  • M-u: undo
  • M-e: redo
  • ^t: spelling check (need to install spell package)
  • ^j: justify text
  • ^g: help (F2)

The following are some important commands in Emacs. Note that C- is ctrl and M- is alt.

  • C-x C-c: exit
  • C-z: suspend
  • C-k: kill the line
  • C-w: cut the line/text
  • M-w: copy the line/text
  • C-y: uncut/paste the line/text (yank)
  • C-space arrow keys: select text
  • C-shift arrow keys: select paragraphs
  • C-x u: undo
  • C-a: move to the beginning of the line
  • C-e: move to the end of the line
  • C-home: move to the beginning of the buffer
  • C-end: move to the end of the buffer
  • M-g g: go to line
  • C-s/C-r: search
  • M-%: replace (y yes, n no, ! all)
  • C-g: stop a command
  • C-x C-f: make/open a file as a new buffer
  • C-x b: change the buffer
  • C-x k: kill the buffer
  • C-x 1: close other windows
  • C-x 0/q: close/quit windows
  • C-x o: switch to other windows
  • C-h ?: help list
  • C-h t: tutorial
  • C-h d: search help for a pattern
  • C-h c: show help for the command
  • M-x <command>: run commands
  • M-x ispell: spell check; enter the suggested digit or a to accept or r to rewrite
  • M-x package-install: install packages
  • M-x package-list-packages: list of packages

You may find more about Emacs in here.

Shell script

Now, we can make Shell script to crate a small program including Bash commands and other programs that we want. Let’s make a program to shows rows 3 to 5 of a file in Shell scripts. Use nano to open nano text editor to make and insert the following lines:

sort names.txt | head -n 5 | tail -n 3

The first line shows the language of the program which is Bash in here. To run the program use:


You may use the following program to show rows 3 to 5 of a given file. Use nano and insert the following lines:

sort "$1" | head -n 5 | tail -n 3

To run the code use:

bash names.txt

## Dori
## Dori
## Jackie

Also we can write a program that works for any given files. Use nano and insert the following lines:

for line in "$@"; do sort $line | head -n 5 | tail -n 3; done

To run the code use:

bash names.txt grade.txt

## Dori
## Dori
## Jackie
## A-
## B
## B+

For another example let write a program to find a certain pattern within some files in bash_test directory. Use nano and insert:

grep -w $1 -r $2 | cut -d : -f 2 > $1.txt

To find name Dori among all files in the current directory (.) use:

bash Dori .

To see the output run cat Dori.txt.