Anatomy of a CLI Command

So now you should have a Linux command line open and ready to go. If this is your first experience with a command line prompt, don't worry! This course was made for you! We'll go through together what this strange beast is.

What you're looking at is often called a REPL, a Read Evaluate Print Loop. It's basically an interactive way of programming where you're writing one line of code at a time, feeding data in and out of little programs. Using commands here, you can navigate around you computer, read and write data, make network calls, and all sorts of other stuff. Basically most anything you can do with a desktop you can do with a command line, it's just a little less obvious how to do it.

The way a REPL works is that you send one command at a time and the shell runs the command and returns to you a result. During the course of running that one command, it may print some things out. And you can, using some rudimentary programming syntax, write a line that runs multiple times (or, another way of saying "runs multiple times" is looping.) That's it! That's whole concept of what we're going to learning today.

Shells and Emulators

The first thing we should do is get some terminology out of the way. You are using a shell right now, and that shell is almost certainly called bash (it definitely is unless you changed something), the Bourne Again Shell (which is making fun of the Bourne shell which bash replaced.) It's by far the most common shell and is over 30 years old.

There are other shells and we'll talk more about them later, the most common of which are zsh, ash, PowerShell, and cmd.exe. We'll chat about those later.

Your shell is running inside some sort of emulator. That emulator could be or iTerm2 if you're on macOS, or it could be the Windows Terminal if you're on Windows 10. This the window that's containing the shell, and you can use that emulator to switch out what shell is running inside of it. For now we want to be on bash (or zsh is basically the same too.)

File System

The way bash works is that you are always in a folder somewhere on your computer. Think of it like your computer's File Explorer or Finder: you can navigate into and out of folders while you look for files.

Our first command we're going to run in your computer is pwd. So type pwd and hit enter. This will send the command pwd to the shell which will evaluate that and print out the answer.

pwd is a little program that tells you the current path of where you are in the file system. pwd stands for present working directory. It's basically like asking the computer "where am I right now?" Mine says /home/ubuntu. I am inside of the ubuntu folder which itself is inside of the home directory. The terms folder and directory are interchangeable and I say both all the time.

This is what paths look like, /<outermost folder name>/<a nest folder>/<a yet more nest folder>. The / represents a level of nesting inside of another folder. The root directory is at /.

So by typing pwd, we've successfully run our first program! Congrats!


I forget all the time how to use various different programs. pwd is very simple but others are way more complex. For most programs, you can add --help at the end and it'll usually spit out some brief instructions of how to use the program. This one isn't super necessary right now but go ahead and type pwd --help to see its help text. --help is called a flag. We'll talk more about those later.

Navigating Around

So right now we're in the home directory of the ubuntu user if you've been following along with me. Every user gets their own folder in the /home folder. Since our user is named ubuntu, they have their own folder called ubuntu. Let's first see if we have any files inside of our home directory. Type ls and hit enter. ls stands for list, and it means show me everything inside of the folder where I am.

I see two things, Home and snap. I don't know what those are or why they're there but I assume it's something that Ubuntu creates for you. Let's navigate outside of our home directory and into the /home directory. We'll use a different program called cd to do that. cd stands for change directory. Type cd .. and hit enter.

.. is shorthand that means "up one directory." Because I wanted to go from /home/ubuntu to /home, I sent the command cd .. and that .. means up one directory. There's also . which means "this directory". So you if you say cd . you won't go anywhere! It means change directory to this directory that we're already in, which doesn't do anything.

Type ls again. I only see one thing in there, ubuntu. If we type cd ubuntu we'll navigate back into the ubuntu directory. Between ls, cd, and pwd, you can navigate basically anywhere on your computer.

.. and . are called relative paths. They're paths which are relative to where you are. You can also give cd an absolute path as well. If we say cd /home/ubuntu, it'll navigate directly to that folder from anywhere. It's like the difference between saying "I live at 123 Main St in Seattle" (an absolute path) and "I left three houses down from here" (a relative path.) The first refers to the same house no matter where you are in the world whereas the second only makes sense based on where you are.

Arguments / Parameters

In the case of cd, we're passing data into cd to tell it how to run. If we run cd .., the .. is an argument or parameter (basically the same thing, for this purpose the two terms can be used interchangeably.) This is just how you pass information into the program so it can do what you want it to do. Not all programs need parameters or sometimes they're optional. Let's look at pwd: it never needs any arguments. Or ls which has optional arguments. If you say ls, it's the same as saying ls .. The . in this case means "this directory". So if I say ls .. it'll give me what's the content of the directory one up from where I am. Or if I say ls /home it'll give me the contents of the home directory. In these examples, I've given you arguments that happen to be paths but that isn't always true. Arguments are just bits of information you give to a program, frequently they're paths to files or folders but they can often be other things.

Let's try one that isn't a path, echo. Try typing echo hi. It should echo back to you "hi". This is useful when you're writing your own scripts to print out things to the user. In this case, "hi" is the parameter.

Or let's try which. which will tell you the path to where the program you're running is. If I say which ls it'll tell me where ls is stored (in my case, /bin/ls.) ls would be the parameter.


We already talked about --help which is a flag but this commands can take all sorts of flags to customize how they'll act. Like parameters, they're bits of information that change how the command works. ls has lots of flags so let's try that.

Try ls first. Now try ls -l. You'll see it's relatively the same content just presented differently. Now it not only shows us what is in the directory, it shows us the permissions of the files (we'll talk about those later), the user who made it, the group that user belongs to, the size of the file in bytes, when it was last modified, and the name of the folder. The -l causes ls to use this long format instead of its normal, terse way of listing stuff out.

Let's try using two flags. Try ls -l -a. The -a means show hidden files too. Anything that begins with a . in Linux is considered a hidden file. These are usually configuration files that don't need to be shown all the time. By passing the -a we can tell ls to show us all the hidden files too.

Many programs allow you to be lazy and combine flags together. In this case, we can say ls -la and that's the same as ls -a -l (order doesn't matter either.) This is usually true but it depends on the individual command you're running.

I've shown the shorthand way of doing flags, -a with one dash and one letter. There's often a long form way of doing it as well. For example, ls -a is the same as doing ls --all. When you have two dashes, you're doing the long-form way of doing it. That's important because ls -all would be passing the flags -a, -l, and -l again (which it would ignore) so it's important to use two dashes to let the program know you mean one flag. You can mix and match too.

You can pass parameters to flag too. Let's say in our home directory we wanted to not show the snap directory in our output. We can use flags to do that. If we type ls --ignore snap it will not output snap. This can also be written as ls --ignore=snap to make it clearer what that ignore is referring to. We can also say ls -I snap for the shorthand. We can't use the equal here. Lastly if we wanted to do an ls on the /home directory and not show the ubuntu folder, we could type ls --ignore ubuntu /home. In this particular case, the order is important. Immediately after ignore, the part you're trying to ignore is passed, then the last parameters to ls as a whole is passed. This is why some people like that equals. ls --ignore=ubuntu /home is very clear. Up to you.