Manual Pages

Overview

Teaching: 10 min
Exercises: 0 min
Questions
  • How to use man pages?

Objectives
  • Use man to display the manual page for a given command.

  • Explain how to read the synopsis of a given command while using man.

  • Search for specific options or flags in the manual page for a given command.

We can get help for any Unix command with the man (short for manual) command. For example, here is the command to look up information on cp:

$ man cp

The output displayed is referred to as the “man page”.

The man page will be displayed in the default file viewer for our shell, which usually a program called more. When more displays a colon ‘:’, we can press the space bar to get the next page, the letter ‘h’ to get help, or the letter ‘q’ to quit.

man’s output is typically complete but concise, as it is designed to be used as a reference rather than a tutorial. Most man pages are divided into sections:

Other sections we might see include AUTHOR, REPORTING BUGS, COPYRIGHT, HISTORY, (known) BUGS, and COMPATIBILITY.

How to Read the Synopsis

Here is the is synopsis for the cp command on Ubuntu Linux:

SYNOPSIS
   cp [OPTION]... [-T] SOURCE DEST
   cp [OPTION]... SOURCE... DIRECTORY
   cp [OPTION]... -t DIRECTORY SOURCE...

This tells the reader that there are three ways to use the command. Let’s look at the first usage:

cp [OPTION]... [-T] SOURCE DEST

[OPTION] means the cp command can be followed by one or more optional flags. We can tell they’re optional because of the square brackets, and we can tell that one or more are welcome because of the ellipsis (…). For example, the fact that [-T] is in square brackets, but after the ellipsis, means that it’s optional, but if it’s used, it must come after all the other options.

SOURCE refers to the source file or directory, and DEST to the destination file or directory. Their precise meanings are explained at the top of the DESCRIPTION section.

The other two usage examples can be read in similar ways. Note that to use the last one, the -t option is mandatory (because it isn’t shown in square brackets).

The DESCRIPTION section starts with a few paragraphs explaining the command and its use, then expands on the possible options one by one:

     The following options are available:

-a    Same as -pPR options. Preserves structure and attributes of
           files but not directory structure.

     -f    If the destination file cannot be opened, remove it and create
           a new file, without prompting for confirmation regardless of
           its permissions.  (The -f option overrides any previous -n
           option.)

           The target file is not unlinked before the copy.  Thus, any
           existing access rights will be retained.

      ...  ...

Finding Help on Specific Options

If we want to skip ahead to the option you’re interested in, we can search for it using the slash key ‘/’. (This isn’t part of the man command: it’s a feature of more.) For example, to find out about -t, we can type /-t and press return. After that, we can use the ‘n’ key to navigate to the next match until we find the detailed information we need:

-t, --target-directory=DIRECTORY
     copy all SOURCE arguments into DIRECTORY

This means that this option has the short form -t and the long form --target-directory and that it takes an argument. Its meaning is to copy all the SOURCE arguments into DIRECTORY. Thus, we can give the destination explicitly instead of relying on having to place the directory at the end.

Limitations of Man Pages

Man pages can be useful for a quick confirmation of how to run a command, but they are not famous for being readable. If you can’t find what you need in the man page— or you can’t understand what you’ve found— try entering “unix command copy file” into your favorite search engine: it will often produce more helpful results.

You May Also Enjoy…

The explainshell.com site does a great job of breaking complex Unix commands into parts and explaining what each does. Sadly, it doesn’t work in reverse…

Key Points

  • man command displays the manual page for a given command.

  • [OPTION]... means the given command can be followed by one or more optional flags.

  • Flags specified after ellipsis are still optional but must come after all other flags.

  • While inside the manual page,use / followed by your pattern to do interactive searching.