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Filename Generation/Pathname Expansion


Wildcards, globbing

When you specify an abbreviated filename that contains special characters, also called metacharacters, the shell can generate filenames that match the names of existing files. These special characters are also referred to as wildcards because they act much as the jokers do in a deck of cards. When one of these characters appears in an argument on the command line, the shell expands that argument in sorted order into a list of filenames and passes the list to the program called by the command line. Filenames that contain these special characters are called ambiguous file references because they do not refer to one specific file. The process the shell performs on these filenames is called pathname expansion or globbing.

Ambiguous file references can quickly refer to a group of files with similar names, saving the effort of typing the names individually. They can also help find a file whose name you do not remember in its entirety. If no filename matches the ambiguous file reference, the shell generally passes the unexpanded reference—special characters and all—to the command. See “Brace Expansion” on page 411 for a technique that generates strings that do not necessarily match filenames.

The ? Special Character

The question mark (?) is a special character that causes the shell to generate filenames. It matches any single character in the name of an existing file. The following command uses this special character in an argument to the lpr utility:

$ lpr memo?

The shell expands the memo? argument and generates a list of files in the working directory that have names composed of memo followed by any single character. The shell then passes this list to lpr. The lpr utility never “knows” the shell generated the filenames it was called with. If no filename matches the ambiguous file reference, the shell passes the string itself (memo?) to lpr or, if it is set up to do so, passes a null string (see nullglob on page 408).

The following example uses ls first to display the names of all files in the working directory and then to display the filenames that memo? matches:

$ ls
mem   memo12  memo9  memomax   newmemo5
memo  memo5   memoa  memos

$ ls memo?
memo5  memo9  memoa  memos

The memo? ambiguous file reference does not match mem, memo, memo12, memomax, or newmemo5. You can also use a question mark in the middle of an ambiguous file reference:

$ ls
7may4report  may4report      mayqreport  may_report
may14report  may4report.79   mayreport   may.report

$ ls may?report
may4report  mayqreport  may_report  may.report


You can use echo and ls to practice generating filenames. The echo builtin displays the arguments the shell passes to it:

$ echo may?report
may4report mayqreport may_report may.report

The shell first expands the ambiguous file reference into a list of files in the working directory that match the string may?report. It then passes this list to echo, as though you had entered the list of filenames as arguments to echo. The echo utility displays the list of filenames.

A question mark does not match a leading period (one that indicates a hidden filename; page 188). When you want to match filenames that begin with a period, you must explicitly include the period in the ambiguous file reference.

The * Special Character

The asterisk (*) performs a function similar to that of the question mark but matches any number of characters, including zero characters, in a filename. The following example first shows all files in the working directory and then shows commands that display all the filenames that begin with the string memo, end with the string mo, and contain the string alx:

$ ls
amemo  memalx  memo.0612  memoalx.0620  memorandum  sallymemo
mem    memo    memoa      memoalx.keep  memosally   user.memo

$ echo memo*
memo memo.0612 memoa memoalx.0620 memoalx.keep memorandum memosally

$ echo *mo
amemo memo sallymemo user.memo

$ echo *alx*
memalx memoalx.0620 memoalx.keep

The ambiguous file reference memo* does not match amemo, mem, sallymemo, or user.memo. Like the question mark, an asterisk does not match a leading period in a filename.

The –a option causes ls to display hidden filenames (page 188). The command echo * does not display . (the working directory), .. (the parent of the working directory), .aaa, or .profile. In contrast, the command echo .* displays only those four names:

$ ls
aaa  memo.0612  memo.sally  report  sally.0612  saturday  thurs

$ ls -a
.   aaa   memo.0612   .profile  sally.0612  thurs
..  .aaa  memo.sally  report    saturday

$ echo *
aaa memo.0612 memo.sally report sally.0612 saturday thurs

$ echo .*
. .. .aaa .profile

In the following example, .p* does not match memo.0612, private, reminder, or report. The ls .* command causes ls to list .private and .profile in addition to the contents of the . directory (the working directory) and the .. directory (the parent of the working directory). When called with the same argument, echo displays the names of files (including directories) in the working directory that begin with a dot (.) but not the contents of directories.

$  ls -a
.  ..  memo.0612  private  .private  .profile  reminder  report

$ echo .p*
.private .profile

$ ls . *
.private .profile
memo.0612  private    reminder   report

$ echo .*
. .. .private .profile

You can plan to take advantage of ambiguous file references when you establish conventions for naming files. For example, when you end the names of all text files with .txt, you can reference that group of files with *.txt. The next command uses this convention to send all text files in the working directory to the printer. The ampersand causes lpr to run in the background.

$ lpr *.txt &

The [ ] Special Characters

A pair of brackets surrounding one or more characters causes the shell to match filenames containing the individual characters within the brackets. Whereas memo? matches memo followed by any character, memo[17a] is more restrictive: It matches only memo1, memo7, and memoa. The brackets define a character class that includes all the characters within the brackets. (GNU calls this a character list; a GNU character class is something different.) The shell expands an argument that includes a character-class definition by substituting each member of the character class, one at a time, in place of the brackets and their contents. The shell then passes the list of matching filenames to the program it is calling.

Each character-class definition can replace only a single character within a filename. The brackets and their contents are like a question mark that substitutes only the members of the character class.

The first of the following commands lists the names of all files in the working directory that begin with a, e, i, o, or u. The second command displays the contents of the files named page2.txt, page4.txt, page6.txt, and page8.txt.

$ echo [aeiou]*

$ less page[2468].txt

A hyphen within brackets defines a range of characters within a character-class definition. For example, [6–9] represents [6789], [a–z] represents all lowercase letters in English, and [a–zA–Z] represents all letters, both uppercase and lowercase, in English.

The following command lines show three ways to print the files named part0, part1, part2, part3, and part5. Each of these command lines causes the shell to call lpr with five filenames:

$ lpr part0 part1 part2 part3 part5

$ lpr part[01235]

$ lpr part[0-35]

The first command line explicitly specifies the five filenames. The second and third command lines use ambiguous file references, incorporating character-class definitions. The shell expands the argument on the second command line to include all files that have names beginning with part and ending with any of the characters in the character class. The character class is explicitly defined as 0, 1, 2, 3, and 5. The third command line also uses a character-class definition but defines the character class to be all characters in the range 0–3 plus 5.

The following command line prints 39 files, part0 through part38:

$ lpr part[0-9] part[12][0-9] part3[0-8]

The first of the following commands lists the files in the working directory whose names start with a through m. The second lists files whose names end with x, y, or z.

$ echo [a-m] *

$ echo * [x-z]

The next example demonstrates that the ls utility cannot interpret ambiguous file references. First ls is called with an argument of ?old. The shell expands ?old into a matching filename, hold, and passes that name to ls. The second command is the same as the first, except the ? is quoted (by preceding it with a backslash [\]; refer to “Special Characters” on page 150). Because the ? is quoted, the shell does not recognize it as a special character and passes it to ls. The ls utility generates an error message saying that it cannot find a file named ?old (because there is no file named ?old).

$ ls ?old

$ ls \?old
ls: ?old: No such file or directory

Like most utilities and programs, ls cannot interpret ambiguous file references; that work is left to the shell.

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