8. Essential Shell Commands

In the following chapters of this book we will run into very many different commands, and it’s not possible to explain all commands before then appear in some examples or are needed for some tasks we will run into. This chapter will describe some of the most-often used commands and occasionally give example output.

We will start with some commands that are used to navigate the filesystem and inspect files:



Safe Example


Change directory

cd /usr/local/bin


Show current directory



Show contents of a file

cat /etc/passwd


Page though a file

less /etc/services


Show directory listing

ls -alF /

8.1. cd and pwd

Listing 8.1 using cd and pwd
$ pwd
$ cd /usr/local
$ pwd
$ ls -al
total 0
drwxr-xr-x. 12 root root 131 Nov 23 18:31 .
drwxr-xr-x. 13 root root 155 Nov 23 18:31 ..
drwxr-xr-x.  2 root root   6 Apr 11  2018 bin
drwxr-xr-x.  2 root root   6 Apr 11  2018 etc
drwxr-xr-x.  2 root root   6 Apr 11  2018 games
drwxr-xr-x.  2 root root   6 Apr 11  2018 include
drwxr-xr-x.  2 root root   6 Apr 11  2018 lib
drwxr-xr-x.  2 root root   6 Apr 11  2018 lib64
drwxr-xr-x.  2 root root   6 Apr 11  2018 libexec
drwxr-xr-x.  2 root root   6 Apr 11  2018 sbin
drwxr-xr-x.  5 root root  49 Nov 23 18:31 share
drwxr-xr-x.  2 root root   6 Apr 11  2018 src
$ cd
$ pwd

As can be seen in the example above, the pwd command will print the directory we are currently in back to the shell, and the cd command can be used to change to a different directory. If you run the cd command with an argument, you change to the specified directory, when running cd without any arguments, it will bring you to your HOME directory. The HOME directory is the directory you enter when you login to a system and where you can write your own files. The location of your HOME directory can also be found in the HOME environment variable.

To navigate to various directories you can either specify a complete and absolute path, or use relative paths. An absulute path is a path that starts with a / character, denoting the root of the filesystem. In the example above, /usr/local is an absolute path. In the example below we will use relative paths:

Listing 8.2 using cd and pwd
$ pwd
$ cd ..
$ pwd
$ cd /usr/local/lib
$ cd ../bin
$ pwd
$ cd ~
$ pwd

By using .., you indicate that you want to go up one level in the directory-tree, combining this with other directory names you can navigate back down other branches of the tree. If you are not to familiar with this method of navigating the filesystem you can always use absolute paths as an alternative method of navigating, but this will usually require some more typing.

8.2. cat and less

The cat command (which is short for concatinate), can be used to concatinate files, but it’s mostly used to get the contents of a file printed back to your terminal. If you specify multiple files as arguments to the cat command, all files will be printed to the terminal one after the other, as if they were 1 continuous file (as such, they have been concatinated before being sent to your terminal).

$ cat /etc/redhat-release
CentOS Linux release 7.5.1804 (Core)
$ cat /etc/shells
$ cat /etc/redhat-release /etc/shells
CentOS Linux release 7.5.1804 (Core)

If you cat a larger file, or multiple files at the same time, the contents of these files will fly over your screen quickly. If you want to actually have the possibility of reading the contents, it’s better to use what’s called a pager. Linux comes with multiple alternative pagers, classical UNIX systems had the more pager, which you can also find on most Linux systems. However there is usually also a pager called less. The less pager will print the contents of the file one screen-full at a time and will either scroll a single line, or a full screenlength up or down through the file when you press one of the arrow-keys, page-up or page-down or the space key. If you want to exit less, you can press the q to exit back to your shell. Another handy feature of less is that it can be used to search for text though a file, when entering /sometext it will scroll to the next occurance of sometext and highlight the text in the file.

8.3. ls

The ls command is used to get information about files and directories, compare it with the DIR command in for example DOS and Windows systems. If you just run ls it will show a short listing of all files and directories in the current working directory. Specifying various arguments to the ls command will alter the way this information is presented. The most used options to ls are:


Show hidden files and directories (names starting with a dot)


Show a long listing, one name per line, with permission, size and date information


Classify names as either directory, regular file or executable

8.4. File manipulation commands

Next up are some file-manipulation commands:



Safe Example


Copy a file

cp /etc/passwd ~


Move or rename files

mv ~/passwd ~/renamed


Remove a file

rm ~/renamed


Create a directory

mkdir /tmp/myfiles


Remove (empty) directories

rmdir /tmp/myfiles

These basic file manipulation commands will let you copy, erase and move-around files or create and remove directories. The cp and mv commands need at least two arguments, a source and a target to work on. If you specify more then 2 arguments, and the last argument is a directory, all other arguments are considered as source, and multiple files will be copied or moved to the specified target directory.

Listing 8.3 Using rm and rmdir
$ mkdir /tmp/mydirectory
$ ls -la /tmp/mydirectory/
total 0
drwxrwxr-x.  2 yourname yourname   6 Nov 24 03:21 .
drwxrwxrwt. 10 root     root     253 Nov 24 03:21 ..
$ cp /etc/issue /etc/issue.net /etc/passwd /tmp/mydirectory
$ ls -la /tmp/mydirectory/
total 12
drwxrwxr-x.  2 yourname yourname   50 Nov 24 03:21 .
drwxrwxrwt. 10 root     root      253 Nov 24 03:21 ..
-rw-r--r--.  1 yourname yourname   23 Nov 24 03:21 issue
-rw-r--r--.  1 yourname yourname   22 Nov 24 03:21 issue.net
-rw-r--r--.  1 yourname yourname 2205 Nov 24 03:21 passwd
$ cd /tmp/mydirectory
$ rm issue issue.net
$ ls -la
total 4
drwxrwxr-x.  2 yourname yourname   20 Nov 24 03:22 .
drwxrwxrwt. 10 root     root      253 Nov 24 03:21 ..
-rw-r--r--.  1 yourname yourname 2205 Nov 24 03:21 passwd
$ rm /tmp/mydirectory/passwd
$ rmdir /tmp/mydirectory

8.5. Editing files

Another important and often performed task of any System Administrator is editing textfiles. Unix en Linux systems are filled with many plain-text files, and they are used as configuration files for almost all services and programs installed on Linux systems. On most Linux systems you will find a number of different editors and each has their own strenghts and weaknesses. The popular choices amoung experienced Linux System Administrators are vi/vim and Emacs, however, both of these text-editors have quite the learning-curve. New Linux users and System Administrators are probably better off starting with a simpler editor like nano, joe, jed, or mcedit when working on remote hosts or on the console. When working with a GUI, there are some more choices which work and look like regular text-editors as used on Windows for example.

There will be a chapter on working with VI and VIM later, as VI is considered the ‘standard’ editor, and will almost always be present on any Linux or UNIX system and has some really powerful features. For now, we will let you use any editor of your choice, and just give you some pointers to start with here. These more user-friendly editors are usually not installed by default on a fresh Linux system, so we will also list the commands used to install them here.


Install on CentOS/RHEL

Install on Debian/Ubuntu


# yum install vim-enhanced

# apt install vim


# yum install nano

# apt install nano


# yum install mc

# apt install mc

8.6. Finding help

If this book were to describe any and all commands available on an average Linux system, we would be here a while and this would not be a good investment of your and my time. Luckily your Linux system comes with a lot of documentation and methods for getting information about what various commands do, how they work, and how you use them. So it’s much better to just tell you how and where to find this information.

8.6.1. man

The first command that can tell you a lot about other available commands that you should know about it the man command. It is a browser for the manual pages. Many commands installed on Linux come with manual pages. You can start by looking at the man-pages of varuous commands we used before, or the manual-page of the man command itself:

Listing 8.4 using man
$ man man
$ man cat
$ man bash
$ man mv cp ls rm

When running the man command with (one or more) arguments, it will look for the manual-page for the specified argument and display this page in a pager. You can scroll up and down with the arrow-keys or space, page-up and page-down. If you want to go back to your shell, press q. In the last command above, multiple manual pages will be opened, one after the other, and pressing q will move you to the next one until all pages have been seen

Manpages will usually contain all the information you will need, describing all the options and arguments a command will accept, how it does what it does, which files it might use or read from, what environment-settings may influence its task, and what error-codes it might return. It usually also has a section called ‘SEE ALSO’ with other manual-pages you could take a look at for related commands.

8.6.2. info / pinfo

Some tools do not have manual-pages, or only have very limited manual-pages, which direct you to check out a section in the info tool. Using the info or pinfo command, you can read documentation written in the info system. This system is somewhat more like webpages, with a hypertext like structure with links between various sections.

The info pages are mostly used by GNU tools, while manual-pages are used by most other software.

8.6.3. command help

Most commands in linux will also have a built-in help option. This will usually give you a short (a few lines, upto maybe a screenfull) summary of the options and usage methods of the command. Some commands will show this information if given the –help argument, others only respond to -h or some other option. Often a text telling you how to get to this help-text will be printed when you used the command with invalid options.

Listing 8.5 command help
$ cp --help
Usage: cp [OPTION]... [-T] SOURCE DEST
  or:  cp [OPTION]... -t DIRECTORY SOURCE...
Copy SOURCE to DEST, or multiple SOURCE(s) to DIRECTORY.

Mandatory arguments to long options are mandatory for short options too.
...(snipped another 70 lines of output)...

8.6.4. /usr/share/doc

Another location where you may find documentation on commands is in the /usr/share/doc directory on your filesystem. Here you will usually find things like example configuration files and sometimes complete user-manuals for more advanced software packages.