The Unix shell

“The Linux philosophy is ‘Laugh in the face of danger’. Oops. Wrong One. ‘Do it yourself’. Yes, that’s it.”

—Linus Torvalds

We could try to think of a neat way of defining what a Unix shell is, but thankfully Wikipedia comes to the rescue:

A Unix shell is a command-line interpreter or shell that provides a traditional Unix-like command line user interface. Users direct the operation of the computer by entering commands as text for a command line interpreter to execute, or by creating text scripts of one or more such commands.

To put it in simpler terms, instead of pointing and clicking on colorful icons to perform actions like opening a directory or a program, you type commands in a terminal. The most commonly used commands are outlined in the following sections.


If you do not have any prior experience with command line interfaces (CLIs), working with one might seem daunting at first. This is perfectly normal. It takes time to get used to the Unix shell. The key to mastering the Unix shell is to use it. A lot.


This command is used to show the path to the current working directory. It is usually used to see where you currently are.

$ pwd


This command is used to show the contents of the directory you specify as argument.

$ ls <directory>

If you do not provide anything besides ls it prints the contents of the current working directory.

$ ls

A single . in place of <directory> also results in the contents of the current working directory to be printed, as . is an explicit way of specifying the current working directory.

For a more verbose version you may use the -l options:

$ ls -l


If you have some spaces in some of your file names you have to enclose the whole filename like this: "<filename>"


This command is used to change the directory to the one specified as argument. If no argument is provided you are changing to your home directory.

$ cd <directory>

To get to the parent directory use

$ cd ..


In a lot of cases bash—the shell you are using—provides rather intelligent autocompletion. To use this start typing the name of a file or directory and hit the tab button. If there is a unique completion option it is completed automatically. Else hitting tab another time will give you a list of options that starts with whatever you typed until then.


This command is used to print the contents of the files specified as arguments.

$ cat <file1> <file2> ... <fileN>


This command is used to copy files. For example

$ cp <file1> <file2>

copies <file1> to <file2>. If you want to copy a lot of files to another directory use

$ cp <file1> <file2> ... <fileN> <directory1>/

Copying a whole directory requires you to use the -r option:

$ cp -r <directory1> <directory2>


This command is used to move files. For example

$ mv <file1> <file2>

essentially renames <file1> to <file2>. To move several files into a directory use

$ mv <file1> <file2> ... <fileN> <directory1>/

As opposed to cp the mv command can move whole directories without using the -r option:

$ mv <directory1> <directory2>


This command is used to create an empty file. Using

$ touch <file1>

hence results in an empty file with the name <file>.


If you want to copy something from the Terminal you can not do this via the key combination Ctrl + C as this is reserved for cancelling the running program. Instead use Ctrl + Shift + C. For pasting you also have to use Ctrl + Shift + V.


This command is used to create a directory. Using

$ mkdir <directory>

thus creates a directory with the name <directory>.


This command is used to delete files and directories. Hence

$ rm <file>

deletes <file>.


If you delete files or directories on a modern, graphical operating system the files and directories usually do not get deleted immediately, but are copied to an intermediate directory that is usually called trash bin. This could be considered a safety measure against accidentally deleting important files. This “safety net” does not exist for the rm command. Whatever you delete via rm is permanently deleted.


If you want to see whether some text is contained within a file you can use grep:

$ grep <pattern> <file>

with <pattern> being the text you are looking for.


Find files in a directory hierarchy. This program is rather extensive and can perform complex search operations. In its simplest form it may be used like this:

$ find <path> -name "<pattern>"

It is important to put <pattern> into quotation marks to make sure the shell is not expanding some special characters. Special characters can, e.g., be the wildcard character *, which matches everything. Hence, the command

$ find . -name "*.py"

finds all Python files below the current directory.


Print the path to the directory you are currently in.
ls <directory>
List the contents of directory specified by <directory>. If you do not specify a directory it defaults to your current directory.
cd <directory>
Change the directory to <directory>. If you do not specify a directory you go to your home directory. If you want to go back to your last directory you can use cd -.
cat <file1> <file2> ... <fileN>
Read the files specified and print their content to the terminal.
cp <file1> <file2>
Copy the first argument to the second argument. If you want to copy a directory you have to use it with the -r option: cp -r <directory1> <directory2>.
mv <file1/directory1> <file2/directory2>
Move the first argument to the second argument. It is basically like renaming the first argument.
touch <file>
Create an empty file at <file>.
mkdir <directory>
Create a directory at <directory>.
rm <file1> <file2> ... <fileN>
Delete the files specified. If you want to delete a directory and its contents you have to use it with the -r option: rm -r <file1>.
grep <pattern> <file>
Search for <pattern> in <file>.
find <path> -name "<pattern>"
Find all files in <path> and below whose name is matching <pattern>.


  1. Create an empty file called my_first_file.txt
  2. Open the file with your text editor and fill it with something other than asdf. Save and close afterwards.
  3. Print the content of the file to the terminal.
  4. Make a new directory named my_first_directory
  5. Copy the file my_first_file.txt into this directory.
  6. Remove the old file.
  7. Print the content of the file my_first_file.txt in the directory my_first_directory to the terminal.
  8. Print your current working directory.
  9. Enter the directory my_first_directory.
  10. Print your current working directory.
  11. Enter the parent directory.
  12. List the content of your current working directory.
  13. Delete the directory my_first_directory.
  14. List the content of your current working directory.