Core utilities

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Summary help replacing me
Tips and tricks related to so-called core utilities on a GNU/Linux system.
Bash: improved Bourne shell, Linux standard
Zsh: improved Bourne/C shell, very good as interactive shell
General Recommendations
GNU Project

This article deals with so-called core utilities on a GNU/Linux system, such as less, ls, and grep. The scope of this article includes, but is not limited to, those utilities included with the GNU coreutils package. What follows are various tips and tricks and other helpful information related to these utilities.


cat (catenate) is a standard Unix utility that concatenates and lists files.

  • As cat is not a shell built-in, in many occasions you may find more convenient to use a redirection, for example in scripts, or if you care a lot about performance. In fact < file does the same of cat file.
  • To append multiple lines to a file a construct like this one is used:
$ cat << EOF >> path/file
first line
last line
  • If you need to cat file lines in reverse order, there is a utility called tac (cat reversed).


grep (from ed's g/re/p, global/regular expression/print) is a command line text search utility originally written for Unix. The grep command searches files or standard input globally for lines matching a given regular expression, and prints them to the program's standard output.

  • Remember that grep handles files, so a construct like $ cat file | grep pattern is replaceable with $ grep pattern file
  • If you have to grep VCS source code, there is an optimized utility written in Perl and called ack. See the official web site.

Colored output

Beyond aesthetics, grep's color output is immensely useful for learning regexp and grep's functionality.

To use the default colors for grep, write the following entry to your shell configuration file, e.g. if using Bash:

alias grep='grep --color=auto'

Alternatively, you can set the GREP_OPTIONS environment variable bearing in mind this may break some scripts that use grep [1]:

export GREP_OPTIONS='--color=auto'

To include file line numbers in the output, add -n:

alias grep='grep -n --color=auto'

The environment variable GREP_COLORS may be used to specify different colors than the defaults.


ip allows you to show information about network devices, ip-addresses, routing tables and other objects in the linux IP software stack. Depending on the attached command, you can also manipulate or configure those objects.

Object Purpose manpage
ip addr protocol address management ip-address
ip addrlabel protocol address label management ip-addrlabel
ip l2tp tunnel ethernet over IP (L2TPv3) ip-l2tp
ip link network device configuration ip-link
ip maddr multicast addresses management ip-maddress
ip monitor watch for netlink messages ip-monitor
ip mroute multicast routing cache management ip-mroute
ip mrule rule in multicast routing policy db
ip neigh neighbour/arp tables management ip-neighbour
ip netns process network namespace management ip-netns
ip ntable neighbour table configuration ip-ntable
ip route routing table management ip-route
ip rule routing policy database management ip-rule
ip tcp_metrics management for TCP Metrics ip-tcp_metrics
ip tunnel tunnel configuration ip-tunnel
ip tuntap manage TUN/TAP devices
ip xfrm manage IPSec policies ip-xfrm

The help command is available for all objects. For example, typing ip addr help will show you the command syntax available for the address object.

The Network Configuration article shows how the ip command is used in practise for various common tasks.


less is a terminal pager program used to view the contents of a text file one screen at a time. Whilst similar to other pages such as more and pg, less offers a more advanced interface and complete feature-set.

Colored output through environment variables

Add the following lines to your shell configuration file:

export LESS=-R
export LESS_TERMCAP_me=$(printf '\e[0m')
export LESS_TERMCAP_se=$(printf '\e[0m')
export LESS_TERMCAP_ue=$(printf '\e[0m')
export LESS_TERMCAP_mb=$(printf '\e[1;32m')
export LESS_TERMCAP_md=$(printf '\e[1;34m')
export LESS_TERMCAP_us=$(printf '\e[1;32m')
export LESS_TERMCAP_so=$(printf '\e[1;44;1m')

Change values as you like. References: ANSI escape code.

Colored output through wrappers

You can enable code syntax coloring in less. First, install source-highlight, then add these lines to your shell configuration file:

export LESSOPEN="| /usr/bin/ %s"
export LESS='-R '

Frequent users of the command line interface might want to install lesspipe.

Users may now list the compressed files inside of an archive using their pager:

$ less compressed_file.tar.gz
==> use tar_file:contained_file to view a file in the archive
-rw------- username/group  695 2008-01-04 19:24 compressed_file/content1
-rw------- username/group   43 2007-11-07 11:17 compressed_file/content2
compressed_file.tar.gz (END)

lesspipe also grants less the ability of interfacing with files other than archives, serving as an alternative for the specific command associated for that file-type (such as viewing HTML via html2text).

Re-login after installing lesspipe in order to activate it, or source /etc/profile.d/

Vim as alternative pager

Vim (visual editor improved) has a script to view the content of text files, compressed files, binaries, directories. Add the following line to your shell configuration file to use it as a pager:

alias less='/usr/share/vim/vim73/macros/'

There is also an alternative to macro, which may work as the PAGER environment variable. Install vimpager-gitAUR and add the following to your shell configuration file:

export PAGER='vimpager'
alias less=$PAGER

Now programs that use the PAGER environment variable, like git, will use vim as pager.


ls (list) is a command to list files in Unix and Unix-like operating systems.

Colored output can be enabled with a simple alias. File ~/.bashrc should already have the following entry copied from /etc/skel/.bashrc:

alias ls='ls --color=auto'

The next step will further enhance the colored ls output; for example, broken (orphan) symlinks will start showing in a red hue. Add the following to your shell configuration file:

eval $(dircolors -b)


man (manual page) is a form of online software documentation usually found on a Unix or Unix-like operating system. Topics covered include computer programs (including library and system calls), formal standards and conventions, and even abstract concepts. See Man Pages.


mkdir (make directory) is a command to create directories. To create a directory and its whole hierarchy, -p switch is used, if not a error is printed. As users are supposed to know what they want, -p switch may be used as a default.

alias mkdir='mkdir -p -v'

The -v switch make it verbose.

Tip: If you want just a temporary directory a better alternative may be mktemp (make termporary): mktemp -p.


mv (move) is a command to move and rename files and directories. It can be very dangerous so it is prudent to limit its scope:

alias mv=' timeout 8 mv -iv'

This alias suspends mv after eight seconds, asks confirmation to delete three or more files, lists the operations in progress and does not store itself in the shell history file if the shell is configured to ignore space starting commands.


rm (remove) is a command to delete files and directories. It can be very dangerous so it is prudent to limit its scope:

alias rm=' timeout 3 rm -Iv --one-file-system'

This alias suspends rm after three seconds, asks confirmation to delete three or more files, lists the operations in progress, does not involve more than one file systems and does not store itself in the shell history file if the shell is configured to ignore space starting commands. Substitute -I with -i if you prefer to confirm even for one file.


sed (stream editor) is a Unix utility that parses and transforms text.

Here is a handy list of sed one-liners examples.

Tip: More powerful alternatives are AWK and even Perl language.


seq (sequence) is a utility for generating a sequence of numbers. Shell built-in alternatives are available, so it is good practice to use them as explained on Wikipedia.


shred is a command to securely delete files and directories. It can be very dangerous so it is prudent to limit its scope:

alias shred=' timeout 3 shred -v'

This alias suspends shred after three seconds, lists the operations in progress, and does not store itself in the shell history file if the shell is configured to ignore space starting commands.


Sudo (as superuser do) is a program for Unix-like computer operating systems that allows users to run programs with the security privileges of another user (normally the superuser, or root). See Sudo.

See also