A very brief guide to Linux

C. J. Rennie

5th April 2011

This document is for those who are just beginning with Linux. It covers the really essential commands in some detail, but also gives some impression of the great scope of commands that are available. It says nothing about email clients, browsers, compilers etc, which are either documented elsewhere or are sufficiently GUI not to need any documentation such as this.

Logging in and out

You always need to log in by specifying your user name and your password. Once that is done, the Desktop Environment (usually 'Gnome' or 'KDE') starts, and you will be able to do things like open terminal windows, run the file manager, or browse the Internet.

Log off via the menu options provided by the desktop.

To try out the things described in this document it will help to have a 'terminal' window open. How to do this should be obvious from whatever desktop you are using.


Whatever computing background you have, you will be familiar with the concept of directories (or 'folders'), which are arranged hierarchically, and act as containers for files.

There are between 5 and 10 thousand directories on a Linux machine, so it is good to have some idea of how they are organized. The directory tree consists of branches having certain functions. The details differ on the various Linux versions, but top level or 'root' directory is always designated '/', and contains the following directories

Path Function
/suphys/your_name/ For the personal use of users
/media/ CD-ROMs, floppies, data directories on other machines
/usr/ Where most programs are located
/bin/ Core operating system programs
/sbin/ Core operating system programs
/etc/ Configuration files for operating system

amongst others.

The branches are sorted here according to relevance for everyday work, so concern yourself with the first couple do not try to mess with those near the bottom. (You will be prevented anyway.)

You are free to create directories under your home directory and certain other areas (e.g., under /media/floppy), while others area may be protected against modifications. When creating a directory (or file), the names are case-sensitive and you can use spaces — however spaces are often confusing and annoying (they have to be quoted), and I advise against the practice.

You can access directories by specifying their name explicitly (i.e., by giving some path beginning with '/', for example /suphys/chris), or by using shortcuts. The shortcuts are as follows: '.' means the current directory; '..' means the next directory up; '~' means your home directory. Thus '~/data' refers to one of your own directories, 'data', located under your home directory.

Another great help is auto-completion. If you are part-way through typing a path, then pressing the Tab key will complete the directory or filename. If there is ambiguity in how to complete the name, then Tab will just fill in as much as it can, whereupon you can enter another character or two to resolve the ambiguity and press Tab again. Repeat as often as necessary. If you are unsure how to resolve the ambiguity, you can press Ctrl-D at any time to see what the alternatives are.

If the full path of some directory or file is printed somewhere on screen, a common trick for using this name in a command is to cut and paste: highlight the block with left-click and drag; paste it with middle-click. (This is the Linux equivalent of Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V.) Another way to highlight is by multiple clicks.

Navigating directories on the command line is not as intuitive as with a graphical browser, but can still be done, and done surprisingly efficiently.

Essential commands

This section gives brief, illustrated descriptions of a few really essential commands. They are basic command for dealing with directories and files.

Change you current directory with cd:

cd .. change to the next directory up
cd /usr/bin Change to the directory /usr/bin
cd ~ Change to your home directory

Listing the contents of directories is done with ls:

ls Compact listing of the current directory
ls -l /usr/bin Detailed listing of /usr/bin
ls ~ Compact listing of your home directory
ls -la ~ Detailed listing of your home directory, including those the semi-hidden files beginning with '.'
ls -lt Detailed listing of the current directory, in chronological order

Copying is done with cp:

cp filename dir Copy a file to some other directory, resulting in dir/filename
cp filename newname Make a copy, named newname, of the specified file
cp something* dir Copy all files with names matching something* to the directory dir
cp -r dir1 dir2 Copy all files and subdirectories in dir1 to a new directory dir2/dir1
cp -r dir1/* dir2 Copy all files and subdirectories in dir1 into the existing directory dir2

Note the subtle but important difference between copying from dir1 and from dir1/*.

Moving and/or renaming is done with mv:

mv filename dir Move a file to some directory dir
mv something* dir Moves all files with names matching something* to the directory dir
mv -r dir1 dir2 Move all files and subdirectories in dir1 to a new directory dir2/dir1
mv -r dir1/* dir2 Move all files and subdirectories in dir1 into the existing directory dir2
mv filename newname Rename a file or directory
mv filename dir/newname Move a file to some directory dir and rename it

When moving and copying with mv and cp, the target directory must already exist.

Use mkdir and rmdir to create and remove directories:

mkdir Aug21 Make a new directory within the current directory
mkdir ~/data/Aug21 Make a new directory (Aug21 in this case) in ~/data
rmdir ~/data/Aug21 Remove a directory (Aug21 in this case) from ~/data

But note that Linux prevents you (as a precaution against lapses of judgment) from deleting directories that still contain files. This can be a lifesaver: bit it can also be a chore to delete all files before being allowed to issue the rmdir command. However I expect that you will eventually discover the way around this default behaviour, which will enable you to delete a directory and all its contents (including subdirectories) with a single command.

Removing files is done with rm:

rm filename Delete a particular file from the current directory
rm dir/filename* Delete files matching the pattern filename* from the directory dir

The commands described above are just the start. You will find that each command has many, many options — and the way to learn about the other options is to consult the 'man' pages:

man -k PDF Lists all commands connected in any way to PDF
man ls Tells you everything about ls
man rm Tells you everything about rm
etc etc

With hundreds of commands available man might seem of little use to neophytes. The man -k keyword option is one way to find out what is available; others are the thematic lists in Some common commands, and the excellent Linux in a Nutshell.

It is also useful to know about redirection. Output is commonly listed on the terminal, but can be redirected to a file with the '>' command. Thus

  ls -1 ~/data > names.txt

stores the output as a file named names.txt, overwriting the pre-existing file of this name, if any. (A variation of this output redirection command is '>>', which appends the output to an existing file, rather than overwriting.) The opposite is '<', which gets input from a file rather than the keyboard, e.g.

  mail -s 'Hi' < letter.txt

Programs can be run in the 'background' by appending an ampersand ('&') to the command line. Thus

  gv doc.ps &

launches ghostview and puts it in the background. What does 'background' mean, and why would you want to do this? Without the ampersand the program runs in the foreground, which means that no new commands can be entered on the command line. Launching the program in the background allows new commands to be entered on the command line. The program operates identically in both cases.

There are thousands of commands documented in the man pages. If you want to see for yourself, type

  find /usr/share -name 'man' -type d | xargs ls -lR

which also gives you a taste of the sophisticated way in which all those commands can be used. In this example, find is used to look for all directories named 'man' in the directory /usr/share, including all its subdirectories. That produces a list of directories that contain man pages. The list is not printed: instead it is 'piped' to the xargs command, which constructs commands like ls -lR dirname, each of which generates a recursive directory listing of all files in the man directory, and its subdirectories. The upshot is that the compound command above locates and lists all man pages, however scattered they are in the /usr/share branch of the directory tree. You can augment the above command slightly:

  find /usr/share -name 'man' -type d | xargs ls -lR | wc -l

to get an approximate count of the number of man pages. But even this is a rather elementary example of the power of Unix/Linux commands.

Some common commands

Here are some more useful commands. They are a tiny fraction of the command-line programs available, but give a taste of what can be accomplished. Most of the commands below are core Linux utilities. See the 'man' pages for more about their purpose, and more about their options — wherein lies their real power. Also listed below are several large applications, which tend to have built-in instructions.

If you are a newcomer to Linux you may not understand the point of the commands listed below, or doubt their value. All I can say is that I have used them all, and consider each one useful or even invaluable.

File management

a2ps Convert a text file to PostScript, and (by default) print it
cat Concatenate text files — or simply display text files
cd Change to some other directory
chgrp Change the group to which a file belongs
chmod Change access modes, e.g. chmod go-rwx file1 to make a file invisible to others
chown Change the owner of a file
cp Copy files
hd Dump a file, showing both hex and ASCII versions
head Display the first few lines of a file
less Display a file, page by page
ln Create an alias ('link') for a file, e.g. ln -s current_name new_name
ls List files contained in a directory
mkdir Create a directory
mv Move or rename files or directories
pwd Print the present working directory (where am I?)
rm Remove files
rmdir Remove a directory
tail Display the last few lines of a file
wc Word count — also the line and character count


scp File transfer
sftp File transfer
ssh For terminal-like sessions on remote hosts

File comparisons

cmp Compare two files (usually binary files), byte by byte
diff Compare two files (usually ASCII files), line by line
kompare Compare two files graphically


display For image viewing and manipulation — moderately elaborate
gimp For image manipulation — very elaborate
ksnapshot For screen capture
xfig For creating line drawings
xv For image viewing and manipulation — not too elaborate


lpq Show contents of printer queue
lpr Send file to printer
lprm Remove print job from queue


apropos Search man pages for given topic
find Search directory tree for specific filenames
grep Search text files for specific words
locate Find files based on partial names
strings Extract all text from a file

Bundling of files

bzip2 Compress a file, producing a .bz2 file
bunzip2 Uncompress a .bz2 file
compress Compress a file, producing a .Z file
gunzip Uncompress either a .gz or .Z file
gzip Compress file, producing a .gz file
tar Bundle many files into one
uncompress Uncompress a .Z file

Text processing

awk Non-interactive editor (line-orientated)
cut Select particular columns from a text file
dos2unix Deal with the DOS vs Unix newline difference
emacs Elaborate text editor
nedit Friendly text editor
sed Non-interactive editor (stream-oriented)
sort Sort or merge files
tr Translate (redefine or delete) characters, e.g. tr -d ',' < fil > fil2
unix2dos Deal with the DOS vs Unix newline difference
vi Classic text editor

Word processing

kword Similar to Word™
ooffice Similar to Word™
latex Utterly unlike Word™
dvips Turns LaTeX output into PostScript
dvipdf Turns LaTeX output into PDF
ps2pdf Turns PostScript into PDF
gv For viewing PostScript and PDF documents
xpdf For viewing PDF documents
acroread For viewing PDF documents


df Show the capacity and usage of each partition
du Show the size of all subdirectories
env Show all environment variables
kill Terminate a running program, e.g. kill -9 10283
renice Alter the priority of a running program, e.g. renice -n 10 12872
ps Show all running programs, e.g. ps -ef
quota Show your disk usage and quota
top Show active programs


clear Clear the terminal window
finger Find out about a user, e.g. finger paul
ispell Spell checker
man Display a man page
passwd Alter your password
source Run a C shell script, e.g. source ~/.cshrc
w Who is logged on
which Show the full path of a program
xargs Organizes multiple command line arguments
xrdb Manage your X11 resources, e.g. xrdb .Xdefaults

Note: Linux is astonishingly diverse in its manifestations, and is evolving rapidly. Consequently you may find that as many as 5 to 10% of the above commands are unavailable on your system. The common commands are quite stable, however.

Some examples

Some of the commands in Some common commands are so common and useful that they deserve a few more comments.

gzip and gunzip

These are used for compressing and uncompressing files. Typically you will have a file, for example Study0223.tar, that you want to compress before FTP'ing it to some other site. You just need to enter

    gzip Study0223.tar

and the original file will be replaced by one named Study0223.tar.gz. Conversely, if you receive a file with the tell-tale extension .gz then entering

    gunzip Study0223.tar.gz

will expand the file to one named Study0223.tar. The uncompression command gunzip is especially useful since it can deal with several compression formats: gzip, zip, compress, and pack. The detection of the input format is automatic.


The name tar comes from Tape ARchive, but is more commonly used to bundle a group of files and write it to another file, rather than to a tape. A simple example would be:

    tar cvf tarfile.tar file1.eeg file2.eeg ...

This takes any number of files file1.eeg file2.eeg ..., specified explicitly or using wildcard characters ('*', '?' etc), and bundles them into an output file tarfile.tar. The options are: c to create an archive, v to do so verbosely, and f to output to a file with the immediately following name. (The v is optional, but can be reassuring.)

It is probably more common (and more powerful) to specify a directory instead of a list of input files, as in:

    tar cvf /media/usb/backup.chris.jan.tar /suphys/chris

which is what I might do to back up my home directory, including all subdirectories. A warning though: it is both illogical and bad to tar a directory and write the output file to that same directory!

If you receive a tar file, say somefile.tar, then I suggest you first look at its contents by

    tar tf somefile.tar

This will produce a list of the enclosed files, including any subdirectories. When you untar the file, the listed files — including subdirectories — can be created in the current directory, and this might not be what you want. It is advisable to use the t option to anticipate exactly what will happen when you extract the contents of the tar file. Perhaps you should move the tar file into a suitably-named subdirectory before extracting its contents. What you don't want to do is extract lots of files, and then find that they are hopelessly mixed up with pre-existing files…

When you are satisfied that the tar file is in an appropriate location, you can extract everything with

    tar xvf somefile.tar

where x means extract, and v and f have the usual meanings. Users will occasionally wish to extract a specific file or files: that is easily achieved by appending the names of the required files, as in

    tar xvf somefile.tar go-nogo/10038259/slice5.dcm

The requested file 'slice5.dcm' will then be created in a subdirectory 'go-nogo/10038259/' under the current directory.


While the command locate may be adequate much of the time for tracking down files, the command find is far more powerful. The basic usage is find directory criterion. It searches in directory directory, and all subdirectories, for anything matching criterion. Thus you could enter

    find ~/docs -name thesis.doc

to look for thesis.doc among your personal documents, or

    find ~ -name 'note*'

to find files with names matching note*. (Note that the quotes are essential when using wildcard characters with find.)

You can search for particular directory names, as well as file names. If you wish to be specific, you could expand the criterion by appending -type d or -type f.

The criteria can go far beyond the simple cases above. Here are a few more examples:

find ~ -atime -4 All files under ~ accessed in last 4 days
find ~ -mtime -4 All files under ~ modified in last 4 days
find / -user chris List all files owned by chris
find ~ -name 'core.*' -exec rm {} \; Delete all core dumps

The find command is even more powerful in combination with others. A very common example is this: you want to identify a subset of files (*.tex) within some directory (~/docs) and all subdirectories; and to search within this subset of files for a particular string of characters ('needle'). The way to do this is:

    find ~/docs -name '*.tex' | xargs grep -n 'needle'

The output shows, for each match, the file, line number and the line itself.

The following shows progressive elaboration of a find, which ultimately performs a selective archive of all recently modified files.

find ./progs ./tex -ctime -75 -type f
All files under ./progs and ./tex that have been created, modified, or had their status changed in the last 75 days
find ./progs ./tex -ctime -75 -type f \
     -o -path ./progs/corejsf -prune  \
     -o -path ./progs/jeda/build -prune
Ditto, but exclude two subdirectories
find ./progs ./tex -ctime -75 -type f \
     -o -path ./progs/corejsf -prune  \
     -o -path ./progs/jeda/build -prune \
     | xargs tar cvf backup.tar
Ditto, but additionally bundle the files as backup.tar


It is very common to use the make utility when compiling programs, although make can be used for doing all sorts of operations. This utility looks for a file, conventionally named Makefile, and performs any one of several sets of commands.

An example Makefile is as follows:

    PROG    =eegfit
    CC      =gcc
    # For profiling support add -pg, for which -g3 is a prerequisite
    CFLAGS_G        = -Wall
    CFLAGS_D        = -g3 -ggdb
    CFLAGS_R        = -O 
    # For profiling support add -pg
    LFLAGS_G        = -lX11 -lm -lncurses -L/usr/X11R6/lib
    LFLAGS_D        = 
    LFLAGS_R        = 
    SOURCES = eegfit.c spectfit.c xlib.c gammq.c \
              gser.c gcf.c gammln.c ran1.c gasdev.c
    OBJECTS = eegfit.o spectfit.o xlib.o gammq.o \
              gser.o gcf.o gammln.o ran1.o gasdev.o
    %.o: %.c
            $(CC) $(CFLAGS) -c $<
    eegfit: $(OBJECTS)
            $(CC) -o $@ $(OBJECTS) $(LFLAGS)
            rm -f *.o $(PROG)
            $(CC) $(CFLAGS) -c $(SOURCES)
            tar -cvf eegfit.tar $(SOURCES) *.h makefile
    # Dependencies
    eegfit.o:       parameter.h
    spectfit.o:     parameter.h xlib.h
    xlib.o:         xlib.h

This example makefile specifies all the files involved in a program, eegfit, and all the operations required to achieve certain ends: compilation, starting afresh, and creating a tar archive. Having created this makefile, it is then just a matter of typing one of the following:

make eegfit Compile the application
make Ditto
make clean Delete the object files and the executable
make tar Bundle all source files into eegfit.tar


The key to convenient program execution is understanding your $PATH. This is an 'environment' variable: it can be examined by typing echo $PATH, and it lists all directories that are searched automatically whenever you try to run a program. If a program with the name you specify is found in any of the directories listed in $PATH, then it is run — otherwise you get a message Command not found.

As an example of displaying the $PATH:

    echo $PATH

The presence of '/bin' is the reason you can type vi instead of having to type the full, explicit path /bin/vi, whenever you want to edit a file. For the same reason the '.' at the end means that programs in your current directory can be run without any directory prefix.

You are free to alter the $PATH variable, and the best way to do so is in your .cshrc file. This is a configuration file for your command interpreter or 'shell', and can be viewed by less ~/.cshrc. You will generally see in it references to setenv and much else besides. If you want to prepend some directory to your $PATH (your personal program directory ~/bin, say) then type either of

    setenv PATH ~/bin:$PATH
    set path=(~/bin $path)

(both do the same thing), and from then on you will be able to run your program ~/bin/model (say) just by typing model, irrespective of your current directory.

Actually it is better to place the above line in your .cshrc file — otherwise the change is limited to the terminal window in which you typed it.

Typing printenv will give you a full list of environment variables: those you specified in your .cshrc file, plus those that the operating system sets automatically. You will see $PATH, discussed above, the environment variable $PRINTER, which specified your preferred printer, $DISPLAY, which says where graphics are to appear, and much else.

Note the alias commands in .cshrc, which define personal keyboard shortcuts. For example if you routinely type

   ssh joe.physics.usyd.edu.au

to access the computer 'joe' then you can add

   alias ssh-joe 'ssh joe.physics.usyd.edu.au'

to your .cshrc and then access joe just by typing ssh-joe.

Shell programming

Once you are comfortable with Unix/Linux commands, you can considering even more interesting operations.

Consider the hypothetical problem of separating a collection of serially-numbered files with names like mr2366.dcm, mr2367.dcm, mr2368.dcm, …. You want to copy just the odd-numbered slices to a neighbouring directory named Odd, while also renaming the copied files to mrOdd2367.dcm, mrOdd2369.dcm, …. If there were just three or four files needing to be moved, then you could issue a series of explicit mv commands, one per file. But for any more you should consider using the programming power of the shell.

In the above hypothetical case, the solution would be to enter the following three lines at the shell prompt:

    foreach f ( *[13579].dcm )
    mv $f ../Odd/`echo $f | sed 's/mr/mrOdd/'`

The first line looks for all odd-numbered slices, and for each creates a mv command defined by the second line. As a result, a series of commands, like those that you could have typed manually, is executed automatically:

    mv mr2367.dcm ../Odd/mrOdd2367.dcm
    mv mr2369.dcm ../Odd/mrOdd2369.dcm

Shell programming is undoubtedly an advanced topic. However it is often the perfect solution to a problem. Long or frequently-used sets of commands can be bundled into a shell script, and the script can then be run as a single command. (You will need to chmod it as well, to make it executable.) In the above example, the 3-line script might be named extract_odd, and run simply by typing this name. It doesn't get much easier than that.

Scripting can be about moving files and manipulating filenames. It can also be about modifying the contents of files. sort, cut and join can be used to rearrange tabular material very simply. The utilities sed and gawk provide more powerful programmatic methods for modifying, collating, and extracting values in text files. For example, if a file contains columns of numbers, and you want to see just the first column and the ratio of the next two, then

    gawk '{if(NF>=3) print $1,$2/$3}' dat.txt

will do the job.

Finally, the code below is a realistic example of a shell script, whose goal should be obvious. To maximize its utility the script (named t2ps) is placed in ~/bin, which should be made part of your $PATH.

if ($#argv == 0) then
  echo -n "File(s): "
  set filelist = ($<)
  set filelist = ($argv[*])

# Strip extensions, if present
set filelist = ($filelist:gr)

# Process each file, checking first that each exists
foreach filename ( $filelist )
  if ( -e $filename.tex && -f $filename.tex ) then
    latex $filename.tex && dvips $filename -o && rm $filename.{aux,dvi,log} 
    echo "t2ps: input file $filename.tex not found"

Shell programming is a big topic. Reading man tcsh (or man bash) is a start, but a difficult one. I recommend books like Linux in a Nutshell and Redhat Linux Toolbox, which concisely cover all topics and provide brief examples. Also I like and recommend the many freely-available reference cards: see, for example, the collection at www.cheat-sheets.org.


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