8.3 Working with Files and Directories
To address a certain file or directory, you must specify the path
leading to that directory or file. As you may know from MS DOS or Mac OS
already, there are two ways to specify a path:
- Absolute Path
Enter the entire path from the root directory to the respective
file or directory.
- Relative Path
Enter a path to the respective file or directory by using the
current directory as a starting point. This implies to give the levels
you have to move up or down in the file system tree to reach the target
directory of file, starting from the current directory.
Paths contain filenames, directories or both, separated by slashes.
Absolute paths always start with a slash. Relative paths do not have a
slash at the beginning, but can have one or two dots.
When entering commands, you can choose either way to specify a
path—depending on your preferences or the amount of typing—both
will lead to the same result. To change directories, use the
cd command and specify the path to the directory.
NOTE: Handling Blanks in Filenames or Directory Names
If a filename or the name of a directory contains a space, either
escape the space using a back slash (\) in front of the
blank or enclose the filename in single quotes. Otherwise
Bash interprets a filename like My Documents as the
names of two files or directories, My and
Documents in this case.
When specifying paths, the following
shortcuts can save
you a lot of typing:
The tilde symbol (~) is a shortcut for home
directories. For example, to list the contents of your home directory,
use ls ~. To list the contents of
another user's home directory, enter ls
course, this will only work if you have permission to view the contents,
see Section 7.3, File Access Permissions). For example, entering
ls ~tux would list the contents of the home directory
of a user named tux. You can
use the tilde symbol as shortcut for home directories also if you are
working in a network environment and where your home directory may not be
called /home but can be mapped to any directory in
the file system.
From anywhere in the file system, you can reach your home directory
by entering cd ~ or even shorter, by
simply entering cd without any options.
When using relative paths, refer to the current directory with a dot
(.). This is mainly useful for commands such as
cp or mv by which you can copy or
move files or directories.
The next higher level in the tree is represented by two dots
(..). In order to switch to the parent directory of
your current directory, enter cd .., to go up two
levels from the current directory enter cd ../..
To apply your knowledge, find some examples below. They address basic
tasks you may want to execute with files or folders using Bash.
8.3.1 Examples for Working with Files and Directories
Suppose you want to copy a file located somewhere in your home
directory to a subdirectory of /tmp.
First, from your home directory create a subdirectory in
mkdir stands for
directory. This command creates a new directory named
test in the /tmp directory.
In this case, you are using an absolute path to create the
To check what happened, now enter
ls -l /tmp
The new directory test should appear in the
list of contents of the /tmp directory.
Switch to the newly created directory with
Now create a new file in a subdirectory of your home directory and
copy it to /tmp/test. Use a relative path for this
IMPORTANT: Overwriting of Existing Files
Before copying, moving or renaming a file, check if your target
directory already contains a file with the same name. If yes, consider
to change one of the filenames or use cp or
mv with options like -i which will
prompt before overwriting an existing file. Otherwise Bash will
overwrite an existing file without inquiry.
To list the contents of your home directory, enter
ls -l ~
It should contain a subdirectory called
Documents by default. If not, create this
subdirectory with the mkdir command you already
This command creates a new, empty file named
myfile.txt in the Documents
Usually, the touch command updates the
modification and access date for an existing file. If you use
touch with a filename which does not exist in your
target directory, it creates a new file.
ls -l ~/Documents
The new file should appear in the list of contents.
cp ~/Documents/myfile.txt .
Do not forget the dot at the end.
This command tells Bash to go to your home directory and to copy
myfile.txt from the
Documents subdirectory to the current directory,
/tmp/test, without changing the name of the
Check the result by entering
The file myfile.txt should appear in the
list of contents for /tmp/test.
Now suppose you want to rename myfile.txt into
tuxfile.txt. Finally you decide to remove the
renamed file and the test subdirectory.
To rename the file, enter
mv myfile.txt tuxfile.txt
To check what happened, enter
Instead of myfile.txt,
tuxfile.txt should appear in the list of
mv stands for move and is
used with two options: the first option specifies the source, the second
option specifies the target of the operation. You can use
Coming to the conclusion that you do not need the file any longer,
you can delete it by entering
Bash deletes the file without any inquiry.
Move up one level with cd .. and check
ls -l test
if the test directory is empty now.
If yes, you can remove the test directory by