DataScience Workbook / 02. Introduction to the Command Line / 2. Introduction to UNIX Shell / 2.1 Basic Commands: Navigation, File Creation & Preview


The Unix Shell has several built-in text commands, which once executed force the computing machine to perform speific task.
In this tutorial you will learn how to use commands to:

  • navigate in the file system using paths
  • create/copy/move/remove folders and files
  • list contents of the folder
  • preview file contents
  • modify text files manually in the terminal editors

First, open Terminal window and download the working directory of this tutorial by copying and pasting the following commnands to your terminal:

wget XXX

1. The Unix manual pages and history of used commands

manmanual, gives a guide of asked command

The man command will provide a description of a unix command and list the parameters that can be used to modify its behavior. To exit the manual for a command you press q on your keyboard.

man ls
man less

history – gives a history of recently used Unix commands

Browse all your previously used commands by typing history on your terminal (typically, last 500 commands will be saved in this file).

It is often convenient to find a command or oneliner by searching your history. Try these oneliners.

history | grep man | tail -n 5

NOTE: You can also recall your previous commands by pressing ↑ or ↓ arrow keys.

2. The Unix special characters

Character Function Syntax Example usage
? replaces single character   m?_file.txt to replace ‘y’ in the my_file.txt
* replaces multiple characters   *file.txt to replace ‘my_’ in the my_file.txt
\| executes commands in order command_1 | command_2 cat my_file.txt | tail -5
> save standard stream to the output file command_1 > output_file cat my_file.txt > output.txt
>> append standard stream to the end of the output file command_1 » output_file cat my_file.txt » output.txt
2> save error stream to the output file command_1 > output_file cat my_file.txt 2> output.txt
2>> append error stream to the end of the output file command_1 2» output_file cat my_file.txt 2» output.txt
2>&1 redirects standard error to standard output command_1 2>&1 output_file cat my_file.txt 2>&1 output.txt
/dev/null discard output from saving command_1 > /dev/null cat my_file.txt > /dev/null
\n breaks text into next line   echo “text \n text in the next line”
\t inserts tabulator space   echo “text \t text after tabulator space”

? and * – variables to represent one or many chracters in filenames

First, let’s display all text files with the .txt extension located on current path.

ls ./*.txt

We can use the ? variable to represent any single character. Therefore, all the Number files will have this pattern: ?.txt and all the Letter text files will have this pattern: ??.txt

First, verify this with the ls command

ls ??.txt
ls ?.txt

| – pipe to execute commands in the ordered sequence

3. Command-line navigation in the file system

3.1 Paths

You can use absolute path or abbreviated path.

Checking current path

pwd – Path of Working Directory

At this point you might be feeling like you are completely blind because you can’t see the result of what you did. So let me teach you a few more commands and change that. This command will tell you where you are.


In my case this returns the following to standard out where severin is my username that I used to log in.


What this is telling me is that I am in a directory named severin which is in a directory named home.

Changing the path

cdChange Directory

You will recall we made a directory called unixTutorial above. We can change to that directory using the cd command.

cd unixTutorial

Now if we type the path of working directory command pwd we get the following


We are now in a directory called unixTutorial which is a subdirectory of severin which is a subdirectory of home.

To change back to the previous directory we can type in the full path like so.

cd /home/severin/

or we can use .. which refers to the directory above the one you are in and type this.

cd ..

NOTE: Present directory is represented as . (dot) and parent directory is represented as .. (dot dot).

Try this out with the following commands

cd unixTutorial
cd ..
cd ..
cd ..
cd unixTutorial

TIP: You can type in first few letters of the directory name and then press Tab to auto complete rest of the name (especially useful when the file/directory name is long). This only works when there are unique matches for the starting letters you have typed. If there is more than one matching files/directories, pressing Tab twice will list all the matching names.

4. Command-line directory operations

4.1 Folder creation

Creating an empty dir

This section will introduce you to some basic file/directory navigation

mkdir – Make Directory Command

Let’s make a new directory (folder) called unixTutorial. To create a directory, the mkdir (make directory) command can be used. Type in the next command and hit the ↵ (Enter) key. Notice there is a space between the mkdir command and the filename we supply to the mkdir command

mkdir unixTutorial

NOTE: Unlike PC/Mac folders, in Unix it is better to not include spaces in names for directories. (the underscore “_” can be used to replace any spaces you might want).

Once you hit return, you will not see anything it will just give you a new prompt and if you try to type it again you will get an error message. Go ahead and try this if you want.

mkdir unixTutorial
mkdir: cannot create directory ‘unixTutorial’: File exists

Copying a dir

cpcopy command

The cp command can be used to duplicate a folder. To copy a folder you have to add the -r parameter to copy recursively

cp -r Letters Letters_copy

(Re)Moving a dir

rmdir or rm -rRemove Directory

This command can remove an empty directory

Let’s remove the extra Deleteme2 directory using this command

rmdir Deleteme3

Warning about deleting files and directories

In Unix there is no undo command. If you delete a file it is gone. There is no trash bin. The next two commands are very powerful commands and cna lead to unfortunate losses if not used with care. With that said you can only delete files you have created. So it is impossible to delete someone else files without permission.

4.2 Folder Preview

ls (list) command

Command Function Syntax/example usage
ls list contents ls [OPTIONS] DIRECTORY

Now that we know how to move between directories, The contents of a directory can be viewed using ls. If no directory name is provided then ls will list all the contents of the present directory.

ls .

Everyone should currently be in their unixTutorial directory that they just created, which is empty so the ls command will return you to a new prompt without anything written to standard out. To exit nano you type this series of keys – hit ctr x press y for yes to save and hit enter. Nano tells you how to exit along with many of the following shortcuts at the bottom of your screen and will step you through how to exit and save.

There are useful parameters for ls command that include:

ls –l #Lists all the files in lengthy or detailed view
ls –t #Lists all the files, sorted based on creation time
ls –S #Lists all the files, sorted based on size

5. Command-line file operations

File operations    
Command Function Syntax/example usage
touch create file touch FILE
rm remove file(s) rm FILE
cp copy files/directories cp SOURCE DESTINATION
mv move files/directories mv SOURCE DESTINATION

5.1 File creation

Creating an empty file

touch command

This command is used to quickly create many empty files.

touch AA.txt
touch BB.txt
touch CC.txt
touch 1.txt
touch 2.txt
touch 3.txt

Now if you use the ls command the standard output will be

1.txt 2.txt 3.txt AA.txt BB.txt CC.txt

You can also create multiple files using this command.

touch DD.txt EE.txt GG.txt 4.txt 5.txt 6.txt

The standard output now returns

1.txt 2.txt 3.txt 4.txt 5.txt 6.txt AA.txt BB.txt CC.txt DD.txt EE.txt GG.txt

Copying a file

cpcopy command

The cp command can be used to duplicate a file

cp myFirstFile.txt mySecondfile.txt

(Re)Moving a file

rmRemove file

In this example, we will remove the file deleteme3.txt in the Deleteme2 directory.

rm Deleteme2/deleteme3.txt

The -r is a parameter that attempts to remove directories as well as other types of files

rm -r Deleteme Deleteme2/deleteme3.txt

mvmove command

Move is used to move files to a different location and to rename a file.

mv 1.txt Numbers

The second function for the mv command is to rename a file. If you look inside the Letters directory, you will see that one of the letter.txt files is not in sequence. If we wanted to rename GG.txt to FF.txt we would do the following.

mv GG.txt FF.txt

5.2 File Preview

Easy to remember these commands using this sentence.

A cat has a head and a tail, more or less

File/Directory operations    
cat catalog file contents cat FILE
head show first few lines of a file head FILE
tail show last few lines of a file tail FILE
more view file (with less options) more FILE
less view file (with more options) less FILE

Viewing file without edition

more – command to step through a file one screen length at a time using the spacebar. hit q to quit the file before reaching the end.

more numSeq.txt

less – similar to the more command but lets you scroll backwards as well.

less numSeq.txt
less navigation  
q quit
u up one screen
d or space bar down one screen
g NUM go to line NUM

Streaming file content

cat – concatenate and print files

This command will print out the entire file. Try it out with the numSeq.txt file. You should see all 100 numbers print to the screen.

head – head of the file.

This command will give you the first 10 lines of a file. Try it out with the numSeq.txt file.

head numSeq.txt
head -n 5 numSeq.txt

The -n parameter tells the head function to printout in this case 5 lines instead of the default 10 lines.

tail – tail of the file

This command will give you the last 10 lines of a file. Try it out with the numSeq.txt file.

tail numSeq.txt
tail -n 5 numSeq.txt

Modifying file in the text editor

To learn about Terminal Text Editors see another tutorial: Text Files Editors.

Further Reading

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