The Missing Readline Primer

Readline is one of those technologies that is so commonly used many users don’t realise it’s there.

I went looking for a good primer on it so I could understand it better, but failed to find one. This is an attempt to write a primer that may help users get to grips with it, based on what I’ve managed to glean as I’ve tried to research and experiment with it over the years.

Bash Without Readline

First you’re going to see what bash looks like without readline.

In your ‘normal’ bash shell, hit the TAB key twice. You should see something like this:

    Display all 2335 possibilities? (y or n)

That’s because bash normally has an ‘autocomplete’ function that allows you to see what commands are available to you if you tap tab twice.

Hit n to get out of that autocomplete.

Another useful function that’s commonly used is that if you hit the up arrow key a few times, then the previously-run commands should be brought back to the command line.

Now type:

$ bash --noediting

The --noediting flag starts up bash without the readline library enabled.

If you hitTAB twice now you will see something different: the shell no longer ‘sees’ your tab and just sends a tab direct to the screen, moving your cursor along. Autocomplete has gone.

Autocomplete is just one of the things that the readline library gives you in the terminal. You might want to try hitting the up or down arrows as you did above to see that that no longer works as well.

Hit return to get a fresh command line, and exit your non-readline-enabled bash shell:

$ exit

Other Shortcuts

There are a great many shortcuts like autocomplete available to you if readline is enabled. I’ll quickly outline four of the most commonly-used of these before explaining how you can find out more.

$ echo 'some command'

There should not be many surprises there. Now if you hit the ‘up’ arrow, you will see you can get the last command back on your line. If you like, you can re-run the command, but there are other things you can do with readline before you hit return.

If you hold down the ctrl key and then hit a at the same time your cursor will return to the start of the line. Another way of representing this ‘multi-key’ way of inputting is to write it like this: \C-a. This is one conventional way to represent this kind of input. The \C represents the control key, and the -a represents that the a key is depressed at the same time.

Now if you hit \C-e (ctrl and e) then your cursor has moved to the end of the line. I use these two dozens of times a day.

Another frequently useful one is \C-l, which clears the screen, but leaves your command line intact.

The last one I’ll show you allows you to search your history to find matching commands while you type. Hit \C-r, and then type ec. You should see theecho command you just ran like this:

    (reverse-i-search)`ec': echo echo

Then do it again, but keep hitting \C-r over and over. You should see all the commands that have `ec` in them that you’ve input before (if you’ve only got one echo command in your history then you will only see one). As you see them you are placed at that point in your history and you can move up and down from there or just hit return to re-run if you want.

There are many more shortcuts that you can use that readline gives you. Next I’ll show you how to view these.

This is based on some of the contents of my book Learn Bash the Hard Way, available at $6.99.


Using `bind` to Show Readline Shortcuts

If you type:

$ bind -p

You will see a list of bindings that readline is capable of. There’s a lot of them!

Have a read through if you’re interested, but don’t worry about understanding them all yet.

If you type:

$ bind -p | grep C-a

you’ll pick out the ‘beginning-of-line’ binding you used before, and see the \C-anotation I showed you before.

As an exercise at this point, you might want to look for the \C-e and \C-r bindings we used previously.

If you want to look through the entirety of the bind -p output, then you will want to know that \M refers to the Meta key (which you might also know as the Alt key), and \erefers to the Esc key on your keyboard. The ‘escape’ key bindings are different in that you don’t hit it and another key at the same time, rather you hit it, and then hit another key afterwards. So, for example, typing the Esc key, and then the ? key also tries to auto-complete the command you are typing. This is documented as:

    "\e?": possible-completions

in the bind -p output.

Readline and Terminal Options

If you’ve looked over the possibilities that readline offers you, you might have seen the \C-r binding we looked at earlier:

    "\C-r": reverse-search-history

You might also have seen that there is another binding that allows you to search forward through your history too:

    "\C-s": forward-search-history

What often happens to me is that I hit \C-r over and over again, and then go too fast through the history and fly past the command I was looking for. In these cases I might try to hit \C-s to search forward and get to the one I missed.

Watch out though! Hitting \C-s to search forward through the history might well not work for you.

Why is this, if the binding is there and readline is switched on?

It’s because something picked up the \C-s before it got to the readline library: the terminal settings.

The terminal program you are running in may have standard settings that do other things on hitting some of these shortcuts before readline gets to see it.

If you type:

$ stty -e

you should get output similar to this:

speed 9600 baud; 47 rows; 202 columns;
lflags: icanon isig iexten echo echoe -echok echoke -echonl echoctl -echoprt -altwerase -noflsh -tostop -flusho pendin -nokerninfo -extproc
iflags: -istrip icrnl -inlcr -igncr ixon -ixoff ixany imaxbel -iutf8 -ignbrk brkint -inpck -ignpar -parmrk
oflags: opost onlcr -oxtabs -onocr -onlret
cflags: cread cs8 -parenb -parodd hupcl -clocal -cstopb -crtscts -dsrflow -dtrflow -mdmbuf
discard dsusp   eof     eol     eol2    erase   intr    kill    lnext
^O      ^Y      ^D      <undef> <undef> ^?      ^C      ^U      ^V
min     quit    reprint start   status  stop    susp    time    werase
1       ^\      ^R      ^Q      ^T      ^S      ^Z      0       ^W

You can see on the last four lines (discard dsusp [...]) there is a table of key bindings that your terminal will pick up before readline sees them. The ^ character (known as the ‘caret’) here represents the ctrl key that we previously represented with a \C.

If you think this is confusing I won’t disagree. Unfortunately in the history of Unix and Linux documenters did not stick to one way of describing these key combinations.

If you encounter a problem where the terminal options seem to catch a shortcut key binding before it gets to readline, then you can use the stty program to unset that binding. In this case, we want to unset the ‘stop’ binding.

If you are in the same situation, type:

$ stty stop undef

Now, if you re-run stty -e, the last two lines might look like this:

min     quit    reprint start   status  stop    susp    time    werase
1       ^\      ^R      ^Q      ^T      <undef> ^Z      0       ^W

where the stop entry now has<undef> underneath it.

Strangely, for me C-r is also bound to ‘reprint’ above (^R).

But (on my terminals at least) that gets to readline without issue as I search up the history. Why this is the case I haven’t been able to figure out. I suspect that reprint is ignored by modern terminals that don’t need to ‘reprint’ the current line.

While we are looking at this table:

discard dsusp   eof     eol     eol2    erase   intr    kill    lnext
^O      ^Y      ^D      <undef> <undef> ^?      ^C      ^U      ^V
min     quit    reprint start   status  stop    susp    time    werase
1       ^\      ^R      ^Q      ^T      <undef> ^Z      0       ^W

it’s worth noting a few other key bindings that are used regularly.

First, one you may well already be familiar with is \C-c, which interrupts a program, terminating it:

$ sleep 99
[[Hit \C-c]]

Similarly,\C-z suspends a program, allowing you to ‘foreground’ it again and continue with the fg builtin.

$ sleep 10
[[ Hit \C-z]]
[1]+  Stopped                 sleep 10
$ fg
sleep 10

\C-d sends an ‘end of file’ character. It’s often used to indicate to a program that input is over. If you type it on a bash shell, the bash shell you are in will close.

Finally, \C-w deletes the word before the cursor

These are the most commonly-used shortcuts that are picked up by the terminal before they get to the readline library.

If you like this, you might like one of my books:
Learn Bash the Hard Way

Learn Git the Hard Way
Learn Terraform the Hard Way


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5 thoughts on “The Missing Readline Primer

  1. Hi Ian,

    What OS are you running because stty -e gives the following on Centos 6.x and Ubuntu 18.04.2

    stty -e
    stty: invalid argument ‘-e’
    Try ‘stty –help’ for more information.

  2. You might want to check out the ‘rlwrap’ program. It allows you to have readline behavior on programs that don’t natively support readline, but which have a ‘type in a command’ type interface. For instance, we use Oracle here (alas :-) ) and the ‘sqlplus’ program, that lets you type SQL commands to an Oracle instance does not have anything like readline built into it, so you can’t go back to edit previous commands. But running ‘rlwrap sqlplus’ gives me readline behavior in sqlplus! It’s fantastic to have.

    1. I was told to use this in a class, and I didn’t understand what I did. One rabbit hole later, I was shocked and amazed at how advanced the readline library is. One thing I’d like to add is that you can write a ‘~/.inputrc’ file and have those readline commands sourced at startup!

      I do not know exactly when or how the inputrc is read. Most of what I learned about inputrc stuff is from . Here is my inputrc, if anyone wants: .

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