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The growth of command line options, 1979-Present #Unix #Linux @danluu

Dan Luu posts the opening up of McIlroy’s UNIX philosophy on one monitor while reading manpages on the other:

The first of McIlroy’s dicta is often paraphrased as “do one thing and do it well”, which is shortened from “Make each program do one thing well. To do a new job, build afresh rather than complicate old programs by adding new ‘features.'”

McIlroy’s example of this dictum is:

Surprising to outsiders is the fact that UNIX compilers produce no listings: printing can be done better and more flexibly by a separate program.

If you open up a manpage for ls on mac, you’ll see that it starts with

ls [-ABCFGHLOPRSTUW@abcdefghiklmnopqrstuwx1] [file ...]

That is, the one-letter flags to ls include every lowercase letter except for {jvyz}, 14 uppercase letters, plus @ and 1. That’s 22 + 14 + 2 = 38 single-character options alone. (!!)

Things have grown out of control over the years!

Check out Dan’s whole uncovering of the truth – spoiler: tar is a serial offender!


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