Conventions for Command Line Options

This article was discussed on Hacker News and critiqued on Wandering Thoughts (2, 3).

Command line interfaces have varied throughout their brief history but have largely converged to some common, sound conventions. The core originates from unix, and the Linux ecosystem extended it, particularly via the GNU project. Unfortunately some tools initially appear to follow the conventions, but subtly get them wrong, usually for no practical benefit. I believe in many cases the authors simply didn’t know any better, so I’d like to review the conventions.

Short Options

The simplest case is the short option flag. An option is a hyphen — specifically HYPHEN-MINUS U+002D — followed by one alphanumeric character. Capital letters are acceptable. The letters themselves have conventional meanings and are worth following if possible.

program -a -b -c

Flags can be grouped together into one program argument. This is both convenient and unambiguous. It’s also one of those often missed details when programs use hand-coded argument parsers, and the lack of support irritates me.

program -abc
program -acb

The next simplest case are short options that take arguments. The argument follows the option.

program -i input.txt -o output.txt

The space is optional, so the option and argument can be packed together into one program argument. Since the argument is required, this is still unambiguous. This is another often-missed feature in hand-coded parsers.

program -iinput.txt -ooutput.txt

This does not prohibit grouping. When grouped, the option accepting an argument must be last.

program -abco output.txt
program -abcooutput.txt

This technique is used to create another category, optional option arguments. The option’s argument can be optional but still unambiguous so long as the space is always omitted when the argument is present.

program -c       # omitted
program -cblue   # provided
program -c blue  # omitted (blue is a new argument)

program -c -x   # two separate flags
program -c-x    # -c with argument "-x"

Optional option arguments should be used judiciously since they can be surprising, but they have their uses.

Options can typically appear in any order — something parsers often achieve via permutation — but non-options typically follow options.

program -a -b foo bar
program -b -a foo bar

GNU-style programs usually allow options and non-options to be mixed, though I don’t consider this to be essential.

program -a foo -b bar
program foo -a -b bar
program foo bar -a -b

If a non-option looks like an option because it starts with a hyphen, use -- to demarcate options from non-options.

program -a -b -- -x foo bar

An advantage of requiring that non-options follow options is that the first non-option demarcates the two groups, so -- is less often needed.

# note: without argument permutation
program -a -b foo -x bar  # 2 options, 3 non-options

Long options

Since short options can be cryptic, and there are such a limited number of them, more complex programs support long options. A long option starts with two hyphens followed by one or more alphanumeric, lowercase words. Hyphens separate words. Using two hyphens prevents long options from being confused for grouped short options.

program --reverse --ignore-backups

Occasionally flags are paired with a mutually exclusive inverse flag that begins with --no-. This avoids a future flag day where the default is changed in the release that also adds the flag implementing the original behavior.

program --sort
program --no-sort

Long options can similarly accept arguments.

program --output output.txt --block-size 1024

These may optionally be connected to the argument with an equals sign =, much like omitting the space for a short option argument.

program --output=output.txt --block-size=1024

Like before, this opens up the doors for optional option arguments. Due to the required = this is still unambiguous.

program --color --reverse
program --color=never --reverse

The -- retains its original behavior of disambiguating option-like non-option arguments:

program --reverse -- --foo bar


Some programs, such as Git, have subcommands each with their own options. The main program itself may still have its own options distinct from subcommand options. The program’s options come before the subcommand and subcommand options follow the subcommand. Options are never permuted around the subcommand.

program -a -b -c subcommand -x -y -z
program -abc subcommand -xyz

Above, the -a, -b, and -c options are for program, and the others are for subcommand. So, really, the subcommand is another command line of its own.

Option parsing libraries

There’s little excuse for not getting these conventions right assuming you’re interested in following the conventions. Short options can be parsed correctly in just ~60 lines of C code. Long options are just slightly more complex.

GNU’s getopt_long() supports long option abbreviation — with no way to disable it (!) — but this should be avoided.

Go’s flag package intentionally deviates from the conventions. It only supports long option semantics, via a single hyphen. This makes it impossible to support grouping even if all options are only one letter. Also, the only way to combine option and argument into a single command line argument is with =. It’s sound, but I miss both features every time I write programs in Go. That’s why I wrote my own argument parser. Not only does it have a nicer feature set, I like the API a lot more, too.

Python’s primary option parsing library is argparse, and I just can’t stand it. Despite appearing to follow convention, it actually breaks convention and its behavior is unsound. For instance, the following program has two options, --foo and --bar. The --foo option accepts an optional argument, and the --bar option is a simple flag.

import argparse
import sys

parser = argparse.ArgumentParser()
parser.add_argument('--foo', type=str, nargs='?', default='X')
parser.add_argument('--bar', action='store_true')

Here are some example runs:

$ python
Namespace(bar=False, foo='X')

$ python --foo
Namespace(bar=False, foo=None)

$ python --foo=arg
Namespace(bar=False, foo='arg')

$ python --bar --foo
Namespace(bar=True, foo=None)

$ python --foo arg
Namespace(bar=False, foo='arg')

Everything looks good except the last. If the --foo argument is optional then why did it consume arg? What happens if I follow it with --bar? Will it consume it as the argument?

$ python --foo --bar
Namespace(bar=True, foo=None)

Nope! Unlike arg, it left --bar alone, so instead of following the unambiguous conventions, it has its own ambiguous semantics and attempts to remedy them with a “smart” heuristic: “If an optional argument looks like an option, then it must be an option!” Non-option arguments can never follow an option with an optional argument, which makes that feature pretty useless. Since argparse does not properly support --, that does not help.

$ python --foo -- arg
usage: [-h] [--foo [FOO]] [--bar] error: unrecognized arguments: -- arg

Please, stick to the conventions unless you have really good reasons to break them!

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null program

Chris Wellons (PGP)
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