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`help` vs `--help` in Linux: Deciphering the Two

In Linux and Unix-like systems, you often encounter two primary mechanisms for accessing command documentation right from the terminal: the help command and the --help option. While both serve a similar purpose—providing help and information about commands—they operate in distinct ways and cater to different types of commands. This article aims to dissect the differences between these two, helping you understand when and how to use each.

Exploring --help Option

The --help option is a common feature for many executable programs and external commands in Linux. This option displays a help message with a brief overview of the command's functionality, its syntax, and options.


command_name --help

Example: ls --help

For instance, if you want to know how to use the ls command and its options, you would type:

ls --help

This will produce a help message that describes what the ls command does, along with a list of options and their descriptions. Unlike help, the --help option is usually more concise and may not offer as detailed explanations as man pages or other sources of documentation.

Table: help vs --help

Featurehelp Command--help Option
ScopeShell built-insExternal commands/programs
Syntaxhelp [option] patterncommand_name --help
Detail LevelDetailed for built-ins, can offer examplesUsually concise, option-specific
FlexibilityOffers pattern matching, can list all built-insFixed output, no customization
AvailabilityBuilt into the shell, always available for built-insAvailable if implemented by the command
Example Use-casehelp cd, help -d "c*"ls --help, grep --help

When to Use Which?

  • Use help when dealing with shell built-ins: If you need comprehensive information about commands like cd, echo, read, etc., which are built into the shell, help is your best bet.

  • Use --help for external commands: For external programs and utilities like ls, grep, or wget, use the --help option for a quick rundown of available options and basic usage.


Though help and --help serve similar end goals, the two are far from interchangeable. The help command is specialized for providing detailed information on shell built-in commands, while the --help option is designed to provide a quick overview of external commands and programs. Knowing the differences between the two will enable you to more effectively seek out command-line assistance, enriching your Linux command-line experience.

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