Skip to main content

Text Completion in Linux Command-Line Interface (CLI)

One of the most powerful features of the Linux Command-Line Interface (CLI) is the ability to perform text completion, making it easier and faster to enter commands, file paths, and even command options. In this article, we'll explore the concept of text completion in detail, understand its underlying mechanics, and learn the keystroke combinations that enable this functionality.

Underlying Mechanism: The Readline Library

The GNU Readline library often powers the text completion feature in Linux CLI. Used by various shell programs like Bash, the Readline library provides the CLI with a set of sophisticated text completion and manipulation capabilities that greatly enhance user productivity.

Benefits of Text Completion

  1. Efficiency: Text completion drastically reduces the number of keystrokes required.
  2. Accuracy: It helps in minimizing typos and errors.
  3. Discovery: Auto-completion can also act as a prompt, helping you discover available commands, files, and options.

Types of Text Completion

  1. Command Completion: Completes the name of a command.
  2. File and Directory Completion: Completes file and directory names.
  3. Variable Completion: Completes environment and shell variable names.
  4. User Completion: Completes usernames for relevant commands.
  5. Option Completion: Some shells even complete command options (arguments).

Keystroke Combinations for Text Completion

Here's a table of keystroke combinations specifically for text completion in the Linux CLI:

TabPerform basic auto-completion.
Shift + Tab(In some setups) Cycle through multiple completion options.
Alt + ?Show a list of possible completions.
Alt + *Insert all possible completions.
Alt + /Attempt to complete filename under the cursor.
Ctrl + IEquivalent to Tab for auto-completion.
Alt + Tab(In some setups) Toggle between completed items.
Ctrl + X, Ctrl + FComplete filename under the cursor (Explicit invocation).
Ctrl + X, Ctrl + VComplete shell variable name under the cursor (Explicit invocation).

Note: The availability and functionality of these keystrokes can vary based on the shell you're using and its configuration.

Customization and Advanced Features

  1. Custom Bindings: You can customize the key bindings for text completion using the Readline's inputrc file or shell-specific configuration files.
  2. Programmable Completion: Advanced users can write custom completion scripts for specific tasks.

Example Of Text Completion

Here are some examples demonstrating how text completion works. For demonstration purposes, let's start by creating some dummy files and directories:

  1. Creating Dummy Files and Directories

    mkdir demo_dir
    cd demo_dir
    touch file1.txt file2.txt file3.txt
    mkdir folder1 folder2 folder3

Example 1: Command Completion

Suppose you want to list the files and directories using the ls command. You can type l and then press Tab to complete the command.


After hitting Tab, the CLI will complete it to:


Example 2: File and Directory Completion

After navigating to demo_dir, suppose you want to view the contents of file1.txt using the cat command. You can type cat fi and then press Tab:

cat fi[Tab]

This will autocomplete to:

cat file1.txt

Example 3: Ambiguous File and Directory Completion

If you type cat fi and then press Tab in our demo_dir, there are multiple files that start with fi (i.e., file1.txt, file2.txt, file3.txt). Pressing Tab once may not complete the text, but pressing Tab twice quickly will show you all the possible options:

cat fi[Tab][Tab]

This will display:

file1.txt  file2.txt  file3.txt

Example 4: User Completion

The chown command changes the ownership of a file. It usually requires a username. Let's say a user named "john" exists on the system. Typing chown jo and then pressing Tab would complete it to chown john.

chown jo[Tab]

This will autocomplete to:

chown john

Example 5: Variable Completion

Assume you have an environment variable named MY_VARIABLE. Typing echo $MY and then pressing Tab would complete it:

echo $MY[Tab]

This will autocomplete to:



Text completion is one of the features that make the Linux CLI a powerful and efficient interface for both new and experienced users. Mastering text completion can significantly speed up your workflow, reduce errors, and make the CLI a more pleasant environment to work in.

By understanding the keystroke combinations and utilizing the feature to its fullest, you are equipping yourself with one of the most effective tools in the Linux command-line toolkit.

What Can You Do Next 🙏😊

If you liked the article, consider subscribing to Cloudaffle, my YouTube Channel, where I keep posting in-depth tutorials and all edutainment stuff for software developers.

YouTube @cloudaffle