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Understanding the `chmod` Command in Linux

Linux is an operating system with a robust permissions model, allowing for fine-grained control over who can access and modify files and directories. One of the cornerstone utilities to manage these permissions is chmod, short for " change mode." This article aims to provide a detailed explanation of the chmod command, starting with its syntax, followed by its various options and examples.


The basic syntax of chmod is:

chmod [OPTION]... MODE[,MODE]... FILE...
  • OPTION: Specifies optional flags.
  • MODE: Represents the new permissions.
  • FILE: Specifies the file(s) or directories to change.

chmod Options Table

Here is a table of options that chmod supports:

--recursive-RRecursively changes files and directories.
--verbose-vOutputs a diagnostic for every file processed.
--changes-cLike verbose, but reports only when a change is made.
--quiet-fSuppresses most error messages.
--reference-Sets permissions to be the same as the referenced file, instead of specifying MODE.

Numeric and Symbolic Modes

chmod supports both numeric and symbolic modes:

  • Numeric Modes: Represent permissions with numbers (4 for read, 2 for write, 1 for execute).
  • Symbolic Modes: Use characters to represent permissions (r for read, w for write, x for execute).

Changing Permissions Using Symbolic (rwx) Modes

While octal numbers provide a quick and compact way to change file permissions, chmod also allows you to set permissions using symbolic notation (rwx). This can be more intuitive, especially when you want to modify the permissions without affecting the others.

The symbolic mode is composed of three elements:

  • Who: Specifies for whom to set the permissions. It could be the owner (u), the group (g), others (o), or all (a).
  • Operator: Indicates what operation to perform. It can be:
    • + to add permissions
    • - to remove permissions
    • = to set specific permissions
  • Permissions: Specifies which permissions to set (r for read, w for write, x for execute).

chmod Symbolic Attributes Table

When you're using the symbolic notation to set file permissions with chmod, various attributes come into play. These can be classified into three categories: the target users, the operation, and the permission types. Below is a comprehensive table explaining each attribute.

Target UsersuOwner (User who owns the file)
gGroup (Users who are members of the file's group)
oOthers (Users who are neither the owner nor members of the group)
aAll (Owner, Group, and Others - same as ugo)
Operations+Add the specified permissions to the existing permissions
-Remove the specified permissions from the existing permissions
=Set exact permissions, replacing the existing permissions
PermissionsrRead (Permission to read the file)
wWrite (Permission to write or edit the file)
xExecute (Permission to execute the file, or traverse the directory)

How to Read the Table

  • Target Users: Who will be affected by this operation. For example, if you choose u, the chmod command will only affect the owner of the file.

  • Operations: What kind of change you want to make. For example, using + will add the permissions you specify, while - will remove them.

  • Permissions: The actual permissions you want to set, remove, or modify. For example, r gives read permission, w gives write permission, and x gives execute permission.

By combining symbols from these three categories, you can form powerful chmod commands that precisely define file permissions. For instance, u+rwx means " add read, write, and execute permissions for the owner," while o-rwx means " remove read, write, and execute permissions from others."

Examples of Using Symbolic Modes

1. Basic File Permissions:

Assuming you have a file named example.txt:

touch example.txt

Give read, write, and execute permissions to the owner:

chmod u+rwx example.txt

Give only read and execute permissions to the group:

chmod g=rx example.txt

Give only read permissions to others:

chmod o=r example.txt

2. Combining Multiple Changes in One Command:

You can also combine multiple permission changes in a single chmod command:

chmod u=rwx,g=rx,o=r example.txt

This does the same as all the individual commands from example 1, but in a single command.

3. Adding and Removing Specific Permissions:

Add write permissions for the group:

chmod g+w example.txt

Remove execute permissions for others:

chmod o-x example.txt

4. Using a for All:

You can use the a attribute to specify a permission change that affects all categories (owner, group, others):

chmod a+r example.txt

This will add read permissions for everyone.

5. Removing and Adding Multiple Permissions:

You can remove from one category while adding to another in a single command:

chmod g-w,o+r example.txt

This command will remove write permissions from the group and add read permissions to others.

By mastering the use of the symbolic mode in chmod, you gain a powerful tool for fine-tuned control over file and directory permissions in Linux.


The chmod command is one of the most essential Linux commands for managing file and directory permissions. Through numeric and symbolic modes, as well as various options, you can tailor permissions precisely to your needs. Understanding how to use chmod effectively will significantly improve your capability to manage security on a Linux system.

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