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Why do Linux people always say to read the manual when it would be so much easier to just give you an answer? There's no manual! It didn't come with one.

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closed as not constructive by jasonwryan, Gilles, Ulrich Dangel, Kyle Jones, manatwork Jan 1 '13 at 9:08

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documentation can be a arduous and boring task, you should at least read it –  Vicfred Jan 1 '13 at 2:55
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why read the manual? man man –  Trevor Hickey Jan 1 '13 at 4:24
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BTW--unless you have a stripped down version for an embedded device you do have the man pages, but you may need to install them with your package manager first (FSM only knows why distributions don't include the man pages in the default pacakage set, but I've seen it). –  dmckee Jan 1 '13 at 7:22
    
@Vicfred: If you feel that way, you should examine if you can find someone else to write it. If you don't like it, the end result may suffer from this, and really, there are people who like writing that stuff - in groff, or LaTeX, etc. (so it doesn't have to be "un-technical", either). –  Emanuel Berg Jan 1 '13 at 11:57
    
@dmckee: It has to do with the licenses of some of the man pages. For example, with Debian, you have to install the very useful gcc man page (13972 lines!) explicitly, as the Debian people consider the licensing un-free. But it is very easy to remedy with aptitude, so it is not a problem to us users anyway. –  Emanuel Berg Jan 1 '13 at 12:01
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3 Answers 3

up vote 45 down vote accepted

There is a manual, you just have to know where it is. It can be accessed with the man command. If you are unsure how to use it, type man man. The man command is very important; remember it even if you forget everything else.

The manual contains detailed information about a variety of topics, which are separated into several sections:

  1. General commands
  2. System calls
  3. Library functions, covering in particular the C standard library
  4. Special files (usually devices, those found in /dev) and drivers
  5. File formats and conventions
  6. Games and screensavers
  7. Miscellaneous
  8. System administration commands and daemons

The notation ls(1) refers to the ls page in section 1. To read it type man 1 ls or man ls.

To avoid being told to read the manual when you ask a question, try man command, apropros command, command -?, command --help, and a few Google searches. If you do not understand something in the manual, quote it in your question and try to explain what you don't understand. Usually when they ask you to read the manual, it is because they think it will be more beneficial to you than a simple, incomplete answer. If you don't know which man pages are relevant, ask.

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The apropos command is also useful. The man program usually shows the first one it finds with the given name, so you may have to explicitly name the section. For example man socket and man 7 socket are very different. –  Keith Jan 1 '13 at 2:55
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Correct. I guess we should also mention the info of the GNU people? Also, a hint: if you use Emacs, try M-x man - as you probably know your editor so well (shortcuts etc.), navigating and interacting with man pages will be very smooth. –  Emanuel Berg Jan 1 '13 at 2:57
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Other useful hints: read a couple of man pages all the way through and notice the section headings (the See Also section can be immensely useful when you are close, but not quite there). Also learn to use your pager (more or less) as it provides the search interface for the man page (very useful with, say, man bash (which you should never send to the line printer says the voice of bitter experience)). –  dmckee Jan 1 '13 at 7:20
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I think the oft quoted Chinese proverb explains it well:

If you give a man a fish, he will have a single meal. If you teach him how to fish, he will eat all his life.

While you might think "But it's only one question, why can't they just tell me the answer", it's because the forums would become so full from people asking obvious questions that it would be hard for questions about more esoteric things to be noticed. So don't think of it as them putting you off -- think of it as them helping you to help yourself.

For example, it's trivial to find the answer to "How do I use grep to do a case insensitive search", especially once you are reminded to look in the man page. But for a question like "How do I do a case insensitive search on the first field of a file, but case sensitive on the remaining fields?", there's no simple man page that will tell you the answer, and there are a multitude of ways to answer it.

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I believe this is because most experts would rather teach someone how to learn, rather than teach them some isolated fact or two. Telling someone to read the man page is trying to coax that someone on to the path of learning to learn by themselves.

I recall, but cannot google up, a study that claimed that the difference between a Unix novice and a Unix expert (not so different from a Linux novice or expert, perhaps) was that the expert knew how to look things up. While attempting to find that study, I found Prompt Comprehension in UNIX Command Production, which seems to contradict the study I recall. What a shame: all you need to do is know a boatload of facts to be an expert. But in that case, telling someone to read the manual can also serve to fill the questioner with knowledge, leading to the production of another Unix or Linux expert.

There's also a short- versus long-term time investment in the newbie asking the question. It certainly takes less time to say "use ls -ltr" for example, than it would to teach the newbie about file listing and options and so forth. But if the expert has to answer more than 3 or 4 questions, the long-term value of investing in having someone read the manual becomes obvious.

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