What is the preferred way to test if a command takes an option? What are the caveats?

As a motivating example, at login my shell aliases grep to add several --exclude-dir options but this option is not available on all the machines I access.

4 Answers 4


Fortunately, there is a relatively standardized way to report potential options to programs. However, it is not always used, so this is not a fool-proof answer; just a poweruser-proof answer.

$prog --help | grep -e "\b$option\b"

(note, \b means word boundary. That is so there will be no characters left after your $option, so, $option-f will not match)

That will return you the option, if it exists - but more importantly, return an exit status of 0 if it exists, or an exit status of 1 if it does not. You can test this with:

$ # we pipe to /dev/null to hide the output, and show that it doesn't matter
$ grep --help | grep -e "\b--exclude-dir\b" > /dev/null
$ echo $?
$ grep --help | grep -e "\b--exclude-dirf\b" > /dev/null
$ echo $?

This will work on many programs, but not all have a --help that is... helpful. You may have also have luck with

man $progr | grep -e "\b$option\b"

if the first fails

  • Maybe use \b around the $option, to avoid a false positive for --exclude-d? Sep 10, 2014 at 20:50
  • I like the simplicity of this but I ran into trouble with grep on OS X. grep --help sends text to stderr and it also doesn't list 'exclude-dir' in the grep --help output even though it is in the manpage. Oct 11, 2014 at 4:58
  • Adding this note to emphasis on how not all programs exit with non-zero exit code if unsupported option is used. Example with the realpath program : realpath --foo="/tmp" "/tmp/bar" ; echo $? (I discovered this when using --relative-to option).
    – CDuv
    Feb 11, 2021 at 9:57

You can do a test on dummy data which should succeed if and only if the option is available and working as expected:

trap 'if [ -e "$tmp" ]; then rm -rf -- "$tmp"; fi' EXIT
tmp="$(mktemp -d)"
cd -- "$tmp"
mkdir exclude
mkdir include
echo foo > include/test.txt
echo foo > exclude/test.txt
[ "$(grep --exclude-dir exclude --recursive foo . | wc -l)" -eq 1 ]

Given that most (all?) commands exit with return code greater than zero when called with unknown options, you can try

cmd --option-to-probe [other options and parameters] >/dev/null 2>/dev/null

and check whether $? is 0 or not.


You could grep the man page of the command to see if the option is there, something like this:

for OPT in "--exclude-dir" "--text" "--not_an_option"; do
  if man $CMD | col -bx | egrep --quiet \\$OPT; then
alias $CMD="$CMD $OPTIONS"

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