It's straightforward to realise that the permissions of a file are not relevant to the ability to delete that file. The ability to modify the directory listing is controlled by the directory's permissions.

However, for years I have believed that the purpose of the write permission was to allow modification of the directory, and the execute permission is for 'search' - listing files, or changing into the directory.

Today I discovered that one cannot rm a file in a directory unless both the write and execute bits are set. In fact, without execute set, write appears almost useless.

$ tree foo/
└── file_to_delete

0 directories, 1 file
$ chmod -x foo
$ ls -ld foo
drw-rw-r-- 2 ire_and_curses users 4096 Sep 18 22:08 foo/
$ rm foo/file_to_delete 
rm: cannot remove ‘foo/file_to_delete’: Permission denied
$ chmod +x foo/
$ rm foo/file_to_delete 
$ tree foo/

0 directories, 0 files

I find this behaviour pretty surprising. For directories, what is the reason that execute is required to make write useful in practice?

marked as duplicate by Scott, garethTheRed, Archemar, Anthon, cuonglm Sep 19 '15 at 11:04

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.


Without the execute bit, you can't run a stat() on the files in the directory, which means you can't determine the inode information of those files. To remove a file, you must know information which would be returned by stat().

A demonstration of this:

$ ls -ld test
drw------- 2 alienth alienth 4096 Sep 18 23:45 test

$ stat test/file
stat: cannot stat ‘test/file’: Permission denied

$ strace -e newfstatat rm test/file
newfstatat(AT_FDCWD, "test/file", 0x1a3f368, AT_SYMLINK_NOFOLLOW) = -1 EACCES (Permission denied)
newfstatat(AT_FDCWD, "test/file", 0x7fff13d4f4f0, AT_SYMLINK_NOFOLLOW) = -1 EACCES (Permission denied)
rm: cannot remove ‘test/file’: Permission denied
+++ exited with 1 +++

You can also demonstrate this with a simple ls -l. The metadata info of the directory may be readable and writable to your user, but without execute you can't determine the details of the file within the directory.

$ ls -l test
ls: cannot access test/file: Permission denied
total 0
-????????? ? ? ? ?            ? file

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