Is there an official POSIX, GNU, or other guideline on where progress reports and logging information (things like "Doing foo; foo done") should be printed? Personally, I tend to write them to stderr so I can redirect stdout and get only the program's actual output. I was recently told that this is not good practice since progress reports aren't actually errors and only error messages should be printed to stderr.

Both positions make sense, and of course you can choose one or the other depending on the details of what you are doing, but I would like to know if there's a commonly accepted standard for this. I haven't been able to find any specific rules in POSIX, the GNU coding standards, or any other such widely accepted lists of best practices.

We have a few similar questions, but they don't address this exact issue:

So, are there any official rules on where progress reports and other informative messages (which aren't part of the program's actual output) should be printed?

  • 24
    Printing spinners and the like to stdout together with the results is a safe way to make the results useless. If you ever need to pipe the results to some other program, said program would need to separate the results from the spinners. Also, if you redirect the output to a file you won't be able to see the spinners. IMHO. – Satō Katsura Dec 20 '16 at 11:02
  • 2
    @SatoKatsura yeah, that's my opinion as well and that's why I print such to stderr. The CTO of the company I work for, however, feels that printing to stderr is an indication that something went wrong. I made the, rather bold, claim that the POSIX Way® is printing to stderr and he called me out on it. Given that he has 20 odd years of experience on me, I would like to see if I can find some sort of "official" guideline. – terdon Dec 20 '16 at 11:33
  • same as Sato Katsura said, stdout is actually a safe and right way to pringting spinners and other informative messages, but as many programmer say 'Silence is golden. Output nothing if everything is fine.' so in fact, stderr is always used to do that because of the vague definition and also stdout may break the pipe sequence.for official guide – Se ven Dec 20 '16 at 12:29
  • 6
    @Seven I think you misunderstood; Sato is saying that using stdout is unsafe ("safe way to make the results useless"). – Stephen Kitt Dec 20 '16 at 14:12
  • 1
    One possible one-size-fits-all solution would be to only use stderr to report error messages, except when a --verbose flag is used, at which point progress reports are included as well. – Gaurav Dec 26 '16 at 23:04

Posix defines the standard streams thus:

At program start-up, three streams shall be predefined and need not be opened explicitly: standard input (for reading conventional input), standard output (for writing conventional output), and standard error (for writing diagnostic output). When opened, the standard error stream is not fully buffered; the standard input and standard output streams are fully buffered if and only if the stream can be determined not to refer to an interactive device.

The GNU C Library describes the standard streams similarly:

Variable: FILE * stdout
The standard output stream, which is used for normal output from the program.

Variable: FILE * stderr
The standard error stream, which is used for error messages and diagnostics issued by the program.

Thus, standard definitions have little guidance for stream usage beyond “conventional/normal output” and “diagnostic/error output.” In practice, it’s common to redirect either or both of these streams to files and pipelines, where progress indicators will be a problem. Some systems even monitor stderr for output and consider it a sign of problems. Purely auxiliary progress information is therefore problematic on either stream.

Instead of sending progress indicators unconditionally to either standard stream, it’s important to recognize that progress output is only appropriate for interactive streams. With that in mind, I recommend writing progress counters only after checking whether the stream is interactive (e.g., with isatty()) or when explicitly enabled by a command-line option. That’s especially important for progress meters that rely on terminal update behavior to make sense, like %-complete bars.

For certain very simple progress messages (“Starting X” ... “Done with X”) it’s more reasonable to include the output even for non-interactive streams. In that case, consider how users might interact with the streams, like searching with grep or paging with less or monitoring with tail -f. If it makes sense to see the progress messages in those contexts, they will be much easier to consume from stdout.

  • Thanks, the GNU guideline is the sort of thing I'm after. However, I realize my question was a little misleading. When I mentioned "progress reports" I was thinking of both things like N% done and things like doing foo and foo done. The latter should always be kept since they are used for debugging when redirected to a file. So your suggestion of checking whether the stream is interactive isn't applicable (though generally a very good idea). – terdon Dec 21 '16 at 12:23
  • Ah thanks for the clarification, that’s a little bit different from just stuff like “% complete” and hash-mark progress bars that you see in software like curl and yum. In that case, I would think about whether and how the user would want to interact with the output via grep or less or similar tools. – Bradd Szonye Dec 21 '16 at 18:56
  • Updated answer to incorporate clarifications above. – Bradd Szonye Dec 21 '16 at 19:05

POSIX defines standard error as

for writing diagnostic output

This doesn't limit its use to error messages only. I would consider progress information as diagnostic output, so it belongs on standard error.

  • 6
    FWIW, in Python, stdout is line-buffered by default whereas stderr is unbuffered, so stderr is the natural choice for writing progress text / bars / spinners that don't contain a newline. (If you write such text on stdout you need to clutter up your progress output calls with stdout.flush() to make it visible). – PM 2Ring Dec 20 '16 at 11:04
  • 11
    @PM2Ring that's not specific to Python, POSIX defines the streams that way. – Stephen Kitt Dec 20 '16 at 11:37
  • 4
    @PM2Ring: When writing to stdout, you need to flush even if your text does contain a newline if you want your progress reports to actually show up in real time when redirected. – Hurkyl Dec 20 '16 at 15:15
  • @Hurkyl Ah, good point. I wasn't considering redirection. – PM 2Ring Dec 20 '16 at 15:22
  • 1
    @Wtower, eh? No. Ansible swallows stderr text if exit status is 0. That claim is simply false. – Charles Duffy Dec 20 '16 at 17:04

POSIX is slightly more concrete about "diagnostic information" in Shell and Utilities, 1.4: Utility Description Defaults (emphasis mine):


The STDERR section describes the standard error output of the utility. Only those messages that are purposely sent by the utility are described. Use of a terminal for standard error may cause any of the standard utilities that write standard error output to stop when used in the background. For this reason, applications should not use interactive features in scripts to be placed in the background.

The format of diagnostic messages for most utilities is unspecified, but the language and cultural conventions of diagnostic and informative messages whose format is unspecified by this volume of POSIX.1-2008 should be affected by the setting of LC_MESSAGES and [XSI] [Option Start] NLSPATH. [Option End]

The specified standard error output of standard utilities shall not depend on the existence or value of the environment variables defined in this volume of POSIX.1-2008, except as provided by this volume of POSIX.1-2008.

Default Behavior: When this section is listed as "The standard error shall be used only for diagnostic messages.", it means that, unless otherwise stated, the diagnostic messages shall be sent to the standard error only when the exit status indicates that an error occurred and the utility is used as described by this volume of POSIX.1-2008.

When this section is listed as "Not used.", it means that the standard error shall not be used when the utility is used as described in this volume of POSIX.1-2008.

IANASL, but I interpret that to mean that stderr will have output only if the utility will return an error exit code. Since this should not be the normal course of events for successful execution, no progress information should be printed by a POSIX utility unless an error occurs (unless, of course, otherwise specified, etc.).

  • I understand this as describing the meaning of the "STDERR" section given in the specifications of each POSIX utility, not as a general definition for standard error usage. I don't think terdon is writing a standard POSIX utility here ;-). – Stephen Kitt Dec 21 '16 at 11:26
  • 1
    @StephenKitt neither do I. But he's debating with his CTO, who says that stderr output is an indication of something going wrong, and the standard does support his claim as the default behaviour. – muru Dec 21 '16 at 11:32
  • 1
    It only supports the claim as the default behaviour for POSIX utilities, and even then only in specific cases (utilities which use the phrase mentioned). This part of POSIX isn't normative (AIUI), it's a template: it tells you how to read the utility specifications, it doesn't specify the utilities' behaviour. Specifically, it defines the meanings of the phrases "The standard error shall be used only for diagnostic messages." and "Not used." in the "STDERR" sections of utility specifications. Each utility specifies its behaviour, and it can use those phrases as shorthand. – Stephen Kitt Dec 21 '16 at 11:42
  • @StephenKitt which doesn't change my point. POSIX utilities either a) don't output to stderr, b) use it only for diagnostic messages if something goes wrong, c) use it only for diagnostic messages even if nothing goes wrong and d) use it for something else. I said that they only use it for diagnostic messages if something goes wrong (a, b), unless otherwise stated (c, d). Now, my claim is that this is the default, which it clearly is, since that's why it's template. – muru Dec 21 '16 at 11:48
  • 2
    Well, I'd say the "unless otherwise specified" is a rather significant caveat: a POSIX utility could very well specify that it outputs progress information on its standard error, and it would be standards-compliant. You're right, it is interesting that the "default behaviour" (which still requires a specific mention in the relevant section) is to only use standard error if the exit code also indicates an error; but it's not limiting. – Stephen Kitt Dec 21 '16 at 11:55

By the principle of exclusion, it can only go to stderr. Yes, I know you asked about an official specification, which I cannot present you beyond the link to the POSIX specification, given by Stephen Kitt, which states that stderr is for diagnostic purposes.

The more important point is that stdin and stdout have a function that disallows printing progress reports to stdout - they of course form the sequence of pipes which in Unix shell commands is not just a side-effect, but the very core of the powerful pipelining approach.

So. Nothing except the real "payload" of your program belongs on stdout. If your program has no output, then nothing should go to stdout. This leaves stderr for everything else, including progress reports.

Granted, this leaves a hole - it would probably be nice to have a "stdfluff" or something like that which is for neither output nor errors but progress reports, debugging and somesuch. In fact, nothing keeps you from doing that, i.e., you could print your progress to file descriptor 3. Example:

$ perl -e 'open($fd, ">", "/dev/fd/3"); print $fd "hello\n"'

This produces no output. (*)

$ perl -e 'open($fd, ">", "/dev/fd/3"); print $fd "hello\n"'  3>&1

This prints to fd-3, which is redirected to stdout.

(*) The first example produces no output but is still a bit far-fetched; the open fails and $! would contain no such file or directory; just take this as an example, it is of course not ment to be used like this in earnest. In an actual program, if you wanted to go this route, you could test whether /dev/fd/3 is usable and take this as a hint of whether to activate your progress reports; you'd have to do that pretty early so you don't get confused by your own opens for real files and such...

  • What is fd-3? The third floppy disk? – Peter Mortensen Dec 21 '16 at 22:48
  • file descriptor 3, @PeterMortensen – AnoE Dec 21 '16 at 23:08

The usage message should go to stdout if the user has invoked it with --help and to stderr if they have made a mistake. Printing it to stderr unconditionally is obnoxious because it makes it more difficult to view it with a pager/grep/etc.

Also, may I suggest a third way: open /dev/tty for progress reports/spinners/etc.

  • 6
    Sorry, but this isn't answering the question. I specifically asked for official guidelines, not opinion. In any case, even if I had asked for opinion, you are answering a different question. I am not talking about --help or help messages at all. Please re-read the question. – terdon Dec 20 '16 at 15:05
  • You mentioned "usage message", I thought it was part of your question rather than just the title of the other question you linked. I don't understand why you think "official guidelines" exist for this. Who would have the authority to make them? – Random832 Dec 20 '16 at 15:06
  • 3
    I don't know that they do, that's why I ask. And as for official, the POSIX standard has specifications for various minute details of how a program should behave. Including, as Stephen pointed out in his answer, a vague suggestion for what should go to stderr. The GNU coding standard could also have something similar. Basically, any group that is active in and produces code for the *nix ecosystem might have a standard I'd be interested in. – terdon Dec 20 '16 at 15:08
  • @terdon would you be okay with examples of what existing programs do? curl, wget, and pv all use stderr, with wget and pv making it conditional on it being a tty and curl making it conditional on stdout not being the tty. – Random832 Dec 20 '16 at 15:21
  • 4
    Also, it sounds like your CTO thinks that a calling program should react to the presence of data on stderr as meaning that an error has occurred, rather than looking at the exit status. This is definitely bad practice (and also harder to write than checking the exit status) and might be a better angle to convince him from. – Random832 Dec 20 '16 at 15:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.