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I've been having trouble expressing linux commands aloud. For example:

curl -L example.com/file.txt -o "path/to/something with spaces.txt"

I could say "curl dash big L example dot com slash file dot txt dash small o path slash to slash something with spaces dot txt in quotes", but that's understandably ambiguous. Did I mean

curl -Lexample.com/file.txt -opath/to/"something with spaces.txt"

...or

curl -L example.com/file.txt -o path/to/somethingwithspaces."txt"

...or even this:

"curl-Lexample.com/file.txt-opath/to/somethingwithspaces.txt"

Obviously, the last one isn't particuarly likely, but my question remains:

If I'm, e.g., speaking to someone on the phone, what can I do to make sure the person I'm talking to types the command correctly? Are there approaches to reduce mistakes and confusion?

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  • 6
    If you're talking to beginners, I don't understand why you think a standard would help. The beginners wouldn't know the standard. The only real standard is: you have said the command correctly when it is correctly duplicated by the person you are talking to.
    – Wildcard
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 22:02
  • curl space dash uppercase L space example dot com slash file dot t x t space double-quote path slash...
    – jlliagre
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 22:05
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    Personally, I state from the beginning (e.g. of a phone call) that unless explicitly said, there are neither implied spaces, enter key nor uppercases. That simplifies things: "curl space dash upper-L space example ... enter"
    – xhienne
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 22:05
  • Show and tell. Don't just tell.
    – Kusalananda
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 22:08
  • @Kusalananda Sigh, open plans wouldn't be open plans any more if everyone starts moving to the other person's place, showing everything directly on their computer, instead of yelling "curl dash big L example dot com slash file..."
    – xhienne
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 22:20

1 Answer 1

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As a sysadmin, I've sometimes had to administer machines that are hundreds or thousands of miles away from me, and all is well as long as I can ssh in. But when networking breaks... I get to deal with a remote person, of varying levels of Unix knowledge, over the phone (& chat if I'm lucky). So actually a fairly similar situation.

Some differences:

  • There are approaches to add out-of-band remote management or without-OS-help remote management. These probably don't apply to your situation, going to ignore them (remote reboot outlets, serial consoles, IP KVM, IPMI, etc.)

  • My goal is generally to re-establish my ability to administer the machine, at which point I take over; your goal is probably different.

Anyway, some general approaches:

  • If at all possible, establish a visual communication method. Using a cell-phone to take screenshots (as in actual pictures of the monitor) and sending those to each other works. And it's so much easier for you to spot a typo that way. If you're giving a presentation, put the commands (in big type!) on the slides. Or on handouts.
  • A text-based (chat/IRC/etc.) communication method is also great, then you don't need to spell out a command over the phone anymore. Email works too, at least as long as the delay isn't too bad. (Email also let's you specify a typewriter font). Even SMS (cell phone text messaging) can be made to work.
  • If you need to get them to do a lot, you'll make things much easier if you first focus on getting a better comm method running.
  • Spell out commands really clearly. Tell the person exactly what to type; your "in quotes" example is a bad idea—instead, tell the person to type a double-quote when required. Saying "curl space dash capital L" is time-consuming but far less time consuming than all the time you'll spend sorting out the error from the person misunderstanding.
  • Sometimes long options are better—dash dash execute is easier to get across than dash e (easily misunderstood for -c or even -3). When you need to spell out letters, use the NATO phonetic alphabet or similar.
  • Tell the person what you're going to do. "I'm going to say space if you need to type one, otherwise please don't. And don't press enter until I say to. Everything will be lowercase unless I say 'capital' in front of it."
  • If the command is at all dangerous or possible to mistype, have them read it back to you. Ask them questions—"is there a space between the dash and the o?" to make sure it's right.
  • You're speaking, you can use tone/volume/pauses (emphasis) to make things stand out (shown in the example with italics)

So, I'd suggest something like:

Me: curl space dash capital ell space example dot see [optionally you could put as in Charlie here] oh em slash file dot tee ex tee space dash oh space double-quote path slash to slash something space with space the word spaces (pause) dot tee ex tee double-quote

Them: ok

Me: Just to confirm, you've got the word spaces, plural, typed out before the dot tee ex tee?

Them: yeah

Me: And the dash el is capital, but the dash oh is lowercase, right?

Them: yep

Me: ok, press enter.

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  • Wow, thanks for the comprehensive answer! This is exactly what I needed :D Commented Sep 15, 2017 at 9:47

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