As most of you have done many times, it's convenient to view long text using less:

some_command | less

Now its stdin is connected to a pipe (FIFO). How can it still read commands like up/down/quit?

  • 15
    less reads the data to display from stdin, and it reads commands from the tty. They are different things. Jun 30 '18 at 6:55
  • 2
    @WilliamPursell Yeah I know. But there's only one standard input stream, right?
    – iBug
    Jun 30 '18 at 6:58
  • 4
    Yes, there is one input stream, and one tty. less reads data from stdin, and commands from the tty. Jun 30 '18 at 7:13

As mentioned by William Pursell, less reads the user’s keystrokes from the terminal. It explicitly opens /dev/tty, the controlling terminal; that gives it a file descriptor, separate from standard input, from which it can read the user’s interactive input. It can simultaneously read data to display from its standard input if necessary. (It could also write directly to the terminal if necessary.)

You can see this happen by running

some_command | strace -o less.trace -e open,read,write less

Move around the input, exit less, and look at the contents of less.trace: you’ll see it open /dev/tty, and read from both file descriptor 0 and whichever one was returned when it opened /dev/tty (likely 3).

This is common practice for programs wishing to ensure they’re reading from and writing to the terminal. One example is SSH, e.g. when it asks for a password or passphrase.

As explained by schily, if /dev/tty can’t be opened, less will read from its standard error (file descriptor 2). less’s use of /dev/tty was introduced in version 177, released on April 2, 1991.

If you try running cat /dev/tty | less, as suggested by Hagen von Eitzen, less will succeed in opening /dev/tty but won’t get any input from it until cat closes it. So you’ll see the screen blank, and nothing else until you press CtrlC to kill cat (or kill it in some other way); then less will show whatever you typed while cat was running, and allow you to control it.

  • 4
    @HagenvonEitzen Your computer will explode! It's like the way Kirk and Spock made Mudd's androids crash.
    – Barmar
    Jun 30 '18 at 14:03
  • 7
    @HagenvonEitzen Wow. A doubly-useless use of cat. I'm impressed. Jun 30 '18 at 14:53
  • 8
    @grawity I think Andrew’s point is that cat blah | can be replaced by < blah, and even that’s unnecessary in this case since less blah works too (well, less -f /dev/tty). But reading from /dev/tty is a bit of a special case, and all three variants (cat /dev/tty | less, less < /dev/tty and less -f /dev/tty) produce different results. Jun 30 '18 at 16:51
  • 1
    Does /dev/tty always point to the right place somehow? I would think you'd need to use /dev/ptsX usually?
    – StarWeaver
    Jul 1 '18 at 8:51
  • 2
    @StarWeaver see this question about the difference between /dev/tty and /dev/pts/.... Jul 1 '18 at 12:11

UNIX gives two methods to read users input while stdin has been redirected:

  • The original method is to read from stderr. Stderr is open for writing and reading and this is still mentioned in POSIX.

  • Later UNIX versions did (around 1979) add a /dev/tty driver interface that allows to open the controlling tty of a process. Since there are processes without a controlling tty, it is possible that an attempt to open /dev/tty fails. Friendly written software therefore has a fallback to the original method and then tries to read from stderr.

  • 12
    Read from stderr? Learned something new.
    – iBug
    Jun 30 '18 at 9:06
  • 1
    I'm glad somebody remembers the old ways.
    – Joshua
    Jun 30 '18 at 14:23
  • 3
    Is the reason that stderr is used for reading, because it is the least likely to have been redirected? I don't see any other difference between it and stdout (or for that mater stdin, before redirection). Jun 30 '18 at 18:18
  • 4
    Yes, it is because this is the file descriptor that has the least chance for being redirected.
    – schily
    Jun 30 '18 at 18:31
  • @ctrl-alt-delor: It was / is typical for shells to be running with stdin, stdout, and stderr, all being dup()licates of the same file description, though, all opened on the tty. (Apparently POSIX still requires or suggest (this answer doesn't say) that stderr be a read/write FD, not opened with something like open("/dev/ttyS0", O_WRONLY). Reading stderr would fail in that case.) Jul 2 '18 at 8:41

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