I want to make sure I understand the following code:

tar xvzf FILE --exclude-from=exclude.me --strip-components 1 -C DESTINATION

which was posted in this answer.

From man tar:

strip NUMBER leading components from file names on extraction

-C, --directory=DIR
change to directory DIR

I didn't understand the manual explanation for --strip-components.

About -C, I understood that it means something like "put stripped components in a noted directory."

What does --strip-components -C mean?


4 Answers 4


The fragment of manpage you included in your question comes from man for GNU tar. GNU is a software project that prefers info manuals over manpages. In fact, tar manpage has been added to the GNU tar source code tree only in 2014 and it still is just a reference, not a full-blown manual with examples. You can invoke a full info manual with info tar, it's also available online here. It contains several examples of --strip-components usage, the relevant fragments are:


Strip given number of leading components from file names before extraction.

For example, if archive `archive.tar' contained `some/file/name', then running

tar --extract --file archive.tar --strip-components=2

would extract this file to file `name'.



Strip given number of leading components from file names before extraction.

For example, suppose you have archived whole `/usr' hierarchy to a tar archive named `usr.tar'. Among other files, this archive contains `usr/include/stdlib.h', which you wish to extract to the current working directory. To do so, you type:

$ tar -xf usr.tar --strip=2 usr/include/stdlib.h

The option `--strip=2' instructs tar to strip the two leading components (`usr/' and `include/') off the file name.

That said;

There are other implementations of tar out there, for example FreeBSD tar manpage has a different explanation of this command:

--strip-components count

Remove the specified number of leading path elements. Pathnames with fewer elements will be silently skipped. Note that the pathname is edited after checking inclusion/exclusion patterns but before security checks.

In other words, you should understand a Unix path as a sequence of elements separated by / (unless there is only one /).

Here is my own example (other examples are available in the info manual I linked to above):

Let's create a new directory structure:

mkdir -p a/b/c

Path a/b/c is composed of 3 elements: a, b, and c.

Create an empty file in this directory and put it into .tar archive:

$ touch a/b/c/FILE
$ tar -cf archive.tar a/b/c/FILE

FILE is a 4th element of a/b/c/FILE path.

List contents of archive.tar:

$ tar tf archive.tar

You can now extract archive.tar with --strip-components and an argument that will tell it how many path elements you want to be removed from the a/b/c/FILE when extracted. Remove an original a directory:

rm -r a

Extract with --strip-components=1 - only a has not been recreated:

$ tar xf archive.tar --strip-components=1
$ ls -Al
total 16
-rw-r--r-- 1 ja users 10240 Mar 26 15:41 archive.tar
drwxr-xr-x 3 ja users  4096 Mar 26 15:43 b
$ tree b
└── c
    └── FILE

1 directory, 1 file

With --strip-components=2 you see that a/b - 2 elements have not been recreated:

$ rm -r b
$ tar xf archive.tar --strip-components=2
$ ls -Al
total 16
-rw-r--r-- 1 ja users 10240 Mar 26 15:41 archive.tar
drwxr-xr-x 2 ja users  4096 Mar 26 15:46 c
$ tree c
└── FILE

0 directories, 1 file

With --strip-components=3 3 elements a/b/c have not been recreated and we got FILE in the same level directory in which we run tar:

$ rm -r c
$ tar xf archive.tar --strip-components=3
$ ls -Al
total 12
-rw-r--r-- 1 ja users     0 Mar 26 15:39 FILE
-rw-r--r-- 1 ja users 10240 Mar 26 15:41 archive.tar

-C option tells tar to change to a given directory before running a requested operation, extracting but also archiving. In this comment you asked:

Asking tar to do cd: why cd? I mean to ask, why it's not just mv?

Why do you think that mv is better? To what directory would you like to extract tar archive first:

  • /tmp - what if it's missing or full?

  • "$TMPDIR" - what if it's unset, missing or full?

  • current directory - what if user has no w permission, just r and x?

  • what if a temporary directory, whatever it is already contained files with the same names as in tar archive and extracting would overwrite them?

  • what if a temporary directory, whatever it is didn't support Unix filesystems and all info about ownership, executable bits etc. would be lost?

Also notice that -C is a common change directory option in other programs as well, Git and make are first that come to my mind.


The --strip-components option is for modifying the filenames of extracted files. --strip-components <N> means "remove the first <N> components of the filename", where "components" is referring to parts of the path separated by /.

If you have a filename foo/bar/baz, then with --strip-components 1 the extracted file would be named bar/baz.

The -C option just means "change directory". If you use -C /some/other/place you are effectively asking tar to cd /some/other/place before extracting files. This generally means that files would be extracted relative to /some/other/place.

  • 4
    --strip-components doesn't have any impact over what gets extracted. The only thing it does is modify filenames.
    – larsks
    Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 19:48
  • I now re read the answer and I think I still miss, or at least become confused, about what is being done; I now offer bounty which I offer, in part, for editing and helping others in similar situation and myself, to ensure understanding.
    – user149572
    Commented Mar 26, 2020 at 9:38
  • Asking tar to do cd: why cd? I mean to ask, why it's not just mv?
    – user149572
    Commented Mar 26, 2020 at 9:50

To supplement the good answer by larsks, to try to help clear up the confusion around the -C option:

The tar man page states for the -C option:

-C, --directory=DIR
              Change  to DIR before performing any operations.  This option is
              order-sensitive, i.e. it affects all options that follow.

so, it is not like mv - it is literally telling tar to change to a different working directory. Also note the point that the order matters. So:

tar r -f archive.tar -C /path file1 file2

would append files file1 and file2 at the location /path to archive.tar, whilst

tar r -f archive.tar file1 file2 -C /path file3 file4

would append file1 and file2 from the current working directory and then file3 and file4 from the /path location.

--strip-components and -C are independent and unrelated options to tar. The first affects the folder structure of the archived files, once they are extracted, and -C specifies the working directory that tar is using to specify files that are external to the archive.


I’m not sure what I can say by way of explanation that hasn’t been covered by the other answers.  Instead, I’ll try to help you with examples.

Arkadiusz Drabczyk gives the example from the GNU tar manual where your archive includes a large directory tree (e.g., all of /usr):

$ tar -cf usr.tar  /usr

and you want to drill down into the archive and extract a file from a low-level subdirectory:

$ tar -xf usr.tar --strip=2 usr/include/stdlib.h

What the manual doesn’t spell out is that, if you say

$ tar -xf usr.tar           usr/include/stdlib.h

then tar will create a usr directory in the current directory, and an include subdirectory in usr, and then extract stdlib.h into ./usr/include.  If that’s the result you want, then fine; use that command.  But, if you want stdlib.h in the current directory, you’ll need to

$ mv usr/include/stdlib.h .

and then probably rmdir -p usr/include.  It’s doable, but it’s tedious.  --strip=2 saves you a lot of typing.

-C can also be used with the c (lower-case C) option (creating an archive), and that might be easier to understand.  Suppose John, Kate, Larry and Mary are collaborating on writing a book; they are writing Chapters 1, 2, 3 and 4, respectively.  John and Kate (only) are using the same computer, and they want to archive what they’ve done so far to send to the other authors.  You could do either of the following:

  (cd to some suitable directory)
$ tar cf chap12.tar /home/john/chap1 /home/kate/chap2

$ cd /home
$ tar cf /tmp/chap12.tar john/chap1 kate/chap2

But these create an archive that encodes the john/ and kate/ directory paths.  If you do that, that would be a reason for Larry and Mary to use --strip=2 or --strip=1 when they extract the archive.  If you want to save them that bother (and/or keep your names out of the archive; e.g., for privacy reasons), then you can

  (cd to some suitable directory)
$ tar cf chap12.tar -C /home/john chap1 -C /home/kate chap2

and then the archive will show just the chap1 and chap2 directories.

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