Typing ssh-copy-id -i ~/.ssh/, then Tab causes filename expansion, which lists all files in ~/.ssh.

Typing ssh-copy-id without the -i flag, then Spacebar, Tab doesn't cause file expansion.

Typing ssh-copy-id -x, Spacebard, Tab(note that -x is an invalid flag) also does not lead to file expansion.

How does Bash "know" to do file expansion after typing -i? Does the program ssh-copy-id have to be programmed in a way to let Bash know to do it? I read this page and others on filename expansion but could not find an answer for my question: https://www.gnu.org/software/bash/manual/html_node/Filename-Expansion.html

Bash version: GNU bash, version 4.4.20(1)-release (x86_64-pc-linux-gnu)

1 Answer 1


Tab-completion is different from filename expansion.

Tab-completion is a native feature of Bash GNU Readline for interactive Bash sessions. For example, it completes variables (try echo $SH<TAB>) and also commands arguments with file names.

Additionally, if bash-completion package is installed, the completion becomes more intelligent for the commands comprised in in /usr/share/bash-completion/completions, one of which is ssh-copy-id. Since the -i flag for ssh-copy-id requires a file, it tab-completes files. Without -i, there does not make sense to supply a file, so no completion is performed.

Again, that is only true for commands in the completions directory. If you have a foobar command that does not accept a file as an argument, Bash will still complete with files because bash-completion has no idea of foobar.

On the other hand, filename expansion is a POSIX shell behavior. It occurs regardless of whether the shell is interactive or not. Example: ssh-copy-id -x * causes * to expand to all files in the current directory, the command wanting them or not.

  • 2
    Tab-completion itself (mostly of filenames) is a feature of Bash proper. The per-utility configurations that try to guess what you want to tab-complete are part of bash-completion.
    – ilkkachu
    Oct 29, 2020 at 23:56
  • 1
    Filename expansion is synonymous with globbing. See tldp.org/LDP/abs/html/globbingref.html et al. It is not just a 'POSIX shell behavior'; globbing has been around since at least Unix V6.
    – fpmurphy
    Oct 30, 2020 at 17:55
  • @fpmurphy I only won't incorporate it in my answer because it is irrelevant for the purposes of the question if that originates in Bash, POSIX standard or Unix V6, but it is always nice to have a historical background, thanks for the comment.
    – Quasímodo
    Oct 30, 2020 at 19:27

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