I have the following function that print NUM lines from the beginning of a set of files.

The command (function, script, whatever) accepts a variable number of arguments, and I would like to reserve one special option for "tell me how to use you", the traditional choices being "help", "-h", "-?" and "--help".

headrc ()
    # Prints first set of lines from named files.
    # $1 NUM  Number of lines to print
    # $2 DIR  Directory

    find "$dir" \( -name \*.org -o -name \*.texi \)  \
      | xargs head -n "$num";

1 Answer 1


You could do it manually, but using getopt would be more useful moving forward. Consider for example:


# Prints first set of lines from named files.
# $1 NUM  Number of lines to print
# $2 DIR  Directory
headrc() {
    eval set -- $(getopt --name "${FUNCNAME[0]}" --options h --longoptions help -- "${@}")

    while [[ "${1}" != "--" ]]; do
        case "${1}" in
        -h | --help)
            printf "Usage: ${FUNCNAME[0]} [-h|--help] <args>\n"
            return 1
            printf "Unknown option: ${1}\n"

        shift # Shift off option
    shift # Shift off --

    local -r num="${1}"
    local -r dir="${2}"

    find "${dir}" \( -name \*.org -o -name \*.texi \) | xargs head -n "${num}";

The getopt tool takes the existing arguments (${@}) and the options that you give it, and reorders them such that all the options come first, then a --, then everything else. The --options option specifies the single-character options and the --longoptions specifies the "long" (multi-character) options.

For example:

$ getopt --options fh --longoptions file,help -- a b c -f d e --help g
 -f --help -- 'a' 'b' 'c' 'd' 'e' 'g'

Note that getopt supports options with parameters, but since you don't need that here, I didn't cover that aspect of the tool.

The eval set -- updates the arguments to the given values, rewriting what the function sees as its arguments to the output of getopt.

The while loop processes the options; the options stop when it encounters --. If is see -h or --help, it prints a help message and returns. Each time it processes the loop it uses shift to "shift off" the first argument.

Once it finds the -- it stops looping, and shifts off that argument.

You're now left with everything that came after the options, so you can use the positional arguments like you did before.

  • How can I skip the find command if I pass -h ?
    – Pietru
    Jun 29, 2021 at 2:50
  • +1 but it's worth pointing out that only the version of getopt from util-linux is safe to use (this is pretty much the standard/default getopt on linux but not on other systems). Other versions have serious problems (e.g. can't handle empty arguments or args containing whitespace) and should not be used.
    – cas
    Jun 29, 2021 at 3:14
  • @Pietru What I've shown does skip the find if you pass -h; see the return 1. Jun 30, 2021 at 0:22

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