I am trying to understand info who but completly fail at the term »non-option argument«. Can someone please explain this term to me in simple words or an example?

UPDATE: from ' info who' :

If given no non-option arguments, `who' prints the following information for each user currently logged on: login name, terminal line, login time, and remote hostname or X display.

If given one non-option argument, who' uses that instead of a default system-maintained file (often/var/run/utmp' or /etc/utmp') as the name of the file containing the record of users logged on. /var/log/wtmp' is commonly given as an argument to `who' to look at who has previously logged on.

If given two non-option arguments, who' prints only the entry for the user running it (determined from its standard input), preceded by the hostname. Traditionally, the two arguments given aream i', as in `who am i'.

I [thought to] know the difference between an argument and an option, but this [again] nixes a lot.

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    If I hadn't witnessed the info who I never would've believed that someone would use the term "no non-option arguments". That's pretty lame. – slm Oct 19 '13 at 1:47
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    "time spent figuring out stuff like that" vs. "actually learning how to use the gained knowledge" is about 7:3 for me. Which leads to the seriously meant question: What am I doing wrong?! – erch Oct 19 '13 at 1:53
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    I think that's pretty normal, especially when you're starting out. After you build up a large enough base knowledge do you start to see the repeating patterns around Unix and things start to become easier. How long you been at it? Bah you're 20 years old? You're doing well, keep at it, it get's easier! – slm Oct 19 '13 at 2:13
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    The hardest part is acquiring the knowledge, it get's easier too, but ppl have been building these systems for 40+ years so don't expect things to come instantly, you have to want it. – slm Oct 19 '13 at 2:15
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    GNU info pages have probably done more damage to being able to learn UNIX. They are harder to use and navigate than man pages, and since they exist, most folks consider a real man page to be optional. So you end up with terrible documentation. This is part of what has made me love the BSDs, particular OpenBSD. The man pages are almost always good and useful. And if they are not, the developers consider it a bug. – kurtm Oct 20 '13 at 5:59

The terminology is not completely fixed, so different documentation uses different terms, or worse, the same terms with different meanings. The terminology in the man page you're reading is a common one. It is the one used in the POSIX standard. In a nutshell, each word after the command is an argument, and the arguments that start with - are options.


In the shell command language, a parameter passed to a utility as the equivalent of a single string in the argv array created by one of the exec functions. An argument is one of the options, option-arguments, or operands following the command name.


An argument to a command that is generally used as an object supplying information to a utility necessary to complete its processing. Operands generally follow the options in a command line.


An argument to a command that is generally used to specify changes in the utility's default behavior.

“Utility” is what is generally called “command” (the standard uses the word utility to avoid ambiguity with the meaning of “command” that includes the arguments or even compound shell commands).

Most commands follow the standard utility argument syntax, where options start with a - (dash a.k.a. minus). So an option is something like -a (short option, follows the POSIX guidelines) or --all (long option, an extension from GNU). A non-option argument is an argument that doesn't begin with -, or that consists solely of - (which who treats as a literal file name but many commands treat as meaning either standard input or standard output).

In addition, some options themselves have an argument. This argument can be passed in several ways:

  • For a single-letter option, in the same argument to the utility: foo -obar: bar is the argument to the single-letter option -o.
  • In the GNU long argument syntax, in the same argument, separated by an equal sign: foo --option=bar.
  • In a separate argument: foo -o bar or foo --option bar. If the option -o (or --option) takes an argument, then bar is the argument of the option -o (or --option). If -o (or --option) does not take an argument then bar is an operand.

Here's a longer example:

tail -n 3 myfile

-n is an option, 3 is an argument to the option -n, and myfile is an operand.

Terminology differs, so you may find documents that use argument in the sense where POSIX uses operand. But “non-option argument” is more common than either term for this meaning.

  • My edit has been rejected, so I mention all in a comment: 1. This is the link to the latest POSIX standard. 2. For single-letter options, the option-arguments are shown separated from their options by <blank> characters, except when the option-argument is optional (which is, anyway, discouraged by the standard). 3. "If -o does not take an argument then -o is an operand." should be "... the bar is an operand`. – David Apr 10 '20 at 21:00
  • @David I rejected your edit because it introduced a new mistake and because it made the text harder to follow. I couldn't figure out what the mistake was in my answer that you were fixing among all the other changes. Thanks for pointing it out, I'll fix it. Linking to the latest standard vs an older one isn't important: this is very traditional stuff that hasn't changed in decades. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Apr 10 '20 at 21:09
  • Actually, I didn't introduce any mistake. It was rejected under "Long options can also take their argument separately". I didn't write anything about long options, you did :) The problem is that I change the order of the 3 items on the list and the diff utility that highlights the differences between both versions was completely messed up. It was hard to see that I changed very little: just what I mentioned in my comment. I agree that linking to the new standard is not important. I did it because it explains more clearly that the syntax -obar is reserved for optional option-arguments. – David Apr 10 '20 at 21:26
  • Please, delete all the comments after reading them; they add nothing to the answer. And allow me to say thank you for all your contributions to this community and StackOverflow. And I don't mean just providing excellent answers. – David Apr 10 '20 at 21:28

The thing is, options (or switches or flags, whatever you like to call them) count as arguments too. In fact, anything you supply after the command name itself makes up the command's arguments (except for constructs used by the shell like redirection, for instance).

Your program/script receives everything together as arguments and needs to separate the option arguments (arguments that are options) from other... you guessed it!... non-option arguments.

So what the info page is saying is that if who receives an argument that is not an option, it will consider that as an alternative to the default file it consults for log in information.

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    If I hadn't witnessed the info who I never would've believed that someone would use the term "no non-option arguments". That's pretty lame. – slm Oct 19 '13 at 1:46
  • @slm I don't know about that. Still technically correct, though... – Joseph R. Oct 19 '13 at 9:00
  • Do I get this right: everything not an option is a non-argument?!** And also: option = switch = flag = argument? – erch Oct 19 '13 at 17:44
  • @chirp Everything not an option is still an argument but it's a non-option argument. Just to add to the confusion: some options can have arguments :) Oh and option=switch=flag loosely holds, yes. – Joseph R. Oct 19 '13 at 18:45

I still think the phrasing is poor on this and would try not to get hung up. What they're trying to say is that in the prototype statement they included like this:

 `who' [OPTION] [FILE] [am i]

So when they say "If given no non-option arguments" they're referring to [FILE] and [am i].

Following that logic when they say "If given one non-option argument", i.e. [FILE], then you're overriding the [FILE] location, /var/run/utmp.

Lastly for this comment, "If given two non-option arguments", i.e. [am i] then you're asking for info about the user that just ran the command:

$ who am i
saml     pts/5        2013-10-18 16:29 (:0.0)


$ who mom likes
saml     pts/5        2013-10-18 16:29 (:0.0)

The description is apt, but they've definitely confused it by using the term "no non-option arguments".

In the authors mind these are the options:

  -a, --all         same as -b -d --login -p -r -t -T -u
  -b, --boot        time of last system boot
  -d, --dead        print dead processes
  -H, --heading     print line of column headings
  -l, --login       print system login processes
      --lookup      attempt to canonicalize hostnames via DNS


And [FILE] and [am i] and [mom likes] are the non-options. But these are ALL options, so the difference is limited to just this tool!

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    “Non-option argument” is perfectly standard terminology (both literally and colloquially). See my answer. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Oct 20 '13 at 0:35
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    @Gilles - I figured you or Stephane would explain this one, I still think the terminology is poor. Defining things this way is like using negative language when defining a conditional in an if statement. if ($notStatus != option). I understand what it means but it's at best confusing. Good answer BTW, per usual 8-) – slm Oct 20 '13 at 0:50

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