Autocompletion for Bash CLI


If you haven't yet read the article on Bash CLIopen in new window then go read it now.

Bash's ability to automatically provide suggested completions to a command by pressing the Tab key is one of its most useful features. It makes navigating complex command lines trivially simple, however it's generally not something we see that often.

Bash CLI was designed with the intention of making it as easy as possible to build a command line tool with a great user experience. Giving our users the ability to use autocompletion would be great, but we don't want to make it any more difficult for developers to build their command lines.

Thankfully, Bash CLI's architecture makes adding basic autocomplete possible without changing our developer-facing API (always a good thing).

How does Bash completion work?

Bash's completion feature is controlled through the complete builtin function and can be configured with a huge variety of different options. These options include defaults for files, services, processes, users and groups (among many others), however due to the nature of Bash CLI, we'll need to look their more complex options - script and function based completions.

Script Completion

Script based completion executes a shell script and uses its output to generate the completion list. This is a great solution for simple implementations as it doesn't require much complexity at all.


# Completion definition for a `hello` script which suggests `world` as
# its arguments.
compgen -W 'world' -- $1

Unfortunately, the arguments that this script receives are a bit odd and don't really work for Bash CLI.

$ echo '#!/bin/bash\n>&2 echo "Got \\$@: $@"' > test_complete
$ complete -C "$(pwd)/test_complete" test
$ test 1 2 3 4 5
Got $@: 5 4

Okay, so if we can't use script completion, what are our other options?

Function Completion

Function completion in Bash allows you to provide the name of a function which will handle the generation of autocompletion suggestions. The function receives a couple of variables which we can use...


function _test_complete() {
    >&2 echo "CurrArg: ${COMP_CWORD}"
    >&2 echo "Args:    ${COMP_WORDS[@]}"

    COMPREPLY=(`compgen -W 'world' -- "${COMP_WORDS[COMP_CWORD]}"`)
complete -F _test_complete test
$ test a b c d e
CurrArg: 5
Args: a b c d e

This is obviously far more useful to us, since it gives us every argument passed to the application.

Completion for Bash CLI

Bash CLI's design means that it is always looking for files and folders relative to its application directory. This makes the process of providing options rather straightforward, one just needs to list files and folders which match the command naming pattern relative to the current command directory.

So now that we've got the current arguments, we can use Bash CLI's command resolution logic to figure out the current command directory. Once we have that, we just need to get the list of command options and format them for Bash.

Getting the list of options

To find the various options, we're using the find command. It's far better to work with find than it is to attempt to parse ls output, as it provides functionality for more granular control over your output.

We're using an interesting little hack which bypasses any odd behaviour as a result of special characters in filenames.

local opts=("help")
while IFS= read -d $'\0' -r file; do
    opts=("${opts[@]}" `basename $file`)
done < <(find ./ -maxdepth 1 ! -path ./ ! -iname '*.*' -print0)

What we do here is pair the find command in -print0 mode (which prints a \0 character at the end of each entry) with read to get the name of each file.

The find command has -maxdepth 1 and ! -path ./ specified to ensure we only get entries in the top level directory and don't include the top-level directory in the list of results. We're also ignoring entries with a . in their name by passing ! -iname '*.*', removing all the files like .author, cmd.usage etc.

Formatting the options

Formatting of the options, and filtering by the current input, is conduced using the compgen builtin function in Bash. We pass it a word list built up from our $opts array.

    `compgen -W "$(printf '%s\n' "${opts[@]}")" -- "${COMP_WORDS[COMP_CWORD]}"`

We set $IFS (the seperator characters) to be a newline and then use printf to format our options with newline separators between each. This gets passed as the words list to compgen along with the current input and we let it handle the final filtering and formatting.

Installing the Completions

Completions are installed by placing them in /etc/bash_completion.d/. Since we don't want to violate Bash CLI's API guarantees (which are that changes to files in your project directory are automatically propagated), we'll use a completions file like the following.

source "/opt/bash-cli/complete"

# Register the _bash_cli completion function for `bash-cli`
complete -F _bash_cli bash-cli

Resulting Functionality

Now that we've added the functionality, let's see a demo of how it works on the Bash CLI project's commands.

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Benjamin Pannell

Site Reliability Engineer, Microsoft

Dublin, Ireland