Shallow Thoughts

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 08 Nov 2009

Friendlier error messages for shell newbies

Helping people get started with Linux shells, I've noticed they tend to make two common mistakes vastly more than any others:
  1. Typing a file path without a slash, like etc/fstab
  2. typing just a filename, without a command in front of it

The first boils down to a misunderstanding of how the Linux file system hierarchy works. (For a refresher, you might want to check out my Linux Planet article Navigating the Linux Filesystem.)

The second problem is due to forgetting the rules of shell grammar. Every shell sentence needs a verb, just like every sentence in English. In the shell, the command is the verb: what do you want to do? The arguments, if any, are the verb's direct object: What do you want to do it to?

(For grammar geeks, there's no noun phrase for a subject because shell commands are imperative. And yes, I ended a sentence with a preposition, so go ahead and feel superior if you believe that's incorrect.)

The thing is, both mistakes are easy to make, especially when you're new to the shell, perhaps coming from a "double-click on the file and let the computer decide what you should do with it" model. The shell model is a lot more flexible and (in my opinion) better -- you, not the computer, gets to decide what you should do with each file -- but it does take some getting used to.

But as a newbie, all you know is that you type a command and get some message like "Permission denied." Why was permission denied? How are you to figure out what the real problem was? And why can't the shell help you with that?

And a few days ago I realized ... it can! Bash, zsh and similar shells have a fairly flexible error handling mechanism. Ubuntu users have seen one part of this, where if you type a command you don't have installed, Ubuntu gives you a fancy error message suggesting what you might have meant and/or what package you might be missing:

$ catt /etc/fstab
No command 'catt' found, did you mean:
 Command 'cat' from package 'coreutils' (main)
 Command 'cant' from package 'swap-cwm' (universe)
catt: command not found

What if I tapped into that same mechanism and wrote a more general handler that could offer helpful suggestions when it looked like the user forgot the command or the leading slash?

It turns out that Ubuntu's error handler uses a ridiculously specific function called command_not_found_handle that can't be used for other errors. Some helpful folks I chatted with on #bash felt, as I did, that such a specific mechanism was silly. But they pointed me to a more general error trapping mechanism that turned out to work fine for my purposes.

It took some fussing and fighting with bash syntax, but I have a basic proof-of-concept. Of course it could be expanded to cover a lot more types of error cases -- and more types of files the user might want to open.

Here are some sample errors it catches:

$ schedule.html
bash: ./schedule.html: Permission denied

schedule.html is an HTML file. Did you want to run: firefox schedule.html

$ screenshot.jpg
bash: ./screenshot.jpg: Permission denied

screenshot.jpg is an image file. Did you want to run:
    pho screenshot.jpg
    gimp screenshot.jpg

$ .bashrc
bash: ./.bashrc: Permission denied

.bashrc is a text file. Did you want to run:
    less .bashrc
    vim .bashrc

$ ls etc/fstab
/bin/ls: cannot access etc/fstab: No such file or directory

Did you forget the leading slash?
etc/fstab doesn't exist, but /etc/fstab does.

You can find the code here: Friendly shell errors and of course I'm happy to take suggestions or contributions for how to make it friendlier to new shell users.

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[ 14:07 Nov 08, 2009    More linux | permalink to this entry ]