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The Terminal and Shell

This guide covers the basics of using a computer from the terminal. You will learn how to navigate folders, and how to make, delete, copy, and move files and folders.

People often confuse the terminal and the shell, since the difference is subtle. A terminal is an environment to input and display text, and a shell is the program that interprets your input in a terminal.

Why Use The Terminal?

While graphical user interfaces (GUIs) are helpful for a lot of things, sometimes command line interfaces (CLIs) are the better tool for the job.

As an example, imagine you have a messy folder, and you want to combine all the .txt files into a new file called "newfile.txt". If you use a GUI, this seems like a tedious task, but it only takes one line in the shell.

cat *.txt > newfile.txt

Where Is The Terminal?

Mac OS

  1. Open Finder from the Dock.
  2. Open your Applications folder.
  3. Open Utilities.
  4. Double click on Terminal.


Hit the keyboard shortcut Ctrl - Alt - T.


Windows also has a built-in terminal, Command Prompt; however, Command Prompt's shell differs greatly from the shells on Mac and Linux. So you will need to install a shell

In the next workshop, we will be learning the basics of git. Since Git for Windows comes with a version of Bash (the shell on Mac and Linux), we recommend that you install it. You can get it here.

Folder Structure

Folders (often called directories) on your computer are arranged in a tree structure. A folder within another folder is called a subdirectory. The folder containing these subdirectories is called the parent of the subdirectories. There is a folder called the root directory ("/" on Mac/Linux, and "C:" on Windows) that contains all of the computer's files and folders within its subdirectories. You often see these directories arranged like this:

Directory Tree

In this picture, you can see from the navigation bar that these folders are in is the root ('/'). It is easy to see which folders are parents, which are subdirectories, and which folders are in the same directory. When you open a terminal, you can find the same information, but you need to know some commands.

Navigating Directories

In the last picture, we were in '/' (the root directory). We call your currently open folder the working directory. In a GUI, you can see the working directory in the navigation bar; in a terminal you find it with the command pwd. This command is an abbreviation for "Print Working Directory". Open a terminal, type pwd and press Enter. You should see the path to your home directory:

Print Working Directory

Note that on Windows your home directory path is usually 'C:\Users\USERNAME', but in Bash it will look like 'c/Users/USERNAME' because on Mac/Linux, folders are seperated with a forward slash instead of a backslash.

Viewing Directory Contents

To view what's inside a directory, type ls mydirectory. If you just want to see what's inside your working directory, just type ls.

Copying Files

Creating a copy of a file can be done with the cp command. To make a copy of myfile.txt, enter cp myfile.txt myfile-copy.txt. You can also use cp to copy files into a folder. For example, to copy files into an already created folder, you can type cp myfile.txt myfile-copy.txt myfolder. Notice that you can type multiple file names, and they'll all be moved into the last thing (myfolder in this instance).

Making and Removing Folders


The previous section assumed you had a folder already created, but what if you wanted to make it from terminal? The mkdir command stands for MaKe DIRectory, and all you have to do is type mkdir myfolder to create a folder in your working directory.


To delete folders, use rmdir which stands for ReMove DIRectory. If you want to remove myfolder, just type rmdir myfolder. This command won't work if there's files or folders inside of myfolder though, so make sure you have nothing inside myfolder.

Moving & Renaming Files


We might also want to be able to move folders and files to other places instead of only making copies. The mv command (MoVe) lets you do that, and it works just like cp. To move myfile.txt into myfolder, type mv myfile.txt myfolder/. Notice the / after myfolder, it's there because myfolder is a directory and not a normal file. Putting a / after directory names is a good idea because the shell will refuse to move something into a nonexistent directory. The / at the end forces your shell to look for a directory with that name.


You can also use mv to give files new names. To rename myfile.txt to otherfile.txt, type mv myfile.txt otherfile.txt. There's no / on the end because we aren't moving myfile.txt into a directory, we're just giving it a new name. Be careful using mv, it will overwrite the otherfile.txt even if it exists.

Advanced Shell Topics

As you get more and more familiar with the terminal, you'll find that certain tasks are far less manual than in a normal file explorer. There's an inconceivable amount of command combinations you can use in the shell, so understanding the fundamentals of basic commands will help you understand command combinations, and even craft your own. If you'd like to see some interesting commands, check out command line fu.

One of the quickest ways to learn about commands is to read the manual pages. You can quickly get to the manual page of a command by typing man command in terminal. Manual pages are also available on the internet.

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