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clitest – Command Line Tester

clitest is a portable POSIX shell script that performs automatic testing in Unix command lines.

It's the same concept as in Python's doctest module: you document both the commands and their expected output, using the familiar interactive prompt format, and a specialized tool tests them.

In fact, the doctest official description can also be used for clitest:

  • The doctest module searches for pieces of text that look like interactive Python sessions, and then executes those sessions to verify that they work exactly as shown.

  • The clitest command searches for pieces of text that look like interactive Unix command lines, and then executes those command lines to verify that they work exactly as shown.

Download & install

The full program is just a single shell script file.

Save it, make it executable and move it to a $PATH directory:

curl -sOL
chmod +x clitest
sudo mv clitest /usr/bin

Now check if everything is fine:

clitest --help

Docker image

You can also run clitest in a Docker container (more info in Docker Hub).

docker run --rm -t aureliojargas/clitest --help

Quick Intro

Save the commands and their expected output in a text file:


$ echo "Hello World"
Hello World
$ cd /tmp
$ pwd
$ cd "$OLDPWD"

Use clitest to run these commands and check their output:

$ clitest examples/intro.txt
#1	echo "Hello World"
#2	cd /tmp
#3	pwd
#4	cd "$OLDPWD"
OK: 4 of 4 tests passed

CLI Syntax

There's no syntax to learn.

The test files are identical to the good old command line interface (CLI) you're so familiar:


$ echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 1
$ echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 4
$ echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 1,4
$ echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 4,1
$ echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 1-4
$ echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 4-

That's it.

Just paste your shell session inside a text file and you have a ready-to-use test suite.

$ clitest examples/cut.txt
#1	echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 1
#2	echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 4
#3	echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 1,4
#4	echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 4,1
#5	echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 1-4
#6	echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 4-
OK: 6 of 6 tests passed

There are more examples and instructions in the examples folder. For a real-life collection of hundreds of test files, see funcoeszz test files.

Testable Documentation

Clitest can also extract and run command lines from documentation, such as Markdown files. This very file you are now reading is testable with clitest All the command lines inside it will be run and checked.

No more malfunctioning shell commands in your READMEs, you can have testable documentation.

Given the following Markdown sample document:


The numeric ranges of the Unix command "cut"

Use single numbers to extract one specific field:

	$ echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 1
	$ echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 4

Use commas to inform more than one field:

	$ echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 1,4

Note that inverting the order will *not* invert the output:

	$ echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 4,1

Use an hyphen to inform a range of fields, from one to four:

	$ echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 1-4

If you omit the second range number, it matches until the last:

	$ echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 4-

cut is cool, isn't it?

It is a technical article, not a boring code-only test file. You can read its final (formatted) version here.

You can give this article to clitest, who will identify all the shell command lines inside it, run them and check if the results are the same.

$ clitest --prefix tab examples/
#1	echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 1
#2	echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 4
#3	echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 1,4
#4	echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 4,1
#5	echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 1-4
#6	echo "one:two:three:four:five:six" | cut -d : -f 4-
OK: 6 of 6 tests passed

Note the use of --prefix tab option, to inform clitest that the code blocks are prefixed by a tab in this Markdown file. For files with 4-spaces indented code blocks, use --prefix 4. When using non-indented fenced code blocks (```), such as this, no prefix option is needed.

Examples of testable documentation handled by clitest:

Alternative Syntax: Inline Output

Now a nice extension to the original idea. Using the special marker #=> you can embed the expected command output at the end of the command line.

$ echo "foo"                      #=> foo
$ echo $((10 + 2))                #=> 12

This is the same as doing:

$ echo "foo"
$ echo $((10 + 2))

Inline outputs are very readable when testing series of commands that result in short texts.

$ echo "abcdef" | cut -c 1        #=> a
$ echo "abcdef" | cut -c 4        #=> d
$ echo "abcdef" | cut -c 1,4      #=> ad
$ echo "abcdef" | cut -c 1-4      #=> abcd

Note: If needed, you can change this marker (i.e., to #→ or ###) at the top of the script or using the --inline-prefix option.

Advanced Tests

When using the #=> marker, you can take advantage of special options to change the default output matching method.

$ head /etc/passwd            #=> --lines 10
$ tac /etc/passwd | tac       #=> --file /etc/passwd
$ cat /etc/passwd             #=> --egrep ^root:
$ echo $((2 + 10))            #=> --regex ^\d+$
$ make test                   #=> --exit 0
$ pwd                         #=> --eval echo $PWD
  • Using #=> --lines the test will pass if the command output has exactly N lines. Handy when the output text is variable (unpredictable), but the number of resulting lines is constant.

  • Using #=> --file the test will pass if the command output matches the contents of an external file. Useful to organize long/complex outputs into files.

  • Using #=> --egrep the test will pass if egrep matches at least one line of the command output.

  • Using #=> --regex the test will pass if the command output is matched by a Perl regular expression. A multiline output is matched as a single string, with inner \n's. Use the (?ims) modifiers when needed.

  • Using #=> --exit the test will pass if the exit code of the command is equal to the code specified. Useful when testing commands that generate variable output (or no output at all), and the exit code is the best indication of success. Both STDIN and STDOUT are ignored when using this option.

  • Using #=> --eval the test will pass if both commands result in the same output. Useful to expand variables which store the full or partial output.


$ clitest --help
Usage: clitest [options] <file ...>

  -1, --first                 Stop execution upon first failed test
  -l, --list                  List all the tests (no execution)
  -L, --list-run              List all the tests with OK/FAIL status
  -t, --test RANGE            Run specific tests, by number (1,2,4-7)
  -s, --skip RANGE            Skip specific tests, by number (1,2,4-7)
      --pre-flight COMMAND    Execute command before running the first test
      --post-flight COMMAND   Execute command after running the last test
  -q, --quiet                 Quiet operation, no output shown
  -V, --version               Show program version and exit

Customization options:
  -P, --progress TYPE         Set progress indicator: test, number, dot, none
      --color WHEN            Set when to use colors: auto, always, never
      --diff-options OPTIONS  Set diff command options (default: '-u')
      --inline-prefix PREFIX  Set inline output prefix (default: '#=> ')
      --prefix PREFIX         Set command line prefix (default: '')
      --prompt STRING         Set prompt string (default: '$ ')

Exit codes

  • 0 - All tests passed, or normal operation (--help, --list, …)
  • 1 - One or more tests have failed
  • 2 - An error occurred (file not found, invalid range, …)

Fail fast

Use the --first option (or the short version -1) to abort the execution when any test fails.

Useful for Continuous Integration (CI), or when running sequential tests where the next test depends on the correct result of the previous.

Quiet operation

When automating the tests execution, use --quiet to show no output and just check the exit code to make sure all tests have passed. Using --first to fail fast is also a good idea in this case.

if clitest --quiet --first tests.txt
    # all tests passed
    # one or more tests failed :(

Run specific tests

To rerun a specific problematic test, or to limit the execution to a set of tests, use --test. To ignore one or more tests, use --skip. If needed, you can combine both options to inform a very specific test range. Examples:

clitest --test 1-10    tests.txt   # Run the first 10 tests
clitest --test 1,2,6-8 tests.txt   # Run tests #1, #2, #6, #7 and #8
clitest --skip 11,15   tests.txt   # Run all tests, except #11 and #15
clitest -t 1-10 -s 5   tests.txt   # Run first 10 tests, but skip #5

Pre/post scripts

You can run a preparing script or command before the first test with --pre-flight, for setting env variables and create auxiliary files. At the end of all tests, run a final cleanup script/command with --post-flight to remove temporary files or other transient data.

clitest --pre-flight ./ --post-flight 'rm *.tmp' tests.txt


Use the customization options to extract and test command lines from documents or wiki pages. For example, to test all the command line examples listed inside a Markdown file using the 4-spaces syntax for code blocks:

clitest --prefix 4

Or maybe you use a different prompt ($PS1) in your documentation?

clitest  --prefix 4 --prompt '[john@localhost ~]$ '


  • Use any text file format for the tests, it doesn't matter. The command lines just need to be grepable and have a fixed prefix (or even none). Even Windows text files (CR+LF) will work fine.

  • The command line power is available in your test files: use variables, pipes, redirection, create files, folders, move around…

  • All the commands are tested using a single shell session. This means that variables, aliases and functions defined in one test will persist in the following tests.

  • Both STDOUT and STDERR are captured, so you can also test error messages.

  • To test STDOUT/STDERR and the exit code at the same time, add a ;echo $? after the command.

  • Use an empty $ prompt to close the last command output.

  • In the output, every single char (blank or not) counts. Any difference will cause a test to fail. To ignore the difference in blanks, use --diff-options '-u -w'.

  • Unlike doctest's <BLANKLINE>, in clitest blank lines in the command output aren't a problem. Just insert them normally.

  • To test outputs with no final \n, such as printf foo, use #=> --regex ^foo$.

  • In multifile mode, the current folder ($PWD) is reset when starting to test a new file. This avoids that a cd command in a previous file will affect the next.

  • Multiline prompts ($PS2) are not yet supported.

  • Ellipsis (as in doctest) are not supported. Use #=> --regex instead.

  • Simple examples in examples/. Hardcore examples in and test/, the clitest own test-suite.

Choose the execution shell

The clitest shebang is #!/bin/sh. That's the default shell that will be used to run your test command lines. Depending on the system, that path points to a different shell, such as ash, dash, or bash (running in POSIX mode).

To force your test commands to always run on a specific shell, just call the desired shell before:

clitest tests.txt            # Uses /bin/sh
bash clitest tests.txt       # Uses Bash
ksh clitest tests.txt        # Uses Korn Shell


This script was carefully coded to be portable between POSIX shells. It's code is validated by checkbashisms and shellcheck.

To make sure it keeps working as expected, after every change clitest is automatically tested in the CI, using the following shells:

  • bash
  • dash
  • ksh
  • sh (busybox)
  • zsh

Fish shell is not supported (it's not POSIX), but you can use instead.

Portability issues are considered serious bugs, please report them!

Developers: Learn more about portability in POSIX shells:


A shell script to test shell commands.
No other language or environment involved.