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Variables in Make
Gaston Sanchez

Learning Objectives

  • Introduction to Make's variables
  • Naming variables
  • Using variables


Consider the Makefile in example 03-various-targets/:

# all
all: output.html output.tex output.txt

# from markdown to html
    pandoc -s -o output.html

# from markdown to latex
    pandoc -s -o output.tex

# from markdown to reStructuredText
    pandoc -t rst -s -o output.txt

All of the target files share the same name output but with different extensions. Likewise, all the rules require the same dependency

One issue with this makefile is that it has a lot of repetition (i.e. repeated names). And repetition is something you want to avoid following the DRY motto: "Don't Repeat Yourself."

What if you decide that the name output is not really a good idea, and instead you want to name the target files report? You would then need to replace all the occurrences of output by report, right?

Or you could use Make's variables.

Make Variables

Make allows you to define variables, which are very convenient for dealing with the type of "problem" considered above. And for many other tasks.

A variable is a name defined in a makefile to represent a string of text, called the variable's value.

Variables can represent:

  • lists of file names
  • options to pass to compilers
  • programs to run
  • directories to look in for source files
  • directories to write output in
  • or anything else you can imagine

Variables are defined at the beginning of the Makefile by specifying the name of the variable, followed by an assignment operator (= or :=), and the variable's value. Here's an example of how you could define a couple of variables:

# variables
data = dataset.csv
script = analysis.R
IMG = histogram.png

Naming variables

A variable name may be any sequence of characters not containing :, #, `=', or leading or trailing whitespace. However, variable names containing characters other than letters, numbers, and underscores should be avoided, as they may be given special meanings in the future.

OK names:


Should be avoided:


Invalid names:


It is traditional to use upper case letters in variable names, and most users tend to define variables in this way. However, the documention of the Make manual recommends "using lower case letters for variable names that serve internal purposes in the makefile, and reserving upper case for parameters that control implicit rules or for parameters that the user should override with command options (see section Overriding Variables)."

Using variables

After a variable has been defined, you can use it in the rest of the makefile by writing a dollar sign followed by the name of the variable in parentheses or braces: $(data) or ${data} will reference dataset.csv.

In other words, $(data) will be substituted with dataset.csv by explicit request into targets, prerequisites, commands, and other parts of the makefile.


Below is the content of the Makefile using two variables IN and OUT. IN holds the value of the input file, while OUT holds the new name report of output file (with no extension).

# variables
IN =
OUT = report

# phony targets
.PHONY: all clean

# all
all: $(OUT).html $(OUT).tex $(OUT).txt

# from markdown to html
$(OUT).html: $(IN)
    pandoc $(IN) -s -o $(OUT).html

# from markdown to latex
$(OUT).tex: $(IN)
    pandoc $(IN) -s -o $(OUT).tex

# from markdown to reStructuredText
$(OUT).txt: $(IN)
    pandoc $(IN) -t rst -s -o $(OUT).txt

# clean outputs
    rm -rf $(OUT).*

There is still some amount of repetition in the makefile, but by using variables we have gained a little bit of efficiency. Next time we decide to rename report with a different name, we only need to make one change: modify the variable OUT at the top of the Makefile.

Likewise, if we decide to rename with a new name, we just need to modify the value of the variable IN.

Make Documentation

Variables Simplify