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There are a number of conventions related to writing completion
functions and it is useful if they are followed for functions which are
to be distributed as part of zsh to maintain a level of consistency.
Coding style:
* Use two spaces for indentation and four for continuation lines except
where there are many continuation lines such as `_arguments' or
`_values' specs. Lines tend to be longer than in C code so less
indentation makes sense.
* For constructs such as `if' and `while', the `then' or `do' should be
on the end of the line after a semi-colon and space unless there
isn't room for it (see the next point) in which case put it on the
next line un-indented.
* Please try not to use lines longer than 79 characters. Don't worry
about breaking long `_arguments' or `_values' specs though.
* Never use alternative, unusual, or optional syntax in completion
functions (or any other shell code distributed with zsh). In other
words, do NOT use the following:
# Short loops
for x in $y; myfunc $x
# Alternative forms
if { [[ $x == $y ]] } {
myfunc $x
foreach x in $y {
myfunc $x
# Weird tricks
() for 1 {
myfunc $1
} $x
Descriptions should not have a trailing full stop and initial capital
letter. Though capitals are fine where you have an acronym which
generally appears in uppercase.
It is a good idea to copy descriptions from the command's man page or
--help output. If you do this, be careful that the description still
makes sense. Some commands have a description like `print help message
(this one) and exit' for --help but the `(this one)' part no longer
makes sense. A less obvious example is where the help output looks like:
-X, --encoding=NAME use input encoding NAME
copying this description exactly would result in completion output that
looks like this:
--encoding -X -- use input encoding NAME
In the help output, it is much clearer what is meant by `NAME' because
it appears after `--encoding=' but it doesn't in the completion
listing. So it is better to use a description of this form:
--encoding -X -- use specified input encoding
The word specify is commonly used with options that take arguments.
Another example of where --help output may not be suitable unedited is
where default values or units are indicated. Do not put them in
per-match descriptions; they are better placed in the group
descriptions. Put the units in parentheses after the description. So
for example, do not use:
'--timeout[specify connection timeout in milliseconds]:timeout'
but use:
'--timeout[specify connection timeout]:timeout (ms)'
Group descriptions should be singular because only one thing is being
completed even though many may be listed. This applies even where you
complete a list of the things. Tags, functions for completing types of
things (such as _files), and states should have plural names.
In a function, allow any descriptions passed as an argument to override
the default you define. For example:
_wanted directories expl directory _files -/ "$@" -
The "$@" adds descriptions passed as parameters and the trailing `-'
tells _wanted where to put options specifying the `directory' description.
Where two matches have identical meaning, give them the same
description so that the completion system can group them together.
Conventionally a brace expansion of this form is used:
'(--context -C)'{--context=,-C-}'[specify lines of context]:lines'
You won't need the exclusion list if the option can be specified
multiple times. It can also be useful to use the same description for
matches which are completely opposite in their meaning if it shortens
the completion listing provided that the names of the matches makes it
clear what their effect is.
Command Versions:
In most cases multiple versions (releases) of commands are not
supported. The functions are merely updated to reflect the latest stable
version. Exceptions to this can be made where are particular version
continues to be commonly distributed. Where there is more than one variant
of the same command however (e.g., the command takes different options
different platforms), the separate variants should be supported.
Contexts, tags and all that
The completion system keeps track of the current context in the
parameter `curcontext'. Its content is the hierarchical name for the
current context sans the `:completion:' and the last colon and the tag
currently tried. The tags represent different types of matches. So,
whenever you are about to add matches, you should use a tag for them
and test if the user wants this type of matches to be generated.
However, this only really needs to be done if no other function in the
call chain has tested that already or if you can offer different types
of matches or if you can handle tag aliases in some sophisticated way.
Most of the utility functions do the testing themselves, so you don't
have to worry about that at all. For example if you are adding matches
with `_files', `_hosts' or functions like these, you can just call
them and they do the tests needed and the loops over the tag aliases.
The functions `_arguments' and `_values' do that too, but there is a
small difference. These functions effectively change the context
name and if you are using the `->state' form for actions, this changed
name component has to be reported back to the function calling
`_arguments' or `_values'. This is done with the parameter `context',
so you have to make that local in the calling function in the same way
as you have to make local `line', `state', and `{opt,val}_args'. This
parameter `context' should then be used when you start adding matches
by giving it to functions like `_tags' via the `-C' options, as in:
local context ...
_arguments ... '-foo:foo:->foo' && return 0
if [[ "$state" = foo ]]; then
_tags -C "$context" ...
This will put the context name given in the argument field of the
`curcontext' parameter and this context will then be used to look
up styles for the tags.
But since this is often used, `_arguments' and `_values' have support
to make your life easier in such cases. With the `-C' option, these
functions set the parameter `curcontext', thus modifying the globally
used hierarchical context name. This means, that you have to make that
local, but then you don't have to worry about giving the context name
reported back to functions you call. E.g.:
local curcontext="$curcontext" ...
_arguments -C ... 'foo:foo:->foo' && return 0
if [[ "$state" = foo ]]; then
_tags ...
In this case the parameter `context' is not set, so you don't have to
make that local. But make sure that `curcontext' is local so that the
value changed by `_arguments' and `_values' is only used in your
function (and make sure to initialise it to its old value as in the
All this only works if the specifications given to `_arguments' define
options and arguments that are completely separate. If there is more
than one `->state' action and more than one of them might be needed
for the same word, you'll have to use a loop:
local state context line i expl ret=1
_arguments \
'::arg1:->arg1' \
'*:args:->rest' && return 0
while (( $#state )); do
case "$state[1]" in
arg1) _wanted -C "$context[1]" foo expl 'foo' compadd - foo1 foo2 && ret=0;;
rest) _wanted -C "$context[1]" bar expl 'bar' compadd - bar1 bar2 && ret=0;;
shift 1 state
shift 1 context
return ret
As you can see, `state' and `context' are really arrays. In this
example, completion for the first argument has to complete both `foo's
and `bar's.
Then, before adding the matches, see if matches of that type are
requested by the user in the current context. If you will add only one
type of matches, this is very simple. You can use the function
`_wanted' for this. Well, you can often use it, that is. Use it as in:
_wanted names expl 'name' compadd - alice bob
This is like testing if the tag `names' is requested by the user and
then calling `_all_labels' with the same arguments.
The `_all_labels' function implements the loop over the tag aliases and
handles the user-defined description, using (in the example) the
parameter `expl' to store options to give to the command. These options
are inserted into the command line either directly before a single
hyphen if there is such an argument or after the first word if there
is no single hyphen. Since using `_all_labels' is so much more convenient
than writing the loop with the `_next_label' function (see below), but
some functions called to generate matches don't accept a single hyphen
as an argument anywhere but want the options built as their last arguments,
`_all_labels' will *replace* the hyphen with the options if the hyphen is
the last argument. A good example for such a function is
`_combination' which can be called like:
_all_labels foo expl 'descr...' _combination ... -
And the `-' will be replaced by the options that are to be given to
Note that you can also give the `-J' and `-V' options with the
optional `1' or `2' preceding them supported by `_description':
_wanted -2V names expl 'name' compadd ...
In some cases one needs to call multiple functions or call `compadd'
more than once to generate the matches. In such a case one needs to
implement the loop over the tag aliases directly. This is done with the
`_next_label' function. Like this:
while _next_label names expl 'name'; do
compadd "$expl[@]" - alice bob && ret=0
_other_names "$expl[@]" && ret=0
return ret
Simple enough, I hope. But `_next_label' can do some more: utility
functions normally accept options which are then given to `compadd'.
Since these may contain options for the description and `_next_label' may
generate such options, too, it isn't entirely trivial to decide which
of these options should take precedence. But `_next_label' can do the work
for you here. All you have to do is to give the options your utility
function gets to `_next_label', as in:
while _next_label names expl 'name' "$@"; do
compadd "$expl[@]" - alice bob
That's all. Note that the positional argument "$@" are *not* given to
`compadd'. They will be stuffed into the `expl' array by `_next_label'.
The most complicated case is where you can offer multiple types of
matches. In this case the user should be able to say which types he
wants to see at all and of those which he wants to see he should be
able to say which types should be tried first. The generic solution
for this uses `_tags' and `_requested':
local expl ret=1
_tags friends users hosts
while _tags; do
_requested friends expl friend compadd alice bob && ret=0
_requested users && _users && ret=0
_requested hosts && _hosts && ret=0
(( ret )) || break # leave the loop if matches were added
`_tags' with tags as arguments registers those tags and checks which
of them the user wants to see and in which order the tags are to be
tried. This means that internally these tags are stored in multiple
sets. The types of matches represented by the tags from the first set
should be tried first. If that generates no matches, the second set is
tried and so on. `_tags' without arguments just makes the next set be
tried (on the first call it makes the first set be used). The function
`_requested' then tests if the tag given as its first argument is in
the set currently used and returns zero if it is, i.e. if matches of
that type should be added now. The arguments accepted by `_requested'
are the same as for `_wanted'. I.e. you can call it with only the tag
to test, with the `tag array description' or with that plus the
command to execute.
In some cases (like the `users' and `hosts' tags in the example) you
don't need do the loop over the tag aliases yourself, because the
utility functions like `_users' and `_hosts' do it automatically.
This looks good already. But in many cases such as this one you can
also use the function `_alternative' which simply implements a loop
like the one above. It gets arguments of the form `tag:descr:action'.
_alternative \
'friends:friend:(alice bob)' \
'users:: _users' \
'hosts:: _hosts'
Which does the same as the previous example. (Note the empty
descriptions in the last two arguments -- the actions start with a
space so that they are executed without giving the description
build by `_alternative', i.e. we just use the description added by
`_users' and `_hosts').
In cases where you have to keep track of the context yourself, you can
give the sub-context you want to use to `_tags', `_wanted' and
`_alternative' with the `-C' option as described above. You don't need
to give it to `_requested' -- that function will work on the context
used by the corresponding call to `_tags' automatically.
For the names of the tags: choose simple (short, if at all possible)
names in plural. Also, first have a look at the tag names already used
by other functions and if any of these names seem sensible for the
type of matches you are about to add, then use those names. This will
allow users to define styles for certain types of matches independent
of the place where they are added.
One final comment about when to use your own argument-contexts: do
this when the command you are writing a completion function for has
different `modes'. E.g. if it accepts host names after a `-h' option
and users or hosts after `-u' and for some reason you can't use
`_arguments' to do the work for you, then use context names as in:
case "$1" in
_tags -C -h hosts && _hosts && ret=0
_alternative -C -u 'users:: _users' 'hosts:: _hosts' && ret=0
Users can associate patterns for hierarchical context names with
certain styles using the `zstyle' builtin. The completion code
should then use these styles to decide how matches should be added and
to get user-configured values. This, too, is done using the builtin
Basically styles map names to a bunch of strings (the `value'). In
many cases you want to treat the value as a boolean, so let's start
with that. To test if, for example, the style `verbose' is set for
the tag `options' in the context you are currently in, you can just do:
if zstyle -t ":completion:${curcontext}:options" verbose; then
# yes, it is set...
I.e. with the -t option and two arguments `zstyle' takes the first one
as a context and the second one as a style name and returns zero if that
style has the boolean value `true'. Internally it checks if the style
is set to one of `yes', `true', `on', or `1' and interprets that as
`true' and every other value as `false'.
For more complicated styles for which you want to test if the value
matches a certain pattern, you can use `zstyle' with the -m option and
three arguments:
if zstyle -m ":completion:${curcontext}:foo" bar '*baz*'; then
This tests if the value of the style `bar' for the tag `foo' matches
the pattern `*baz*' and returns zero if it does.
If you just want to see if one of the strings in the value is exactly
equal to any of a number of a strings, you can use the -t option and
give the strings after the style name:
if zstyle -t ":completion:${curcontext}:foo" bar str1 str2; then
But sometimes you want to actually get the value stored for a certain
style instead of just testing it. For this `zstyle' supports four
options: `-b', `-s', `-a', and `-h'. After these options, three
arguments are expected, the context, the style, and a parameter name.
The parameter will then be set to the value of the style and the option
says how the strings stored as a value will be stored in the
- `-b': the parameter will be set to a either `yes' or `no'
- `-s': the parameter will be set to all strings in the value
concatenated (separated by spaces) to one string
- `-a': the parameter will be set to an array containing the strings
from the value as elements
- `-h': the parameter will be set to an association with the strings
from the value being interpreted alternatingly as keys and
Some random comments about style names. Use the ones already in use if
possible. Especially, use the `verbose' style if you can add
matches in a simple and a verbose way. Use the verbose form only if
the `verbose' style is `true' for the current context. Also, if
the matches you want to add have a common prefix which is somehow
special, use the `prefix-needed' and `prefix-hidden' styles. The first
one says if the user has to give the prefix on the line to make these
matches be added and the second one says if the prefix should be
visible in the list.
And finally, if you need a style whose value can sensibly be
interpreted as a list of words, use array or association styles with
the `-a' or `-h' options to `zstyle'. Otherwise you should only make
sure that an empty value for a style is treated in the same way as if
the style wasn't set at all (this is used elsewhere and we want to
keep things consistent).
Always use description. This is important. Really. *Always* use
descriptions. If you have just written down a `compadd' without a
"$expl[@]" (or equivalent), you have just made an error. Even in
helper functions where you use a "$@": if you can't be sure that there
is a description in the arguments, add one. You can (and, in most
cases, should) then give the description you generated after the
"$@". This makes sure that the, probably more specific, description
given by the calling function takes precedence over the generic one
you have just generated.
And it really isn't that complicated, is it? Think about a string
people might want to see above the matches (in singular -- that's used
throughout the completion system) and do:
local expl
_description tag expl <descr>
compadd "$expl@]" - <matches ...>
Note that this function also accepts `-V' and `-J', optionally (in the
same word) preceded by `1' or `2' to describe the type of group you
want to use. For example:
_description tag expl '...'
compadd "$expl[@]" -1V foo - ... # THIS IS WRONG!!!
is *not* the right way to use a unsorted group. Instead do:
_description -1V tag expl '...'
compadd "$expl[@]" - ...
and everything will work fine.
Also, if you are about to add multiple different types of matches, use
multiple calls to `_description' and add them with multiple calls to
`compadd'. But in almost all cases you should then add them using
different tags anyway, so, see above.
And since a tag directly corresponds to a group of matches, you'll
often be using the tags function that allows you to give the
explanation to the same function that is used to test if the tags are
requested (again: see above). Just as a reminder:
_wanted [ -[1,2]V | -[1,2]J ] <tag> expl <descr> <cmd> ...
_requested [ -[1,2]V | -[1,2]J ] <tag> expl <descr> [ <cmd> ... ]
is all you need to make your function work correctly with both tags
and description at the same time.
Misc. remarks
1) Supply match specifications to `compadd' if there are sensible ones.
2) Use helper functions that do option completion for you (like
`_arguments' and `_values') -- it will make your life much
3) Use helper functions like `_users' and `_groups' instead of some ad hoc
mechanisms to generate such information. This ensures that users can
change the way these things will be completed everywhere by just using
their own implementations for these functions.
4) Make sure that the return value of your functions is correct: zero
if matches were added and non-zero if no matches were found.
In some cases you'll need to test the value of `$compstate[nmatches]'
for this. This should always be done by first saving the old value
(`local nm="$compstate[nmatches]"') and later comparing this with
the current value after all matches have been added (e.g. by
writing `[[ nm -ne compstate[nmatches] ]]' at the end of your
This guarantees that your functions will be re-usable because calling
functions may rely on the correct return value.
5) When writing helper functions that generate matches, the arguments
of these should be given unchanged to `compadd' (if they are not
used by the helper function itself).
6) When matches with a common prefix such as option names are generated,
add them *with* the prefix (like `-', `+', or `--' for options).
Then check the `prefix-needed' style to see if the matches are to be
added when the prefix is on the line and use the `prefix-hidden'
style to see if the prefix should be listed or not.
7) If at all possible, completion code for a command or a suite of
commands should go into only one file. If a command has sub-commands,
implementing a state-machine might be a good idea. See the `_rpm'
and `_pbm' files for examples of different styles. Also see the
documentation for `_arguments' and `_values' for two functions
that may help you with this.
8) If a completion function generates completely different types of
completions (for example, because the command has several
completely different modes), it should allow users to define
functions that separately override the behavior for these
different types. This can easily be achieved by using the
`_call_function' utility function, as in:
_call_function ret _command_$subcommand && return ret
This will try to call the function `_command_$subcommand' and if
it exists, it will be called and the completion function exits
with its exit status. After this call to `call_function' the
completion function would contain the code for the default way to
generate the matches.
See the `_email_addresses', `_rpm' and `_nslookup' files for examples.
9) Be mindful of quoting/escaping edge cases. Notably:
* Elements of the `$words' array are derived verbatim from the user's
command-line input -- if they type an argument in quotes or escaped
by backslashes, that is how it appears in the array.
* Option-arguments are stored in `$opt_args` the same way. Further,
since multiple arguments to the same option are represented in a
colon-delimited fashion, backslashes and colons passed by the user
are escaped. For instance, the option-arguments parsed from
`-afoo -a "bar" -a 1:2:3' appear in `$opt_args[-a]` as
* The `_call_program` helper used by many completion functions is
implemented using `eval', so arguments to it must be quoted
accordingly. As mentioned above, most of the user's own input comes
pre-escaped, but you may run into problems passing file names or
data derived from another command's output to the helper. Consider
using some variation of the `q` expansion flag to deal with this:
`_call_program vals $words[1] ${(q-)myfile}'
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