Quick Guide to Command Line Basics

Before graphical user interfaces (GUI), drag and drop desktops, and voice activated assistances (e.g., Siri), the only way to interact with a computer was through written commands using the command line interface (CLI). Although you could be quite successful at using a computer without ever knowing what the CLI is, mastery of the CLI is that gateway to becoming a power user and unlocking the full potential of your computer. This is a quick overview of some command line basics as well as a few tips on how to make your experience more efficient (and cool).


To access the command line interface on macOS you need to open Terminal. It is located in /Applications/Utilities/Terminal; the easiest way to open it is to use spotlight (⌘+space) and simply type terminal.

An alternative to Terminal is iTerm. iTerm is a terminal emulator that can be used as a replacement for the native Terminal app. iTerm adds a host of new features that provided much needed productivity boosters like autocompletion and split panes.

Basic Commands

Below are a few basic commands that form the bedrock of command line interaction. If you ever have any questions about a command you come across, Explain Shell is an excellent resource as well as this cheatsheet.

Before we begin, here are a few tips:

  • The term “directory” is just a way of referring to folders; “directory” is preferred on *nix operating systems as opposed to “folder” on Windows (checkout this for the super nerd answer)

  • The action that a command performs can be modified using flags. These are typically a “-” followed by a single letter. For example, to list the visible AND the hidden the contents in a directory you would type the list command ls followed by the flag -a.

Creating Files and Folders

  • mkdir [dir_name] make a directory

  • touch [file_name] change file timestamps; easy way to create files

  • rm [file_name] removes files (does not remove directories by default)
    • -r [dir_name] remove directories and their contents recursively

Moving Around and Exploring the Computer

  • cd traverse the directory structure forward (i.e., open a directory)

  • ../ traverse the directory structure backward (i.e., exit a directory)

  • ls list contents of current directory
    • -l list detailed info such as permissions, owners, size, etc.
    • -a list all contents including hidden contents
    • -S sort
    • Sr reverse sort
  • cp [file] [path] copy source file to a destination

  • mv rename source to destination or move source to a directory; whereas cp duplicates the file, mv only keeps one copy (either with the new name or in the new location)

  • grep ["pattern"] [file_name] print lines matching a pattern

  • find [file_name] find a file

  • cat [file_name] display contents of file

  • echo ["string"] display a line of text

Other Useful Commands

  • sudo [command] execute command as super user (requires password)

  • [command] | [command] piping — feed output of one command into the input of another command

  • echo ["string"] > [file_name] overwrite file with string
    • echo ["string"] >> [file_name] append file with string
  • Text editors
    • nano [file_name] a very simple text editor
    • vim [file_name] a more robust and extensible text editor; type esc then :q to exit
    • emacs [file_name] a more robust and extensible text editor


While terminal is an application, the underlying software that you are using to do the command line interfacing is known as a shell. The default shell for macOS is Bash (Bourne Again Shell). Although Bash has stood the test of time, I currently using Zsh (pronounced Zee Shell) which provides useful features like command line completions, spell corrections, themeable prompts, etc.


The easiest way to get started with zsh is to install it using brew (checkout my other post for instructions on how to use brew). To install zsh this way, simply type:

brew install zsh zsh-completions

To get the most out of zsh, you can try one of the several frameworks available. I am currently using oh my zsh. Oh my zsh gives you easy access to many useful plugins.

Kyle Thomas
Kyle Thomas
VP, Quantitative Analyst II

I am a quantitative analyst focusing on valuation and marketing.