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How to navigate the command line

Use these two commands to navigate Linux or FreeDOS on the command line.

The command line can be a very powerful environment to run commands. But because it’s all text, the command line can also be a bit intimidating to new users. If you aren’t familiar with the command line, you really only need to know two commands to get around.

Navigating Linux with cd and ls

When you start a terminal session and see that friendly $ prompt, the first thing you can do is list the files in the current directory using the ls command. The term “directory” is really the same thing as “folder,” but it’s the older way to describe it because of some technical history.

Here’s what I see when I type ls from my home directory:

$ ls
bin      Documents  games  Music     Public  Templates  virtualmachines
Desktop  Downloads  lib    Pictures  src     Videos     work

Most Linux distributions will set up your home directory with folders like Desktop for files that live on the desktop, Documents to store your work, and so on for other folders. I’ve added new folders on my system to do other things, which is why you’re seeing a bin directory for programs I wrote for myself and games for games that I like to play.

Let’s navigate into a directory with the cd command. I use the src directory for my programming projects, so let’s see what I keep in there:

$ cd src
$ ls
assembly   cpy       fill     lights    odt       readfile  translation
assoc      curses    fortran  macros    options   rh        type
catalogs   def-demo  getline  mad       progress  runoff    unhtml
c-example  demo1     ifdef    map       pvpgem1   shuffle   untab
conio      drop      lanpar   numlines  read      smore

There’s a lot of stuff here. If you were looking at this list on a terminal, you’d likely see colors to help you see what’s what. For example, the ls command usually displays directories in blue, executable programs in green, images in a light purple, and so on. Without color, it can be difficult to see if these directory entries might be files or folders, so I’ll add the -F option so ls will add a slash after folders:

$ ls -F
assembly/   cpy/       fill/     lights/    odt/       readfile/  translation/
assoc/      curses/    fortran/  macros/    options/   rh/        type/
catalogs/   def-demo/  getline/  mad/       progress/  runoff/    unhtml/
c-example/  demo1/     ifdef/    map/       pvpgem1/   shuffle/   untab/
conio/      drop/      lanpar/   numlines/  read/      smore/

So we can see that all of these are just other folders; the technical term you might see in some documentation is subdirectories. Let’s go into one of these subdirectories to see what’s there. I’ll pick the unhtml directory, where I have a small program that removes HTML code from web pages:

$ cd unhtml
$ ls
unhtmlify  unhtmlify.c

The first ls command shows two files: unhtmlify.c that contains the source code for the program, and unhtmlify which is the version that I can run.

To go back to the previous directory, just use .. which means “the parent directory” or the directory that’s “above” this one. If you feel lost, type pwd to print the working directory (that’s what pwd stands for).

$ pwd
$ cd ..
$ pwd
$ cd ..
$ pwd

Navigating FreeDOS with cd and dir

Getting around on FreeDOS is much the same as navigating directories on Linux. You still use the cd command to change to a new directory, and .. also means “the parent directory.” But FreeDOS uses dir to display the contents of a directory instead of the ls command on Linux.

FreeDOS also makes it easy to see where you are by printing the working directory as part of the prompt. For example, when you see C:\>, that means you are on the C: drive (the first hard drive) in the “root” (\) directory. The > is the prompt where you type a command.

 Volume in drive C is FREEDOS2024
 Volume Serial Number is 313E-17F3

 Directory of C:\

APPS                 <DIR>  05-12-2024  4:24p
DEVEL                <DIR>  05-12-2024  4:17p
FREEDOS              <DIR>  05-12-2024  4:11p
GAMES                <DIR>  05-30-2024  1:48p
GW                   <DIR>  05-14-2024  2:15p
TEMP                 <DIR>  05-27-2024  5:05p
COMMAND  COM        85,480  07-10-2021  7:28p
FDAUTO   BAT         2,478  05-12-2024  4:43p
FDCONFIG SYS           947  05-12-2024  4:12p
KERNEL   SYS        46,256  05-01-2024  8:58a
         4 file(s)        135,161 bytes
         6 dir(s)     298,115,072 bytes free

The dir command also prints a lot of extra information like the free space on the drive and the size of each file. If you don’t want to see that, or just want to make the output look more like ls on Linux, add the /w (“wide”) and /b (“bare”) options:

C:\>dir /w /b
[APPS]         [DEVEL]        [FREEDOS]      [GAMES]        [GW]           

FreeDOS, like any DOS, is actually case insensitive. That means you don’t need to type everything in uppercase. But here, the output is in all-uppercase. To display this in lowercase, add the /l (“lowercase”) option:

C:\>dir /w /b /l
[apps]         [devel]        [freedos]      [games]        [gw]           
[temp]         command.com    fdauto.bat     fdconfig.sys   kernel.sys

If you don’t want to type those options all the time, you can set an environment variable called DIRCMD to keep any dir options you want to use. I’ve already set my DIRCMD to /O:GNE (“order the listing by: group directories first, then sort by name and extension”) and /Y (“4-digit years”). But to make this look more like Linux ls output, let’s update my DIRCMD with the extra options:

C:\>set DIRCMD=/o:gne /y /w /b /l
[apps]         [devel]        [freedos]      [games]        [gw]           
[temp]         command.com    fdauto.bat     fdconfig.sys   kernel.sys

Note that the command line options to dir are also case insensitive; you can use either uppercase or lowercase for the options.

Let’s go into the games directory and see what’s there. Just like on Linux, we can use the cd command to change the directory. Once in the new directory, we can use dir to list its contents.

C:\>cd games
[.]            [..]           [senet]

This shows that there’s just one subdirectory in games: the Simple Senet game is in the senet folder:

C:\GAMES>cd senet
[.]            [..]           senet.exe

And having navigated there, we can “back up” to the previous directories, making our way back to the “root” directory, using .. to mean the parent directory:

C:\GAMES\SENET>cd ..    
C:\GAMES>cd ..

Navigating made easy

Armed with just these two basic commands (cd and ls on Linux, cd and dir on FreeDOS) you can navigate your way around to find files and directories. Try it on your system to locate your files using the command line.

About the Author

Jim Hall is an open source software advocate and developer, best known for usability testing in GNOME and as the founder + project coordinator of FreeDOS. At work, Jim is CEO of Hallmentum, an IT executive consulting company that provides hands-on IT Leadership training, workshops, and coaching.

Read Jim's Full Bio

The opinions expressed on this website are those of each author, not of the author's employer or All Things Open/We Love Open Source.

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