Why argv sucks for users

Published: May 1, 2022 by nemanjan00

There are some conventions and patterns that are part of so much software we are never getting rid of them. One of those conventions defines how we pass arguments to applications.

For people who use command line applications and who are in contact with the arguments the most, it is very easy to develope the tolerance to how fucked up they are. For other people, they probably never even realized it.

Just for simplicity, I will stay away from argument passing in bash, variables, pipes…

The argument prefix monster

Just like the most people, my first contact with command-line applications was as user of Windows and inside of cmd.exe.

Crazy thing about passing args in Windows, looking back at it is, Windows does not use - for passing arguments, it uses /.

For example, on Windows, you will encounter something like this:

shutdown /s /f /t 0

Now, some of you will say no, that is not the truth, Windows also uses -. And you would also be correct. This is just as valid:

shutdown -s -f -t 0

It is just as valid, until it is not. Crazy thing is, it is up to developer to parse those arguments and if developer decided to support only one of those, you might make a misstake without realizing.

But Windows users do not use command-line as often as Linux users do, sure it is done better on Linux, right?

How about no?

Truth be told, on Linux at least / is not used, but, now, we come to the issue of - vs --.

We all know - is used for short version of argument name and -- is used for long version, right?

Sure we do, until we do not. There are plenty of programs out there that just use - for everything.

The argument name monster

Ok, but we can just try all try versions and be over with it, right, no big deal?

How about passing values for arguments?

There also are different ways:

# quick note that not all of these make sense as ls arguments and some of
# them are here just for ilustration
ls --color=always # ok, this looks simple enough
ls --color always # wait, what, is = required or not?
ls -c always
ls -c=always
ls -calways # WTF!? Why is this even option? I have seen this one used a lot.
ls -c # Wait, what, what happens when you want argument without value? How is next thing parsed?
ls --color

According to last 2 examples now we know that other than type of prefix used, there is another issue preventing generic parsers for arguments.

The argument value monster

At least values are simple, right?

Not at all. Values are probably the craziest one so far…

What if you want your value to begin with -?

ls -c "\-always" # this is the way to do it,
# but it is so inconsistently implemented and unintuitive...

What if you want your value to be empty string?

ls -c "" # this one is consistent, but also might not be intuitive for everyone

What if you need to pass multiple values?

ls -c a -c l -c w -c a
ls -c "a l w a y s"
ls -c "a,l,w,a,y,s"
ls -c "a, l, w, a, y, s"
ls -ca a # yes, there are multichar short names

What if value is multiline? …

The point is, there are a lot of edge cases implemented on per application basis.

Unnamed arguments monster

Ok, those are simple, just pass them as documented, right?

What if there are multiple optional arguments?

Is order of named and unnamed arguments important? The problem I encounter most ofthen is that parsers expect named arguments to go first, and unnamed later, but, you would be wrong to assume that is always the case.

ffmpeg -ss 50 -i video1.mp4  -c copy -t 10 video2.mp4

Completly crazy examples

One example of complete lack of any respect for convention is dig. Example would be:

dig -4 +all google.com @8.8.8.8

Believe it or not, this is valid and expected way to use dig.

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