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The Curious Case of Double Dashes

Bare -- in bash commands

Why do we sometimes use bare double dashes in commands like git checkout -- file.txt? Isn’t git checkout file.txt just as good?

Bare double dashes signify the end of options. Anything after -- is a parameter. For example in git, you can checkout a file named main:

git checkout main     # Checkout the main branch
git checkout -- main  # Checkout the file named main

In proper documentation, we see git checkout -- file.txt when git checkout file.txt would work, too. -- safeguards against checking out branches when files have the same name as branches.

POSIX.1–2017 standard

12.2 Utility Syntax Guidelines Guideline 10: The first -- argument that is not an option-argument should be accepted as a delimiter indicating the end of options. Any following arguments should be treated as operands, even if they begin with the ‘-’ character.

Use case: rm

When you need to delete an oddly named filed like -file.txt, rm treats -f as an option. Use bare double dashes to delete the file. This works for many bash commands that work with files like cat, mv, or touch.

rm -file.txt          # rm: illegal option -- l
rm -- -file.txt 

Use case: grep

You can use double dashes in grep when the search term starts with a dash:

grep -- -v *

This searches for the string ‘-v’ rather than interpreting it as the option for inverse matches.

Use case: npm scripts

Double dashes are incredibly useful for npm scripts. Anything after the double dashes is not an option of npm, but a parameter for the script that npm executes.

If we want to fix linter errors, we do not need to look up which linter is specified in package.json. As long as the linter understands --fix, we simply run

npm run lint -- --fix

I hope this shed some light on why we sometimes have bare double dashes in our commands. Where do you use --? I would love to hear your tips in the comment section.

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