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How to Learn the Command Line

Brandi Taylor - December 04, 2020


The command line allows the user to perform tasks, run scripts, and perform other operations on a computer system via text input, without a GUI (graphical user interface). Learning how to use the command line is helpful — and sometimes necessary — for information technology professionals such as system administrators.

What is the Command Line?

The command line accepts text input from a user to perform tasks on the computer system. The command line is executed within a program commonly referred to as the terminal. The terminal then uses a shell to execute the tasks entered through the command line.

What is the Command Line Used for?

A person using the command line can perform the same tasks they would use while using a program with a GUI. However, the command line allows tasks to be performed quicker than by using a program with a GUI. Imagine needing to rename hundreds of files within a directory. Instead of having to right click and rename each one individually, a script could be written in just a few lines to rename all the files at once.

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Identify the task you need accomplished and execute a command using the terminal. There are many tasks you can run using the command line, including:

  • Installing libraries, languages, and environments
  • Creating and manipulating directories and files on your system
  • Creating archives of files
  • Running user-created programs in languages like Python

Types of Command Lines (CLIs)

Command line is a universal term for the prompt that accepts user input via text; there aren’t really different types of command lines. However, there are different types of CLIs that use a command line. A CLI can stand for:

  • Command Line Interface
  • Command Line Input
  • Command Line Interpreter

Two of the most common types of CLIs are Command Prompt for Windows-based computers and Bash for Linux/macOS computers. Each type of CLI has its own syntax and commands, so performing a task in Command Prompt could be the same as performing a task in Bash, yet the command that is written on the command line to perform that task can and will vary .

Learning the Command Line

General users do not use the command line to perform various tasks. They use a program with a graphical interface to run tasks needed. However, as a programmer or coder, using the command line is a common, and often necessary, task.

Learning how to use the command line can be fairly straight-forward. Once you start getting used to the command line, you’ll start remembering common inputs. If you need help, rely on system documentation for specific commands to install particular packages or environments to your system.

Remember to adhere to command line safety rules. Without proper precaution being taken, and without knowing exactly what commands you’re inputting, there can be detrimental effects. There are commands that can completely remove items from your hard disk or irreversibly change system settings. Always have proper insight into what tasks are being performed by the commands you input.

How Long does it Take to Learn the Command Line?

You can begin learning the command line within a few minutes. It only takes persistence and the desire to learn the command line. The more you use the command line to perform various tasks, the more you’ll learn and become comfortable using the command line.

How to Learn the Command Line Step-by-Step

There are no set rules on how to use the command line. However, the following tips are helpful in learning and becoming more comfortable with command line concepts.

  1. Select your learning sources. There are many resources available to learn the command line. Select the ones that are thorough, were published recently, and that uses language you understand.
  2. Set time aside to learn. As with all things, learning something new takes time and consistency. The learning-curve on learning to use the command line is not as steep as some computer-related topics, there’s still a need to take the time to understand what you’re learning and the commands you’re using.
  3. Practice what you’ve learned. There isn’t often a need to memorize much of the information on using the command line, though as you use it more often, you’ll start to remember common commands. The main concept you’ll want to learn is how the command line works. Once you understand that, practice what you’ve learned by repeating those tasks in the command line.
  4. Read documentation. Many packages, libraries, and environments used for coding and running tasks have documentation that describes the commands needed to install or use them.

The Best Command Line Courses and Trainings

Some methods of learning might be better-suited for you than others, depending on how you learn best. Below are articles, books, and videos to help you learn the command line.

Online Command Line Courses

There are paid and free online courses available. Here is a list of just a few we recommend:

Learn the Command Line by Codecademy

  • Format: Online interactive tutorial, self-paced
  • Duration: 8 hours
  • Cost: Up to $39/month until the course is finished

Codecademy’s Learn the Command Line is an interactive eight-hour online course. It is self-paced so you can complete it as your schedule allows. There are no prerequisites to starting the course. The course covers navigating the file system via the command line and modifying files through projects and quizzes.

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This course requires Codecademy Pro, which is currently $39 per month. A certificate of completion is available to you once you’ve completed the course.

Meet the Command Line on Pluralsight

  • Format: Online videos, self-paced
  • Duration: 2 hours
  • Cost: Up to $29/month until the course is finished

The Meet the Command Line course is a video series provided by Pluralsight. The course teaches the Unix command line and has a duration of just two hours. To access the course on Pluralsight, there is a monthly subscription price of $29 per month. However, every few weeks, Pluralsight has free weekends, if you’d rather not spend money on it.

Linux Command Line Basics by Udacity

  • Fomat: Online videos, self-paced
  • Duration: 1 week
  • Cost: Free

The Linux Command Line Basics is a beginner-level course offered free of charge by Udacity. Completing the course takes two weeks, through an interactive tutorial that allows you to learn the command line interface of a Linux server and introduce you to files and directories found in the operating file system.

Command Line Books

‘Going Text: Mastering the Power of the Command Line’ , Brian Schell

  • Formats Available: Kindle Book, Paperback
  • Cost: $3.99–$9.99, depending on format

This book teaches the command line on many system environments and aims to teach everything that’s possible without using a GUI, with just text and a mouse.

‘The Linux Command Line Beginner’s Guide’ , Jonathan Moeller

  • Formats Available: Kindle Book, Paperback, Audiobook
  • Cost: $0.99–$13.08, depending on format

The Linux Command Line Beginner’s Guide will teach you how to use the command line in a Linux environment. You’ll learn to access and modify files, detect connectivity issues, and other helpful command line commands.

‘The Windows Command Line Beginner’s Guide – Second Edition’ , Jonathan Moeller

  • Formats Available: Kindle Book, Paperbook
  • Cost: $0.99–$8.99, depending on Format

This book is similar to the Linux Command Line Beginner’s Guide , except that it focuses on teaching the commands input into the command line on a Windows Environment.

Online Command Line Resources

Command Line Crash Course , MDN

Available as part of the MDN (Mozilla Developer Network) web docs, this crash course covers all beginning aspects of the command line. You’ll learn the difference between the command line and the terminal, about the shell, and how to create your own CLI tools.

Introduction to the Command Line

This is an Open Book formatted as a website offered by Launch School. You’ll learn the basics of the command line, common commands, commands for creating, deleting, and modifying files, executables, and permissions.

Command Line Crash Course , by freeCodeCamp

Intended for beginners, this 35-minute video covers command line basics and commands for completing many common tasks via the command line.

LearnShell.org

LearnShell.org is a free resource for learning Unix/Linux shell. Basic and advanced tutorials are provided and exercises are provided for each topic as well. Each topic is broken down into its own clickable chapter, allowing you to skip content you already know, or revisit any topics you need to re-learn.

Should You Study the Command Line?

Knowing how to use the command line is an expected and necessary skill regardless of whether you’re a beginning developer or an IT professional. Developers from the beginning need to install libraries, languages, and environments via the command line; you’ll need to use the command line to run scripts, and navigate your file system. As a programmer or worker in the tech field, you’ll often use the command line on a daily basis to complete everyday tasks.

Even as a general user, it is helpful to at least understand some command line basics. Having at least a general knowledge of the command line will ensure that you have the best fundamental understanding of the system tools available to you. Knowing how to use the command line is one of the most fundamental, yet powerful, skills to have as a computer user.

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Brandi Taylor

About the author: Brandi Taylor is a technical writer at Career Karma, where she covers topics such as iOS development, computer science, and web development. A Lambda School alum, Brandi has been immersed in the tech world since the late 90s as a freelance web designer, building sites for startups and other organizations. Since joining the Career Karma team in November 2020, Brandi has used her extensive software development knowledge to connect people with future careers in tech.

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