As title says, is there any difference for *NIX filesystems? e.g ls file and ls ./file

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    You might ask unix.stackexchange.com -- the answers so far all have good information in them, but neither really feels like the answer. – Rob Starling Oct 21 '16 at 23:53

I'm not crazy about the explanation by SmallLoanOf1M. It is technically correct but answers in a way that doesn't match the usage example in the question.

So by way of example, here is one important difference between the two from the question: "file" and "./file"

What if the file is named with a character that is parsed by the shell? Especially regarding characters interpreted by the command one is running.

Specifically, the "dash" character: "-". But other characters are meaningful to the shell.

Example. My file was named "-dingle"

Try to list the file:

ls -dingle
# ls -dingle
ls: invalid option -- 'e'

Even worse, what if the file was named "-rf rmbomb *"? Now try removing it

rm "-rf rmbomb *"

I'm not even gonna try to run that example, but hopefully you get the idea.

So how do you list a file staring with dash? Use ./ in front.

# ls ./-dingle

Ditto for rm

  • That is a valid way to process some files with odd names, and my answer didn't consider files like that. One could also use a literal instead in all of the examples above, in the form of a backslash preceding odd characters, including the spaces specified above. An example of that would be so: ls \-dingle or ls \-rf\ rmbomb\ \*. This can be a good way to ensure that any given set of commands are at least consistent, as specifying ./ before a name won't escape characters after the ./. – Spooler Oct 21 '16 at 21:35
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    It happens that, since escapes are escaped by the shell, not the command, and params are parsed by the command, escaping or quoting the - does nothing useful. – Dewi Morgan Oct 21 '16 at 22:08
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    You make it sound like rm "-rf rmbomb *" would actually do something bad, instead of just making rm print an error. It's only dangerous if you forget to quote the filename, so word-splitting happens. (esp. in a shell script where you run rm $file instead of rm "$file". But in that case, the * won't expand, because glob expansion doesn't happen on the contents of variable expansion. If you want that, you'd need an eval.) Anyway, if your script word-splits filenames before passing to rm, I'd make a file called space -rf . or something, so rm ./$i doesn't help. – Peter Cordes Oct 22 '16 at 3:20
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    BTW, the actual error message is rm: invalid option -- ' ', from when it tries to interpret the space after -rf as a single-character switch, because it's part of the same argument. (And yes, I ran this inside an empty directory just in case I had overlooked something and it was actually dangerous :P) – Peter Cordes Oct 22 '16 at 3:21
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    @PeterCordes: wordsplitting and globbing DOES occur on the results of unquoted variable expansion and command substitution, unless suppressed by IFS='' and -f respectively. A rarer example is that awk treats an operand (other than a first operand that is the script) having form foo=bar as an assignment to execute but ./foo=bar as a file to read. – dave_thompson_085 Oct 22 '16 at 6:26


By issuing file on the command line, BASH will search your $PATH environment variable for a file of that name. Unless the file resides in a directory within your $PATH variable, it won't be found.

. means the current directory. ./ means within the current directory, in relative terms. It is the equivalent of saying something like /home/sheogorath/shivering/isles.img when invoking ./isles.img while working in the /home/sheogorath/shivering/ directory.

As such, it's commonly used to execute files within your working directory "in place".

EDIT: In your example, ls is being called upon by the shell and found by using the path variable. Its argument will be processed in your working directory, whatever that may be. Since this is the default for ls, you won't see any difference between specifying file and explicitly specifying ./file as they both point to your current directory.

Not all commands will accept file paths in the working directory, and some expect to have you state files in a directory that they themselves pre-define via configuration. Among commands that accept files as arguments, these commands are less common

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    That is bash, but I was wondering about path resolution in general – Sergey Alaev Oct 21 '16 at 20:04
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    This is the way any shell I've ever heard of works. BASH is merely the most commonly used. – Spooler Oct 21 '16 at 20:04
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    $PATH is only relevant for commands and has nothing to with file name arguments that follow a command such as ls mentioned in the original question. That is more the difference between refferencing a relative path ( relative to the current working directory) I.e. ../../dir/filename and an absolute path /path/to/dir/filename – HBruijn Oct 21 '16 at 20:21
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    +1 for Sheogorath... and a correct answer. – Corey Ogburn Oct 21 '16 at 20:37
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    If they're arguments to a command that attempts to find files in the working directory by default, they will be the same. Thus, for ls they will always be the same path, one specified more explicitly than the other. Not all commands behave this way when processing arguments, but most do. – Spooler Oct 21 '16 at 20:38

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