How to Read Windows Command Line Syntax

If you are using a Windows PC, you probably have seen or used a command-line to get something done on your Windows PC. If you ever need help with some command, there are plenty of sites to help you with the syntax and usage of the commands. But, unless you know how to read that command line syntax, that help is nothing but a gibberish string.

For instance, if you check the official command line reference for the command attrib, you will see the command line syntax something like this.

As you can see, the above command line syntax contains all sorts of variations like upper and lower case, and special characters like spaces, brackets (“[ ]”), braces (“({})”), and pipes (” | “). The above command line doesn’t make any sense to an untrained eye, but it informs you of the different parameters that you can use with the attrib command.

command-line-syntax-attrib-cmd

A command syntax is nothing but the rules which govern how a command can be used or run. Unless you know how to read the command line syntax, you can’t use or understand the commands properly or to their full potential. So in this basic tutorial, let us hop on and learn some basics on how to read command line syntax. As per the example, you can take the above “attrib” command and use the information below to interpret that command.

Special Character “+”: Whenever you use the special character + in front of an item or parameter, it means that you are setting up that parameter for the task you are doing.

For instance, in the above attrib command, whenever you use the parameter +R in the command, you are setting the read-only mode for a selected file or folder.

Special Character “-“: Whenever you use the special character - in front of an item or parameter, it means that you are clearing up that parameter for the task you are doing.

For instance, in the above attrib command, whenever you use the parameter -R in the command, you are removing the read-only mode for a selected file or folder.

Characters in Caps: In command line syntax, characters represented in capitals are what users should type exactly. When I say characters, it includes all the numbers, special characters and letters.

For example, in the above attrib command, the base command ATTRIB and the switches like -R, +A, /S, etc., should be used as is without any modifications whatsoever. So the valid command looks something like this,

but not like this, which eliminates the special character “+”.

Characters in Smalls: Whenever you see small character representation, it just means that the user should supply the information required for the command to execute properly.

For example, in the above attrib command, you need to supply the information like the drive and the file path in the place of [[drive:][path] filename]. Once supplied, the command looks something like this.

Pipes (Vertical Bars): Pipes or vertical bars are used to show the various parameters that you can use inside the brackets or braces. It has the same meaning as “either…or,” which means only one of the parameters can be used. Pipes or vertical bars is for illustration only and should not be used with actual commands.

For example, in the above attrib command, you can see that the switches +R and -R are separated by a vertical bar, which means that they are two different parameters and only one of them (either +R or -R) can be used in the actual command.

Braces (“{ }”): Any items or parameters inside braces are a set of choices where a user should choose one, i.e. you can choose one parameter between a group of parameters inside the braces. Also, you shouldn’t use braces with actual commands.

For example, the command syntax {+A | -A} suggests that you can either use the switch +A or -A in the actual command but not both of them at the same time, as they belong to the same group. So the valid command looks something like this,

but not like this, which uses both options at the same time.

Brackets (“[ ]”): Any items or parameters inside brackets are optional, i.e. it is up to you to use those parameters or not. Also, you shouldn’t use brackets with actual commands.

For example, in the above attrib command, the syntax [{+R|-R}] suggests that you can either use the optional parameters or not (also, keep the braces in mind). So, any of the below commands are valid.

or

Spaces: Even spaces have meaning in command syntax. If you find a space in the command syntax, then you should use it while executing the actual command.

For example, in the above attrib command, you shouldn’t eliminate any of the spaces. So, a valid command will look something like this,

but not like this, which eliminates the spaces.

Text Outside Brackets: Just like Spaces, any text outside of the brackets must be used and should be used “as is” while executing the commands.

For example, in the above attrib command, the base command ATTRIB must be used and should be used as is. So the valid command looks something like this,

and not like this, which eliminates the usage of the text outside brackets.

Ellipsis (“…”): Ellipsis is not so common in any syntax, but if you see an ellipsis, then it means that the item or parameter can be repeated endlessly.

Knowing how to interpret command line syntax is very helpful for understanding and using the command references found in the official documentation and on the Internet. Sure, it may take some time to get hold of these syntax rules, but it is worth it.

Don’t forget to share your thoughts using the comment form below.

4 comments

  1. This is a very limited and poor description of the command syntax as it came from the good old DOS on what windows up to 98 are build on. The command window in the later version still use the same syntax

    All you told here is only about the ATTRIB command
    There are loads of command that use a similar syntax but use the pipe for other purposes. The pipe can also be used to set a series of commands that shall be executed after each other like COPY *.log d:\backup | DEL *.log

    You also forgot to tell about the > and >> options used for directing the output of the i.e. DIR command to write the output not to screen but to a file
    DIR *.log > all_logs.txt

    You also did not tell about the function of the ATTRIB command -> It is used to set the file attributes and can be used to make a file read only, hidden, ready for Archive and make it a system file

    Understanding the syntax of very seldom used command is not the same as understanding the complete syntax.

    If someone really wants to learn more about the Command Windows the try to get your hands on an old DOS manual preferably for version 6.2 (the latest DOS only version)

    • Hi there Vinny,

      I won’t differ with you on anything but this article is intended for absolute beginners. Moreover, I purposefully skipped a couple of things as I don’t want them to be confused with multiple commands at once, alternate uses of a particular syntax, etc.

  2. I thought this was a great primer Vamsi and explains the subtleties between the options used. Although vinny’s suggestion of referring to the DOS 6.2 command line reference is good for nostalgia purposes, I don’t think it’s necessary to go that far back in time. Type “help” at the command line for a list of what’s available now, or type “help [command]’ for how to use a single command like “help attrib” or “help xcopy”
    Good job on the article and thank for pointing us in new, interesting directions every day.
    P.S. DOS is dead, all hail PowerShell :-)

  3. As an ancient DOS dinosaur, from the original IBM DOS 1.0 and MS-DOS 2.0 days, the Command Line syntax as expressed in documentation and in-line help has not changed much at all. This took quite a while via trial & error to piece together the actual usage of a particular command back in the day, even with the “help” right there on-screen. The Help was there, but not how to use it.

    Thanks for the elegant & succinct explanation (even if it is a coupe decades late ;-] …), as I have friends and co-workers that are just now learning the huge advantages of the CLI over the GUI. For interactive apps, the GUI is great, but for real work I keep no less than 5 DOS (CMD) windows open at all times (so I don’t have to keep retyping paths, etc. after switching to a 3rd, 4th, or nth concurrent project).

    p.s. DOS is alive and well and living incognito as CMD. And when combined with PS, VBS, or whatever else, can easily improve productivity by a factor of 10 or more.

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