A Utility for Paths

#programming #command-line-utility
September 15, 2023

I found another rabbit hole of unstandardized naming conventions...what do you call parts of a file path?

I have a repository full of markdown files that I want to convert using pandoc. I have a handful of scripts that find the location of source markdown files and then write them to another output location with a similar directory structure. There have been a number of occasions I have needed a utility for manipulating file paths.

Here's an easy example. I have a file article.md that I want to convert in pandoc like so.

pandoc article.md -f markdown -t latex -o article.pdf

This is straightforward. Now, suppose I want to generalize this for any file $FILE. I expect $FILE to contain the file extension md. How can I change the file extension of $FILE?

The answer isn't that straightforward. There's no coreutil that I know of that does this simply. I would love to do something like

pandoc $FILE -f markdown -t latex -o "$(rmextension $FILE).pdf"

What are my options?

Manipulating Paths with basename and cut

The first out of the box command line utility is basename. It can take any path and just return the basename, or filename.

$ basename /path/to/file.txt

Useful, but not what we need. Luckily in its very short man page is a argument -s, --suffix=SUFFIX that removes the trailing SUFFIX. Let's try it on our article.md.

$ basename -s md article.md

Of course it would do that. It's not smart, it literally chops off the last few characters if they match verbatim. So the final solution is this.

$ basename -s .md article.md

We can also use the cut utility. We delimit -d the string on the . and then pick -f the first part.

$ echo "article.md" | cut -d . -f 1

This options is good for general string manipulation. What if we have multiple extensions? Or no extension at all? At least basename was built for path strings, unlike cut. Is there a utility that is built around file paths?

Doing it Myself

I couldn't find any utilities that did what I needed, and it sounded like an easy opportunity to write a CLI. So I wrote pathmut, a path string manipulation utility.

Picking out the filename without its extension can be written like so.

$ pathmut stem article.md

Since this was written leveraging the Rust standard library's Path struct I decided to add a handful of commands to pull out various parts of a path. Here's a quick demo of all the components.

$ pathmut ext /path/to/file.tar.gz

$ pathmut name /path/to/file.tar.gz

$ pathmut parent /path/to/file.tar.gz

$ pathmut prefix /path/to/file.tar.gz

$ pathmut stem /path/to/file.tar.gz

You can see the utility library handles files with multiple extensions. There's a distinction between the file prefix and file stem in the Rust standard library, apparently. I don't believe this naming convention is common between languages.

Extending Functionality

How would take path/to/article.md and extract exactly path/to/article? Sure, I could use the cut example, but now is a good time to extend pathmut. Quickly, I created the rmext command.

$ pathmut rmext /path/to/article.md

Soon after I realized how bizarre of a decision this was. I extended the functionality to remove any of the path components with the -r or --remove flag.

$ pathmut ext --remove /path/to/article.md

$ pathmut prefix -r /path/to/article.md

Similarly with replacement using -s or --replace.

$ pathmut ext --replace pdf /path/to/article.md

$ pathmut prefix -s journal /path/to/article.md

Currently this is extent of the functionality available in pathmut, with the addition of a first command that picks out the first component (which could be the root /, or a directory, or the file itself.)

I would like to extend this further, allow for many different path operations such as joining paths head to tail, or determining the lowest common directory between two paths. I'd also like functionality to normalize paths like removing redundant ./ mid-path or even translating paths between Unix and Windows conventions.

What are the Components of a Path?

Suppose I want something to turn a path like src/folder/article.md to target/folder/article.md. What do you call that top most directory? Nothing was in Rust's Path documentation. I found this stack overflow article discussing a wide variety of naming conventions.

Of course, there's going to be some overlap. That article mentions that what Rust calls the "file prefix", Vim calls the "file root". This is confusing because "root directory" also has a meaning. What do you use to describe the top level directory? The article doesn't mention anything.

Another confusing part of this StackOverflow discussion is a lot of naming is based on the present working directory, which my utility knows nothing about. My utility is being built specifically for path strings. It will never care if such a file or directory structure exists, or what folder you are in relative to it.

I suspect that pathmut will end up contributing to the list of naming conventions. I'll try to investigate the many path manipulation libraries available in different programming languages, then select the most appropriate ones for my utility.


This realization has given me the sudden inspiration to clear the ambiguity and unite under a naming standard! I don't think I'll go so far as to buy a domain to discuss it but I will be extending pathmut to allow for a lot of functionality. And with this, will come documentation to support and describe the terminology used. I'll be sure to write a follow up when pathmut gets a few more updates.