Moving Files the Right Way

I think the OpenBSD crowd is a bunch of masturbating monkeys, in that they make such a big deal about concentrating on security to the point where they pretty much admit that nothing else matters to them.

Linus Torvalds

NOTE: This page isn’t done yet, and neither is mmv.


File moving and renaming is one of the most common tasks we undertake on the command-line. We basically always do this with the mv utility, and it gets the job done most of the time. Want to rename one file? Use mv! Want to move a bunch of files into a directory? Use mv! How could mv ever go wrong? Well I’m glad you asked!

Advanced Moving and Pitfalls

Let’s start off nice and simple. You just inherited a C project that uses the sacrilegious camelCase naming convention for its files:

$ ls
bytecodeVm.c  fastLexer.c  fastLexer.h  slowParser.c  slowParser.h

This deeply upsets you, as it upsets me. So you decide you want to switch all these files to use snake_case, like a normal person. Well how would you do this? You use mv! This is what you might end up doing:

$ mv bytecodeVm.c bytecode_vm.c
$ mv fastLexer.c fast_lexer.c
$ mv fastLexer.h fast_lexer.h
$ mv slowParser.c slow_parser.c
$ mv slowParser.h slow_parser.h

Well… It works I guess, but it’s a pretty shitty way of renaming these files. Luckily we only had 5, but what if this was a much larger project with many more files to rename? Things would get tedious. So instead we can use a little script for this:


# I assume you have GNU sed here

for file in *.[ch]; do
	echo $file | sed 's/[A-Z]/\L_&/g' | xargs mv $file

That works and it gets the job done, but it’s not really ideal is it? There are a couple of issues with this.

  1. You’re writing a significantly increased amount of code. This has the obvious drawbacks of being more stuff to write which is always a negative, being more error-prone, and if you want to use more than 1 line you need to hope that your shell offers user-friendly multiline input.

  2. If you try to rename the file “foo” to “bar” but “bar” already exists, you end up deleting a file you may not have wanted to.

  3. In a similar vein to the previous point, you need to be very careful about schemes like renaming the file ‘a’ to ‘b’ and ‘b’ to ‘c’. You run the risk of turning ‘a’ into ‘c’ and losing the file ‘b’ entirely.

  4. Moving symbolic links is its own whole can of worms. If a symlink points to a relative location then you need to make sure you keep pointing to the right place. If the symlink is absolute however then you can leave it untouched. But what if the symlink points to a file that you’re moving as part of your batch move operation? Now you need to handle that too.

Name Mapping with mmv

What is mmv? It’s the solution to all your problems, that’s what it is! mmv takes as its argument(s) a utility and that utilities arguments and uses that to create a mapping between old and new filenames, similar to the map() function found in many programming languages. I think to best convey how the tool functions, I should provide an example. Let’s try to do the same thing we did previously where we tried to turn camelCase files to snake_case, but using mmv:

$ ls *.[ch] | mmv sed 's/[A-Z]/\L_&/g'

Let me break down how this works.

mmv starts by reading a series of filenames separated by newlines from the standard input. Yes, sometimes filenames have newlines in them and yes there is a way to handle them but I shall get to that later. The filenames that mmv reads from the standard input will be referred to as the “input files”. Once all the input files have been read, the utility specified by the arguments is spawned; in this case that would be sed with the argument 's/[A-Z]/\L_&/g'. The input files are then piped into sed the exact same way that they would have been if we ran the above commands without mmv, and the output of sed then forms what will be referred to as the “output files”. Once a complete list of output files is accumulated, each input file gets renamed to its corresponding output file.

Let’s look at a simpler example. Say we want to rename 2 files in the current directory to use lowercase letters, we could use the following command:

$ ls LICENSE README | mmv tr A-Z a-z

In the above example mmv reads 2 lines from standard input, those being “LICENSE” and “README”. Those are our 2 input files now. The tr utility is then spawned and the input files are piped into it. We can simulate this in the shell:

$ ls LICENSE README | tr A-Z a-z

As you can see above, tr has produced 2 lines of output; these are our 2 output files. Since we now have our 2 input files and 2 output files, mmv can go ahead and rename the files. In this case it will rename “LICENSE” to “license” and “README” to “readme”. For some examples, check the examples section of this page down below.

Filenames with Special Characters

People are retarded, and as a result we have filenames with newlines in them. All it would have taken to solve this issue for everyone was for literally anybody during the early UNIX days to go “hey, this is a bad idea!”, but alas, we must deal with this. Newlines are of course not the only special characters filenames can contain, but they are the single most infuriating to deal with; the UNIX utilities all being line-oriented really doesn’t work well with these files.

So how does mmv deal with special characters, and newlines in particular? Well it does so by providing the user with the -0, -1, and -e flags:

Tell mmv to expect its input to not be separated by newlines (‘\n’), but by NUL bytes (‘\0’). NUL bytes are the only characters not allowed in filenames besides forward slashes, so they are an obvious choice for an alternative separator.
Run the utility provided to mmv individually for each input file. If we provide newline separated input to a given utility, then we won’t be able to tell where in its output an output filename begins or ends. By running the utility individually for each filename we can avoid this problem.
Encode input filenames before passing them to the provided utility. Characters such as tabs and newlines are backslash escaped, as is the backlash itself. Other control characters are replaced with their hexadecimal equivalents in the format “\xXX” where “XX” is the hexadecimal value of the control character.

In order to better understand these flags and how they work let’s go though another example. In this case we have 2 files with newlines in their names, and we want to simply uppercase the filenames. In this example I am going to be displaying newlines in filenames with the “$'\n'” syntax as this is what my current shell (zsh) displays them as. This will vary from shell to shell.

We can start by just trying to naïvely pass these 2 files to mv and use tr to uppercase the names, but this doesn’t work!

$ ls my$'\n'file1 my$'\n'file2 | mmv tr a-z A-Z
mmv: No such file or directory (os error 2)

The reason this doesn’t work is because due to the line-oriented nature of ls and mmv, we are actually trying to rename the files “my”, “file1”, “my”, and “file2” to the new filenames “MY”, “FILE1”, “MY”, “FILE2”. Not only do none of those input files actually exist, but we are trying to rename “my” twice! The first thing we need to do in order to proceed is to pass the -0 flag to mmv, because we want to use the NUL byte as our input separator and not the newline. We also need ls to actually provide us with the filenames delimited by NUL bytes though. Luckily GNU ls gives us the --zero flag to do just that:

$ ls --zero my$'\n'file1 my$'\n'file2 | mmv -0 tr a-z A-Z

This is not done yet though! mmv now realises that we have 2 input files, one called “my‹newline›file1” and one called “my‹newline›file2”, but it is still providing these 2 filenames to a single tr process. The result of this is tr providing us with 4 lines of output as it received 4 lines of input. This in turn gets interpreted by mmv as 4 output files which triggers an error as we can’t rename 2 files into 4.

This is where -1 arrives to save the day! By instructing mmv to spawn a new instance of tr for each input file, then it knows that the complete output of any given instance of tr regardless of how many lines the output contains must be a single output filename. So we can combine the -0 and -1 flags in order to get a working solution:

$ ls --zero my$'\n'file1 my$'\n'file2 | mmv -01 tr a-z A-Z
$ ls
MY$'\n'FILE1  MY$'\n'FILE2

The -e flag isn’t quite as useful, but it is very nice to have when you want to edit files that may contain special characters in your editor. An example is provided in the examples section of this page.


When compared to the standard for f in *; do mv $f ...; done construct, mmv is significantly more safe to use. These are the following safety features that are built into the tool:

  1. If the number of input and output files differs, execution is aborted before making any changes.

  2. If an input file is renamed to the name of another input file, the second input file is not lost (i.e. you can rename ‘a’ to ‘b’ and ‘b’ to ‘a’ with no problem).

  3. If as a result of the renaming, a file would be overwritten which is not itself another input file, execution is aborted before making any changes. This can be overridden with the -f flag.

  4. All input files must be unique, and all output files must be unique. Otherwise execution is aborted before making any changes.


All of these examples are ripped straight from the mmv(1) manual page available online here. If you installed mmv through a package manager or via make install then you should have the manual installed on your system.

Swap the files “foo” and “bar”:

$ ls foo bar | mmv tac

Rename all unhidden files in the current directory to use hyphens (‘-’) instead of spaces:

$ ls | mmv tr ' ' -

Rename all *.jpeg files to use the “.jpg” file extension:

$ ls *.jpeg | mmv sed 's/\.jpeg$/.jpg/'

Rename a given list of movies to use lowercase letters and hyphens instead of uppercase letters and spaces, and number them so that they’re properly ordered in globs (e.g. rename “The Return of the King.mp4” to “02-the-return-of-the-king.mp4”):

$ ls 'The Fellowship of the Ring.mp4' ... 'The Two Towers.mp4' | \
	mmv awk '{ gsub(" ", "-"); printf "%02d-%s", NR, tolower($0) }'

Rename files interactively in your editor while encoding special characters to more human friendly forms, making use of vipe(1) from moreutils:

$ ls * | mmv -e vipe

Rename all C source code and header files in a project repository to use snake_case instead of camelCase using the GNU sed \L extension:

$ find . -name '*.[ch]' | mmv sed 's/[A-Z]/\L_&/g'