Moving Files the Right Way

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  • 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

    You can find the mmv git repository over at sourcehut or GitHub.

    NOTE: As of the v1.2.0 release there is now also the mcp utility. It behaves the same as the mmv utility but it copies files instead of moving them. It also doesn’t support the ‘-n’ flag as it doesn’t need to deal with backups.

    Table of Contents


    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 pipeline for this:

    # If you aren’t a shell-guru, take a moment to figure out how this works!
    $ ls *.[ch] | sed 'p; s/[A-Z]/‌\L_&/g' | xargs -L2 mv

    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 more complicated code. This has the obvious drawback of potentially being more error-prone, but also risks taking more time to write than you’d like as you might have forgotten if xargs actually has an ‘-L’ option or not (which would require reading the xargs(1) manual).

    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 Embedded Newlines

    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 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.


    Encode newlines in filenames before passing them to the provided utility. Newline characters are replaced by the literal string ‘\n’ and backslashes by the literal string ‘\\’. After processing, the resulting output is decoded again.

    If combined with the -0 flag, then while input will be read assuming a NUL-byte input-separator, the encoded input files will be written to the spawned process newline-separated.

    The Simple Case

    In order to better understand these flags and how they work let’s go though another example. We have 2 files — one with and one without an embedded newline — and our goal is to simply reverse these filenames. In this example I am going to be displaying newlines in filenames with the ‘$'\n'’ syntax as this is how my shell displays embedded newlines.

    We can start by just trying to naïvely pass these 2 files to mmv and use rev to reverse the names, but this doesn’t work:

    $ ls foo$'\n'bar baz | mmv rev
    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 rev, we are actually trying to rename the files foo, bar, and baz to the new filenames zab, rab, and oof. As can be seen in the following diagram, the embedded newline is causing our input to be ambiguous and mmv can’t reliably proceed anymore 1:

    The first thing we need to do in order to proceed is to pass the -0 flag to mmv. This will tell mmv that 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. Luckily GNU ls gives us the --zero flag to do just that:

    $ ls --zero foo$'\n'bar baz | mmv -0 rev
    mmv: Files have been added or removed during editing

    So we’re getting places, but we aren’t quite there yet. The issue we’re getting now is that mmv received 2 input files from the standard input, but rev produced 3 output files. Why is that? Well let’s try our hand at a little bit of command-line debugging with sed:

    $ ls -U --zero foo$'\n'bar baz | sed -n l

    If you aren’t quite sure what the above is doing, here’s a quick summary:

    In the sed output, we can see that $ represents the end of a line, and \000 represents the NUL-byte. All looks good here, we have two inputs separated by NUL-bytes. Now let’s try to throw in rev:

    $ ls -U --zero foo$'\n'bar baz | rev | sed -n l

    Well wouldn’t you know it? Since rev also works with newline-separated input, it reversed out NUL-byte separators and now gives us 3 outputs. Luckily the folks over at util-linux provided us with the -0 flag here too, so that we can properly handle NUL-delimited input. Combining all of this together we get a final working product:

    $ ls --zero foo$'\n'bar baz | mmv -0 rev -0
    $ ls
    'rab'$'\n''oof'   zab

    Encoding Newlines

    Sometimes we want to rename a bunch of files, but the command we want to use doesn’t support NUL-bytes as nicely as we would like. In these cases, you may want to consider encoding your newline characters into the literal string ‘\n’ and then passing your input newline-separated to your given command with the -e flag.

    For a real-world example, perhaps you want to edit some filenames in vim, or whatever other editor you use. Well we can do this incredibly easily with the vipe utility from the moreutils collection. The vipe command simply reads input from the standard input, opens it up in your editor, and then prints the resulting output to the standard output; perfect for mmv! We do not really want to deal with NUL-bytes in our text-editor though, so let’s just encode our newlines:

    $ ls --zero foo$'\n'bar baz | mmv -0e vipe

    When running the above code example, you will see the following in your editor:


    After you exit your editor, mmv will decode all occurrences of ‘\n’ back into a newline, and all occurrences of ‘\\’ back into a backslash:

    Individual Execution

    The previous examples are great and all, but what do you do if your mapping command doesn’t have the concept of an input separator at all? This is where the -i flag comes into play. With the -i flag we can get mmv to execute our mapping command for every input filename. This means that as long as we can work with a complete buffer, we don’t need to worry about separators.

    To be honest, I cannot really think of any situation where you might actually need to do this. If you can think of one, please email me and I’ll update the example on this page. Regardless, let’s imagine that we wanted to rename some files so that their filenames are replaced with their filename SHA-1 hash. On Linux we have the sha1sum program which reads input from the standard input and outputs the SHA-1 hash. This is how we would use it with mmv:

    $ touch foo bar
    $ cat <<EOF >hash-filename
    sha1sum | awk '{ print \$1 }'
    $ chmod +x hash-filename
    $ ls foo bar | mmv -i ./hash-filename
    $ ls
    e242ed3bffccdf271b7fbaf34ed72d089537b42f  hash-filename

    Another approach is to invoke mmv twice:

    $ touch foo bar
    $ ls | mmv -i sha1sum
    $ ls | mmv awk '{ print $1 }'
    $ ls

    If you are confused about why we need to make a call to awk, it’s because the sha1sum program outputs 2 columns of data. The first column is our hash and the second column is the filename where the to-be-hashed data was read from. We don’t want the second column.

    Unlike in previous examples where one process was spawned to map all our filenames, with the -i flag we are spawning a new instance for each filename. If you struggle to visualize this, perhaps the following diagrams help:

    Invoking mmv without -i
    Invoking mmv with -i


    When compared to the standard for f in *; do mv $f …; done or ls | … | xargs -L2 mv constructs, mmv is significantly more safe to use. These are some of the 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. All input files must be unique and all output files must be unique. Otherwise execution is aborted before making any changes.
    4. In the case that something goes wrong during execution (perhaps you tried to move a file to a non-existent directory, or a syscall failed), a backup of your input files is saved automatically by mmv for recovery.

    Due to the way mmv handles #2, when things do go wrong you may find that all of your input files have disappeared. Don’t worry though, mmv takes a backup of your code before doing anything. If you run mmv with the -v option for verbose output, you’ll notice it backing up your stuff in the $XDG_CACHE_DIR directory:

    $ ls foo bar | mmv -v awk '{ printf "%d-%s\n", NR, $0 }'
    created directory ‘/home/thomas/.cache/mmv/1692102229’
    created directory ‘/home/thomas/.cache/mmv/1692102229/home/thomas/code/repo/Mango0x45/mmv’
    copied ‘/home/thomas/code/repo/Mango0x45/mmv/bar’ -> ‘/home/thomas/.cache/mmv/1692102229/home/thomas/code/repo/Mango0x45/mmv/bar’
    created directory ‘/home/thomas/.cache/mmv/1692102229/home/thomas/code/repo/Mango0x45/mmv’
    copied ‘/home/thomas/code/repo/Mango0x45/mmv/foo’ -> ‘/home/thomas/.cache/mmv/1692102229/home/thomas/code/repo/Mango0x45/mmv/foo’

    Upon successful execution the $XDG_CACHE_DIR/mmv/TIMESTAMP directory will be automatically removed, but it remains when things go wrong so that you can recover any missing data. The names of the backup-subdirectories in the $XDG_CACHE_DIR/mmv directory are timestamps of when the directories were created. This should make it easier for you to figure out which directory you need to recover if you happen to have multiple of these.


    Swap the files foo and bar:

    $ ls foo bar | mmv tac

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

    $ ls | mmv tr ' ' '-'

    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 newline into the literal string ‘\n’, making use of vipe(1) from moreutils:

    $ ls | mmv -0e vipe

    Rename all C source code- and header files in a git repository to use snake_case instead of camelCase using the GNU sed(1)\n’ extension:

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

    Lowercase all filenames within a directory hierarchy which may contain newline characters:

    $ find . -print0 | mmv -0 tr A-Z a-z

    Map filenames which may contain newlines in the current directory with the command ‘cmd’, which itself does not support nul-byte separated entries. This only works assuming your mapping doesn’t require any context outside of the given input filename (for example, you would not be able to number your files as this requires knowledge of the input files position in the input list):

    $ ls --zero | mmv -0i cmd