man-pages - conventions for writing Linux man pages
man [section] title
This page describes the conventions that should be employed when
writing man pages for the Linux man-pages project, which documents the
user-space API provided by the Linux kernel and the GNU C library. The
project thus provides most of the pages in Section 2, as well as many
of the pages that appear in Sections 3, 4, 5, and 7 of the man pages on
a Linux system. The conventions described on this page may also be
useful for authors writing man pages for other projects.
Sections of the manual pages
The manual Sections are traditionally defined as follows:
1 Commands (Programs)
Those commands that can be executed by the user from within a
2 System calls
Those functions which must be performed by the kernel.
3 Library calls
Most of the libc functions.
4 Special files (devices)
Files found in /dev.
5 File formats and conventions
The format for /etc/passwd and other human-readable files.
7 Overview, conventions, and miscellaneous
Overviews of various topics, conventions and protocols,
character set standards, and miscellaneous other things.
8 System management commands
Commands like mount(8), many of which only root can execute.
New manual pages should be marked up using the groff an.tmac package
described in man(7). This choice is mainly for consistency: the vast
majority of existing Linux manual pages are marked up using these
Conventions for source file layout
Please limit source code line length to no more than about 75
characters wherever possible. This helps avoid line-wrapping in some
mail clients when patches are submitted inline.
New sentences should be started on new lines. This makes it easier to
see the effect of patches, which often operate at the level of
The first command in a man page should be a TH command:
.TH title section date source manual
title The title of the man page, written in all caps (e.g.,
section The section number in which the man page should be
placed (e.g., 7).
date The date of the last revision—remember to change this
every time a nontrivial change is made to the man
page. Dates should be written in the form YYYY-MM-DD.
source The source of the command, function, or system call.
For those few man-pages pages in Sections 1 and 8,
probably you just want to write GNU.
For system calls, just write Linux. (An earlier
practice was to write the version number of the kernel
from which the manual page was being written/checked.
However, this was never done consistently, and so was
probably worse than including no version number.
Henceforth, avoid including a version number.)
For library calls that are part of glibc or one of the
other common GNU libraries, just use GNU C Library,
GNU, or an empty string.
For Section 4 pages, use Linux.
In cases of doubt, just write Linux, or GNU.
manual The title of the manual (e.g., for Section 2 and 3
pages in the man-pages package, use Linux Programmer's
Sections within a manual page
The list below shows conventional or suggested sections. Most manual
pages should include at least the highlighted sections. Arrange a new
manual page so that sections are placed in the order shown in the list.
CONFIGURATION [Normally only in Section 4]
OPTIONS [Normally only in Sections 1, 8]
EXIT STATUS [Normally only in Sections 1, 8]
RETURN VALUE [Normally only in Sections 2, 3]
ERRORS [Typically only in Sections 2, 3]
VERSIONS [Normally only in Sections 2, 3]
ATTRIBUTES [Normally only in Sections 2, 3]
Where a traditional heading would apply, please use it; this kind of
consistency can make the information easier to understand. If you
must, you can create your own headings if they make things easier to
understand (this can be especially useful for pages in Sections 4 and
5). However, before doing this, consider whether you could use the
traditional headings, with some subsections (.SS) within those
The following list elaborates on the contents of each of the above
NAME The name of this manual page. See man(7) for important
details of the line(s) that should follow the .SH NAME
command. All words in this line (including the word
immediately following the "\-") should be in lowercase,
except where English or technical terminological
convention dictates otherwise.
SYNOPSIS briefly describes the command or function's interface.
For commands, this shows the syntax of the command and
its arguments (including options); boldface is used for
as-is text and italics are used to indicate replaceable
arguments. Brackets () surround optional arguments,
vertical bars (|) separate choices, and ellipses (...)
can be repeated. For functions, it shows any required
data declarations or #include directives, followed by the
Where a feature test macro must be defined in order to
obtain the declaration of a function (or a variable) from
a header file, then the SYNOPSIS should indicate this, as
described in feature_test_macros(7).
CONFIGURATION Configuration details for a device. This section
normally appears only in Section 4 pages.
DESCRIPTION gives an explanation of what the program, function, or
format does. Discuss how it interacts with files and
standard input, and what it produces on standard output
or standard error. Omit internals and implementation
details unless they're critical for understanding the
interface. Describe the usual case; for information on
command-line options of a program use the OPTIONS
When describing new behavior or new flags for a system
call or library function, be careful to note the kernel
or C library version that introduced the change. The
preferred method of noting this information for flags is
as part of a .TP list, in the following form (here, for a
new system call flag):
XYZ_FLAG (since Linux 3.7)
Description of flag...
Including version information is especially useful to
users who are constrained to using older kernel or C
library versions (which is typical in embedded systems,
OPTIONS describes the command-line options accepted by a program
and how they change its behavior. This section should
appear only for Section 1 and 8 manual pages.
EXIT STATUS lists the possible exit status values of a program and
the conditions that cause these values to be returned.
This section should appear only for Section 1 and 8
RETURN VALUE For Section 2 and 3 pages, this section gives a list of
the values the library routine will return to the caller
and the conditions that cause these values to be
ERRORS For Section 2 and 3 manual pages, this is a list of the
values that may be placed in errno in the event of an
error, along with information about the cause of the
errors. The error list should be in alphabetical order.
ENVIRONMENT lists all environment variables that affect the program
or function and how they affect it.
FILES lists the files the program or function uses, such as
configuration files, startup files, and files the program
directly operates on. Give the full pathname of these
files, and use the installation process to modify the
directory part to match user preferences. For many
programs, the default installation location is in
/usr/local, so your base manual page should use
/usr/local as the base.
ATTRIBUTES A summary of various attributes of the function(s)
documented on this page, broken into subsections. The
following subsections are defined:
Multithreading (see pthreads(7))
This subsection notes attributes relating to
* Whether the function is thread-safe.
* Whether the function is a cancellation point.
* Whether the function is async-cancel-safe.
Details of these attributes can be found in
VERSIONS A brief summary of the Linux kernel or glibc versions
where a system call or library function appeared, or
changed significantly in its operation. As a general
rule, every new interface should include a VERSIONS
section in its manual page. Unfortunately, many existing
manual pages don't include this information (since there
was no policy to do so when they were written). Patches
to remedy this are welcome, but, from the perspective of
programmers writing new code, this information probably
matters only in the case of kernel interfaces that have
been added in Linux 2.4 or later (i.e., changes since
kernel 2.2), and library functions that have been added
to glibc since version 2.1 (i.e., changes since glibc
The syscalls(2) manual page also provides information
about kernel versions in which various system calls first
CONFORMING TO describes any standards or conventions that relate to the
function or command described by the manual page. The
preferred terms to use for the various standards are
listed as headings in standards(7). For a page in
Section 2 or 3, this section should note the POSIX.1
version(s) that the call conforms to, and also whether
the call is specified in C99. (Don't worry too much
about other standards like SUS, SUSv2, and XPG, or the
SVr4 and 4.xBSD implementation standards, unless the call
was specified in those standards, but isn't in the
current version of POSIX.1.) (See standards(7).)
If the call is not governed by any standards but commonly
exists on other systems, note them. If the call is
Linux-specific, note this.
If this section consists of just a list of standards
(which it commonly does), terminate the list with a
NOTES provides miscellaneous notes. For Section 2 and 3 man
pages you may find it useful to include subsections (SS)
named Linux Notes and Glibc Notes.
BUGS lists limitations, known defects or inconveniences, and
other questionable activities.
EXAMPLE provides one or more examples describing how this
function, file or command is used. For details on
writing example programs, see Example Programs below.
AUTHORS lists authors of the documentation or program. Use of an
AUTHORS section is strongly discouraged. Generally, it
is better not to clutter every page with a list of (over
time potentially numerous) authors; if you write or
significantly amend a page, add a copyright notice as a
comment in the source file. If you are the author of a
device driver and want to include an address for
reporting bugs, place this under the BUGS section.
SEE ALSO provides a comma-separated list of related man pages,
ordered by section number and then alphabetically by
name, possibly followed by other related pages or
documents. Do not terminate this with a period.
Where the SEE ALSO list contains many long manual page
names, to improve the visual result of the output, it may
be useful to employ the .ad l (don't right justify) and
.nh (don't hyphenate) directives. Hyphenation of
individual page names can be prevented by preceding words
with the string "\%".
The following subsections describe the preferred style for the man-
pages project. For details not covered below, the Chicago Manual of
Style is usually a good source; try also grepping for preexisting usage
in the project source tree.
Use of gender-neutral language
As far as possible, use gender-neutral language in the text of man
pages. Use of "they" ("them", "themself", "their") as a gender-neutral
singular pronoun is acceptable.
For functions, the arguments are always specified using italics, even
in the SYNOPSIS section, where the rest of the function is specified in
int myfunction(int argc, char **argv);
Variable names should, like argument names, be specified in italics.
Filenames (whether pathnames, or references to header files) are always
in italics (e.g., <stdio.h>), except in the SYNOPSIS section, where
included files are in bold (e.g., #include <stdio.h>). When referring
to a standard header file include, specify the header file surrounded
by angle brackets, in the usual C way (e.g., <stdio.h>).
Special macros, which are usually in uppercase, are in bold (e.g.,
MAXINT). Exception: don't boldface NULL.
When enumerating a list of error codes, the codes are in bold (this
list usually uses the .TP macro).
Complete commands should, if long, be written as an indented line on
their own, with a blank line before and after the command, for example
man 7 man-pages
If the command is short, then it can be included inline in the text, in
italic format, for example, man 7 man-pages. In this case, it may be
worth using nonbreaking spaces ("\ ") at suitable places in the
command. Command options should be written in italics (e.g., -l).
Expressions, if not written on a separate indented line, should be
specified in italics. Again, the use of nonbreaking spaces may be
appropriate if the expression is inlined with normal text.
Any reference to the subject of the current manual page should be
written with the name in bold. If the subject is a function (i.e.,
this is a Section 2 or 3 page), then the name should be followed by a
pair of parentheses in Roman (normal) font. For example, in the
fcntl(2) man page, references to the subject of the page would be
written as: fcntl(). The preferred way to write this in the source
.BR fcntl ()
(Using this format, rather than the use of "B...P()" makes it
easier to write tools that parse man page source files.)
Any reference to another man page should be written with the name in
bold, always followed by the section number, formatted in Roman
(normal) font, without any separating spaces (e.g., intro(2)). The
preferred way to write this in the source file is:
.BR intro (2)
(Including the section number in cross references lets tools like
man2html(1) create properly hyperlinked pages.)
Control characters should be written in bold face, with no quotes; for
Starting with release 2.59, man-pages follows American spelling
conventions (previously, there was a random mix of British and American
spellings); please write all new pages and patches according to these
Aside from the well-known spelling differences, there are a few other
subtleties to watch for:
* American English tends to use the forms "backward", "upward",
"toward", and so on rather than the British forms "backwards",
"upwards", "towards", and so on.
BSD version numbers
The classical scheme for writing BSD version numbers is x.yBSD, where
x.y is the version number (e.g., 4.2BSD). Avoid forms such as BSD 4.3.
In subsection ("SS") headings, capitalize the first word in the
heading, but otherwise use lowercase, except where English usage (e.g.,
proper nouns) or programming language requirements (e.g., identifier
names) dictate otherwise. For example:
.SS Unicode under Linux
Indentation of structure definitions, shell session logs, and so on
When structure definitions, shell session logs, and so on are included
in running text, indent them by 4 spaces (i.e., a block enclosed by
.in +4n and .in).
The following table lists some preferred terms to use in man pages,
mainly to ensure consistency across pages.
Term Avoid using Notes
bit mask bitmask
Epoch epoch For the UNIX Epoch
(00:00:00, 1 Jan
filename file name
filesystem file system
hostname host name
lowercase lower case, lower-case
pathname path name
privileged port reserved port, system
real-time realtime, real time
run time runtime
saved set-group-ID saved group ID, saved
saved set-user-ID saved user ID, saved
set-group-ID set-GID, setgid
set-user-ID set-UID, setuid
superuser super user, super-user
superblock super block, super-
timestamp time stamp
timezone time zone
uppercase upper case, upper-case
user space userspace
username user name
See also the discussion Hyphenation of attributive compounds below.
Terms to avoid
The following table lists some terms to avoid using in man pages, along
with some suggested alternatives, mainly to ensure consistency across
Avoid Use instead Notes
32bit 32-bit same for 8-bit,
current process calling process A common mistake
made by kernel
writing man pages
manpage man page, manual
minus infinity negative infinity
non-root unprivileged user
non-superuser unprivileged user
OS operating system
plus infinity positive infinity
Unices UNIX systems
Unixes UNIX systems
Use the correct spelling and case for trademarks. The following is a
list of the correct spellings of various relevant trademarks that are
NULL, NUL, null pointer, and null character
A null pointer is a pointer that points to nothing, and is normally
indicated by the constant NULL. On the other hand, NUL is the null
byte, a byte with the value 0, represented in C via the character
constant ' '.
The preferred term for the pointer is "null pointer" or simply "NULL";
avoid writing "NULL pointer".
The preferred term for the byte is "null byte". Avoid writing "NUL",
since it is too easily confused with "NULL". Avoid also the terms
"zero byte" and "null character". The byte that terminates a C string
should be described as "the terminating null byte"; strings may be
described as "null-terminated", but avoid the use of "NUL-terminated".
For hyperlinks, use the .UR/.UE macro pair (see groff_man(7)). This
produces proper hyperlinks that can be used in a web browser, when
rendering a page with, say:
BROWSER=firefox man -H pagename
Use of e.g., i.e., etc., a.k.a., and similar
In general, the use of abbreviations such as "e.g.", "i.e.", "etc.",
"a.k.a." should be avoided, in favor of suitable full wordings ("for
example", "that is", "and so on", "also known as").
The only place where such abbreviations may be acceptable is in short
parenthetical asides (e.g., like this one).
Always include periods in such abbreviations, as shown here. In
addition, "e.g." and "i.e." should always be followed by a comma.
The way to write an em-dash—the glyph that appears at either end of
this subphrase—in *roff is with the macro "\(em". (On an ASCII
terminal, an em-dash typically renders as two hyphens, but in other
typographical contexts it renders as a long dash.) Em-dashes should be
written without surrounding spaces.
Hyphenation of attributive compounds
Compound terms should be hyphenated when used attributively (i.e., to
qualify a following noun). Some examples:
Hyphenation with multi, non, pre, re, sub, and so on
The general tendency in modern English is not to hyphenate after
prefixes such as "multi", "non", "pre", "re", "sub", and so on. Manual
pages should generally follow this rule when these prefixes are used in
natural English constructions with simple suffixes. The following list
gives some examples of the preferred forms:
Hyphens should be retained when the prefixes are used in nonstandard
English words, with trademarks, proper nouns, acronyms, or compound
terms. Some examples:
Finally, note that "re-create" and "recreate" are two different verbs,
and the former is probably what you want.
Real minus character
Where a real minus character is required (e.g., for numbers such as -1,
or when writing options that have a leading dash, such as in ls -l),
use the following form in the man page source:
This guideline applies also to code examples.
To produce single quotes that render well in both ASCII and UTF-8, use
the following form for character constants in the man page source:
where C is the quoted character. This guideline applies also to
character constants used in code examples.
Example programs and shell sessions
Manual pages may include example programs demonstrating how to use a
system call or library function. However, note the following:
* Example programs should be written in C.
* An example program is necessary and useful only if it demonstrates
something beyond what can easily be provided in a textual
description of the interface. An example program that does nothing
other than call an interface usually serves little purpose.
* Example programs should be fairly short (preferably less than 100
lines; ideally less than 50 lines).
* Example programs should do error checking after system calls and
library function calls.
* Example programs should be complete, and compile without warnings
when compiled with cc -Wall.
* Where possible and appropriate, example programs should allow
experimentation, by varying their behavior based on inputs (ideally
from command-line arguments, or alternatively, via input read by the
* Example programs should be laid out according to Kernighan and
Ritchie style, with 4-space indents. (Avoid the use of TAB
characters in source code!)
* For consistency, all example programs should terminate using either
Avoid using the following forms to terminate a program:
* If there is extensive explanatory text before the program source
code, mark off the source code with a susbsection heading Program
source, as in:
.SS Program source
Always do this if the explanatory text includes a shell session log.
If you include a shell session log demonstrating the use of a program
or other system feature:
* Place the session log above the source code listing
* Indent the session log by four spaces.
* Boldface the user input text, to distinguish it from output produced
by the system.
For some examples of what example programs should look like, see
wait(2) and pipe(2).
For canonical examples of how man pages in the man-pages package should
look, see pipe(2) and fcntl(2).
man(1), man2html(1), groff(7), groff_man(7), man(7), mdoc(7)
This page is part of release 3.65 of the Linux man-pages project. A
description of the project, and information about reporting bugs, can
be found at http://www.kernel.org/doc/man-pages/.