A simple Makefile 'help' command

Posted on | 672 words | ~4 mins
shell bash devsecops CodeProject

In this article I’m going to show you how to add a make help command to your makefiles that quickly and easily shows simple documentation for your commands:

Screen recording of the ‘makefile help’ command in action

To add the help command to your makefile, add a recipe like so:

.PHONY: help
help: # Show help for each of the Makefile recipes.
	@grep -E '^[a-zA-Z0-9 -]+:.*#'  Makefile | sort | while read -r l; do printf "\033[1;32m$$(echo $$l | cut -f 1 -d':')\033[00m:$$(echo $$l | cut -f 2- -d'#')\n"; done

Now just make sure that each of your recipes has a comment that follows the recipe name, which will be used as its documentation. For example, my website repository has the following recipes in the makefile:

default: help

.PHONY: help
help: # Show help for each of the Makefile recipes.
	@grep -E '^[a-zA-Z0-9 -]+:.*#'  Makefile | sort | while read -r l; do printf "\033[1;32m$$(echo $$l | cut -f 1 -d':')\033[00m:$$(echo $$l | cut -f 2- -d'#')\n"; done

.PHONY: setup
setup: # Setup tools required for local development.
	brew install hugo
	hugo version
	git submodule update --init --recursive --remote

.PHONY: newpost
newpost: # Create a new post.
	cd dwmkerr.com; hugo new posts/my-first-post.md

.PHONY: serve
serve: # Serve the site locally for testing.
	cd dwmkerr.com; hugo server --baseURL "http://localhost/" --buildDrafts -v --debug

.PHONY: build # Build the site.
	cd dwmkerr.com; hugo --minify

With this setup, you can just enter make, or make help, to see the output below:

$ make help
help: Show help for each of the Makefile recipes.
newpost: Create a new post.
serve: Serve the site locally for testing.
setup: Setup tools required for local development.

Simple! You can find the code at:


How it Works

This project was inspired by the project golang-cli-template, which I noticed had this cool feature of showing help for the makefile commands.

I built my own version of the command, which is a little bit more verbose, but I think a little easier to read and parse. I’ve also included the original version, with a link to the source in the makefile-help repo.

Essentially, the code simply:

  1. Searches for recipes - these are lines that start with text, have a colon and a hash symbol
  2. Goes through each recipe found, extracts the recipe name and documentation comment
  3. Write each of the recipe names and its documentation to the console

Testing Scripts

I wanted to make sure that if I improve on the script over time, or add different versions, the code won’t break. There’s a test script, which is a simple shell script that runs the two help commands and assets the output is as expected.

At the time of writing, the shell script looks like this:

#!/usr/bin/env bash

set -e

recipes=("help" "help-compact")

# Some colour codes for formatting.

# Default to success for the result of tests.

for recipe in "${recipes[@]}"; do
    # Create the path to the expected output file.
    if [ ! -f "${expected_output}" ]; then
        printf "[${red}FAIL${reset}] '${recipe}' failed, test file '${expected_output}' not found\n"
    elif [ "$(make ${recipe})" == "$(cat ${expected_output})" ]; then
        printf "[${green}PASS${reset}] '${recipe}' passed\n"
        printf "[${red}FAIL${reset}] '${recipe}' failed\n"

# Return the exit code.
exit ${result}

One thing that is nice about the tests is that they are incorporated into a GitHub Action, which runs the tests using Ubuntu, MacOS and Windows, and tests on both Bash and the generic sh shell.

This uses the following features of GitHub actions:

  • Runner Images - predefined images are made available by GitHub for various operating systems
  • Shell Specificity - GitHub actions allow you to specify the shell used for a step
  • GitHub Action Matrix Strategies - A matrix of operating systems is specified, to avoid duplicating the pipeline steps for each supported operating system

This project provides a nice template or starting point if you want to build a simple shell script with some basic testing features.

Further Reading

If you found this interesting, you might enjoy Effective Shell - My free online book of shell techniques.