Short and Long Options with Go flag standard package
Diving into Go source code

Recently I was browsing the awesome age (which I encourage everyone to look at and use if you haven’t already), and noticed something that I had always mistakenly assumed wasn’t possible with the Go standard library.

Is it possible to have short and long options using just the flag package?

Apparently it is possible!

To give a little more context, the short options are those that start with a single dash (-) and consist of a single letter, e.g: for most command line argument to set verbose mode you’d use: -v. In contrast, the long options are those that start with double dash -- and consist of a word e.g: to use the same example of verbose mode that would be --verbose.

In order to find this out let’s first write small program that uses the flag package and discover how the invocation of them change the output:

First let’s create a directory where to put the program and initialize the go.mod:

$ mkdir -p ~/go_experiments/using_flag
$ cd !$
$ go mod init github.com/chibby0ne/$(basename $(pwd))

This creates a directory using_flag inside a go_experiments directory located in your home directory and initializes a go mod with the organization/user name chibby0ne (my username) and repository name the same as the directory name (using_flag). Of course you can use your Github username, but since this is just for experimentation it doesn’t really matter the organization/username or module name you choose.

Now copy the following code in and write it to a main.go file, and build it with go build

package main

import (
    "fmt"
    "flag"
)

func main() {
    var verbose bool
    flag.BoolVar(&verbose, "verbose", false, "verbose output")
    flag.Parse()
    if verbose {
        fmt.Println("verbose is on")
    }
}

This program should write: verbose is on to stdout whenever the verbose flag is set, otherwise it shouldn’t print anything.

Let’s see the output with only no flag:

$ ./using_flag
$

No output as expected.

Let’s see the output with only one dash (as usually done):

$ ./using_flag -verbose
verbose is on
$

Now let’s see the output with two dashes:

$ ./using_flag --verbose
verbose is on
$

As you can see the flag package allows this usage with double dash or long option format but its usage is not “well documented” in the package documentation.

Why is this the case?

Let’s dig into what happens when we set a BoolVar (which is the case for any XVar where X is any type). All the source code shown corresponds to go version go1.16.4 linux/amd64:

// BoolVar defines a bool flag with specified name, default value, and usage string.
// The argument p points to a bool variable in which to store the value of the flag.
func BoolVar(p *bool, name string, value bool, usage string) {
	CommandLine.Var(newBoolValue(value, p), name, usage)
}

Let’s decompose the magic out of this one liner:

  1. What does newBoolValue do?
// -- bool Value
type boolValue bool

func newBoolValue(val bool, p *bool) *boolValue {
	*p = val
	return (*boolValue)(p)
}

newBoolValue is an unexported (private in other languages terminology) function that creates a boolValue which is an type alias for bool. The pointer to bool passed (p in BoolVar and in newBoolValue functions) is assigned to the default value (value in BoolVar function and val in newBoolValue function). Then the pointer to bool is casted to a pointer to boolValue and returned.

You might be wondering: Why create this internal boolValue for simply storing the bool?

Because bool needs to be augmented with methods used by the flags package, such as Get(), Set() and String(), these methods satisfy the interfaces used through the package which are Getter and Value.

type Getter interface {
   Value
   Get() interface{}
}
type Value interface {
    String() string
    Set(string) error
}

According to documentation: Value is the interface to the dynamic value stored in a flag. Getter is an interface that allows the contents of Value to be retrieved.

You can read more of the Getter and the Value interface in the documentation, but for now let’s continue with our dive.

  1. What is CommandLine and what does its method Var do?
// CommandLine is the default set of command-line flags, parsed from os.Args.
// The top-level functions such as BoolVar, Arg, and so on are wrappers for the
// methods of CommandLine.
var CommandLine = NewFlagSet(os.Args[0], ExitOnError)

As it’s very well described in the godoc, CommandLine is the default flag set of command line flags for the given executable, (The name used to invoke the program is always given by os.Args[0])

And the Var method:

// Var defines a flag with the specified name and usage string. The type and
// value of the flag are represented by the first argument, of type Value, which
// typically holds a user-defined implementation of Value. For instance, the
// caller could create a flag that turns a comma-separated string into a slice
// of strings by giving the slice the methods of Value; in particular, Set would
// decompose the comma-separated string into the slice.
func (f *FlagSet) Var(value Value, name string, usage string) {
	// Remember the default value as a string; it won't change.
	flag := &Flag{name, usage, value, value.String()}
	_, alreadythere := f.formal[name]
	if alreadythere {
		var msg string
		if f.name == "" {
			msg = fmt.Sprintf("flag redefined: %s", name)
		} else {
			msg = fmt.Sprintf("%s flag redefined: %s", f.name, name)
		}
		fmt.Fprintln(f.Output(), msg)
		panic(msg) // Happens only if flags are declared with identical names
	}
	if f.formal == nil {
		f.formal = make(map[string]*Flag)
	}
	f.formal[name] = flag
}

There’s a lot going on in there but let’s go step by step.

The godoc mentions that Var's first argument usually holds a user-defined implementation of Value and it could have a custom Set() method that converts its arguments into a slice or some other type aggregate type. In our case that’s not the case but since it’s part of this method documentation which is shown in the godoc it’s good to be as general as possible.

Looking at the code we see that:

  1. A Flag is created.
flag := &Flag{name, usage, value, value.String()}

And a Flag is:

// A Flag represents the state of a flag.
type Flag struct {
	Name     string // name as it appears on command line
	Usage    string // help message
	Value    Value  // value as set
	DefValue string // default value (as text); for usage message
}

It’s simply a struct that aggregates the name, usage, value and default value.

  1. A check is made on a unexported map (f.formal) which is part of the FlagSet (in this case of CommandLine).
_, alreadythere := f.formal[name]

The FlagSet structure has several unexported fields of which the Var function uses name (a string) and formal (a map of type [string]*Flag)

As can be seen here:

// A FlagSet represents a set of defined flags. The zero value of a FlagSet
// has no name and has ContinueOnError error handling.
//
// Flag names must be unique within a FlagSet. An attempt to define a flag whose
// name is already in use will cause a panic.
type FlagSet struct {
	// Usage is the function called when an error occurs while parsing flags.
	// The field is a function (not a method) that may be changed to point to
	// a custom error handler. What happens after Usage is called depends
	// on the ErrorHandling setting; for the command line, this defaults
	// to ExitOnError, which exits the program after calling Usage.
	Usage func()

	name          string
	parsed        bool
	actual        map[string]*Flag
	formal        map[string]*Flag
	args          []string // arguments after flags
	errorHandling ErrorHandling
	output        io.Writer // nil means stderr; use Output() accessor
}

The check is made as can be seen to see if the flag is redefined, returning a different error depending on whether the flagSet has an empty name or not.

    if alreadythere {
		var msg string
		if f.name == "" {
			msg = fmt.Sprintf("flag redefined: %s", name)
		} else {
			msg = fmt.Sprintf("%s flag redefined: %s", f.name, name)
		}
		fmt.Fprintln(f.Output(), msg)
		panic(msg) // Happens only if flags are declared with identical names
	}
  1. If the map is not yet created (nil) then a maps is created.
    if f.formal == nil {
		f.formal = make(map[string]*Flag)
	}
  1. Add an entry in the map with the name of the flag as key and the pointer to the flag itself as value.
f.formal[name] = flag

Now the next piece of the puzzle comes in the next line of our program: flag.Parse().

Diving deep again:

// Parse parses the command-line flags from os.Args[1:]. Must be called
// after all flags are defined and before flags are accessed by the program.
func Parse() {
	// Ignore errors; CommandLine is set for ExitOnError.
	CommandLine.Parse(os.Args[1:])
}

We can see that it calls the Parse method of the *FlagSet CommandLine with all the arguments passed to the executable.

// Parse parses flag definitions from the argument list, which should not
// include the command name. Must be called after all flags in the FlagSet
// are defined and before flags are accessed by the program.
// The return value will be ErrHelp if -help or -h were set but not defined.
func (f *FlagSet) Parse(arguments []string) error {
	f.parsed = true
	f.args = arguments
	for {
		seen, err := f.parseOne()
		if seen {
			continue
		}
		if err == nil {
			break
		}
		switch f.errorHandling {
		case ContinueOnError:
			return err
		case ExitOnError:
			if err == ErrHelp {
				os.Exit(0)
			}
			os.Exit(2)
		case PanicOnError:
			panic(err)
		}
	}
	return nil
}

We can summarize this function as parsing each flag until all flags are parsed and either errors/panics in case of an error or returns nil in case there wasn’t any.

More specifically the loop ends if err returned from f.parseOne() is nil, and continues if the seen returned by f.parseOne() is true.

Do note, that even though arguments passed are being assigned to f.args, the for loop doesn’t explicitly iterate over them, instead it an infinite loops, and f.parseOne() handles parsing and shifting the arguments passed.

As we can see the real key to understating the Parse method is f.parseOne():

// parseOne parses one flag. It reports whether a flag was seen.
func (f *FlagSet) parseOne() (bool, error) {
	if len(f.args) == 0 {
		return false, nil
	}
	s := f.args[0]
	if len(s) < 2 || s[0] != '-' {
		return false, nil
	}
	numMinuses := 1
	if s[1] == '-' {
		numMinuses++
		if len(s) == 2 { // "--" terminates the flags
			f.args = f.args[1:]
			return false, nil
		}
	}
	name := s[numMinuses:]
	if len(name) == 0 || name[0] == '-' || name[0] == '=' {
		return false, f.failf("bad flag syntax: %s", s)
	}

	// it's a flag. does it have an argument?
	f.args = f.args[1:]
	hasValue := false
	value := ""
	for i := 1; i < len(name); i++ { // equals cannot be first
		if name[i] == '=' {
			value = name[i+1:]
			hasValue = true
			name = name[0:i]
			break
		}
	}
	m := f.formal
	flag, alreadythere := m[name] // BUG
	if !alreadythere {
		if name == "help" || name == "h" { // special case for nice help message.
			f.usage()
			return false, ErrHelp
		}
		return false, f.failf("flag provided but not defined: -%s", name)
	}

	if fv, ok := flag.Value.(boolFlag); ok && fv.IsBoolFlag() { // special case: doesn't need an arg
		if hasValue {
			if err := fv.Set(value); err != nil {
				return false, f.failf("invalid boolean value %q for -%s: %v", value, name, err)
			}
		} else {
			if err := fv.Set("true"); err != nil {
				return false, f.failf("invalid boolean flag %s: %v", name, err)
			}
		}
	} else {
		// It must have a value, which might be the next argument.
		if !hasValue && len(f.args) > 0 {
			// value is the next arg
			hasValue = true
			value, f.args = f.args[0], f.args[1:]
		}
		if !hasValue {
			return false, f.failf("flag needs an argument: -%s", name)
		}
		if err := flag.Value.Set(value); err != nil {
			return false, f.failf("invalid value %q for flag -%s: %v", value, name, err)
		}
	}
	if f.actual == nil {
		f.actual = make(map[string]*Flag)
	}
	f.actual[name] = flag
	return true, nil
}

Whoa! That’s a lot to unpack. Fortunately we don’t need to analyze the whole function to get to the single and double dashes logic, but let’s take it piecemeal:

  1. Check if there are no arguments:
    if len(f.args) == 0 {
		return false, nil
	}

So if there are no arguments it simply ends parsing.

  1. Getting the first command line argument (the actual option/flag name)
s := f.args[0]

Since f.args was all the command line arguments with whom the executable was called (this is simply assigning to s the first command line argument). Later we will see that the f.args slice gets updated in this function, so that it we advance the command line arguments seen.

In our example program, this would make:

s := "-verbose"
  1. The actual explanation of why the short and long options work
    if len(s) < 2 || s[0] != '-' {
		return false, nil
	}
	numMinuses := 1
	if s[1] == '-' {
		numMinuses++
		if len(s) == 2 { // "--" terminates the flags
			f.args = f.args[1:]
			return false, nil
		}
	}
	name := s[numMinuses:]

To explain this part let’s continue with the flag in our example program s, but let’s assume we have invoked it with 2 dashes:

s := "--verbose"

The first if returns if the length of s is 1 or not if the first rune (character) is not a dash. None of these is our case.

Since we don’t enter the body of the if statement the first rune must be a dash, or minus as it is called in the code, then the numMinuses is set to 1.

The second if checks whether the second character of the string is a dash - and if it is it increments the numMinuses to 2. If it isn’t then the body of the if is skipped.

Then checks if s consist of just that: two dashes (--), since the two dashes is the flags terminator as we can see the function returns also false, and nil as before.

After this the name := s[numMinuses:] slices the string so as to only trim the dashes and leave only the name of the flag.

i.e: name := "verbose"

And this is the reason why the standard library flag package works for both single or double dashes.

Now if you’ve made it this far and you’re also learning this was also news to you, then I’m afraid this wasn’t a big reveal and is actually expected.

This is actually documented behavior, the thing is that is not actually well documented. From the docs, we can see that it shows 3 examples with a single dash but the text below mentions that double dashes are also possible.

screenshot_flag_pkg_go

So, yeah, RTFM am I right?

OK, great. But this still doesn’t answer the question: Is it possible to have short/long options using just flag package?

Well with this newfound knowledge of how flags are made and kept in the *FlagSet this should be now a bit more straightforward, but let’s check how it is done in age

	flag.BoolVar(&decryptFlag, "d", false, "decrypt the input")
	flag.BoolVar(&decryptFlag, "decrypt", false, "decrypt the input")
	flag.BoolVar(&encryptFlag, "e", false, "encrypt the input")
	flag.BoolVar(&encryptFlag, "encrypt", false, "encrypt the input")
	flag.BoolVar(&passFlag, "p", false, "use a passphrase")
	flag.BoolVar(&passFlag, "passphrase", false, "use a passphrase")

As can be seen all that it’s needed is to assign to the same variable two flags: one with a single letter and one with a word. Of course this doesn’t prevent anyone from using the single dash with the word form or the double dash with the single letter, but if the ergonomics and restricting the usages are really important, you can always modify flag.Usage so that these two cases are documented, as it is done with age.

const usage = `Usage:
    age [--encrypt] (-r RECIPIENT | -R PATH)... [--armor] [-o OUTPUT] [INPUT]
    age [--encrypt] --passphrase [--armor] [-o OUTPUT] [INPUT]
    age --decrypt [-i PATH]... [-o OUTPUT] [INPUT]
Options:
    -e, --encrypt               Encrypt the input to the output. Default if omitted.
    -d, --decrypt               Decrypt the input to the output.
    -o, --output OUTPUT         Write the result to the file at path OUTPUT.
    -a, --armor                 Encrypt to a PEM encoded format.
    -p, --passphrase            Encrypt with a passphrase.

We can test it in our tiny example program by adding an extra line with "v" as flag name such that it looks like this:

package main

import (
    "fmt"
    "flag"
)

func main() {
    var verbose bool
    flag.BoolVar(&verbose, "verbose", false, "verbose output")
    flag.BoolVar(&verbose, "v", false, "verbose output")
    flag.Parse()
    if verbose {
        fmt.Println("verbose is on")
    }
}

Don’t forget to build it after modifying it.

Invoking it with -v, --v and of course the other two cases works as well:

$ ./using_flag -v
verbose is on
$ ./using_flag --verbose
verbose is on
$ ./using_flag --v
verbose is on
$ ./using_flag -verbose
verbose is on

And of course invoking it with three (or more dashes) dashes results in a error:

$ ./using_flag ---verbose
bad flag syntax: ---verbose
Usage of ./using_flag:
  -v    verbose output
  -verbose
        verbose output
$

For completion’s sake we’ll modify the flag.Usage so that we have a neater error when we either print help or have an error parsing flags:

package main

import (
	"flag"
	"fmt"
)

const usage = `Usage of using_flag:
  -v, --verbose verbose output
  -h, --help prints help information 
`

func main() {
	var verbose bool
	flag.BoolVar(&verbose, "verbose", false, "verbose output")
	flag.BoolVar(&verbose, "v", false, "verbose output")
	flag.Usage = func() { fmt.Print(usage) }
	flag.Parse()
	if verbose {
		fmt.Println("verbose is on")
	}
}

which outputs:

$ ./using_flag ---verbose
bad flag syntax: ---verbose
Usage of using_flag:
  -v, --verbose verbose output
  -h, --help    prints help information
$

I think the main reason people assume this isn’t possible is because the flag documentation doesn’t show that the options could be passed with single or double dash. The fact that by far most people that want a CLI that handles flags cleaning use spf13/cobra doesn’t help either. Also it doesn’t help that is a high quality package with nice ergonomics.

But as you can see, it’s not essential to use in order to have regular Unix-style command line options.

That’s all folks. Happy hacking!


Last modified on 2021-05-14

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