man-pages — conventions for writing Linux man pages




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: System Calls, 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 shell.

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.

6 Games
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.

Macro package

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 macros.

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 individual sentences.

Title line

The first command in a man page should be a TH command:

.TH title section date source manual



The title of the man page, written in all caps (e.g., MAN-PAGES).


The section number in which the man page should be placed (e.g., 7).


The date of the last revision—remember to change this every time a change is made to the man page, since this is the most general way of doing version control. Dates should be written in the form YYYY-MM-DD.


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: Special Files pages, use Linux.

In cases of doubt, just write Linux, or GNU.


The title of the manual (e.g., for Section 2: System Calls and 3 pages in the man-pages package, use Linux Programmer's Manual).

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: Special Files]
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]
ATTRIBUTES         [Normally only in Sections 2, 3]
VERSIONS           [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 sections.

The following list elaborates on the contents of each of the above sections.


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.


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 function declaration.

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 details for a device. This section normally appears only in Section 4: Special Files pages.


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 section.

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, for example).


describes the command-line options accepted by a program and how they change its behavior. This section should appear only for Section 1: General Commands and 8 manual pages.


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 manual pages.


For Section 2: System Calls 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 returned.


For Section 2: System Calls 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.


lists all environment variables that affect the program or function and how they affect it.


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.


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 multithreaded applications:

  • 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 pthreads(7).


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 2.0).

The syscalls(2) manual page also provides information about kernel versions in which various system calls first appeared.


describes any standards or conventions that relate to the function or command described by the manual page. For a page in Section 2: System Calls 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 period ('.').


provides miscellaneous notes. For Section 2: System Calls and 3 man pages you may find it useful to include subsections (SS) named Linux Notes and Glibc Notes.


lists limitations, known defects or inconveniences, and other questionable activities.


provides one or more examples describing how this function, file or command is used. For details on writing example programs, see Example Programs below.


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.


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 "\".

Font conventions

For functions, the arguments are always specified using italics, even in the SYNOPSIS section, where the rest of the function is specified in bold:

      int myfunction(int argc, char **argv);

Variable names should, like argument names, be specified in italics.

Filenames (whether pathnames, or references to files in the /usr/include directory) 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 include file under /usr/include, specify the header file surrounded by angle brackets, in the usual C way (e.g., <stdio.h>

Special macros, which are usually in upper case, 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 in an indented line on their own, 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: System Calls 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 file is:

    .BR fcntl ()

(Using this format, rather than the use of "\fB...\fP()" 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.)


Starting with release 2.59, man-pages follows American spelling conventions; please write all new pages and patches according to these conventions.


In subsection ("SS") headings capitalize the first word in heading, but otherwise use lower case, except where English usage (e.g., proper nouns) or programming language requirements (e.g., identifier names) dictate otherwise.

Example programs and shell sessions

Manual pages can 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 program).

  • 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 some examples of what example programs should look like, see wait(2) and pipe(2).

If you include a shell session demonstrating the use of a program or other system feature, boldface the user input text, to distinguish it from output produced by the system.

Indentation of structure definitions, shell session logs, etc.

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).


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 3.53 of the Linux man-pages project. A description of the project, and information about reporting bugs, can be found at−pages/.

  (C) Copyright 1992-1999 Rickard E. Faith and David A. Wheeler
( and
and (C) Copyright 2007 Michael Kerrisk <>

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2007-05-30 created by mtk, using text from old man.7 plus
rewrites and additional text.