Taking a look at adding shell completions to CLI programs using Rust.

In this post we add shell completions to the XKCD CLI utility we made earlier. We'll show how easy it is to support multiple shells, and generate the completions both at compile time and/or run time.

Why Completion Scripts

Perhaps my biggest daily, "Ugh.." moment is working on the command line and typing <TAB><TAB> and getting no shell completion help. Even when I'm using a tool that I'm extremely familiar with, I still end up using shell completions (also called tab completions) to discover new options or explore the flags further.

Future Kevin Says
Sometimes I simply forgot the exact syntax..."is it `--remove` or `--delete`...Oh right, on this tool it's `-rm`"

I think we can agree shell completions are useful. So why don't all utilities provide shell completions? Probably because they're a giant pain to create, they must be kept in sync with the actual CLI flags/options, and there are a ton of shells to support!

Imagine typing foo --<tab><tab> and seeing --directory was a valid option, only to hit <return> and have the CLI tell you, error: --directory option not found or similar. Turns out the CLI updated and is now using --dir. Out of sync completions are terrible.

clap to the rescue!

I've got great news. Adding/supporting shell completions with your Rust based CLI is very easy! Using the clap crate, we can generate shell completion scripts either at compile time, or provide a special option to allow users to generate shell completion scripts at run time on the fly.

Future Kevin Says
Or both.

Using generated completion scripts we get the following benefits:

  • Our completion scripts will always be in sync with our actual CLI options
  • We can support Bash, Zsh, Fish, PowerShell, and Elvish using about five lines of code
  • Using both compile time and run time gives our users options for how/where to use these scripts

Whats so hard?

Before I said that creating shell completion scripts was hard, but how hard? A popular command line tool ripgrep which has a moderately large CLI space (not huge, but not trivial either) has a Bash completion script that is 213 lines lone (as of v12.1.1)! That's just Bash. Other shells have similarly sized scripts. rustup which has a fairly large CLI space has a 1,110 line Bash script.

Enough preamble, get to the code!


We'll be updating our grab-xkcd program from a previous post with the new code, but in order to clearly demonstrate the different methods and not conflict with the original article I will use two new branches completions-ct for compile time completions, and completions-rt for run time completions. If the reader is feeling froggy, you can combine the two!

Let's start with compile time.

Compile Time Completions

I tend prefer compile time completions because those completions scripts can be checked into version control, or even tweaked further from the auto-generated script. Originally, the auto-generated scripts were meant to be a starting point, but they turned out to work so well that almost no one takes the time to actually tweak them further.

The downsides to the compile time method are that it requires two new "build dependencies" (meaning compile time), and can slow down compile times. Generally, this isn't an issue in practice as generating completion scripts is crazy fast. But, if you're very cautious with build times, or are trying to avoid compile time dependencies for some reason, the run time method may be better.

Also, these scripts will still need to be consumed/installed by the user somehow. Normally this is done in a packaging format (deb, rpm, msi, exe, dmg, etc.). But if the CLI tool you're building does not have any packaging, the user will need to install these scripts manually based on the shell they're using.

Build Scripts

The process of telling clap to generate a completion script at compile time happens in a cargo build script.

The way completion scripts are generated changed between clap v2 and the upcoming v3. In v3 (which we used in the previous article) moved the completion code to a separate crate to avoid code bloat. Since we're still using v3 we need to add that extra crate.

Build Dependencies

We also need to tell cargo that clap_generate (and also clap) is a "build dependency" (meaning required at compile time). clap proper will also remain a regular dependency.

$ cargo add clap clap_generate --allow-prerelease --build
    Updating 'https://github.com/rust-lang/crates.io-index' index
      Adding clap_generate v3.0.0-beta.2 to build-dependencies
      Adding clap v3.0.0-beta.2 to build-dependencies

If we were to look at our Cargo.toml we'd now see two dependencies tables, with the new one being [build-dependencies] listing the two crates above. [[dependencies]] is unchanged, and still includes just normal clap since that's still required to parse run time arguments.

Next, since clap_generate needs a clap::App instance in order to be able to walk our CLI and generate everything, we'll need to use the into_app() method that was #[derive]d on our Args struct in the previous article.


Let's first, stub out the build.rs file in our project root directory:

// in build.rs

use clap::Clap;


fn main() {
    let mut app = Args::into_app();

    todo!("generate the completion scripts!");

We built grab-xkcd as a binary, and not a library. So we need some way to include our Args struct in this build script. We could have re-factored out the core logic into a library, and then consumed that library in our main.rs binary...but that's overkill for this example. So we simply include!() the source file directly, which is like a copy/paste.

Generate Bash

Now that we have an App struct, we can pass that to clap_generate and see the magic!

Let's add a Bash completion script:

// in build.rs
use clap_generate::{generators::Bash, generate};
use clap::Clap;


fn main() {
    let mut app = Args::into_app();

    let outdir = env!("CARGO_MANIFEST_DIR");
    generate_to::<Bash, _, _>(&mut app, "grab-xkcd", outdir);

There is a paper-cut that we have to call set_bin_name() due to some complexities about how the derive magic works, and how it interacts with what generate_to expects. The short version is generate_to is written to handle a large swath of CLI types, some of which may have different binary names, than program names (i.e. ripgrep-rg). Completion scripts are normally based off the binary name (which is how shells find which scripts to call). The derive magic in clap has no way of knowing the binary name, as our binary is certainly not called Args. We could have set the binary name as part of our Args declaration, which is probably the right way to do it in the long run, but for this demo it's overkill. So we just set it manually on the instance of the App struct and move on.

Walking through the rest of the above:

  • We import a single Generator, Bash which will walk our App struct and generate all options.
  • We get the value of cargo's environmental variable CARGO_MANIFEST_DIR which is our source root and where we will be saving the script to.
  • In generate_to we must provide some generic arguments. The first is the most important, and is the Generator that will be used to make the completion script. The other two are related to the other two final function arguments and just convenience conversion traits. Rust can infer them, hence the _.
  • The arguments are:
    • The App struct to walk over
    • The binary name to use throughout the script (which may differ from the real binary name in some special circumstances)
    • A path directory to save the generated file to

That's it! If we look in our project root, you should see a grab-xkcd.bash! Even our super small CLI has generated a 65 line script:

$ wc -l grab-xkcd.bash
65 grab-xkcd.bash

Looking at the head you can see some of the boilerplate already:

$ head grab-xkcd.bash
_grab-xkcd() {
    local i cur prev opts cmds

    for i in ${COMP_WORDS[@]}



So let's try it out! We can test it by just sourceing it, if you're using bash as your shell:

It works!

Project Cleanup

If we wanted to add additional shells it's just more calls to generate_to. We'll actually, place all the scripts in a new completions/ dir in our project root, so as not to get unwieldy.

$ mkdir completions

And we update our build script:

// in build.rs
// Same as before...
use clap_generate::{generators::*, generate_to};

fn main() {
    let outdir = std::path::Path::new(env!("CARGO_MANIFEST_DIR")).join("completions/");
    generate_to::<Bash, _, _>(&mut app, "grab-xkcd", &outdir);
    generate_to::<Fish, _, _>(&mut app, "grab-xkcd", &outdir);
    generate_to::<Zsh, _, _>(&mut app, "grab-xkcd", &outdir);
    generate_to::<PowerShell, _, _>(&mut app, "grab-xkcd", &outdir);
    generate_to::<Elvish, _, _>(&mut app, "grab-xkcd", &outdir);

We had to create a new Path and join it to our new directory, but that's not too bad. We also had to take a reference to outdir in each call to generate_to since we're not passing a PathBuf and not a &'static str any longer. But hey, notice we didn't need to do anything else special and generate_to could handle those two totally different types with ease (thanks to the second _ generic parameter which is actually a T: Into<OsString> for those that care).

If we look in our completions/ dir, yup, we see a bunch of new completion scripts!

Run time

Ok, so compile time was pretty easy. Maybe a little fuss around adding build-dependencies and making a build script, but overall not too bad.

But let's say you're just making a small CLI, and don't want to have to worry about packaging or installing completions scripts with your program, etc. Luckily, we can have our binary just spit out completion scripts on demand to stdout! Then the user can source the output if they want, or redirect it to a file if they want to "install" it.

A traditional way of doing this may have included inserting the completion scripts themselves into your binary file statically...which would probably be terrible (even though they compress well). This still runs the risk of getting out of sync with your CLI, etc.

Let's use what we learned with the compile time completion scripts, but just do it at run time instead.

Extend the CLI

In order to do this, we'll actually need to extend our CLI a little bit to include a new option/flag for generating these completions. I normally advocate for using subcommands instead of options/flags, but since our CLI is so small and we don't have any other subcommands we'll forgo that idea. Instead we'll add a -c/--completions option which accepts any of the supported shells and spits out the completion script to stdout.

/// A utility to grab XKCD comics
pub struct Args {
    // .. Same as before

    /// Generate a SHELL completion script and print to stdout
    #[clap(long, short, arg_enum, value_name="SHELL")]
    pub completions: Option<Shell>,

#[derive(Clap, Copy, Clone)]
pub enum Shell {

This should look pretty familiar to you from the previous article, however let's step through it really quickly:

  • With short, long we tell clap to generate a short -c and long --completions automatically from the name of the field
  • arg_enum tells clap the enum we are using should be used as the only allowed value variants
  • value_name="SHELL" tells clap to replace the default placeholder in the --help message from --completions <completions> which is just derived from the field name, to --completions <SHELL>. It's not required, but I think it helps readability.
  • We create our enum with the variants we wish to support.

Using --completions

With that out of the way we can now look at using this new argument. In our main() function we will check if that argument was used, and if so generate the script and print to stdout and exit.

Since we'll need to know which shell to generate our completions for, we can push that logic to the enum itself and keep our main() function clean.

fn main() -> Result<()> {
    let args = cli::Args::parse();
    if let Some(shell) = args.completions {

    let client = client::XkcdClient::new(args);

This could be condensed into a single args.completions.map(..), but for this demo we'll leave it as is since the function is so short and concise anyways. I also like that the std::process::exit function is visible so we know this could end execution of our program just from looking at main. If we were to reduce this to a map we'd probably also rename the enum's generate method to something like generate_and_exit to make it more clear as well. But I digress.


Instead of the clap_generate::generate_to that was used in compile time, we'll be using clap_generate::generate inside our Shell::generate method. First let's add clap_generate to our normal run time dependencies:

$ cargo add clap_generate --allow-prerelease
    Updating 'https://github.com/rust-lang/crates.io-index' index
      Adding clap_generate v3.0.0-beta.2 to dependencies

Now we can actually implement Shell::generate:

// in src/cli.rs
use std::io::stdout;

use clap::{Clap, IntoApp};
use clap_generate::{generators::*, generate};

impl Shell {
    fn generate(&self) {
        let mut app = Args::into_app();
        let mut fd = std::io::stdout();
        match self {
            Shell::Bash => generate::<Bash, _>(&mut app, "grab-xkcd", &mut fd),
            Shell::Zsh => generate::<Zsh, _>(&mut app, "grab-xkcd", &mut fd),
            Shell::Fish => generate::<Fish, _>(&mut app, "grab-xkcd", &mut fd),
            Shell::PowerShell => generate::<PowerShell, _>(&mut app, "grab-xkcd", &mut fd),
            Shell::Elvish => generate::<Elvish, _>(&mut app, "grab-xkcd", &mut fd),

A mouthful of a match but on closer inspection isn't too bad.

  • We create the clap::App struct from our CLI just like in the compile time version
  • We get a reference to the stdout buffer which implements the std::io::Write trait that clap_generate::generate is expecting.
  • We match on our shell type, and then pass on to the real generate function

Testing them out

With that all wired up, it's time for a test!

$ grab-xkcd --completions bash | head
_grab-xkcd() {
    local i cur prev opts cmds

    for i in ${COMP_WORDS[@]}

Looks the same as before! I bet we can source/eval it.


Wrap Up

In this article we've seen how we can add shell completion scripts for various shells with relative ease. We've seen both completion scripts generated at compile time, and run time.

It's totally possible to implement both strategies as well.

In all honesty, one could mock existing CLIs not written in Rust, and simply generate completion scripts for them using this method.

Again, the complete code from this article can be found on the two branches:

Discussed this post on DEV.to!