Terminal–Finder Interaction

Mac Admins have to work a lot in Terminal. This seems counter-intuitive for an OS that is famed for its user interaction. I can’t talk for all admins, but for me the strength of macOS/OS X was always in the combination of ‘clicky’ UI and command line. When you know what you are doing, you can get the best of both worlds.

I remember an Apple marketing slogan: “The power of Unix, the simplicity of Mac” This is from OS X Lion, so more than five years old by now. The future will show how long Apple still values the ‘powerful’ Unix underpinnings. But for now, they are still available and I am going to use them.

All of that said, the CLI and the UI are not entirely separate areas in macOS, there is a lot of overlap and there are functions in Finder and Terminal that allow for quick interaction between the two.

Finder to Terminal

You can drag any folder from Finder to the Terminal application icon in the dock and Terminal will open a new window and change the working directory to the folder you dragged.

Movie 1: Drag Folder onto Terminal

You can drag the folder icon from the Finder window title bar, as well.

Movie 2: Drag Folder from Title Bar onto Terminal

When you drag any file into an open Terminal window, it will insert the full path to that file or folder with spaces and other special characters properly escaped.

Movie 3: Drag File onto Terminal

You can drag multiple files and Terminal will insert all of their paths, separated by spaces. For example you can type file[space] in Terminal and then drag multiple files into that window and hit return, to get information on the file type.

Movie 4: Drag Multiple Files onto Terminal

If you prefer, you can get the same effect with copy and paste. Just select the files in Finder, choose ‘Copy’ (⌘C), switch to Terminal and ‘Paste’ (⌘V).

Update: I knew I had forgotten one. Thanks to Elliot Jordan who pointed this one out on Twitter:

Dragging a folder into a Terminal window while holding the command (⌘) key will add cd before the path to a folder. When you command-drag a file it will cd to the enclosing folder of that file.

Movie 5: Command Drag a Folder to Terminal

Getting Finder path from Terminal

If you are already in Terminal and want to get the frontmost Finder window, we have to do some homework first. (I got the idea for this script from this post, though I have modified its solution somewhat.) This command

$ osascript -e 'tell app "Finder" to get posix path of ((target of window 1) as alias)'

will give us the correct path, but it has two downsides: a) it is awfully complex to type repeatedly and b) it fails with an error if no Finder window is open.

To avoid typing this long command every time, we have two options. You can either define the command as a function in your .bash_profile (or the respective profile for your preferred shell) or you can save it as a script in your $PATH.

To define it as a function, add this to the .bash_profile:

# prints the path of the front Finder window. Desktop if no window open
function pwdf () {
    osascript <<EOS
        tell application "Finder"
            if (count of Finder windows) is 0 then
                set dir to (desktop as alias)
            else
                set dir to ((target of Finder window 1) as alias)
            end if
            return POSIX path of dir
        end tell
EOS
}

# changes directory to frontmost Finder window
alias cdf='pwdf; cd "$(pwdf)"'

The pwdf function will just print the path to the frontmost Finder window to stdout.

There is also added an alias to quickly change directories to the frontmost Finder window. cdf will also print the path it is changing to, like the cd - command. (Which changes to the previous working directory.) This has to be defined as an alias, since scripts cannot change a shell’s working directory.

If you prefer to define the pwdf command from a script file use the following code:

Save this as a text file without extension in a folder in your $PATH, and set the executable bit with chmod +x /path/to/pwdf. You also need to remove (or comment) the function from your profile, since that would override the script.

Using the script form of osascript allows us to pass arguments into the AppleScript. (You can do that with function as well, but the syntax gets really messy quickly.) This script will list the paths to all open Finder windows with the -a|--all argument. Also when you provide a string as an argument it will search for a Finder window containing that string:

$ pwdf Pref
/Users/armin/Library/Preferences/

The open command

You can also go from Terminal to the Finder. This usually as simple as typing

$ open .

This will open the current working directory ‘.’ in a Finder window.

This is usually where most online ‘hints’ for the open command start and end. However, open has so much more to offer. So much more, in fact, that I will cover the open command in a separate article.

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