Ctrl+R Autocomplete with Bash is a Life Saver

ben profile image Ben Halpern Updated on ・1 min read

I only recently started integrating Ctrl+R into my command-line workflow, and I am happy I did! The command, called reverse-i-search, starts an autocomplete within one's history and eliminates most of my up, up, up, up, up behavior.

ctrl+r bash

From a UX perspective, Ctrl+R works perfectly for me. It's already part of my muscle memory on a few key commands I run a lot. It works by searching through your recent .bash_history. Once you see the command you are looking for, you can press return to execute it or use the left and right arrow buttons to modify it. If you are not seeing the command you want, or can't quite remember the params you need, you can keep hitting Ctrl+R to cycle through the results. It's a very natural flow.

If you're still addicted to up, up, up, up, up, I hope you try this command for yourself.


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Amrut Prabhu

This is surely a life saver for me. Just tried it. And it works!!!! :)

tbodt profile image

For me, what's even better than Ctrl-R is the Fish shell. In Fish, you type something that you want to search for in your history and then press up, and it goes back through your history and only shows commands that match what you typed. Your shell configuration looks pretty bare-bones from the screenshot, so you might also appreciate the syntax highlighting and very high-quality autocomplete.

The website is at fishshell.com. If you have Homebrew, you can install it with brew install fish.

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Michael Hazani

yup. I've been using Fish since I started programming and I fail to see why it's not omnipresent. One you go fish you never go back.

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Grigor Bezirganyan

It's same for zsh with ohmyzsh, just write the start and up up :)

tbodt profile image

The thing I don't like about zsh is you need a whole pile of custom code such as ohmyzsh and its plugins, which really slow it down. All the cool things about fish are built in, and written in C++.

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bezirganyan profile image
Grigor Bezirganyan

I've never used fish, so I think I will give it a try!

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gcorrel profile image

And who says zsh's plugins slows its functionality down? It even works better and faster with its plugins + OhMyZsh.

ben profile image
Ben Halpern Author

Thanks for the tip. I'll look into it. If you're interested in breaking this out into your own post with an intro + tips on fish, and why you use it, I think that would be useful for folks.

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Stephen Shave

This is also in Bash, but requires a little bit of config. Put this into your ~/.inputrc file:


This emulates the functionality of Oh My Zsh, where if you type a letter or word, then press up or down, it will search through the .bash_history file.

The only thing I miss from Oh My Zsh is a "visual selector" for files, by tabbing through a virtual list, and ignoring cases when tabbing to a folder.

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Oktay Acikalin

I'm also a heavy fish user. Perhaps we should write something for fish and zsh?

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jerbiahmed profile image

Tried almost every shell out there and I can say Fish is just the best

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Roger Lipscombe

See also Hashtags for commands, wherein you add a #somethingmemorable after a complicated command, making it easier to Ctrl+R for it in future.

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Markus Bergholz

If I want to use the last scp command, I simply use !sc for example.

And I use my lazy bash alias for grepping my history (h grep)

function search_in_bash_history () {
        grep "$1" ~/.bash_history
alias h="search_in_bash_history"
ben profile image
docent_net profile image
Maciek Lasyk

Take a look at:

hstr (history suggest box): github.com/dvorka/hstr - it's way better than standard reverse-i-search

Even much better is ZSH's history-substring-search plugin: asciinema.org/a/89727

erikch profile image
Erik Hanchett

Great article! Ctrl -R is great!

I set up my command line to use vim like keybindings. You have to run this command first, or put it in your .zshrc or .bashrc.

set -o vi

To search I press the escape key then /. I can also go to the end of the command line by pressing , or the front by pressing $. I can delete words just like I'm in vim.

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John A. Kallergis

Another awesome thing to do is set some key mappings to your terminal (I use the magnificent iTerm) to better navigate through the words in your lines.
Like alt-left to go back a word, or cmd-Del to delete the whole line, or alt-Del to delete just a word, etc.
My most used key mappings (OSX):

Cmd + Left Arrow : Send Hex Codes 0x01 (Start Of Line)
Cmd + Right Arrow : Send Hex Codes 0x05 (End Of Line)
Option + Left Arrow : Send Escape Sequence b (Go Back a Word)
Option + Right Arrow : Send Escape Sequence f (Forward a Word)
Cmd + Del : Send Hex Codes 0x15 (Delete Line)

redgreenrepeat profile image

aren't many of these mapping are built into bash by default?

ctrl-a : beginning of line
ctrl-e : end of line
ctrl-w : delete last word

ctrl-k : cut to end of line
ctrl-y : paste cut item

meta/alt/command-f: move forward a word
meta/alt/command-d: cut forward a word

and on OSX/macOS, some of these mappings are system wide:


elado profile image
Elad Ossadon

fzf is even more amazing than the plain ctrl+r - github.com/junegunn/fzf

morriswchris profile image
Chris Morris

Hands down one of the first things I install on a new computer

andydangerous profile image

I'm a big fan of Ctrl+r, but sometimes eschew it for the limited duplicate ups afforded by export HISTCONTROL=erasedups

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Weston Wedding

This is totally tangential, but what did you use to capture the animated gif?

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oscherler profile image
Olivier “Ölbaum” Scherler

In zsh, I bound ctrl-R to history-incremental-pattern-search-backward, which allow wild cards in the search string. It's even more useful.

dosamp profile image

Another upside is that this works with all applications that use libreadline. I just used this to bring up a complex SQL query from my ~/.mysql_history, and it also does the job for Python 3.x.

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Ben Hemphill

Thats awesome! Going to use that. Ohmyzsh does some interesting things too, but definitely my pattern is still a few too many up arrow keys :)

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Phil Thomas

It never ceases to amaze me that I find something like this after years of using bash. Thanks for the tip!

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Geoff Davis

This is what I use, really enjoy it. Still "autocompletes", but you don't have to move from the arrow keys