Adding verbosity to your tool

Sometimes you will need to know what your tool is currently doing. This is often described as transparency and many popular tools offer it. cURL and ssh have the -v option while phantomjs has the –debug option. In any case, the effect is the same, making the program more talkative.


Most likely this will be for troubleshooting. Perhaps, a command that takes forever to complete, or finishes but without doing what it was supposed to do. Personally I often need it to troubleshoot networking programs and complicated scripts that perform actions on many files/directories.


The usual way to add verbosity to a CLI program is by adding an option (such as -v or –verbose) and then, as the program executes, by printing useful info on the terminal if this option is passed as an argument.

Applications with a GUI can either append info to a log file or open a new window containing a text-area that plays the role of a “live” log.

For the rest of this article I’ll focus on CLI programs and specifically BASH scripts, since it’s my first choice whenever I decide to make a new tool.

Note that most tools (especially ones used in pipelines) follow the rule of silence and have it disabled by default.


Hence the following design:

  1. By default, verbosity is disabled. The option -v will enable it.
  2. When this option is used, an environment variable will be set.
  3. If this environment variable is present, the tool will echo details to stderr. Echoing to stderr is necessary for programs that are usually part of a pipeline.


Her’s a simple implementation for BASH:

  • Function set_verbosity will set the environment variable for verbosity. This should be called in the case statement handling the CLI options.
  • Function trace will echo to stderr if verbosity is enabled.
# Handle the verbosity option. Use it in the `case` 
# statement handling the program options.
set_verbosity() {

# Echo all passed arguments to stderr if verbosity is on.
trace() {
    [[ $verbosity -gt 0 ]] && echo $* >&2

A complete sample can be found here.

There are also tools that might need multiple levels of verbosity. For an example look at the -v option of ssh. Here's new versions of the set_verbosity and trace, extended to support many levels of verbosity:

# Handle the verbosity option. Use it in the `case` 
# statement handling the program options.
set_verbosity() {
    verbosity_level=$((verbosity_level + 1))

# Echo all passed arguments to stderr if verbosity is on. 
# If the first parameter is numeric then the message will 
# only be echoed if the verbosity level is >= to it (the 
# message level). Otherwise the message level will be 1.
trace() {
    local msg_level=$(($1 + 0))
    if [[ $msg_level -gt 0 ]]; then

    verbosity_level=$(($verbosity_level + 0))

    if [[ $verbosity_level -ge $msg_level ]]; then
        echo $* >&2

A complete sample can be found here.


  1. Copy the set_verbosity and trace functions to your BASH script or even better move them to your bashrc file.
  2. Handle the -v option in the beginning of your script. A common approach is with the getopts BASH built-in:
    # Handle CLI options.
    while getopts "v" option
    case $option in
        v) set_verbosity
    shift $(( $OPTIND - 1 ))
  3. Use trace in your script to print useful info:
    trace "This will go to stderr if -v is passed!"
    trace 2 This also if verbosity level is at least 2

Finally, you might want to enable verbosity of a program called inside your script. This can be done by setting an environment variable with the option that will enable verbosity on this other program. We only need to make a small addition to the case statement:

case $option in
    v) set_verbosity
       curl_verbosity=-v # This is for cURL!

Then use this env var when you call the program:

curl $curl_verbosity

You will find more details concerning transparency in Chapter 6. Transparency of The Art of Unix Programming by Eric S. Raymond.


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