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Easy Makefile self-documentation

asyazwan profile image Ahmad Syazwan ・2 min read

Here's an easy way to generate makefile help command from its comments that I saw some time ago somewhere.


    @grep -E '^[a-zA-Z0-9_-]+:.*?## .*$$' $(MAKEFILE_LIST) | sort | awk 'BEGIN {FS = ":.*?## "}; {printf "\033[36m%-15s\033[0m %s\n", $$1, $$2}'

command1: command2 ## Alias of command2
    echo 'Done!'

command2: ## run command2
    echo 'Running command2'

command3: # Unlisted command
    @echo "I'm private"


  1. .DEFAULT_GOAL will run provided make command if none is specified, so by doing make it will execute make help
  2. @grep -E '^[a-zA-Z0-9_-]+:.*?## .*$$' $(MAKEFILE_LIST):
    • @ will suppress output because by default make will print out the command it's executing
    • grep ... will look for lines that have commands with comments separated by ##
    • '^[a-zA-Z0-9_-]+:.*?## .*$$' means search from start of line, any alphanumeric, _ and - command names followed by : and any character until ## to end of line (since $ has special meaning in make, we have to escape it so end of line becomes $$)
    • MAKEFILE_LIST is make variable that refers to the makefile name in this case
  3. sort to get alphabetically sorted output
  4. awk 'BEGIN {FS = ":.*?## "}; {printf "\033[36m%-15s\033[0m %s\n", $$1, $$2}':
    • pipe the lines through awk and set the FS field separator to be whatever between the command and help text (modify ## if you want different separator)
    • for each match print with color: \033[36m%-15s\033[0m %s\n so we will get command, padded with 15 spaces, followed by the help text
    • again since we're inside make escape $1 & $2 for column number with $$1 & $$2
  5. For commands you don't want to be listed as help output, simply don't comment or use single # like command3 example


$ make
command1        Alias of command2
command2        run command2

Discussion (1)

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Kamal Mustafa

This is gold!