Chris Martin

What goes in $PATH?

The PATH environment variable lists all the places where you have programs installed. It is customizable because there are a lot of package managers, and they all install things into different places, so your PATH needs to be tailored to the package managers that you use.

Here are some of the package managers I use and the places where they install programs:

Nix $HOME/.nix-profile/bin
NixOS /run/current-system/sw/bin
Cabal $HOME/.cabal/bin
Stack $HOME/.local/bin
npm ./node_modules/.bin

For our purposes here, the words “program,” “executable,” and “binary” are used synonymously. As you can see above, directories that are intended to be used with PATH tend to be named “bin,” signifying that they are full of binaries.

PATH may be referred to as “the binary search path,” “the search path,” “the bin path,” or simply “the path.”

An example

Suppose you use Stack to install pandoc, but you get “command not found” when you try to run it.

$ stack install pandoc

$ pandoc --version
pandoc: command not found

Why didn't it work? Probably because pandoc was installed to a place that isn't on your search path. To fix this sort of problem, you need to:

  1. Consult the package manager's documentation to find out where it installs things.
  2. Add that location to the search path (below we'll see how to do that).

Debugging by bypassing the search path

We installed using Stack, and we know that Stack puts programs into ~/.local/bin. First let's verify that pandoc is indeed there by running it directly, without relying on the search path:

$ ~/.local/bin/pandoc --version

That worked, so next let's fix the search path.

Adding a directory to the path

The way you do this will be different depending on what shell you're using. Here I will assume your shell is Bash.

$ export PATH="$HOME/.local/bin:$PATH"

Now we should be able to run pandoc normally.

$ pandoc --version

Making the change permanent

So we've fixed the path, but what we've done so far is only temporary. When you restart your terminal, it will be gone.

Bash has a mechanism for doing things like this: If you have a file named ~/.bashrc, Bash will automatically run all the commands in that file every time you start a terminal. So open ~/.bashrc (if it doesn't exist yet, just create a blank file) and add the following anywhere in it:

# This adds Stack's install directory to the search path
# so we can run programs installed with 'stack install'.
export PATH="$HOME/.local/bin:$PATH"

Don't neglect to include the comment, or else as stuff accumulates in your ~/.bashrc file over months and years, you'll end up with no recollection of why you put it there.

Note that changes to ~/.bashrc are not automatically applied to terminals that are already open. You will need to restart each open terminal, or run

$ source ~/.bashrc

in each terminal to re-run the initialization script.

I write about Haskell and related topics; you can find my works online on Type Classes and in print from The Joy of Haskell.