I’ve had to write a couple of completion scripts for zsh over the last couple of months. I write such scripts rarely enough that I seem to have forgotten how to do it every time I set out to write a new one. So this time I decided to write down a few notes so I don’t have to look through the documentation too much next time.

Writing zsh completion scripts

by Mads Hartmann - 06 Aug 2017

This post contains a short introduction to the zsh completion system, a full example that can be used as a starting point for new scripts, and some explanation of some of the more interesting parts of writing completion scripts.

Table of contents

Basics of zsh’s completion system

The zsh completion system (compsys) is the part of zsh that takes care of providing the nice tab-completions you’re used to when typing in commands in your shell. You can find the full documentation here or you can have a look at the source code, the most interesting bit being the _main_complete function, however, it’s all a bit of a mouthful so I’ll provide the basic information here.

The completion system needs to be activated. If you’re using something like oh-my-zsh then this is already taken care of, otherwise you’ll need to add the following to your ~/.zshrc

autoload -U compinit

When you type foobar <tab> into your shell zsh will invoke the completion function that has been registered for foobar. The completion function provides the relevant completions to zsh by invoking a set of builtin functions that are part of compsys – We’ll look at one of these functions later.

Completion functions can be registered manually by using the compdef function directly like this compdef <function-name> <program>. However, more commonly you’ll define the completion function in a separate file. By convention completion functions, and the files they live in, are prefixed with an underscore and named after the program they provide completions for. When the completion system is being initialized through compinit zsh will look through all the files accessible via the fpath and read the first line they contain, as such you simply register a completion function by putting it somewhere that’s on your fpath and ensuring that the first line contains the compdef command like this #compdef _foobar foobar

The fpath is the list of directories that zsh will look at when searching for functions. If you’re unsure what it’s set to simply run echo $fpath. If you want to append a directory just reassign the variable like so fpath=($fpath <path-to-folder>)

With the basics out of the way, let’s have a look at a full example.

Example completion script

Imagine you have a program with an interface like the following

hello -h | --help
hello quietly [--silent] <message>
hello loudly [--repeat=<number>] <message>

This imaginary program has two command quietly and loudly that each have distinct arguments you can pass to them – ideally we’d like the completion script to complete -h, --help, quietly, and loudly when no commands are supplied, and once either quietly or loudly has been entered it should give context specific completions for those.

The following zsh script provides completions for the program as described. In the rest of the post I’ll give an explanation of the general outline of the script and dive into some of the more interesting parts.

#compdef _hello hello

function _hello {
    local line

    _arguments -C \
        "-h[Show help information]" \
        "--h[Show help information]" \
        "1: :(quietly loudly)" \

    case $line[1] in

function _hello_quietly {
    _arguments \
        "--silent[Dont output anything]"

function _hello_loudly {
    _arguments \
        "--repeat=[Repat the <message> any number of times]"

There are a few things worth going into here, especially the arguments passed to _arguments function and the use of local, but first off let us look at the general structure of the script.

General structure

There’s nothing special about a zsh completion script. It’s just a normal zsh script that uses #compdef <function> <program> to register itself as a completion script for program, so you’re free to structure your script anyhow you see fit, but I’ve found the following structure to be helpful.

Define a function named _<program> that provides the default completions. For each sub-command that the program provides define a _<program>_<sub-command> function that provides completions for that sub-command. In my experience this makes the completion script pretty straight-forward to write.

The use of _arguments

By invoking the _arguments function the script provides the potential completions to zsh. There are many other functions you can use to achieve this, see section 20.6 in the documentation.

There are two interesting parts about the use of _arguments in this case. The string arguments are called specs and they can be a bit cryptic when you first encounter them – you really don’t have much in the way of abstraction in zsh so everything that’s a bit complex is encoded inside of strings leaving you to learn these small domain specific languages. In this case the specs can take two forms:

  • command specs: N:MESSAGE:ACTION. N indicates that it is the Nth command argument.

The ACTION part is again it’s own lille domain specific language. This is best description of this language I’ve found, but again, the documentation has all the details if you search for specs: overview.

The -C flag, together with the ACTION specification "*::arg:->args" is where it becomes interesting. Here’s the description of the -C flag from the documentation:

In this form, _arguments processes the arguments and options and then returns control to the calling function with parameters set to indicate the state of processing; the calling function then makes its own arrangements for generating completions.

The parameters they mention are the following:

local context state state_descr line
typeset -A opt_args

You can think of this as a way to have _arguments return multiple values – it’s modifying global variables but due to the use of typeset -A and local it’s only modified in the current call-graph. The -A option to typeset tells zsh that the parameter is an associative array.

So the -C flags gives us to opportunity to inspect the completion state and provide context specific completions based on what the user has entered. In our case we’re only using the line variable to switch on what sub-command the user has entered and then invoking the relevant function to provide completions for that command.

I hope this clarifies some of the aspects of writing completion scripts.


The zsh documentation has all the information you could possibly need, but it can be a bit overwhelming. I recommend having a look at the zsh-completions project. It has a ton of good examples and their guide on how to write completion scripts is great.