Self-Documenting Makefiles

Last updated on 2023-04-24 | Edit this page



  • How should I document a Makefile?


  • Write self-documenting Makefiles with built-in help.

Many bash commands, and programs that people have written that can be run from within bash, support a --help flag to display more information on how to use the commands or programs. In this spirit, it can be useful, both for ourselves and for others, to provide a help target in our Makefiles. This can provide a summary of the names of the key targets and what they do, so we don’t need to look at the Makefile itself unless we want to. For our Makefile, running a help target might print:


$ make help


results.txt : Generate Zipf summary table.
dats        : Count words in text files.
clean       : Remove auto-generated files.

So, how would we implement this? We could write a rule like:

.PHONY : help
help :
	@echo "results.txt : Generate Zipf summary table."
	@echo "dats        : Count words in text files."
	@echo "clean       : Remove auto-generated files."

But every time we add or remove a rule, or change the description of a rule, we would have to update this rule too. It would be better if we could keep the descriptions of the rules by the rules themselves and extract these descriptions automatically.

The bash shell can help us here. It provides a command called sed which stands for ‘stream editor’. sed reads in some text, does some filtering, and writes out the filtered text.

So, we could write comments for our rules, and mark them up in a way which sed can detect. Since Make uses # for comments, we can use ## for comments that describe what a rule does and that we want sed to detect. For example:

## results.txt : Generate Zipf summary table.
results.txt : $(ZIPF_SRC) $(DAT_FILES)
	$(LANGUAGE) $^ > $@

## dats        : Count words in text files.
.PHONY : dats
dats : $(DAT_FILES)

%.dat : $(COUNT_SRC) books/%.txt
	$(LANGUAGE) $^ $@

## clean       : Remove auto-generated files.
.PHONY : clean
clean :
	rm -f $(DAT_FILES)
	rm -f results.txt

## variables   : Print variables.
.PHONY : variables

We use ## so we can distinguish between comments that we want sed to automatically filter, and other comments that may describe what other rules do, or that describe variables.

We can then write a help target that applies sed to our Makefile:

.PHONY : help
help : Makefile
	@sed -n 's/^##//p' $<

This rule depends upon the Makefile itself. It runs sed on the first dependency of the rule, which is our Makefile, and tells sed to get all the lines that begin with ##, which sed then prints for us.

If we now run


$ make help

we get:


 results.txt : Generate Zipf summary table.
 dats        : Count words in text files.
 clean       : Remove auto-generated files.
 variables   : Print variables.

If we add, change or remove a target or rule, we now only need to remember to add, update or remove a comment next to the rule. So long as we respect our convention of using ## for such comments, then our help rule will take care of detecting these comments and printing them for us.

Where We Are

This Makefile and its accompanying contain all of our work so far.

Key Points

  • Document Makefiles by adding specially-formatted comments and a target to extract and format them.