Teaching: 15 min
Exercises: 15 min
  • How can I eliminate redundancy in my Makefiles?

  • Use variables in a Makefile.

  • Explain the benefits of decoupling configuration from computation.

Despite our efforts, our Makefile still has repeated content, namely the name of our script, If we renamed our script we’d have to update our Makefile in multiple places.

We can introduce a Make variable (called a macro in some versions of Make) to hold our script name:

This is a variable assignment - COUNT_SRC is assigned the value is our script and it is invoked by passing it to python. We can introduce another variable to represent this execution:


$(...) tells Make to replace a variable with its value when Make is run. This is a variable reference. At any place where we want to use the value of a variable we have to write it, or reference it, in this way.

Here we reference the variable COUNT_SRC. This tells Make to replace the variable COUNT_SRC with its value When Make is run it will assign to COUNT_EXE the value python

Defining the variable COUNT_EXE in this way allows us to easily change how our script is run (if, for example, we changed the language used to implement our script from Python to R).

Use Variables

Update Makefile so that the %.dat rule references the variables COUNT_SRC and COUNT_EXE. Then do the same for the script and the results.txt rule, using ZIPF_SRC and ZIPF_EXE as variable names


This Makefile contains a solution to this challenge.

We place variables at the top of a Makefile so they are easy to find and modify. Alternatively, we can pull them out into a new file that just holds variable definitions (i.e. delete them from the original makefile). Let us create

# Count words script.

# Test Zipf's rule

We can then import into Makefile using:


We can re-run Make to see that everything still works:

$ make clean
$ make dats
$ make results.txt

We have separated the configuration of our Makefile from its rules, the parts that do all the work. If we want to change our script name or how it is executed we just need to edit our configuration file, not our source code in Makefile. Decoupling code from configuration in this way is good programming practice, as it promotes more modular, flexible and reusable code.

Where We Are

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

Key Points

  • Define variables by assigning values to names.

  • Reference variables using $(...).