Linux / UNIX : Argument list too long error in shell and solution

by on May 4, 2007 · 10 comments· LAST UPDATED May 4, 2007

in , ,

Q. I’m new to Linux. We have a backup server and most our developer sftp or ftp and upload files to our server. I just need backup of last 4 weeks. So if I try to list or remove directory I get an error cannot remove directory.

So my question is why am I getting an "Argument list too long" error message when executing some commands in the shell?

A. Each command under Linux/UNIX accepts a parameter commonly known as command arguments (or args).

For example, the command cd /etc is considered as 1 command line arguments, namely, /etc. Some command can accept more than 2 argument and act on supplied args. For example cp command:
$ cp /etc/file1 /etc/file2 /etc/file3 /mnt/pen

cp command has total 4 command line arguments. The shell can hold a maximum of 131072 bytes for command line arguments. If you try to pass more than that number you will greeted with an error that read as follows:

Argument list too long

Remember each character requires one byte of storage.

How do I get rid of this problem while using rm / ls or any other shell command?

The best way to deal with this problem is to use wild cards. For example, just list a directory starting with a character:
$ ls a*
$ rm a*

You can also use for loop to deal with group of files:

for fileset in a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t v w x z
   /bin/rm $fileset*
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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 vinod July 9, 2007 at 10:55 am

How to find out who all user modified which files


2 vinod July 9, 2007 at 10:59 am

how to allow telnet or ssh login from a specified ip to freebsd server and other to be denied


3 vinod July 9, 2007 at 11:04 am

steps of Maintainence of a freebsd server and what all pre precaution need to be taken


4 Deepak June 2, 2008 at 12:00 am

What about for recursive copy??


5 tom August 27, 2008 at 8:06 am

just use:
ls|xargs rm



6 Noel August 24, 2009 at 4:16 am

Tom you genious! Gone through all the complex methods that didn’t work, and you use the most simple way. Thank you.


7 prabhu August 31, 2009 at 5:35 am

-bash: /bin/mv: Argument list too long
I am Getting th eavove error message while moving file from one dir to other.please help me to solve this problem.I hv root permission too.


8 Alex October 16, 2009 at 3:10 pm

How about this:

find . | xargs rm

It will wipe out just about anything.


9 Willy February 14, 2012 at 7:17 pm

ViVEk GITe, not agree with you. The wilcards in any shell enviroments are replaced before execute the comand line. For example:

$ touch a1 a2 a3 a4 a5 a6
$ ls a*
a1 a2 a3 a4 a5 a6

Will work fine, because the ‘a*’ is replaced before executing the ls command but the parameters list is not long enough. But, creating for example a extend list of files (10000 empty files), the ‘ls’ command will show you how the parameters list is too long even when you write ‘a*’ as the only parameter!!

$ i=1
$ while [ $i -le 10000 ]; do
> touch a$i
> i=$((i+1))
> done

$ ls | wc -l
$ ls a*
ksh: /usr/bin/ls: 0403-027 The parameter list is too long.

That is because the wilcard is replaced before executing ls + arguments command.
In that case I agree with Tom solution… ;)


10 ardvark May 8, 2014 at 5:50 am

Thank you for this!

Btw, your iterating example is missing a y

(which for very lazy copypasta addicts like myself is dangerous)


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