Friday, April 10, 2015

The one line you should add to every makefile

If you're using GNU make and you need help debugging a makefile then there's a single line your should add. And it's so useful that you should add it to every makefile you create.


    print-%: ; @echo $*=$($*)

It allows you to quickly get the value of any makefile variable. For example, suppose you want to know the value of a variable called SOURCE_FILES. You'd just type:

    make print-SOURCE_FILES

If you are using GNU make 3.82 or above it's not even necessary to modify the makefile itself. Just do

    make --eval="print-%: ; @echo $*=$($*)" print-SOURCE_FILES

to get the value of SOURCE_FILES. It 'adds' the line above to the makefile by evaluating it. The --eval parameter is a handy way of adding to an existing makefile without modifying it.

How that works

The line

    print-%: ; @echo $*=$($*)

defines a pattern-rule that matches any target in the form print-% (the % is the wildcard character). So when you run make print-SOURCE_FILES that rule will execute and the % will match SOURCE_FILES.

The command executed by print-% is @echo $*=$($*). Here I've used a semicolon to separate the target name and the recipe (commands to be executed). That makes this into a one-liner. In more traditional make syntax (where a tab is used to introduce the recipe) that would be written.

        @echo $*=$($*)

Using semicolon makes this easy to copy and paste.

The automatic variable $* matches the % in print-% (so when executing print-SOURCE_FILES, $* will be SOURCE_FILES). So $* contains the name of the variable that we want to print out.

The $($*) uses gets the value of a variable whose name is stored in $*. For example, $* might expand to SOURCE_FILES and then GNU make would get the value of $(SOURCE_FILES). Getting a variable by storing its name in another variable turns out to be a useful technique in many makefiles.


If that sort of thing interests you, you might enjoy my book: The GNU Make Book.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.


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