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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.


Anonymous said…
A small refinement, to avoid trouble if the value of the variable you're printing includes shell metacharacters:
print-%: ; @echo '$(subst ','\'',$*=$($*))'
The echoed string is now enclosed in single quotes, and every single quote appearing in the string has been replaced with the sequence '\'' which gets you a literal single quote.
D. Ongs said…
If you're using BSD make, you can just use 'make -V SOURCE_FILES'.
You can avoid editing the Makefile to add the rule with GNU make 3.81 or older, which does not support --eval. Create a new file in your home named ~/Makefile.debug with the contents:

print-%: ; @echo $*=$($*)
include Makefile

Now you can use it the following way from any source directory:

$ make -f ~/Makefile.debug print-SOURCE_FILES
Andrei Neculau said…
added to my snippet collection
Anonymous said…
It is sometimes also useful to know about the origin and flavor of the var:

@echo '$(subst ','\'',$*=$($*)) (origin: $(origin $*), flavor: $(flavor $*))'
Unknown said…
I've been using this trick for years, with the following enhancements:

# rule to print info about make variables, works only with make 3.81 and above
# see
# for more info
# to use invoke make with a target of print-VARNAME, e.g.,
# make print-CCFLAGS
@echo '$*=$($*)'
@echo ' origin = $(origin $*)'
@echo ' flavor = $(flavor $*)'
@echo ' value = $(value $*)'
Unknown said…
Users of bmake just say bmake -V VARIABLE and have the option to see the actual value of the variable before expansion, or the expanded value.
Unknown said…
Add newlines so lists print in an easily-viewable way:

print-%: ; @echo $*=$($*) | tr '= ' '\n'


>make print-CFLAGS

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