The short answer is: always.

I really appreciate how tmuxinator handles completion and aliasing from a fish shell. You type mux, and when you hit space it expands into tmuxintor. From there you can hit tab to see the options at each step of the way.

I like it so much that I poked around in their completion script hoping to crib some gnarly methods and do the same thing with tmux itself. Well, there are some custom methods therein, however the main feature I want turns out to be built in to fish already. It’s called abbr.

Why ! alias?

  • Increased performance.
  • This becomes noticeable after a couple hundred or so in my testing.
  • Clean history. Using abbr means other developers can understand your terminal history. So posting an issue to GitHub doesn’t require manual substitution of your aliases, and another developer won’t have trouble deciphering history on a remote that you worked on with your dotfiles in place.
  • Easy to use a shortcut that’s close to what you want and edit it.
  • If your shortcut conflicts with another executable that you want to run, you can use the arrow keys to edit the expanded text, before fixing it in your dotfiles.

Here’s a four month long GitHub issue about how abbr came to be..

A Logical Separation of concerns

With the addition of abbr, we now have three distinct types of functions to choose from while programming our programming shortcuts–what? Why, yes, I do like programming - where did you hear this?

The three types

  1. alias: Make a something functionally equivalent to something else. This holds true if you press return, chain things together, pipe, redirect, and such. In recent versions of fish, context aware tab completion will work here too.
  2. abbr: Type something and have it expanded into something else after pressing space or semicolon (but not return). The new hotness.
  3. function: Make something functionally equivalent to one or more something elses, and optionally permute data that are being worked on with (argv).

Strictly speaking, alias is itself just an alias for a function that blindly accepts argv and tacks them to the end of its something else. But this pattern is so prolific that it got its own name, so we will consider it unique for today.

Choosing the right one

Here is how I picture the use cases:

  1. alias will not be used.
  2. abbr will be employed as the new alias; it will shorten phrases where we don’t need to do anything special with argv.
  3. function is for everything else; for when an abbr permutes argv and/or is complex/abstract enough to warrant a --description.

performance notes

Fish has a mechanism in place for lazily autoloading custom function definitions. This can have a noticeable performance impact over just defining them in your or or wherever. So it’s a good idea to keep each function in its own, self-title file in ~/.config/fish/functions/ like so:

# in ~/.config/fish/functions/
function ll
    ls -lh $argv

In case I’m missing something and there is still a use case for alias, here’s a fun fact. I heard on the net (yes, a pun) that using the fish-style alias syntax is more performant than using the = assignment operator due to an extra sed call; this was, however, back in 2013. I didn’t notice much of a difference here, but it’s an easy change and using a default syntax is always preferred in my book. (Someday maybe: make or find a fish->bash transpiler.)

alias l='ls'
# should be:
alias l 'ls'

Practical Examples

Time for the straight dope. First up - simple and obvious choice: git.

abbr --add g 'git'

Type g<space> and witness the magic. I mean dope,

Now, what if you want to replace a program with another program. I recently switched to neovim, but for some reason it felt wrong not to type vim. An alias will do well here:

abbr --add vim 'nvim'

Note that abbr-ception will not work:

abbr --add v 'vim' # this will still be regular `vim`

What about setting default flags for programs that don’t allow such configuration? Let’s say we want to default to the long-form ls, with classification indicators, but hide user and group info:

abbr ls 'ls -Fog'

The astute observer will note that I forgot to add the --add here. Well, turns out we don’t need it.

And now, on to something more useful. Yes, it’s function time.

Four construction workers hitting a pole with sledgehammers in a staggered rhythm

Normally naming things is the second most difficult part of computer science (next to cache invalidation), but this was rather easy to name:

function take
  mkdir -p $argv; 
  cd $argv

take is an amalgamation of touch and mk (make). It creates a directory and changes into it. As an added bonus it leverages the -p flag, which forces the computer to create the entire path you pass it if it doesn’t exist.

The use case for functions basically starts here. There are multiple non-sequential calls to argv from multiple commands.

Here is a more worthy example:

function wait --description "Run a command after some time: wait <minutes> <command args>"
  set minutes $argv[1]
  set time_in_seconds (math "$minutes*60")
  sleep $time_in_seconds; and eval "$argv[2..-1]"

Attempted DRYness, two counts

So I at this point, I now have a 261 line file full of abbr --add 'what have you'. My DRY senses be tinglin’. Isn’t there a way to neither type, nor look at, a million abbrs? Let’s find out.

Well, we can make a temporary helper function to shorten the abbr –add syntax.

function a
  abbr --add $argv

# do abbrs...
a alias='echo "nope"'

# unset the function
# unset helper function
functions -e a

That’s still repetition though, and it’s confusing for anyone else. What about a for loop? Fish doesn’t have hashes/dictionaries that I’m aware of, so I tried reading in lines of a file and passing each one to an abbr call:

while read -la line
  echo "$line"
  abbr "$line"
end < $HOME/.config/omf/aliases.load

This way, we can maintain an abbreviations file that purely has:

name 'command here'
another 'another command here'

Well, after 10 minutes of fish complaining “abbr: abbreviation cannot have spaces in the key” despite my best efforts to escape and slice/join the string, I decided to cut my losses and stick with the default.

Someday I’ll learn to leave well enough alone. That will be a really boring day. The next day, I’ll start bothering well enough again.

What have we learned?

  1. Use abbr instead of alias.
  2. Use function even more.
  3. Fish really is friendly. Unless you want to program a dictionary.
  4. Don’t stay awake until 1am attempting to bypass built-in functionality of you shell, unless someone is paying you.

Here are my shiny new abbreviations. And functions.