TABS(1P) POSIX Programmer's Manual TABS(1P)

This manual page is part of the POSIX Programmer's Manual. The Linux implementation of this interface may differ (consult the corresponding Linux manual page for details of Linux behavior), or the interface may not be implemented on Linux.

tabs — set terminal tabs

tabs [-n|-a|-a2|-c|-c2|-c3|-f|-p|-s|-u] [-T type]
tabs [-T type] n[[sep[+]n]...]

The tabs utility shall display a series of characters that first clears the hardware terminal tab settings and then initializes the tab stops at the specified positions and optionally adjusts the margin.

The phrase ``tab-stop position N'' shall be taken to mean that, from the start of a line of output, tabbing to position N shall cause the next character output to be in the (N+1)th column position on that line. The maximum number of tab stops allowed is terminal-dependent.

It need not be possible to implement tabs on certain terminals. If the terminal type obtained from the TERM environment variable or -T option represents such a terminal, an appropriate diagnostic message shall be written to standard error and tabs shall exit with a status greater than zero.

The tabs utility shall conform to the Base Definitions volume of POSIX.1‐2017, Section 12.2, Utility Syntax Guidelines, except for various extensions: the options -a2, -c2, and -c3 are multi-character.

The following options shall be supported:

Specify repetitive tab stops separated by a uniform number of column positions, n, where n is a single-digit decimal number. The default usage of tabs with no arguments shall be equivalent to tabs -8. When -0 is used, the tab stops shall be cleared and no new ones set.
Assembler, applicable to some mainframes.
Assembler, applicable to some mainframes.
COBOL, normal format.
COBOL, compact format (columns 1 to 6 omitted).
COBOL compact format (columns 1 to 6 omitted), with more tabs than -c2.
Assembler, applicable to some mainframes.
Indicate the type of terminal. If this option is not supplied and the TERM variable is unset or null, an unspecified default terminal type shall be used. The setting of type shall take precedence over the value in TERM.

The following operand shall be supported:

A single command line argument that consists of one or more tab-stop values (n) separated by a separator character (sep) which is either a <comma> or a <blank> character. The application shall ensure that the tab-stop values are positive decimal integers in strictly ascending order. If any tab-stop value (except the first one) is preceded by a <plus-sign>, it is taken as an increment to be added to the previous value. For example, the tab lists 1,10,20,30 and "110+10+10" are considered to be identical.

Not used.


The following environment variables shall affect the execution of tabs:

Provide a default value for the internationalization variables that are unset or null. (See the Base Definitions volume of POSIX.1‐2017, Section 8.2, Internationalization Variables for the precedence of internationalization variables used to determine the values of locale categories.)
If set to a non-empty string value, override the values of all the other internationalization variables.
Determine the locale for the interpretation of sequences of bytes of text data as characters (for example, single-byte as opposed to multi-byte characters in arguments).

Determine the locale that should be used to affect the format and contents of diagnostic messages written to standard error.
Determine the location of message catalogs for the processing of LC_MESSAGES.
Determine the terminal type. If this variable is unset or null, and if the -T option is not specified, an unspecified default terminal type shall be used.


If standard output is a terminal, the appropriate sequence to clear and set the tab stops may be written to standard output in an unspecified format. If standard output is not a terminal, undefined results occur.

The standard error shall be used only for diagnostic messages.



The following exit values shall be returned:

Successful completion.
An error occurred.


The following sections are informative.

This utility makes use of the terminal's hardware tabs and the stty tabs option.

This utility is not recommended for application use.

Some integrated display units might not have escape sequences to set tab stops, but may be set by internal system calls. On these terminals, tabs works if standard output is directed to the terminal; if output is directed to another file, however, tabs fails.


Consideration was given to having the tput utility handle all of the functions described in tabs. However, the separate tabs utility was retained because it seems more intuitive to use a command named tabs than tput with a new option. The tput utility does not support setting or clearing tabs, and no known historical version of tabs supports the capability of setting arbitrary tab stops.

The System V tabs interface is very complex; the version in this volume of POSIX.1‐2017 has a reduced feature list, but many of the features omitted were restored as part of the XSI option even though the supported languages and coding styles are primarily historical.

There was considerable sentiment for specifying only a means of resetting the tabs back to a known state—presumably the ``standard'' of tabs every eight positions. The following features were omitted:

Setting tab stops via the first line in a file, using --file. Since even the SVID has no complete explanation of this feature, it is doubtful that it is in widespread use.

In an early proposal, a -t tablist option was added for consistency with expand; this was later removed when inconsistencies with the historical list of tabs were identified.

Consideration was given to adding a -p option that would output the current tab settings so that they could be saved and then later restored. This was not accepted because querying the tab stops of the terminal is not a capability in historical terminfo or termcap facilities and might not be supported on a wide range of terminals.


expand, stty, tput, unexpand

The Base Definitions volume of POSIX.1‐2017, Chapter 8, Environment Variables, Section 12.2, Utility Syntax Guidelines

Portions of this text are reprinted and reproduced in electronic form from IEEE Std 1003.1-2017, Standard for Information Technology -- Portable Operating System Interface (POSIX), The Open Group Base Specifications Issue 7, 2018 Edition, Copyright (C) 2018 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc and The Open Group. In the event of any discrepancy between this version and the original IEEE and The Open Group Standard, the original IEEE and The Open Group Standard is the referee document. The original Standard can be obtained online at .

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2017 IEEE/The Open Group