Emulating Linux ‘man’ in PowerShell


This is a post which, I suspect, will be of very little interest to anyone besides myself. Then again, the target audience for this blog is the hypothetical collection of people, however few, who happen to be Weird in many of the same ways that I am, so here we are.

I’ve spent the five-ish years (thus far) of my career as a professional software developer in a single, Windows-oriented workplace; and yet I am, unapologetically, a Linux enthusiast. My personal computer(s) have run some variety of Linux contiguously for the past three years, with less-permanent dalliances throughout the preceding decade; I drink my 2–3 cups of tea each weekday from a mug featuring a lightly-modernized take on a certain penguin’s jovial visage. Though I have become skilled in the dark arts1 of PowerShell scripting, I rely on a handful of *nix-like aliases—some built-in, some added by me—to make my computing experience at work a bit more comfortable.

Several months ago,2 I was working with a handful of cross-platform/*nix-native utilities (curl, scp, file, to name a few) and found myself frustrated by the need to execute a Google search every time I needed a refresher on their options. “Wouldn’t it be great,” I said to myself, “if I could just type man curl into my PowerShell prompt and have done with it.”3

And thus, the idea was born: write a PowerShell function which, given a *nix command name, took me to a web-ified man page for that command. I decided that doing the actual reading of the docs in my web browser was acceptable, rather than expending energy trying to obtain or convert versions suitable for displaying in PowerShell directly. The chief frustration of my previous workflow was the part where I had to Alt+Tab away from my terminal, open a new browser tab, run the search, and then click on a link in the Google results; whereas now, I run man curl right there in the terminal and my browser magically pops into focus with the appropriate info. Yes, I know that sounds petty.

My antediluvian Google searches typically led me to either linux.die.net or man7.org. Both have nicely predictable URL schemes, so I selected man7 for its nicer text formatting. Their URLs all have the form


where {{section}} is the section number within the *nix manual where the program is found. In practice, this is almost always 1 (user commands) for anything I care about. For example,


So if I assumed the section number was, in fact, 1, all I had to do was accept a parameter for the program name, plug it into the URL, and Start-Process.

But, I didn’t want my browser giving me the ol’ Error 404 if I flubbed the command name, or if I wanted to read about e.g. sudo (section 8: system management commands) or the fstab file (section 5: file formats and configuration files). I’ve never had manual sections memorized (and there’s a good chance I never will), so it seemed to me the sensible thing to do would be to insert each section number into the URL, curl --head them one-by-one to check whether they exist, and finally Start-Process the first one that doesn’t produce an error to open it in my browser. And if none of those URLs exist, Start-Process anyway with another URL that opens a site-specific Google search for any man7 webpage that contains my program name.

As it turns out, this is a pretty good plan, since that’s basically what man actually does! I lifted the search order4 straight from man man, minus section 9 since, also per man man, that section is “Non standard [sic]”5 and it is very unlikely that I will need to read about kernel routines while in Windows.6

By this point, I was in pretty good shape, but I ran into one last problem. Some pages, like crontab, exist in more than one section (1 and 5). If I type man crontab, I’ll get the crontab command every time; yet, I’m more likely to be interested in the crontab file. The real man has a solution: specify the section number first, e.g. man 5 crontab. This was straightforward to add to my man impostor, but it required a different approach for parsing the arguments.

You see, PowerShell is meant (via param()), to accept named parameters, in any order:

man -Section 5 -Title crontab

but you can omit the names as long as you specify the right number of arguments in the same order they were defined:

man 5 crontab

the problem being that now, if I wanted to invoke man without specifying a section, I had to give the -Title flag, or else it would think my one argument was the section number:

man -Title curl

This would not do.

Fortunately, you can skip param() and get arguments purely by their position; $Args.Length tells me whether there was one argument (the title) or two (the section and the title), and then $Args[0], $Args[1], etc. allow me to access each value in turn.

The final code (for now, anyways) is below. Note that PowerShell has a built-in alias, translating man to its own Get-Help cmdlet, so you’ll have to put Remove-Alias man in your profile alongside this function in order to make use of it.

function man {
    # Search order described in `man man` under DEFAULTS
    $sections = @(
        1, # User commands (Programs)
        8, # System management commands
        3, # Library calls
        2, # System calls
        5, # File formats and configuration files
        4, # Special files (devices)
        6, # Games
        7  # Overview, conventions, and miscellaneous
    $found = $false
    if ($Args.Length -gt 1) {
        $section = $Args[0]
        $program = $Args[1]
        if ($sections -contains $section) {
            $url = "https://man7.org/linux/man-pages/man$section/$program.$section.html"
            curl --silent --head --fail $url | Out-Null
            if ($?) {
                Start-Process -Path $url
                $found = $true
        else {
            Write-Error "$section`: not a manual section"
        $program = $Args[0]
        foreach ($section in $sections) {
            $url = "https://man7.org/linux/man-pages/man$section/$program.$section.html"
            curl --silent --head --fail $url | Out-Null
            if ($?) {
                Start-Process -Path $url
                $found = $true
    if (!$found) {
        $url = "https://www.google.com/search?q=$program&sitesearch=man7.org%2Flinux%2Fman-pages&sa=Search+online+pages"
        Start-Process -Path $url


  1. PowerShell is actually quite nice for scripting, in that cmdlets are named and optioned with a degree of consistency which bash’s organic approach could never hope to achieve, and also in that I am accustomed to handling data in the form of objects rather than pure text. However, certain things like extracting a single text value via regex are so much more complicated via the likes of Select-String that I often wish I could just invoke grep instead. ↩︎

  2. June. It was June. I am very, very slow at converting ideas into finished blog posts.

    In this case, some of that time went into figuring out how to get PowerShell syntax highlighting into this Hugo theme, but nonetheless it was mostly a case of not sitting down to write for weeks at a time. ↩︎

  3. Yes, I pronounced the “code snippet” formatting when I spoke the words man curl. ↩︎

  4. Contrary to what you might expect, it does not search the sections in sequential order. ↩︎

  5. That’s right, I just [sic]ed a quote for lacking a hyphen. ↩︎

  6. Or ever, really. ↩︎