On my Debian servers I'm used to hitting Tab to "preview" the expansion of shell patterns:

$ cp *some*<Tab>
something  somewhat  have-some-cake
$ cp *some*_

When the pattern expands to one entry, Tab replaces the pattern with the actual entry; otherwise it shows a list of matching entries. This is intuitive and useful because it's consistent with the regular "prefix" Tab completion.

But my Ubuntu servers and desktops behave differently: even when it would expand to more than one entry, Tab replaces the pattern with the first entry.

I have checked the usual suspects (/etc/bash.bashrc, /etc/inputrc, and the local versions) and I couldn't find any difference.

Does anybody know which setting controls this behaviour?

  • Not true for me on Lubuntu 16.04.3, <Tab> shows the list of matching entries as expected. I use Ubuntu since 12.04 and never experienced a different behaviour – which flavour(s), version(s) and shell(s) do you use? – dessert Aug 9 '17 at 11:41

Contrary the other answer, this particular problem is probably a direct result of using bash-completion. The bash-completion package has several bugs (as noted in this U&L answer about a similar problem, for instance).

If I comment out this section in my .bashrc:

# enable programmable completion features (you don't need to enable
# this, if it's already enabled in /etc/bash.bashrc and /etc/profile
# sources /etc/bash.bashrc).
if ! shopt -oq posix; then
  if [ -f /usr/share/bash-completion/bash_completion ]; then
    . /usr/share/bash-completion/bash_completion
  elif [ -f /etc/bash_completion ]; then
    . /etc/bash_completion

and start a new instance of bash, then I get:

$ echo *o*<tab><tab>
foo     food    foo.sh  
$ echo *o*

And then if I source the /usr/share/bash-completion/bash_completion script like it was in the .bashrc:

$ . /usr/share/bash-completion/bash_completion
$ echo foo

The *o* was immediately autocompleted to foo without showing the other matches.

I'm using 16.04, by the way. I don't know if this has been fixed in newer releases.

$ dpkg-query --show --showformat='${Package} ${version}\n' bash bash-completion
bash 4.3-14ubuntu1.2
bash-completion 1:2.1-4.2ubuntu1.1
  • Awesome, you found the culprit! Now I know where to start debugging – Tobia Nov 22 '17 at 17:42

Smarter tab completion in Bash requires the bash-completion package.

sudo apt install bash-completion

Bash Completion is actually written and maintained by Debian directly.
(See also its Debian package and Ubuntu package pages.)

Once it is installed, it either loads automatically (e.g. via /etc/bash.bashrc) or else you'll need to instruct Bash to load it in your ~/.bashrc with a stanza like this:

if [[ -z "$BASH_COMPLETION" ]] && [[ -r /etc/bash_completion ]]; then
  . /etc/bash_completion

Before Red Hat and others included this package, I used to manually copy /etc/bash_completion* between systems. This will work quite well, but I do not suggest it; it also cuts off the opportunity for your package manager to update existing completions and install new ones (which now go in /usr/share/bash-completion/completions/ though they originally lived with your custom completions in /etc/bash_completion.d/).

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