Chapter 15. Programming in Makefiles

Table of Contents

15.1. Caveats
15.2. Makefile variables
15.2.1. Naming conventions
15.3. Code snippets
15.3.1. Adding things to a list
15.3.2. Echoing a string exactly as-is
15.3.3. Passing CFLAGS to GNU configure scripts
15.3.4. Handling possibly empty variables
15.3.5. Testing yes/no variables in conditions

Pkgsrc consists of many Makefile fragments, each of which forms a well-defined part of the pkgsrc system. Using the make(1) system as a programming language for a big system like pkgsrc requires some discipline to keep the code correct and understandable.

The basic ingredients for Makefile programming are variables and shell commands. Among these shell commands may even be more complex ones like awk(1) programs. To make sure that every shell command runs as intended it is necessary to quote all variables correctly when they are used.

This chapter describes some patterns that appear quite often in Makefiles, including the pitfalls that come along with them.

15.1. Caveats

  • When you are creating a file as a target of a rule, always write the data to a temporary file first and finally rename that file. Otherwise there might occur an error in the middle of generating the file, and when the user runs make(1) for the second time, the file exists and will not be regenerated properly. Example:

            @echo "line 1" > ${.TARGET}
            @echo "line 2" >> ${.TARGET}
            @echo "line 1" > ${.TARGET}.tmp
            @echo "line 2" >> ${.TARGET}.tmp
            @mv ${.TARGET}.tmp ${.TARGET}

    When you run make wrong twice, the file wrong will exist, although there was an error message in the first run. On the other hand, running make correct gives an error message twice, as expected.

    You might remember that make(1) sometimes removes ${.TARGET} in case of error, but this only happens when it is interrupted, for example by pressing Ctrl+C. This does not happen when one of the commands fails (like false(1) above).

15.2. Makefile variables

Makefile variables contain strings that can be processed using the five operators =, +=, ?=, := and !=, which are described in the make(1) man page.

When a variable's value is parsed from a Makefile, the hash character # and the backslash character \ are handled specially. If a backslash is the last character in a line, that backslash is removed from the line and the line continues with the next line of the file.

The # character starts a comment that reaches until the end of the line. To get an actual # character, such as in a URL, write \# instead.

The evaluation of variables either happens immediately or lazy. It happens immediately when the variable occurs on the right-hand side of the := or the != operator, in a .if condition or a .for loop. In the other cases, it is evaluated lazily.

Some of the modifiers split the string into words and then operate on the words, others operate on the string as a whole. When a string is split into words, double quotes and single quotes are interpreted as delimiters, just like in sh(1).

15.2.1. Naming conventions

  • All variable names starting with an underscore are reserved for use by the pkgsrc infrastructure. They shall not be used by packages.

  • In .for loops you should use lowercase variable names for the iteration variables.

  • All list variables should have a plural name, such as PKG_OPTIONS or DISTFILES.

15.3. Code snippets

15.3.1. Adding things to a list

When adding a string that possibly contains whitespace or quotes to a list (example 1), it must be quoted using the :Q modifier.

When adding another list to a list (example 2), it must not be quoted, since its elements are already quoted.

STRING=         foo * bar `date`
LIST=           # empty
ANOTHER_LIST=   a=b c=d

LIST+=          ${STRING:Q}       # 1
LIST+=          ${ANOTHER_LIST}   # 2

15.3.2. Echoing a string exactly as-is

Echoing a string containing special characters needs special work.

STRING=         foo bar <    > * `date` $$HOME ' "
EXAMPLE_ENV=    string=${STRING:Q} x=multiple\ quoted\ words

        echo ${STRING}                  # 1
        echo ${STRING:Q}                # 2
        printf '%s\n' ${STRING:Q}''     # 3
        env ${EXAMPLE_ENV} sh -c 'echo "$$string"; echo "$$x"'   # 4

Example 1 leads to a syntax error in the shell, as the characters are just copied.

Example 2 quotes the string so that the shell interprets it correctly. But the echo command may additionally interpret strings with a leading dash or those containing backslashes.

Example 3 can handle arbitrary strings, since printf(1) only interprets the format string, but not the next argument. The trailing single quotes handle the case when the string is empty. In that case, the :Q modifier would result in an empty string too, which would then be skipped by the shell. For printf(1) this doesn't make a difference, but other programs may care.

In example 4, the EXAMPLE_ENV does not need to be quoted because the quoting has already been done when adding elements to the list.

15.3.3. Passing CFLAGS to GNU configure scripts

When passing CFLAGS or similar variables to a GNU-style configure script (especially those that call other configure scripts), it must not have leading or trailing whitespace, since otherwise the configure script gets confused. To trim leading and trailing whitespace, use the :M modifier, as in the following example:

CPPFLAGS=               # empty
CPPFLAGS+=              -Wundef -DPREFIX=\"${PREFIX}\"
CPPFLAGS+=              ${MY_CPPFLAGS}


        echo x${CPPFLAGS:Q}x            # leading and trailing whitespace
        echo x${CONFIGURE_ARGS:Q}x      # properly trimmed

In this example, CPPFLAGS has both leading and trailing whitespace because the += operator always adds a space.

15.3.4. Handling possibly empty variables

When a possibly empty variable is used in a shell program, it may lead to a syntax error.

EGFILES=        # empty

install-examples:   # produces a syntax error in the shell
        for egfile in ${EGFILES}; do            \
                echo "Installing $$egfile";     \

The shell only sees the text for egfile in ; do, since ${EGFILES} is replaced with an empty string by make(1). To fix this syntax error, use one of the snippets below.

EGFILES=        # empty

        for egfile in ${EGFILES} ""; do         \
                [ -n "$$egfile" ] || continue;  \
                echo "Installing $$egfile";     \

In this case, an empty string is appended to the iteration list (to prevent the syntax error) and filtered out later.

EGFILES=        # empty

.for egfile in ${EGFILES}
        echo "Installing ${egfile}"

If one of the filenames contains special characters, it should be enclosed in single or double quotes.

To have a shell command test whether a make variable is empty, use the following code: ${TEST} -z ${POSSIBLY_EMPTY:Q}"".

15.3.5. Testing yes/no variables in conditions

When a variable can have the values yes or no, use the following pattern to test the variable:

.if ${VAR:U:tl} == "yes"
# do something

The :U modifier is only necessary if the variable can be undefined. If the variable is guaranteed to be defined, the :U can be omitted.

The :tl modifier converts the variable value to lowercase, allowing for the values yes, Yes, YES.