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ℹ️ Zsh Plugin Standard

What is a Zsh plugin?

Historically, Zsh plugins were first defined by Oh My Zsh. They provide a way to package together files that extend or configure the shell’s functionality in a particular way.

At a simple level, a plugin:

  1. Has directory added to $fpath (Zsh documentation: #Autoloading-Functions). This is being done either by a plugin manager or by the plugin itself (see 5th section for more information).

  2. Has first *.plugin.zsh file sourced (or *.zsh, init.zsh, *.sh, these are non-standard).

    2.1 The first point allows plugins to provide completions and functions that are loaded via Zsh’s autoload mechanism (a single function per file).

  3. From a more broad perspective, a plugin consists of:

    3.1. a directory containing various files (the main script, autoload functions, completions, Makefiles, backend programs, documentation).

    3.2. a source-able script that obtains the path to its directory via $0 (see the next section for a related enhancement proposal).

    3.3. GitHub (or another site) repository identified by two components username/plugin-name.

    3.4. software package containing any type of command line artifacts – when used with advanced plugin managers that have hooks, can run Makefiles, and add directories to $PATH.

Below are the proposed enhancements and codifications of the definition of a "Zsh the plugin" and the actions of plugin managers – the proposed standardization.

They cover the information on how to write a Zsh plugin.

1. Standardized $0 handling

[ zero-handling ]

To get the plugin’s location, plugins should do:


Then ${0:h} to get the plugin’s directory.

The one-line code above will:

  1. Be backward-compatible with normal $0 setting and usage.

  2. Use ZERO if it’s not empty,

    2.1. the plugin manager will be easily able to alter effective $0 before loading a plugin,

    2.2. this allows e.g. eval "$(<plugin)", which can be faster than source (comparison note that it’s not for a compiled script).

  3. Use $0 if it doesn’t contain the path to the Zsh binary,

    3.1. plugin manager will still be able to set $0, although more difficult, requires unsetopt function_argzero before sourcing the plugin script, and 0=…​ assignment after sourcing the plugin script.

    3.2. unsetopt function_argzero will be detected (it causes $0 not to contain a plugin-script path, but the path to Zsh binary, if not overwritten by a 0=…​ assignment),

    3.3. setopt posix_argzero will be detected (as above).

  4. Use the %N prompt expansion flag, which always gives the absolute path to the script,

    4.1. plugin manager cannot alter this (no advanced loading of the plugin is possible), but simple plugin-file sourcing (without a plugin manager) will be saved from breaking caused by the mentioned *_argzero options, so this is a very good last-resort fallback.

  5. Finally, in the second line, it will ensure that $0 contains an absolute path by prepending it with $PWD if necessary.

The goal is flexibility, with essential motivation to support eval "$(<plugin)" and solve setopt no_function_argzero and setopt posix_argzero cases.

A plugin manager will be even able to convert a plugin to a function, but the performance differences of this are yet unclear.

It might however provide a use case.

The last, 5th point also allows using the $0 handling in scripts (i.e. runnable with the hashbang #!…) to get the directory in which the script file resides.

The assignment uses quoting to make it resilient to the combination of the GLOB_SUBST and GLOB_ASSIGN options. It’s a standard snippet of code, so it has to be always working.

When you set e.g.: the zsh emulation in a function, you in general don’t have to quote assignments.

STATUS: [ zero-handling ]

2. Functions directory

[ functions-directory ]

Despite that, the current-standard plugins have their main directory added to $fpath, a more clean approach is being proposed: that the plugins use a subdirectory called functions to store their completions and autoload functions. This will allow a much cleaner design of plugins. The plugin manager should add such a directory to $fpath. The lack of support of the current plugin managers can be easily resolved via the indicator:

if [[ ${zsh_loaded_plugins[-1]} != */kalc && -z ${fpath[(r)${0:h}/functions]} ]]; then
fpath+=( "${0:h}/functions" )

or, via the use of the PMSPEC parameter:

if [[ $PMSPEC != *f* ]]; then
fpath+=( "${0:h}/functions" )

The above snippet added to the plugin.zsh file will add the directory to the $fpath with the compatibility with any new plugin managers preserved. The existence of the functions subdirectory cancels the normal adding of the main plugin directory to $fpath.

STATUS: [ functions-directory ]

3. Binaries directory

[ binaries-directory ]

Plugins sometimes provide a runnable script or program, either for their internal use or for the end-user. It is proposed that for the latter, the plugin shall use a bin/ subdirectory inside its main dir (it is recommended, that for internal use, the runnable be called via the $0 value obtained as described above).

The runnable should be put into the directory with a +x access right assigned. The task of the plugin manager should be:

  1. Before sourcing the plugin’s script it should test, if the bin/ directory exists within the plugin directory.

  2. If it does, it should add the directory to $PATH.

  3. The plugin manager can also, instead of extending the $PATH, create a shim (i.e.: a forwarder script) or a symbolic link inside a common directory that’s already added to $PATH (to limit extending it).

  4. The plugin manager is permitted to do optional things like ensuring +x access rights on the directory contents. The $PMSPEC code letter for the feature is b, and it allows for the plugin to handle the $PATH extending itself, via, e.g.:

if [[ $PMSPEC != *b* ]]; then
path+=( "${0:h}/bin" )

STATUS: [ binaries-directory ]

4. Unload function

[ unload-function ]

If a plugin is named e.g. kalc (and is available via any-user/kalc plugin-ID), then it can provide a function, kalc_plugin_unload, that can be called by a plugin manager to undo the effects of loading that plugin.

A plugin manager can implement its tracking of changes made by a plugin so this is in general optional. However, to properly unload e.g. a prompt, dedicated tracking (easy to do for the plugin creator) can provide better, predictable results. Any special, uncommon effects of loading a plugin are possible to undo only by a dedicated function.

However, an interesting compromise approach is available – to withdraw only the special effects of loading a plugin via the dedicated, plugin-provided function and leave the rest to the plugin manager. The value of such an approach is that maintaining such function (if it is to withdraw all plugin side-effects) can be a daunting task requiring constant monitoring during the plugin development process.

Note that the unload function should contain unfunction $0 (or better unfunction kalc_plugin_unload etc., for compatibility with the *_argzero options), to also delete the function itself.

STATUS: [ unload-function ]

5. @zsh-plugin-run-on-unload call

[ run-on-unload-call ]

The plugin manager can provide a function @zsh-plugin-run-on-unload which has the following call syntax:

@zsh-plugin-run-on-unload "{code-snippet-1}" "{code-snippet-2}"

The function registers pieces of code to be run by the plugin manager on the unloading of the plugin. The execution of the code should be done by the eval built-in in the same order as they are passed to the call. The code should be executed in the plugin’s directory, in the current shell. The mechanism thus provides another way, side to the unload function, for the plugin to participate in the process of unloading it.

STATUS: [ run-on-unload-call ]

6. @zsh-plugin-run-on-update call

[ run-on-update-call ]

The plugin manager can provide a function @zsh-plugin-run-on-update which has the following call syntax:

@zsh-plugin-run-on-update "{code-snippet-1}" "{code-snippet-2}"

The function registers pieces of code to be run by the plugin manager on an update of the plugin. The execution of the code should be done by the eval built-in in the same order as they are passed to the call. The code should be executed in the plugin’s directory, possibly in a subshell After downloading any new commits to the repository.

STATUS: [ run-on-update-call ]

7. Plugin manager activity indicator

[ activity-indicator ]

Plugin managers should set the $zsh_loaded_plugins array to contain all previously loaded plugins and the plugin currently being loaded (as the last element).

This will allow any plugin to:

  1. Check which plugins are already loaded.

  2. Check if it is being loaded by a plugin manager (i.e. not just sourced).

The first item allows a plugin to e.g. issue a notice about missing dependencies. Instead of issuing a notice, it may be able to satisfy the dependencies on resources it provides. For example, the pure prompt provides a zsh-async dependency library within its source tree, which is normally a separate project. Consequently, the prompt can decide to source its private copy of zsh-async, having also reliable $0 defined by the previous section (note: pure doesn’t normally do this).

The second item allows a plugin to e.g. set up $fpath, knowing that the plugin manager will not handle this:

if [[ ${zsh_loaded_plugins[-1]} != */kalc && -z ${fpath[(r)${0:h}]} ]]; then
fpath+=( "${0:h}" )

This will allow the user to reliably source the plugin without using a plugin manager. The code uses the wrapping braces around variables (i.e.: e.g.: ${fpath…}) to make it compatible with the KSH_ARRAYS option and the quoting around ${0:h} to make it compatible with the SH_WORD_SPLIT option.

STATUS: [ activity-indicator ]

8. Global parameter with PREFIX for make, configure, etc

[ global-parameter-with-prefix ]

Plugin managers may export the parameter $ZPFX which should contain a path to a directory dedicated to user-land software, i.e. for directories $ZPFX/bin, $ZPFX/lib, $ZPFX/share, etc. The suggested name of the directory is polaris (e.g.: Zi uses this name and places this directory at ~/.zi/polaris by default).

Users can then configure hooks to invoke e.g. make PREFIX=$ZPFX install at clone & update the plugin to install software like e.g. tj/git-extras. This is the developing role of Zsh plugin managers as package managers, where .zshrc has a similar role to Chef or Puppet configuration and allows to declare system state and have the same state on different accounts/machines.

No-narration facts-list related to $ZPFX:

  1. export ZPFX="$HOME/polaris" (or e.g. $HOME/.zi/polaris)

  2. make PREFIX=$ZPFX install

  3. ./configure --prefix=$ZPFX


  5. zi ice make"PREFIX=$ZPFX install"

  6. zi … hook-build:"make PREFIX=$PFX install"

STATUS: [ global-parameter-with-prefix ]

  • GitHub Search: ZPFX

9. Global parameter holding the plugin manager’s capabilities

[ global-parameter-with-capabilities ]

The above paragraphs of the standard spec each constitute a capability, a feature of the plugin manager. It would make sense that the capabilities are somehow discoverable. To address this, a global parameter called PMSPEC (from plugin-manager specification) is proposed. It can hold the following Latin letters each informing the plugin, that the plugin manager has support for a given feature:

  • 0 – the plugin manager provides the ZERO parameter,

  • f - … supports the functions/ subdirectory,

  • b - … supports the bin/ subdirectory,

  • u - … the unload function,

  • U - … the @zsh-plugin-run-on-unload call,

  • p – … the @zsh-plugin-run-on-update call,

  • i – … the zsh_loaded_plugins activity indicator,

  • b – … the ZPFX global parameter,

  • s – … the PMSPEC global parameter itself (i.e.: should be always present).

The contents of the parameter describing a fully compliant plugin manager should be: 0fuUpiPs.

The plugin can then verify the support by:

if [[ $PMSPEC != *P* ]]; then
path+=( "${0:h}/bin" )

STATUS: [ global-parameter-with-capabilities ]

Zsh plugin-programming best practices

The document is to define a Zsh-plugin but also to serve as an information source for plugin creators. Therefore, it covers also best practices information in this section.

Use of add-zsh-hook to install hooks

Zsh ships with the function add-zsh-hook. It has the following invocation syntax:

add-zsh-hook [ -L | -dD ] [ -Uzk ] hook function

The command installs a function as one of the supported zsh hook entries: chpwd, periodic, precmd, preexec, zshaddhistory, zshexit, and zsh_directory_name. For their meaning refer to the Zsh documentation: #Hook-Functions.

Use of add-zle-hook-widget to install Zle Hooks

The Zle editor is the part of the Zsh that is responsible for receiving the text from the user. It can be said that it’s based on widgets, which are nothing more than Zsh functions that are allowed to be run in Zle context, i.e. from the Zle editor (plus a few minor differences, like e.g.: the $WIDGET parameter that’s automatically set by the Zle editor).

The syntax of the call is:

add-zle-hook-widget [ -L | -dD ] [ -Uzk ] hook widget_name

The call resembles the syntax of the add-zsh-hook function. The only difference is that it takes a widget_name, not a function name, and that the hook is one of: isearch-exit, isearch-update, line-pre-redraw, line-init, line-finish, history-line-set, or keymap-select. Their meaning is explained in the Zsh documentation: #Special-Widgets.

The use of this function is recommended because it allows the installation multiple hooks per each hook entry. Before introducing the add-zle-hook-widget function the "normal" way to install a hook was to define a widget with the name of one of the special widgets. Now, after the function has been introduced in Zsh 5.3 it should be used instead.

Standard parameter naming

There’s a convention already present in the Zsh world – to name array variables in lowercase and scalars uppercase. It’s being followed by e.g.: the Zsh manual and the Z shell itself (e.g.: REPLY scalar and reply array, etc.).

The requirement for the scalars to be uppercase should be, in my opinion, kept only for the global parameters. e.g.: it’s fine to name local parameters inside a function lowercase even when they are scalars, not only arrays.

An extension to the convention is being proposed: to name associative arrays (i.e.: hashes) capitalized, i.e.: with only the first letter uppercase and the remaining letters lowercase.

See the next section for an example of such hash. In the case of the name consisting of multiple words each of them should be capitalized, e.g.: typeset -A MyHash.

This convention will increase code readability and bring order to it.

Standard Plugins hash

The plugin often has to declare global parameters that should live throughout a Zsh session. Following the namespace pollution prevention the plugin could use a hash to store the different values. Additionally, the plugins could use a single hash parameter – called Plugins – to prevent pollution.

An example value needed by the plugin:

typeset -gA Plugins

This way all the data of all plugins will be kept in a single parameter, available for easy examination and overview (via e.g.: varied Plugins), and also not polluting the namespace.

The following code snippet is recommended to be included at the beginning of each of the main functions provided by the plugin:

builtin emulate -L zsh ${=${options[xtrace]:#off}:+-o xtrace}
builtin setopt extended_glob warn_create_global typeset_silent no_short_loops rc_quotes no_auto_pushd

The emulate -LR zsh can be used to emulate a clean Zsh shell environment that is local to the function it's called from. The -L and -R are emulation mode switches:

  • -L: This flag makes the emulation local to the function it's called from. This means that the emulation will not affect the shell environment outside of the function.

  • -R: This flag resets all options to their default values as if the shell had just been started. This is useful when you want to ensure a clean, predictable environment.

Reference: zsh shell builtin commands

The emulation is altered with the following options:

  • ${=${options[xtrace]:#off}:+-o xtrace}xtrace prints commands and their arguments as they are executed, this specific variable calls xtrace when needed, e.g.: when already active at the entry to the function.

  • extended_glob – enables one of the main Zshell features – the advanced, built-in regex-like globing mechanism,

  • warn_create_global – enables warnings to be printed each time a (global) variable is defined without being explicitly defined by a typeset, local, declare, etc. call; it allows to catch typos and missing localizations of the variables and thus prevent from writing a bad code,

  • typeset_silent – it allows to call typeset, local, etc. multiple times on the same variable; without it, the second call causes the variable contents to be printed first; using this option allows declaring variables inside loops, near the place of their use, which sometimes helps to write a more readable code,

  • no_short_loops – disables the short-loops syntax; this is done because when the syntax is enabled it limits the parser’s ability to detect errors (see this zsh-workers post for the details),

  • rc_quotes – adds the useful ability to insert apostrophes into an apostrophe-quoted string, by use of '' inside it, e.g.: 'a string’s example' will yield the string `a string’s example,

  • no_auto_pushd - disables the automatic push of the directory passed to cd builtin onto the directory stack; this is useful because otherwise, the internal directory changes done by the plugin will pollute the global directory stack.

It’s good to localize the following variables at the entry of the main function of a plugin:

local -a match mbegin mend reply

The variables starting with m and M are being used by the substitutions utilizing (#b) and (#m) flags, respectively. They should not leak to the global scope. Also, their automatic creation would trigger the warning from the warn_create_global option.

The reply and REPLY parameters are normally used to return an array or a scalar from a function, respectively – it’s the standard way of passing values from functions.

Their use is naturally limited to the functions called from the main function of a plugin – they should not be used to pass data around e.g.: in between prompts, thus it’s natural to localize them in the main function.

Standard function name-space prefixes

The recommendation is the purely subjective opinion of the author.

It can evolve – if you have any remarks, don’t hesitate to fill them.

The problems solved by the proposition

However, when adopted, the proposition will solve the following issues:

  1. Using the underscore _ to namespace functions – this isn’t the right thing to do because the prefix is being already used by the completion functions, so the namespace is already filled up greatly and the plugin functions get lost in it.

  2. Not using a prefix at all – this is also an unwanted practice as it pollutes the command namespace of such an issue appearing.

  3. It would allow quickly discriminate between function types – e.g.: seeing the : prefix informs the user that it’s a hook-type function while seeing the @ prefix informs the user that it’s an API-like function, etc.

  4. It also provides an improvement during programming, by allowing to quickly limit the number of completions offered by the editor, e.g.: for Vim’s Ctrl-P completing, when entering +Ctrl-P, then only a subset of the functions are being completed (see below for the type of the functions). Note: The editor has to be configured so that it accepts such special characters as part of keywords, for Vim it’s: :set isk+=@-@,.,+,/,: for all of the proposed prefixes.

The Proposed function-name prefixes

The proposition of the standard prefixes is as follows:

  1. .: for regular private functions. Example function: .prompt_zinc_get_value.

  2. : for hook-like functions, so it should be used e.g.: for the Zsh hooks and the Zle hooks, but also any other, custom hook-like mechanism in the plugin. Example function name: →prompt_zinc_precmd.

    2.1. the previous version of the document recommended colon (:) for the prefix, however, it was problematic, because Windows doesn’t allow colons in file names, so it wasn’t possible to name an autoload function this way,

    2.2. the arrow has a rationale behind it - it denotes the execution coming back to the function at a later time after it has been registered as a callback or a handler,

    2.3. the arrow is easy to type on most keyboard layouts – it is Right-Alt+I; in case of problems with typing the character can be always copied – handler functions do occur in the code rarely,

    2.4. Zsh supports any string as a function name because absolutely any string can be a file name – if there would be an exception in the name of the call-ables, then how would it be possible to run a script called "→abcd"? There are no exceptions, the function can be called even as a sequence of null bytes:

    $'\0'() { print hello }
  3. +: for output functions, i.e.: for functions that print to the standard output and error or a log, etc. Example function name: +prompt_zinc_output_segment.

  4. /: for debugging functions, i.e.: for functions that output debug messages to the screen or a log or e.g.: gather some debug data. Note: The slash makes it impossible for such functions to be auto-loaded via the autoload mechanism. It is somewhat risky to assume, that this will never be needed for the functions, however, the limited number of available ASCII characters justifies such allocation. Example function name: /prompt_zinc_dmsg.

  5. @: for API-like functions, i.e.: for functions that are on a boundary to a subsystem and expose their functionality through a well-defined, generally fixed interface. For example, this plugin standard defines the function @zsh-plugin-run-on-update, which exposes a plugin manager’s functionality in a well-defined way.

Example code utilizing the prefixes

.zinc_register_hooks() {
add-zsh-hook precmd :zinc_precmd
/zinc_dmsg "Installed precmd hook with the result: $?"
@zsh-plugin-run-on-unload "add-zsh-hook -d precmd :zinc_precmd"
+zinc_print "Zinc initialization complete"

Preventing function pollution

When writing a larger autoload function, it very often is the case that the function contains definitions of other functions.

When the main function finishes executing, the functions are left defined. This might be undesired, e.g.: because of the command namespace pollution.

The following snippet of code, when added at the beginning of the main function will automatically unset the sub-functions when leaving the main function to don't leak any functions into the global namespace:

typeset -g prjef
prjef=( ${(k)functions} )
trap "unset -f -- \"\${(k)functions[@]:|prjef}\" &>/dev/null; unset prjef" EXIT
trap "unset -f -- \"\${(k)functions[@]:|prjef}\" &>/dev/null; unset prjef; return 1" INT

Replace the prj* prefix with your project name, e.g.: rustef for a rust-related plugin. The *ef stands for "entry functions". The snippet works as follows:

  1. The line prjef=( ${(k)functions} ) remembers all the functions that are currently defined – which means that the list excludes the functions that are to be yet defined by the body of the main function.

  2. The code unset -f — "${(k)functions[@]:|prjef}" first does a subtraction of array contents – the :| substitution operator – of the functions that are defined at the moment of leaving of the function (the trap-s invoke the code at this moment) with the list of functions from the start of the main function – the ones stored in the variables $prjef.

  3. It then unsets the resulting list of the functions – being only the newly defined functions in the main function – by passing it to unset -f …. This way the functions defined by the body of the main (most often an autoload) function will be only set during the execution of the function.

Preventing parameter pollution

When writing a plugin one often needs to keep a state during the Zsh session. To do this it is natural to use global parameters. However, when the number of parameters grows one might want to limit it.

With the following method, only a single global parameter per plugin can be sufficient:

typeset -A PlgMap
typeset -A SomeMap
typeset -a some_array


can be converted into:

typeset -A PlgMap


The use of this method is very unproblematic. The author reduced the number of global parameters in one of the projects by 21 by using an automatic conversion with Vim substitution patterns with back references without any problems.

Following the Standard Plugins Hash section, the plugin could even use a common hash name – Plugins – to lower the pollution even more.