3 Invoking Stow

The syntax of the stow command is:

stow [options] [action flag] package …

Each package is the name of a package (e.g., ‘perl’) in the stow directory that we wish to install into (or delete from) the target directory. The default action is to install the given packages, although alternate actions may be specified by preceding the package name(s) with an action flag.

The following options are supported:

-d dir

Set the stow directory to dir. Defaults to the value of the environment variable STOW_DIR if set, or the current directory otherwise.

-t dir

Set the target directory to dir instead of the parent of the stow directory. Defaults to the parent of the stow directory, so it is typical to execute stow from the directory /usr/local/stow.


This (repeatable) option lets you suppress acting on files that match the given Perl regular expression. For example, using the options

--ignore='.*\.orig' --ignore='.*\.dist'

will cause stow to ignore files ending in .orig or .dist.

Note that the regular expression is anchored to the end of the filename, because this is what you will want to do most of the time.

Also note that by default Stow automatically ignores a “sensible” built-in list of files and directories such as CVS, editor backup files, and so on. See Ignore Lists, for more details.


This (repeatable) option avoids stowing a file matching the given regular expression, if that file is already stowed by another package. This is effectively the opposite of --override.

(N.B. the name --defer was chosen in the sense that the package currently being stowed is treated with lower precedence than any already installed package, not in the sense that the operation is being postponed to be run at a later point in time; do not confuse this nomenclature with the wording used in Deferred Operation.)

For example, the following options

--defer=man --defer=info

will cause stow to skip over pre-existing man and info pages.

Equivalently, you could use ‘--defer='man|info'’ since the argument is just a Perl regular expression.

Note that the regular expression is anchored to the beginning of the path relative to the target directory, because this is what you will want to do most of the time.


This (repeatable) option forces any file matching the regular expression to be stowed, even if the file is already stowed to another package. For example, the following options

--override=man --override=info

will permit stow to overwrite links that point to pre-existing man and info pages that are owned by stow and would otherwise cause a conflict.

The regular expression is anchored to the beginning of the path relative to the target directory, because this is what you will want to do most of the time.


Enable special handling for dotfiles (files or folders whose name begins with a period) in the package directory. If this option is enabled, Stow will add a preprocessing step for each file or folder whose name begins with ‘dot-’, and replace the ‘dot-’ prefix in the name by a period ‘.’. This is useful when Stow is used to manage collections of dotfiles, to avoid having a package directory full of hidden files.

For example, suppose we have a package containing two files, stow/dot-bashrc and stow/dot-emacs.d/init.el. With this option, Stow will create symlinks from .bashrc to stow/dot-bashrc and from .emacs.d/init.el to stow/dot-emacs.d/init.el. Any other files, whose name does not begin with ‘dot-’, will be processed as usual.


This disables any further tree folding (see tree folding) or refolding (see tree refolding). If a new subdirectory is encountered whilst stowing a new package, the subdirectory is created within the target, and its contents are symlinked, rather than just creating a symlink for the directory. If removal of symlinks whilst unstowing a package causes a subtree to be foldable (i.e. only containing symlinks to a single package), that subtree will not be removed and replaced with a symlink.


Warning! This behaviour is specifically intended to alter the contents of your stow directory. If you do not want that, this option is not for you.

When stowing, if a target is encountered which already exists but is a plain file (and hence not owned by any existing stow package), then normally Stow will register this as a conflict and refuse to proceed. This option changes that behaviour so that the file is moved to the same relative place within the package’s installation image within the stow directory, and then stowing proceeds as before. So effectively, the file becomes adopted by the stow package, without its contents changing.

This is particularly useful when the stow package is under the control of a version control system, because it allows files in the target tree, with potentially different contents to the equivalent versions in the stow package’s installation image, to be adopted into the package, then compared by running something like ‘git diff ...’ inside the stow package, and finally either kept (e.g. via ‘git commit ...’) or discarded (‘git checkout HEAD ...’).


Do not perform any operations that modify the file system; in combination with -v can be used to merely show what would happen.


Send verbose output to standard error describing what Stow is doing. Verbosity levels are from 0 to 5; 0 is the default. Using -v or --verbose increases the verbosity by one; using ‘--verbose=n’ sets it to n.


Scan the whole target tree when unstowing. By default, only directories specified in the installation image are scanned during an unstow operation. Previously Stow scanned the whole tree, which can be prohibitive if your target tree is very large, but on the other hand has the advantage of unstowing previously stowed links which are no longer present in the installation image and therefore orphaned. This option restores the legacy behaviour; however, the --badlinks option to the chkstow utility may be a better way of ensuring that your installation does not have any dangling symlinks (see Target Maintenance).


Show Stow version number, and exit.


Show Stow command syntax, and exit.

The following action flags are supported:


Delete (unstow) the package name(s) that follow this option from the target directory. This option may be repeated any number of times.


Restow (first unstow, then stow again) the package names that follow this option. This is useful for pruning obsolete symlinks from the target tree after updating the software in a package. This option may be repeated any number of times.


explictly stow the package name(s) that follow this option. May be omitted if you are not using the -D or -R options in the same invocation. See Mixing Operations, for details of when you might like to use this feature. This option may be repeated any number of times.