IMHO ps -u shows a very useful output, much better than ps -u $USER:

$ ps -u
Warning: bad syntax, perhaps a bogus '-'? See /usr/share/doc/procps-3.2.8/FAQ
elastic   234897  0.0  0.0 105980  1336 pts/2    S+   Oct10   0:00 /bin/bash ./run.sh collector-json-1.conf
elastic   234899 48.7  7.1 10087120 4433104 pts/2 Sl+ Oct10 2804:11 /usr/java/jdk1.7.0_09_x64/bin/java -Xmx6144m -XX:+UseParNewGC -XX:+UseConcMarkSweepGC -Djava.awt.headless=true -XX:CMSInitiatingOccupancyFraction=75 -XX:+UseCMSInitiatin

compared to

$ ps -u $USER
    PID TTY          TIME CMD
 234897 pts/2    00:00:00 run.sh
 234899 pts/2    1-22:44:04 java
  1. But, why is it "bad syntax"? /usr/share/doc/procps-3.2.8/FAQ doesn't help much.
  2. What would be a "proper syntax" to achieve the exact same output?

In case it's important:

$ uname -a
Linux h22k34.local 2.6.32-042stab044.17 #1 SMP Fri Jan 13 12:53:58 MSK 2012 x86_64 x86_64 x86_64 GNU/Linux
  • 5
    And now for the tough part: Which answer should get the checkmark?
    – sjngm
    Oct 14, 2014 at 9:48
  • Actually I thought I should let you, the users, decide. The one with the higher upvotes should get it. But, you are not making this any easier ;)
    – sjngm
    Oct 15, 2014 at 5:26
  • 6
    when both answers are equally good, I upvote both, and give the checkmark to the user with the lower rep, especially when the difference is more than 100k. Oct 15, 2014 at 11:46
  • 1
    @FrankThomas done :)
    – sjngm
    Oct 15, 2014 at 12:16
  • On SysV-based systems (or ones whose ps comes from that line of things), I frequently use ps -fu $USER... getting ps -f output formatting which is somewhat similar to ps u formatting, yet also getting the specify-a-user thing. In case you wanted both at the same time.
    – lindes-hw
    Oct 15, 2014 at 17:48

2 Answers 2


The correct syntax, which returns the same output, would be:

ps u

There is a good reason why modern syntax for ps is a mess. Historically, there were two incompatible version of ps. Options with a leading dash were inherited from the AT&T Unix version of ps. Options without a leading dash were inherited from BSD. The version of ps that Linux distributions generally use is GNU which has merged both sets of options together, as well as added its own set of options that start with a leading double-dash.

Thus, ps u is BSD-style and ps -u $USER is AT&T-style. The fact that GNU ps allows you to run ps -u and, other than the warning, get the same output as ps u shows that GNU is attempting to make the best of a bad situation.

  • Actually, there is not a good reason for the mess. There are several bad ones, and the purported dichotomy of "GNU" and "BSD" is a fallacy propounded by a Linux manual page. See unix.stackexchange.com/a/511530/5132 .
    – JdeBP
    Apr 9, 2019 at 18:24

The ps command historically had wildly different syntax in BSD and System V Unix.

  • In BSD ps, the u option (no dash) takes no parameter and shows the "user-oriented output" with the additional columns.

  • In SunOS ps, the -u option (with dash) takes a username as parameter and only includes processes owned by that user, but without changing the display format.

(As another very common example, BSD e means "show environment", while SunOS -e means "show everyone's processes".)

Linux procps ps tries to support both styles. So if you use the 'dash' option -u, it will expect it to be the SunOS "filter this user" option, not the extended columns option. The two are confused frequently enough, however, that procps tries to Do What You Meant – if the username is missing, it'll assume you gave it a BSD option but used SunOS syntax.

(There were in fact so many different variants of ps that the procps has an actual table of "personalities" to force ambiguous behavior to be interpreted as one style or another or yet another – in addition to knobs like "UNIX95", "CMD_ENV", "_XPG", "I_WANT_A_BROKEN_PS"...)

  • 29
    "I_WANT_A_BROKEN_PS" hah.
    – user146393
    Oct 14, 2014 at 9:54
  • 42
    ...At first, I thought that was a joke. But nooooo...
    – Izkata
    Oct 14, 2014 at 16:07
  • 9
    Hmm, as it turns out, this is exactly the option to hide the "ambiguous usage" the warnings that OP is seeing. Oct 15, 2014 at 11:11

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