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3. Writing Makefiles

The information that tells make how to recompile a system comes from reading a data base called the makefile.

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3.1 What Makefiles Contain

Makefiles contain five kinds of things: explicit rules, implicit rules, variable definitions, directives, and comments. Rules, variables, and directives are described at length in later chapters.

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3.2 What Name to Give Your Makefile

By default, when make looks for the makefile, it tries the following names, in order: `GNUmakefile', `makefile' and `Makefile'.

Normally you should call your makefile either `makefile' or `Makefile'. (We recommend `Makefile' because it appears prominently near the beginning of a directory listing, right near other important files such as `README'.) The first name checked, `GNUmakefile', is not recommended for most makefiles. You should use this name if you have a makefile that is specific to GNU make, and will not be understood by other versions of make. Other make programs look for `makefile' and `Makefile', but not `GNUmakefile'.

If make finds none of these names, it does not use any makefile. Then you must specify a goal with a command argument, and make will attempt to figure out how to remake it using only its built-in implicit rules. See section Using Implicit Rules.

If you want to use a nonstandard name for your makefile, you can specify the makefile name with the `-f' or `--file' option. The arguments `-f name' or `--file=name' tell make to read the file name as the makefile. If you use more than one `-f' or `--file' option, you can specify several makefiles. All the makefiles are effectively concatenated in the order specified. The default makefile names `GNUmakefile', `makefile' and `Makefile' are not checked automatically if you specify `-f' or `--file'.

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3.3 Including Other Makefiles

The include directive tells make to suspend reading the current makefile and read one or more other makefiles before continuing. The directive is a line in the makefile that looks like this:

include filenames

filenames can contain shell file name patterns. If filenames is empty, nothing is included and no error is printed.

Extra spaces are allowed and ignored at the beginning of the line, but a tab is not allowed. (If the line begins with a tab, it will be considered a command line.) Whitespace is required between include and the file names, and between file names; extra whitespace is ignored there and at the end of the directive. A comment starting with `#' is allowed at the end of the line. If the file names contain any variable or function references, they are expanded. See section How to Use Variables.

For example, if you have three `.mk' files, `a.mk', `b.mk', and `c.mk', and $(bar) expands to bish bash, then the following expression

include foo *.mk $(bar)

is equivalent to

include foo a.mk b.mk c.mk bish bash

When make processes an include directive, it suspends reading of the containing makefile and reads from each listed file in turn. When that is finished, make resumes reading the makefile in which the directive appears.

One occasion for using include directives is when several programs, handled by individual makefiles in various directories, need to use a common set of variable definitions (see section Setting Variables) or pattern rules (see section Defining and Redefining Pattern Rules).

Another such occasion is when you want to generate prerequisites from source files automatically; the prerequisites can be put in a file that is included by the main makefile. This practice is generally cleaner than that of somehow appending the prerequisites to the end of the main makefile as has been traditionally done with other versions of make. See section Generating Prerequisites Automatically.

If the specified name does not start with a slash, and the file is not found in the current directory, several other directories are searched. First, any directories you have specified with the `-I' or `--include-dir' option are searched (see section Summary of Options). Then the following directories (if they exist) are searched, in this order: `prefix/include' (normally `/usr/local/include' (1)) `/usr/gnu/include', `/usr/local/include', `/usr/include'.

If an included makefile cannot be found in any of these directories, a warning message is generated, but it is not an immediately fatal error; processing of the makefile containing the include continues. Once it has finished reading makefiles, make will try to remake any that are out of date or don't exist. See section How Makefiles Are Remade. Only after it has tried to find a way to remake a makefile and failed, will make diagnose the missing makefile as a fatal error.

If you want make to simply ignore a makefile which does not exist and cannot be remade, with no error message, use the -include directive instead of include, like this:

-include filenames

This acts like include in every way except that there is no error (not even a warning) if any of the filenames do not exist. For compatibility with some other make implementations, sinclude is another name for -include.

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3.4 The Variable MAKEFILES

If the environment variable MAKEFILES is defined, make considers its value as a list of names (separated by whitespace) of additional makefiles to be read before the others. This works much like the include directive: various directories are searched for those files (see section Including Other Makefiles). In addition, the default goal is never taken from one of these makefiles and it is not an error if the files listed in MAKEFILES are not found.

The main use of MAKEFILES is in communication between recursive invocations of make (see section Recursive Use of make). It usually is not desirable to set the environment variable before a top-level invocation of make, because it is usually better not to mess with a makefile from outside. However, if you are running make without a specific makefile, a makefile in MAKEFILES can do useful things to help the built-in implicit rules work better, such as defining search paths (see section Searching Directories for Prerequisites).

Some users are tempted to set MAKEFILES in the environment automatically on login, and program makefiles to expect this to be done. This is a very bad idea, because such makefiles will fail to work if run by anyone else. It is much better to write explicit include directives in the makefiles. See section Including Other Makefiles.

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3.5 The Variable MAKEFILE_LIST

As make reads various makefiles, including any obtained from the MAKEFILES variable, the command line, the default files, or from include directives, their names will be automatically appended to the MAKEFILE_LIST variable. They are added right before make begins to parse them.

This means that if the first thing a makefile does is examine the last word in this variable, it will be the name of the current makefile. Once the current makefile has used include, however, the last word will be the just-included makefile.

If a makefile named Makefile has this content:

name1 := $(lastword $(MAKEFILE_LIST))

include inc.mk

name2 := $(lastword $(MAKEFILE_LIST))

        @echo name1 = $(name1)
        @echo name2 = $(name2)

then you would expect to see this output:

name1 = Makefile
name2 = inc.mk

See section Functions for String Substitution and Analysis, for more information on the word and words functions used above. See section The Two Flavors of Variables, for more information on simply-expanded (:=) variable definitions.

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3.6 Other Special Variables

GNU make also supports other special variables. Unless otherwise documented here, these values lose their special properties if they are set by a makefile or on the command line.


Sets the default goal to be used if no targets were specified on the command line (see section Arguments to Specify the Goals). The .DEFAULT_GOAL variable allows you to discover the current default goal, restart the default goal selection algorithm by clearing its value, or to explicitly set the default goal. The following example illustrates these cases:

# Query the default goal.
ifeq ($(.DEFAULT_GOAL),)
  $(warning no default goal is set)

.PHONY: foo
foo: ; @echo $@

$(warning default goal is $(.DEFAULT_GOAL))

# Reset the default goal.

.PHONY: bar
bar: ; @echo $@

$(warning default goal is $(.DEFAULT_GOAL))

# Set our own.

This makefile prints:

no default goal is set
default goal is foo
default goal is bar

Note that assigning more than one target name to .DEFAULT_GOAL is illegal and will result in an error.


This variable is set only if this instance of make has restarted (see section How Makefiles Are Remade): it will contain the number of times this instance has restarted. Note this is not the same as recursion (counted by the MAKELEVEL variable). You should not set, modify, or export this variable.


Expands to a list of the names of all global variables defined so far. This includes variables which have empty values, as well as built-in variables (see section Variables Used by Implicit Rules), but does not include any variables which are only defined in a target-specific context. Note that any value you assign to this variable will be ignored; it will always return its special value.


Expands to a list of special features supported by this version of make. Possible values include:


Supports ar (archive) files using special filename syntax. See section Using make to Update Archive Files.


Supports the -L (--check-symlink-times) flag. See section Summary of Options.


Supports "else if" non-nested conditionals. See section Syntax of Conditionals.


Supports "job server" enhanced parallel builds. See section Parallel Execution.


Supports secondary expansion of prerequisite lists.


Supports order-only prerequisites. See section Types of Prerequisites.


Supports target-specific and pattern-specific variable assignments. See section Target-specific Variable Values.


Expands to a list of directories that make searches for included makefiles (see section Including Other Makefiles).

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3.7 How Makefiles Are Remade

Sometimes makefiles can be remade from other files, such as RCS or SCCS files. If a makefile can be remade from other files, you probably want make to get an up-to-date version of the makefile to read in.

To this end, after reading in all makefiles, make will consider each as a goal target and attempt to update it. If a makefile has a rule which says how to update it (found either in that very makefile or in another one) or if an implicit rule applies to it (see section Using Implicit Rules), it will be updated if necessary. After all makefiles have been checked, if any have actually been changed, make starts with a clean slate and reads all the makefiles over again. (It will also attempt to update each of them over again, but normally this will not change them again, since they are already up to date.)

If you know that one or more of your makefiles cannot be remade and you want to keep make from performing an implicit rule search on them, perhaps for efficiency reasons, you can use any normal method of preventing implicit rule lookup to do so. For example, you can write an explicit rule with the makefile as the target, and an empty command string (see section Using Empty Commands).

If the makefiles specify a double-colon rule to remake a file with commands but no prerequisites, that file will always be remade (see section Double-Colon Rules). In the case of makefiles, a makefile that has a double-colon rule with commands but no prerequisites will be remade every time make is run, and then again after make starts over and reads the makefiles in again. This would cause an infinite loop: make would constantly remake the makefile, and never do anything else. So, to avoid this, make will not attempt to remake makefiles which are specified as targets of a double-colon rule with commands but no prerequisites.

If you do not specify any makefiles to be read with `-f' or `--file' options, make will try the default makefile names; see section What Name to Give Your Makefile. Unlike makefiles explicitly requested with `-f' or `--file' options, make is not certain that these makefiles should exist. However, if a default makefile does not exist but can be created by running make rules, you probably want the rules to be run so that the makefile can be used.

Therefore, if none of the default makefiles exists, make will try to make each of them in the same order in which they are searched for (see section What Name to Give Your Makefile) until it succeeds in making one, or it runs out of names to try. Note that it is not an error if make cannot find or make any makefile; a makefile is not always necessary.

When you use the `-t' or `--touch' option (see section Instead of Executing the Commands), you would not want to use an out-of-date makefile to decide which targets to touch. So the `-t' option has no effect on updating makefiles; they are really updated even if `-t' is specified. Likewise, `-q' (or `--question') and `-n' (or `--just-print') do not prevent updating of makefiles, because an out-of-date makefile would result in the wrong output for other targets. Thus, `make -f mfile -n foo' will update `mfile', read it in, and then print the commands to update `foo' and its prerequisites without running them. The commands printed for `foo' will be those specified in the updated contents of `mfile'.

However, on occasion you might actually wish to prevent updating of even the makefiles. You can do this by specifying the makefiles as goals in the command line as well as specifying them as makefiles. When the makefile name is specified explicitly as a goal, the options `-t' and so on do apply to them.

Thus, `make -f mfile -n mfile foo' would read the makefile `mfile', print the commands needed to update it without actually running them, and then print the commands needed to update `foo' without running them. The commands for `foo' will be those specified by the existing contents of `mfile'.

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3.8 Overriding Part of Another Makefile

Sometimes it is useful to have a makefile that is mostly just like another makefile. You can often use the `include' directive to include one in the other, and add more targets or variable definitions. However, if the two makefiles give different commands for the same target, make will not let you just do this. But there is another way.

In the containing makefile (the one that wants to include the other), you can use a match-anything pattern rule to say that to remake any target that cannot be made from the information in the containing makefile, make should look in another makefile. See section Defining and Redefining Pattern Rules, for more information on pattern rules.

For example, if you have a makefile called `Makefile' that says how to make the target `foo' (and other targets), you can write a makefile called `GNUmakefile' that contains:

        frobnicate > foo

%: force
        @$(MAKE) -f Makefile $@
force: ;

If you say `make foo', make will find `GNUmakefile', read it, and see that to make `foo', it needs to run the command `frobnicate > foo'. If you say `make bar', make will find no way to make `bar' in `GNUmakefile', so it will use the commands from the pattern rule: `make -f Makefile bar'. If `Makefile' provides a rule for updating `bar', make will apply the rule. And likewise for any other target that `GNUmakefile' does not say how to make.

The way this works is that the pattern rule has a pattern of just `%', so it matches any target whatever. The rule specifies a prerequisite `force', to guarantee that the commands will be run even if the target file already exists. We give `force' target empty commands to prevent make from searching for an implicit rule to build it--otherwise it would apply the same match-anything rule to `force' itself and create a prerequisite loop!

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3.9 How make Reads a Makefile

GNU make does its work in two distinct phases. During the first phase it reads all the makefiles, included makefiles, etc. and internalizes all the variables and their values, implicit and explicit rules, and constructs a dependency graph of all the targets and their prerequisites. During the second phase, make uses these internal structures to determine what targets will need to be rebuilt and to invoke the rules necessary to do so.

It's important to understand this two-phase approach because it has a direct impact on how variable and function expansion happens; this is often a source of some confusion when writing makefiles. Here we will present a summary of the phases in which expansion happens for different constructs within the makefile. We say that expansion is immediate if it happens during the first phase: in this case make will expand any variables or functions in that section of a construct as the makefile is parsed. We say that expansion is deferred if expansion is not performed immediately. Expansion of deferred construct is not performed until either the construct appears later in an immediate context, or until the second phase.

You may not be familiar with some of these constructs yet. You can reference this section as you become familiar with them, in later chapters.

Variable Assignment

Variable definitions are parsed as follows:

immediate = deferred
immediate ?= deferred
immediate := immediate
immediate += deferred or immediate

define immediate

For the append operator, `+=', the right-hand side is considered immediate if the variable was previously set as a simple variable (`:='), and deferred otherwise.

Conditional Statements

All instances of conditional syntax are parsed immediately, in their entirety; this includes the ifdef, ifeq, ifndef, and ifneq forms. Of course this means that automatic variables cannot be used in conditional statements, as automatic variables are not set until the command script for that rule is invoked. If you need to use automatic variables in a conditional you must use shell conditional syntax, in your command script proper, for these tests, not make conditionals.

Rule Definition

A rule is always expanded the same way, regardless of the form:

immediate : immediate ; deferred

That is, the target and prerequisite sections are expanded immediately, and the commands used to construct the target are always deferred. This general rule is true for explicit rules, pattern rules, suffix rules, static pattern rules, and simple prerequisite definitions.

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3.10 Secondary Expansion

In the previous section we learned that GNU make works in two distinct phases: a read-in phase and a target-update phase (see section How make Reads a Makefile). GNU make also has the ability to enable a second expansion of the prerequisites (only) for some or all targets defined in the makefile. In order for this second expansion to occur, the special target .SECONDEXPANSION must be defined before the first prerequisite list that makes use of this feature.

If that special target is defined then in between the two phases mentioned above, right at the end of the read-in phase, all the prerequisites of the targets defined after the special target are expanded a second time. In most circumstances this secondary expansion will have no effect, since all variable and function references will have been expanded during the initial parsing of the makefiles. In order to take advantage of the secondary expansion phase of the parser, then, it's necessary to escape the variable or function reference in the makefile. In this case the first expansion merely un-escapes the reference but doesn't expand it, and expansion is left to the secondary expansion phase. For example, consider this makefile:

ONEVAR = onefile
TWOVAR = twofile
myfile: $(ONEVAR) $$(TWOVAR)

After the first expansion phase the prerequisites list of the `myfile' target will be onefile and $(TWOVAR); the first (unescaped) variable reference to ONEVAR is expanded, while the second (escaped) variable reference is simply unescaped, without being recognized as a variable reference. Now during the secondary expansion the first word is expanded again but since it contains no variable or function references it remains the static value `onefile', while the second word is now a normal reference to the variable TWOVAR, which is expanded to the value `twofile'. The final result is that there are two prerequisites, `onefile' and `twofile'.

Obviously, this is not a very interesting case since the same result could more easily have been achieved simply by having both variables appear, unescaped, in the prerequisites list. One difference becomes apparent if the variables are reset; consider this example:

AVAR = top
onefile: $(AVAR)
twofile: $$(AVAR)
AVAR = bottom

Here the prerequisite of `onefile' will be expanded immediately, and resolve to the value `top', while the prerequisite of `twofile' will not be full expanded until the secondary expansion and yield a value of `bottom'.

This is marginally more exciting, but the true power of this feature only becomes apparent when you discover that secondary expansions always take place within the scope of the automatic variables for that target. This means that you can use variables such as $@, $*, etc. during the second expansion and they will have their expected values, just as in the command script. All you have to do is defer the expansion by escaping the $. Also, secondary expansion occurs for both explicit and implicit (pattern) rules. Knowing this, the possible uses for this feature increase dramatically. For example:

main_OBJS := main.o try.o test.o
lib_OBJS := lib.o api.o

main lib: $$($$@_OBJS)

Here, after the initial expansion the prerequisites of both the `main' and `lib' targets will be $($@_OBJS). During the secondary expansion, the $@ variable is set to the name of the target and so the expansion for the `main' target will yield $(main_OBJS), or main.o try.o test.o, while the secondary expansion for the `lib' target will yield $(lib_OBJS), or lib.o api.o.

You can also mix functions here, as long as they are properly escaped:

main_SRCS := main.c try.c test.c
lib_SRCS := lib.c api.c

main lib: $$(patsubst %.c,%.o,$$($$@_SRCS))

This version allows users to specify source files rather than object files, but gives the same resulting prerequisites list as the previous example.

Evaluation of automatic variables during the secondary expansion phase, especially of the target name variable $$@, behaves similarly to evaluation within command scripts. However, there are some subtle differences and "corner cases" which come into play for the different types of rule definitions that make understands. The subtleties of using the different automatic variables are described below.

Secondary Expansion of Explicit Rules

During the secondary expansion of explicit rules, $$@ and $$% evaluate, respectively, to the file name of the target and, when the target is an archive member, the target member name. The $$< variable evaluates to the first prerequisite in the first rule for this target. $$^ and $$+ evaluate to the list of all prerequisites of rules that have already appeared for the same target ($$+ with repetitions and $$^ without). The following example will help illustrate these behaviors:


foo: foo.1 bar.1 $$< $$^ $$+    # line #1

foo: foo.2 bar.2 $$< $$^ $$+    # line #2

foo: foo.3 bar.3 $$< $$^ $$+    # line #3

In the first prerequisite list, all three variables ($$<, $$^, and $$+) expand to the empty string. In the second, they will have values foo.1, foo.1 bar.1, and foo.1 bar.1 respectively. In the third they will have values foo.1, foo.1 bar.1 foo.2 bar.2, and foo.1 bar.1 foo.2 bar.2 respectively.

Rules undergo secondary expansion in makefile order, except that the rule with the command script is always evaluated last.

The variables $$? and $$* are not available and expand to the empty string.

Secondary Expansion of Static Pattern Rules

Rules for secondary expansion of static pattern rules are identical to those for explicit rules, above, with one exception: for static pattern rules the $$* variable is set to the pattern stem. As with explicit rules, $$? is not available and expands to the empty string.

Secondary Expansion of Implicit Rules

As make searches for an implicit rule, it substitutes the stem and then performs secondary expansion for every rule with a matching target pattern. The value of the automatic variables is derived in the same fashion as for static pattern rules. As an example:


foo: bar

foo foz: fo%: bo%

%oo: $$< $$^ $$+ $$*

When the implicit rule is tried for target `foo', $$< expands to `bar', $$^ expands to `bar boo', $$+ also expands to `bar boo', and $$* expands to `f'.

Note that the directory prefix (D), as described in Implicit Rule Search Algorithm, is appended (after expansion) to all the patterns in the prerequisites list. As an example:



%.o: $$(addsuffix /%.c,foo bar) foo.h

The prerequisite list after the secondary expansion and directory prefix reconstruction will be `/tmp/foo/foo.c /tmp/var/bar/foo.c foo.h'. If you are not interested in this reconstruction, you can use $$* instead of % in the prerequisites list.

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