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OS X: Easily edit hidden configuration files with TextEdit

In OS X, hidden files (those starting with a period like .profile or .bashrc) can be a challenge to edit because they are, well, hidden and don’t show up in Finder windows. While there are tricks to make hidden files visible in Finder windows, I prefer to keep my hidden files hidden. I also prefer to edit them using vi, but I know that many folks are likely to think ‘six’ instead of ‘editor’ when presented with vi. What follows is a simple way to edit a hidden file using TextEdit without making any changes to the system.

When confronted with the task of editing your .profile file, there are several options. For the seasoned veteran, editing this file is simply a matter of dropping to a shell, editing in vi, and :wq’ing. There is the pico editor which, for a command line editor, is a little friendlier than vi. For the majority of users, editing a text file is warmer and fuzzier using a GUI text editor like TextEdit.

The problem is that files starting with a period are hidden from listings in the Finder windows, so trying to find a hidden file to open using TextEdit will not get you very far. While many third party editors provide options for opening hidden files, if you don’t have one installed, you can easily open these hidden files using TextEdit which is a part of OS X.

To open your .profile file, for example, start the Terminal application (searching for ‘terminal’ using Spotlight and clicking on the Terminal application is an easy way to do this). Since Terminal will put you in your home directory by default and .profile is in your home directory, you can edit .profile simply by typing:

open .profile

If the file you want to edit is in another directory, you’ll need to cd into that directory first or specify the full path name in front of the filename.

The open command used above uses the same mechanism to open a file using a default application that the Finder does when clicking on a file. If for some reason the default application for the file you are trying to edit has changed to something that doesn’t work for editing, you can force open to use TextEdit by adding the -a option:

open -a TextEdit .profile

Make your changes to the file and save it and you’re done. One compulsory note of caution: hidden files are often hidden for a reason. They tend to hold configuration information that, if incorrectly changed, could cause one or more applications to misbehave. Tread lightly and make backups before changing.

Quinn McHenry
Quinn McHenry
Quinn was one of the original co-founders of Tech-Recipes. He is currently crafting iOS applications as a senior developer at Small Planet Digital in Brooklyn, New York.


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