passing - makefile variable substitution

Passing additional variables from command line to make (5)

From the manual:

Variables in make can come from the environment in which make is run. Every environment variable that make sees when it starts up is transformed into a make variable with the same name and value. However, an explicit assignment in the makefile, or with a command argument, overrides the environment.

So you can do (from bash):

FOOBAR=1 make

resulting in a variable FOOBAR in your Makefile.

Can I pass variables to a GNU Makefile as command line arguments? In other words, I want to pass some arguments which will eventually become variables in the Makefile.

If you make a file called Makefile and add a variable like this $(unittest) then you will be able to use this variable inside the Makefile even with wildcards

example :

make unittest=*

I use BOOST_TEST and by giving a wildcard to parameter --run_test=$(unittest) then I will be able to use regular expression to filter out the test I want my Makefile to run

The simplest way is:

make foo=bar target

Then in your makefile you can refer to $(foo). Note that this won't propagate to sub-makes automatically.

If you are using sub-makes, see this article: Communicating Variables to a Sub-make

There's another option not cited here which is included in the GNU Make book by Stallman and McGrath (see It provides the example:

archive.a: ...
ifneq (,$(findstring t,$(MAKEFLAGS)))
        +touch archive.a
        +ranlib -t archive.a
        ranlib archive.a

It involves verifying if a given parameter appears in MAKEFLAGS. For example .. suppose that you're studying about threads in c++11 and you've divided your study across multiple files (class01, ... , classNM) and you want to: compile then all and run individually or compile one at a time and run it if a flag is specified (-r, for instance). So, you could come up with the following Makefile:

CXXFLAGS = -Wall -Werror -std=c++11
LDLIBS = -lpthread

SOURCES = class01 class02 class03

%: %.cxx
    $(CXX) $(CXXFLAGS) -o [email protected] $^ $(LDLIBS)
ifneq (,$(findstring r,  $(MAKEFLAGS)))
    ./[email protected]

all: $(SOURCES)

.PHONY: clean

    find . -name "*.out" -delete

Having that, you'd:

  • build and run a file w/ make -r class02;
  • build all w/ make or make all;
  • build and run all w/ make -r (suppose that all of them contain some certain kind of assert stuff and you just want to test them all)

export ROOT_DIR=<path/value>

Then use the variable, $(ROOT_DIR) in the Makefile.