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The section was extracted from IBM LPI exam 102 prep, Topic 109 Shells, scripting, programming, and compiling by Ian Shields, 30 January 2007

This section covers material for topic 1.109.1 for the Junior Level Administration (LPIC-1) exam 102. The topic has a weight of 5.

In this section, learn how to:

Shells and environments

Before the advent of graphical interfaces, programmers used a typewriter terminal or an ASCII display terminal to connect to a UNIX® system. A typewriter terminal allowed them to type commands, and the output was usually printed on continuous paper. Most ASCII display terminals had 80 characters per line and about 25 lines on the screen, although both larger and smaller terminals existed. Programmers typed a command and pressed Enter, and the system interpreted and then executed the command.

While this may seem somewhat primitive today in an era of drag-and-drop graphical interfaces, it was a huge step forward from writing a program, punching cards, compiling the card deck, and running the program. With the advent of editors, programmers could even create programs as card images and compile them in a terminal session.

The stream of characters typed at a terminal provided a standard input stream to the shell, and the stream of characters that the shell returned on either paper or display represented the standard output.

The program that accepts the commands and executes them is called a shell. It provides a layer between you and the intricacies of an operating system. UNIX and Linux shells are extremely powerful in that you can build quite complex operations by combining basic functions. Using programming constructs you can then build functions for direct execution in the shell or save functions as shell scripts so that you can reuse them over and over.

Sometimes you need to execute commands before the system has booted far enough to allow terminal connections, and sometimes you need to execute commands periodically, whether or not you are logged on. A shell can do this for you, too. The standard input and output do not have to come from or be directed to a real user at a terminal.

In this section, you learn more about shells. In particular, you learn about the bash or Bourne again shell, which is an enhancement of the original Bourne shell, along with some features from other shells and some changes from the Bourne shell to make it more POSIX compliant.

POSIX is the Portable Operating System Interface for uniX , which is a series of IEEE standards collectively referred to as IEEE 1003. The first of these was IEEE Standard 1003.1-1988, released in 1988. Other well known shells include the Korn shell (ksh), the C shell (csh) and its derivative tcsh, the Almquist shell (ash) and its Debian derivative (dash). You need to know something about many of these shells, if only to recognize when a particular script requires features from one of them.

Many aspects of your interaction with a computer will be the same from one session to another. Recall from the tutorial "LPI exam 101 prep (topic 103): GNU and UNIX commands" that when you are running in a Bash shell, you have a shell environment, which defines such things as the form of your prompt, your home directory, your working directory, the name of your shell, files that you have opened, functions that you have defined, and so on. The environment is made available to every shell process. Shells, including bash, allow you to create and modify shell variables, which you may export to your environment for use by other processes running in the shell or by other shells that you may spawn from the current shell.

Both environment variables and shell variables have a name. You reference the value of a variable by prefixing its name with '$'. Some of the common bash environment variables that are set for you are shown in Table 3.

Table 3. Common bash environment variables
Name Function
USER The name of the logged-in user
UID The numeric user id of the logged-in user
HOME The user's home directory
PWD The current working directory
SHELL The name of the shell
$ The process id (or PID of the running Bash shell (or other) process)
PPID The process id of the process that started this process (that is, the id of the parent process)
? The exit code of the last command

Setting variables

In the Bash shell, you create or set a shell variable by typing a name followed immediately by an equal sign (=). Variable names (or identifiers) are words consisting only of alphanumeric characters and underscores, that begin with an alphabetic character or an underscore. Variables are case sensitive, so var1 and VAR1 are different variables. By convention, variables, particularly exported variables, are upper case, but this is not a requirement. Technically, $$ and $? are shell parameters rather than variables. They may only be referenced; you cannot assign a value to them.

When you create a shell variable, you will often want to export it to the environment so it will be available to other processes that you start from this shell. Variables that you export are not available to a parent shell. You use the export command to export a variable name. As a shortcut in bash, you can assign and export in one step.

To illustrate assignment and exporting, let's run the bash command while in the Bash shell and then run the Korn shell (ksh) from the new Bash shell. We will use the ps command to display information about the command that is running.

Listing 1. Setting and exporting shell variables
[ian@echidna ian]$ ps -p $$ -o "pid ppid cmd"
30576 30575 -bash
[ian@echidna ian]$ bash
[ian@echidna ian]$ ps -p $$ -o "pid ppid cmd"
16353 30576 bash
[ian@echidna ian]$ VAR1=var1
[ian@echidna ian]$ VAR2=var2
[ian@echidna ian]$ export VAR2
[ian@echidna ian]$ export VAR3=var3
[ian@echidna ian]$ echo $VAR1 $VAR2 $VAR3
var1 var2 var3
[ian@echidna ian]$ echo $VAR1 $VAR2 $VAR3 $SHELL
var1 var2 var3 /bin/bash
[ian@echidna ian]$ ksh
$ ps -p $$ -o "pid ppid cmd"
16448 16353 ksh
$ export VAR4=var4
$ echo $VAR1 $VAR2 $VAR3 $VAR4 $SHELL
var2 var3 var4 /bin/bash
$ exit
$ [ian@echidna ian]$ echo $VAR1 $VAR2 $VAR3 $VAR4 $SHELL
var1 var2 var3 /bin/bash
[ian@echidna ian]$ ps -p $$ -o "pid ppid cmd"
16353 30576 bash
[ian@echidna ian]$ exit
[ian@echidna ian]$ ps -p $$ -o "pid ppid cmd"
30576 30575 -bash
[ian@echidna ian]$ echo $VAR1 $VAR2 $VAR3 $VAR4 $SHELL


  1. At the start of this sequence, the Bash shell had PID 30576.

  2. The second Bash shell has PID 16353, and its parent is PID 30576, the original Bash shell.

  3. We created VAR1, VAR2, and VAR3 in the second Bash shell, but only exported VAR2 and VAR3.

  4. In the Korn shell, we created VAR4. The echo command displayed values only for VAR2, VAR3, and VAR4, confirming that VAR1 was not exported. Were you surprised to see that the value of the SHELL variable had not changed, even though the prompt had changed? You cannot always rely on SHELL to tell you what shell you are running under, but the ps command does tell you the actual command. Note that ps puts a hyphen (-) in front of the first Bash shell to indicate that this is the login shell.

  5. Back in the second Bash shell, we can see VAR1, VAR2, and VAR3.

  6. And finally, when we return to the original shell, none of our new variables still exist.

Listing 2 shows what you might see in some of these common bash variables.

Listing 2. Environment and shell variables
[ian@echidna ian]$ echo $USER $UID
ian 500
[ian@echidna ian]$ echo $SHELL $HOME $PWD
/bin/bash /home/ian /home/ian
[ian@echidna ian]$ (exit 0);echo $?;(exit 4);echo $?
[ian@echidna ian]$ echo $$ $PPID
30576 30575

Unsetting variables

You remove a variable from the Bash shell using the unset command. You can use the -v option to be sure that you are removing a variable definition. Functions can have the same name as variables, so use the -f if you want to remove a function definition. Without either -f or -v, the bash unset command removes a variable definition if it exists; otherwise, it removes a function definition if one exists. (Functions are covered in more detail later in the Shell functions section.)

Listing 4. The bash unset command
ian@attic4:~$ VAR1=var1
ian@attic4:~$ VAR2=var2
ian@attic4:~$ echo $VAR1 $VAR2
var1 var2
ian@attic4:~$ unset VAR1
ian@attic4:~$ echo $VAR1 $VAR2
ian@attic4:~$ unset -v VAR2
ian@attic4:~$ echo $VAR1 $VAR2

The bash default is to treat unset variables as if they had an empty value, so you might wonder why you would unset a variable rather than just assign it an empty value. Bash and many other shells allow you to generate an error if an undefined variable is referenced. Use the command set -u to generate an error for undefined variables, andset +u to disable the warning. Listing 5 illustrates these points.

Listing 5. Generating errors with unset variables
ian@attic4:~$ set -u
ian@attic4:~$ VAR1=var1
ian@attic4:~$ echo $VAR1
ian@attic4:~$ unset VAR1
ian@attic4:~$ echo $VAR1
-bash: VAR1: unbound variable
ian@attic4:~$ VAR1=
ian@attic4:~$ echo $VAR1

ian@attic4:~$ unset VAR1
ian@attic4:~$ echo $VAR1
-bash: VAR1: unbound variable
ian@attic4:~$ unset -v VAR1
ian@attic4:~$ set +u
ian@attic4:~$ echo $VAR1


Note that it is not an error to unset a variable that does not exist, even when set -u has been specified.


When you log in to a Linux system, your id has a default shell, which is your login shell. If this shell is bash, then it executes several profile scripts before you get control. If /etc/profile exists, it is executed first. Depending on your distribution, other scripts in the /etc tree may also be executed, for example, /etc/bash.bashrc or /etc/bashrc. Once the system scripts have run, a script in your home directory is run if it exists. Bash looks for the files ~/.bash_profile, ~/.bash_login, and ~/.profile in that order. The first one found is executed.

When you log off, bash executes the ~/.bash_logout script from your home directory if it exists.

Once you have logged in and are already using bash, you may start another shell, called an interactive shell to run a command, for example to run a command in the background. In this case, bash executes only the ~/.bashrc script, assuming one exists. It is common to check for this script in your ~/.bash_profile, so that you can execute it at login as well as when starting an interactive shell, using commands such as those shown in Listing 6.

Listing 6. Checking for ~/.bashrc
# include .bashrc if it exists
if [ -f ~/.bashrc ]; then
    . ~/.bashrc

You may force bash to read profiles as if it were a login shell using the --login option. If you do not want to execute the profiles for a login shell, specify the --noprofile option. Similarly, if you want to disable execution of the ~/.bashrc file for an interactive shell, start bash with the --norc option. You can also force bash to use a file other than ~/.bashrc by specifying the --rcfile option with the name of the file you want to use. Listing 8 illustrates creation of a simple file called testrc and its use with the --rcfile option. Note that the VAR1 variable is not set in the outer shell, but has been set for the inner shell by the testrc file.

Listing 7. Using the --rcfile option

ian@attic4:~$ echo VAR1=var1>testrc
ian@attic4:~$ echo $VAR1

ian@attic4:~$ bash --rcfile testrc
ian@attic4:~$  echo $VAR1

Starting bash in other ways

In addition to the standard ways of running bash from a terminal as outlined above, bash may also be used in other ways.

Unless you source a script to run in the current shell, it will run in its own non-interactiveshell, and the above profiles are not read. However, if the BASH_ENV variable is set, bash expands the value and assumes it is the name of a file. If the file exists, then bash executes the file before whatever script or command it is executing in the non-interactive shell. Listing 8 uses two simple files to illustrate this.

Listing 8. Using BASH_ENV
ian@attic4:~$ cat
echo "Testing the environment"
ian@attic4:~$ cat
echo "Doing nothing"
ian@attic4:~$ export BASH_ENV="~/"
ian@attic4:~$ ./
Testing the environment
Doing nothing

Non-interactive shells may also be started with the --login option to force execution of the profile files.

Bash may also be started in POSIX mode using the --posix option. This mode is similar to the non-interactive shell, except that the file to execute is determined from the ENV environment variable.

It is common in Linux systems to run bash as /bin/sh using a symbolic link. When bash detects that it is being run under the name sh, it attempts to follow the startup behavior of the older Bourne shell while still conforming to POSIX standards. When run as a login shell, bash attempts to read and execute /etc/profile and ~/.profile. When run as an interactive shell using the sh command, bash attempts to execute the file specified by the ENV variable as it does when invoked in POSIX mode. When run interactively as sh, it only uses a file specified by the ENV variable; the --rcfile option will always be ignored.

If bash is invoked by the remote shell daemon, then it behaves as an interactive shell, using the ~/.bashrc file if it exists.

Shell aliases

The Bash shell allows you to define aliases for commands. The most common reasons for aliases are to provide an alternate name for a command, or to provide some default parameters for the command. The vi editor has been a staple of UNIX and Linux systems for many years. The vim (Vi IMproved) editor is like vi, but with many improvements. So if you are used to typing "vi" when you want an editor, but you would really prefer to use vim, then an alias is for you. Listing 9 shows how to use the alias command to accomplish this.

Listing 9. Using vi as an alias for vim
[ian@pinguino ~]$ alias vi='vim'
[ian@pinguino ~]$ which vi
alias vi='vim'
[ian@pinguino ~]$ /usr/bin/which vi

Notice in this example that if you use the which command to see where the vi program lives, you get two lines of output: the first shows the alias, and the second the location of vim ( /usr/bin/vim). However, if you use the which command with its full path (/usr/bin/which), you get the location of the vi command. If you guessed that this might mean that the which command itself is aliased on this system you would be right.

You can also use the alias command to display all the aliases if you use it with no options or with just the -p option, and you can display the aliases for one or more names by giving the names as arguments without assignments. Listing 10 shows the aliases for which and vi.

Listing 10. Aliases for which and vi
[ian@pinguino ~]$ alias which vi
alias which='alias | /usr/bin/which --tty-only --read-alias --show-dot --show-tilde'
alias vi='vim'

The alias for the which command is rather curious. Why pipe the output of the alias command (with no arguments) to /usr/bin/which? If you check the man pages for the which command, you will find that the --read-alias option instructs which to read a list of aliases from stdin and report matches on stdout. This allows the which command to report aliases as well as commands from your PATH, and is so common that your distribution may have set it up as a default for you. This is a good thing to do since the shell will execute an alias before a command of the same name. So now that you know this, you can check it using alias which. You can also learn whether this type of alias has been set for which by running which which.

Another common use for aliases is to add parameters automatically to commands, as you saw above for the --read-alias and several other parameters on the which command. This technique is often done for the root user with the cp, mv, and rm commands so that a prompt is issued before files are deleted or overwritten. This is illustrated in Listing 11.

Listing 11. Adding parameters for safety
[root@pinguino ~]# alias cp mv rm
alias cp='cp -i'
alias mv='mv -i'
alias rm='rm -i'

Command lists

In the earlier tutorial "LPI exam 101 prep (topic 103): GNU and UNIX commands," you learned about command sequences or lists. You have just seen the pipe (|) operator used with an alias, and you can use command lists as well. Suppose, for a simple example, that you want a command to list the contents of the current directory and also the amount of space used by it and all its subdirectories. Let's call it the lsdu command. So you simply assign a sequence of the ls and du commands to the alias lsdu. Listing 12 shows the wrong way to do this and also the right way. Look carefully at it before you read, and think about why the first attempt did not work.

Listing 12. Aliases for command sequences
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ alias lsdu=ls;du -sh # Wrong way
2.9M    .
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ lsdu
a tutorial   readme  tools  xsl
my-article  new-article.vbs  new-tutorial.vbs  schema  web
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ alias 'lsdu=ls;du -sh' # Right way way
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ lsdu
a tutorial   readme  tools  xsl
my-article  new-article.vbs  new-tutorial.vbs  schema  web
2.9M    .

You need to be very careful to quote the full sequence that will make up the alias. You also need to be very careful about whether you use double or single quotes if you have shell variables as part of the alias. Do you want the shell to expand the variables when the alias is defined or when it is executed? Listing 13 shows the wrong way to create a custom command called mywd intended to print your working directory name

Listing 13. Custom pwd - attempt 1
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ alias mywd="echo \"My working directory is $PWD\""
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ mywd
My working directory is /home/ian/developerworks
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ cd ..
[ian@pinguino ~]$ mywd
My working directory is /home/ian/developerworks

Remember that the double quotes cause bash to expand variables before executing a command. Listing 14 uses the alias command to show what the resulting alias actually is, from which our error is evident. Listing 14 also shows a correct way to define this alias.

Listing 14. Custom pwd - attempt 2
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ alias mywd
alias mywd='echo \"My working directory is $PWD\"'
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ mywd
"My working directory is /home/ian/developerworks"
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ cd ..
[ian@pinguino ~]$ mywd
"My working directory is /home/ian"

Success at last.


Back to top

Shell functions

Aliases allow you to use an abbreviation or alternate name for a command or command list. You may have noticed that you can add additional things, such as the program name you are seeking with the which command. When your input is executed, the alias is expanded, and anything else you type after that is added to the expansion before the final command or list is executed. This means that you can only add parameters to the end of the command or list, and you can use them only with the final command. Functions provide additional capability, including the ability to process parameters. Functions are part of the POSIX shell definition. They are available in shells such as bash, dash, and ksh, but are not available in csh or tcsh.

In the next few paragraphs, you'll build a complex command piece-by-piece from smaller building blocks, refining it each step of the way and turning it into a function that you will further refine.

A hypothetical problem

You can use the ls command to list a variety of information about directories and files in your file system. Suppose you would like a command, let's call it ldirs, that will list directory names with output like that in Listing 15.

Listing 15. The ldirs command output
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ ldirs *[st]* tools/*a*
my dw article

To keep things relatively simple, the examples in this section use the directories and files from the developerWorks author package (see Resources), which you can use if you'd like to write articles or tutorials for developerWorks. In these examples, we used the script from the package to create a template for a new article that we've called "my dw article".

At the time of writing, the version of the developerWorks author package is 5.6, so you may see differences if you use a later version. Or just use your own files and directories. The ldirs command will handle those too. You'll find additional bash function examples in the tools that come with the developerWorks author package.

Finding directory entries

Ignoring the *[st]* tools/*a* for the moment, if you use the ls command with the color options as shown in the aliases above, you will see output similar to that shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Distinguishing files and directories with the ls command

The directories are shown in dark blue in this example, but that's a bit hard to decode with the skills you have developed in this series of tutorials. Using the -l option, though, gives a clue on how to proceed: directory listings have a 'd' in the first position. So your first step might be to simply filter these from the long listing using grep as shown in Listing 16.

Listing 16. Using grep to find just directory entries
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ ls -l | grep "^d"
drwxrwxr-x 2 ian ian 4096 Jan 24 17:06 my dw article
drwxrwxr-x 2 ian ian 4096 Jan 18 16:23 readme
drwxrwxr-x 3 ian ian 4096 Jan 19 07:41 schema
drwxrwxr-x 3 ian ian 4096 Jan 19 15:08 tools
drwxrwxr-x 3 ian ian 4096 Jan 17 16:03 web
drwxrwxr-x 3 ian ian 4096 Jan 19 10:59 xsl

Trimming the directory entries

You might consider using awk instead of grep so that in one pass you can filter the list and strip off the last part of each line, which is the directory name, as shown in Listing 17.

Listing 17. Using awk instead
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ ls -l  | awk '/^d/ { print $NF } '

The problem with the approach in Listing 17 is that it doesn't handle the directory with spaces in the name, such as "my dw article". As with most things in Linux and life, there are often several ways to solve a problem, but the objective here is to learn about functions, so let's return to using grep. Another tool you learned about earlier in this series is cut, which cuts fields out of a file, including stdin. Looking back at Listing 16 again, you see eight blank-delimited fields before the filename. Adding cut to the previous command gives you output as shown in Listing 18. Note that the -f9- option tells cut to print fields 9 and above.

Listing 18. Using cut to trim names
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ ls -l | grep "^d" | cut -d" " -f9-
my dw article

A small problem with our approach is made obvious if we try our command on the tools directory instead of on the current directory as shown in Listing 19.

Listing 19. A problem with cut
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ ls -l tools | grep "^d" | cut -d" " -f9-
11:25 java
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ ls -ld tools/[fjt]*
-rw-rw-r-- 1 ian ian  4798 Jan  8 14:38 tools/figure1.gif
drwxrwxr-x 2 ian ian  4096 Oct 31 11:25 tools/java
-rw-rw-r-- 1 ian ian 39431 Jan 18 23:31 tools/template-dw-article-5.6.xml
-rw-rw-r-- 1 ian ian 39407 Jan 18 23:32 tools/template-dw-tutorial-5.6.xml

How did the timestamp get in there? The two template files have 5-digit sizes, while the java directory has only a 4-digit size, so cut interpreted the extra space as another field separator.

Use seq to find a cut point

The cut command can also cut using character positions instead of fields. Rather than counting characters, the Bash shell has lots of utilities that you can use, so you might try using the seq and printf commands to print a ruler above your long directory listing so you can easily figure where to cut the lines of output. The seq command takes up to three arguments, which allow you to print all the numbers up to a given value, all the numbers from one value to another, or all the numbers from one value, stepping by a given value, up to a third value. See the man pages for all the other fancy things you can do with seq, including printing octal or hexadecimal numbers. For now let's use seq and printf to print a ruler with positions marked every 10 characters as shown in Listing 20.

Listing 20. Printing a ruler with seq and printf
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ printf "....+...%2.d" `seq 10 10 60`;printf "\n";ls -l
total 88
drwxrwxr-x 2 ian ian 4096 Jan 24 17:06 my dw article
-rwxr--r-- 1 ian ian  215 Sep 27 16:34
-rwxr--r-- 1 ian ian 1078 Sep 27 16:34 new-article.vbs
-rwxr--r-- 1 ian ian  216 Sep 27 16:34
-rwxr--r-- 1 ian ian 1079 Sep 27 16:34 new-tutorial.vbs
drwxrwxr-x 2 ian ian 4096 Jan 18 16:23 readme
drwxrwxr-x 3 ian ian 4096 Jan 19 07:41 schema
drwxrwxr-x 3 ian ian 4096 Jan 19 15:08 tools
drwxrwxr-x 3 ian ian 4096 Jan 17 16:03 web
drwxrwxr-x 3 ian ian 4096 Jan 19 10:59 xsl

Aha! Now you can use the command ls -l | grep "^d" | cut -c40- to cut lines starting at position 40. A moment's reflection reveals that this doesn't really solve the problem either, because larger files will move the correct cut position to the right. Try it for yourself.

Sed to the rescue

Sometimes called the "Swiss army knife" of the UNIX and Linux toolbox, sed is an extremely powerful editing filter that uses regular expressions. You now understand that the challenge is to strip off the first 8 words and the blanks that follow them from every line of output that begins with 'd'. You can do it all with sed: select only those lines you are interested in using the pattern-matching expression /^d/, substituting a null string for the first eight words using the substitute command s/^d\([^ ]* *\)\(8\}//. Use the -n option to print only lines that you specify with the p command as shown in Listing 21.

Listing 21. Trimming directory names with sed
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ ls -l | sed -ne 's/^d\([^ ]* *\)\{8\}//p' 
my dw article
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ ls -l tools | sed -ne 's/^d\([^ ]* *\)\{8\}//p'

To learn more about sed, see the Resources section.

A function at last

Now that you have the complex command that you want for your ldirs function, it's time to learn about making it a function. A function consists of a name followed by () and then a compound command. For now, a compound command will be any command or command list, terminated by a semicolon and surrounded by braces (which must be separated from other tokens by white space). You will learn about other compound commands in the Shell scripts section.

Note: In the Bash shell, a function name may be preceded by the word 'function', but this is not part of the POSIX specification and is not supported by more minimalist shells such as dash. In the Shell scripts section, you will learn how to make sure that a script is interpreted by a particular shell, even if you normally use a different shell.

Inside the function, you can refer to the parameters using the bash special variables in Table 4. You prefix these with a $ symbol to reference them as with other shell variables.

Table 4. Shell parameters for functions
Parameter Purpose
0, 1, 2, ... The positional parameters starting from parameter 0. Parameter 0 refers to the name of the program that started bash, or the name of the shell script if the function is running within a shell script. See the bash man pages for information on other possibilities, such as when bash is started with the -c parameter. A string enclosed in single or double quotes will be passed as a single parameter, and the quotes will be stripped. In the case of double quotes, any shell variables such as $HOME will be expanded before the function is called. You will need to use single or double quotes to pass parameters that contain embedded blanks or other characters that might have special meaning to the shell.
* The positional parameters starting from parameter 1. If the expansion is done within double quotes, then the expansion is a single word with the first character of the interfield separator (IFS) special variable separating the parameters or no intervening space if IFS is null. The default IFS value is a blank, tab, and newline. If IFS is unset, then the separator used is a blank, just as for the default IFS.
@ The positional parameters starting from parameter 1. If the expansion is done within double quotes, then each parameter becomes a single word, so that "$@" is equivalent to "$1" "$2" .... If your parameters are likely to contain embedded blanks, you will want to use this form.
# The number of parameters, not including parameter 0.

Note: If you have more than 9 parameters, you cannot use $10 to refer to the tenth one. You must first either process or save the first parameter ($1), then use the shift command to drop parameter 1 and move all remaining parameters down 1, so that $10 becomes $9 and so on. The value of $# will be updated to reflect the remaining number of parameters.

Now you can define a simple function to do nothing more than tell you how many parameters it has and display them as shown in Listing 22.

Listing 22. Function parameters
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ testfunc () { echo "$# parameters"; echo "$@"; }
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ testfunc
0 parameters

[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ testfunc a b c
3 parameters
a b c
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ testfunc a "b c"
2 parameters
a b c

Whether you use $*, "$*", $@, or "$@", you won't see much difference in the output of the above function, but rest assured that when things become more complex, the distinctions will matter very much.

Now take the complex command that we tested up to this point and create a ldirs function with it, using "$@" to represent the parameters. You can enter all of the function on a single line as you did in the previous example, or bash lets you enter commands on multiple lines, in which case a semicolon will be added automatically as shown in Listing 23. Listing 23 also shows the use of the type command to display the function definition. Note from the output of type that the ls command has been replaced by the expanded value of its alias. You could use /bin/ls instead of plain ls if you needed to avoid this.

Listing 23. Your first ldirs function
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ # Enter the function on a single line            
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ ldirs () { ls -l "$@"|sed -ne 's/^d\([^ ]* *\)\{8\}//p'; }
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ # Enter the function on multiple lines           
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ ldirs ()
> {
> ls -l "$@"|sed -ne 's/^d\([^ ]* *\)\{8\}//p'
> }
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ type ldirs
ldirs is a function
ldirs ()
    ls --color=tty -l "$@" | sed -ne 's/^d\([^ ]* *\)\{8\}//p'
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ ldirs
my dw article
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$  ldirs tools

So now your function appears to be working. But what happens if you run ldirs * as shown in Listing 24?

Listing 24. Running ldirs *

[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ ldirs *

Are you surprised? You didn't find directories in the current directory, but rather second-level subdirectories. Review the man page for the ls command or our earlier tutorials in this series to understand why. Or run the find command as shown in Listing 25 to print the names of second-level subdirectories.

Listing 25. Finding second-level subdirectories
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ find . -mindepth 2 -maxdepth 2 -type d

Adding some tests

Using wildcards has exposed a problem with the logic in this approach. We blithely ignored the fact that ldirs without any parameters displayed the subdirectories in the current directory, while ldirs tools displayed the java subdirectory of the tools directory rather than the tools directory itself as you would expect using ls with files rather than directories. Ideally, you should use ls -l if no parameters are given and ls -ld if some parameters are given. You can use the test command to test the number of parameters and then use && and || to build a command list that executes the appropriate command. Using the test expression ] form of test, your expression might look like { [ $# -gt 0 ] &&/bin/ls -ld "$@" || /bin/ls -l } | sed -ne ....

There is a small issue with this code, though, in that if the ls -ld command doesn't find any matching files or directories, it will issue an error message and return with a non-zero exit code, thus causing the ls -l command to be executed as well. Perhaps not what you wanted. One answer is to construct a compound command for the first ls command so that the number of parameters is tested again if the command fails. Expand the function to include this, and your function should now appear as in Listing 26. Try using it with some of the parameters in Listing 26, or experiment with your own parameters to see how it behaves.

Listing 26. Handling wildcards with ldirs
[ian@pinguino ~]$ type ldirs
ldirs is a function
ldirs ()
        [ $# -gt 0 ] && {
            /bin/ls -ld "$@" || [ $# -gt 0 ]
        } || /bin/ls -l
    } | sed -ne 's/^d\([^ ]* *\)\{8\}//p'
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ ldirs *
my dw article
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ ldirs tools/*
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ ldirs *xxx*
/bin/ls: *xxx*: No such file or directory
[ian@pinguino developerworks]$ ldirs *a* *s*
my dw article

Final touchup

At this point you might get a directory listed twice as in the last example of Listing 26. You could extend the pipeline by piping the sed output through sort | uniq if you wish.

Starting from some small building blocks, you have now built quite a complex shell function.

Customizing keystrokes

The keystrokes you type at a terminal session, and also those used in programs such as FTP, are processed by the readline library and can be configured. By default, the customization file is .inputrc in your home directory, which will be read during bash startup if it exists. You can configure a different file by setting the INPUTRC variable. If it is not set, .inputrc in your home directory will be used. Many systems have a default key mapping in /etc/inputrc, so you will normally want to include these using the $include directive.

Listing 27 illustrates how you might bind your ldirs function to the Ctrl-t key combination (press and hold Ctrl, then press t). If you want the command to be executed with no parameters, add \n to the end of the configuration line.

Listing 27. Sample .inputrc file
# My custom key mappings
$include /etc/inputrc

You can force the INPUTRC file to be read again by pressing Ctrl-x then Ctrl-r. Note that some distributions will set INPUTRC=/etc/inputrc if you do not have your own .inputrc, so if you create one on such a system, you will need to log out and log back in to pick up your new definitions. Just resetting INPUTRC to null or to point to your new file will reread the original file, not the new specification.

The INPUTRC file can include conditional specifications. For example, the behavior of your keyboard should be different according to whether you are using emacs editing mode (the bash default) or vi mode. See the man pages for bash for more details on how to customize your keyboard.

Saving aliases and functions

You will probably add your aliases and functions to your ~/.bashrc file, although you may save them in any file you like. Whichever you do, remember to source the file or files using the source or . command so that the contents of your file will be read and executed in the current environment. If you create a script and just execute it, it will be executed in a subshell and all your valuable customization will be lost when the subshell exits and returns control to you.

In the next section, you learn how to go beyond simple functions. You learn how to add programming constructs such as conditional tests and looping constructs and combine these with multiple functions to create or modify Bash shell scripts. 

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[Jul 05, 2017] Linux tip: Bash parameters and parameter expansions by Ian Shields

Definitely gifted author !

Do you sometimes wonder how to use parameters with your scripts, and how to pass them to internal functions or other scripts? Do you need to do simple validity tests on parameters or options, or perform simple extraction and replacement operations on the parameter strings? This tip helps you with parameter use and the various parameter expansions available in the bash shell.

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LPI exam 102 prep, Topic 109 Shells, scripting, programming, and compiling by Ian Shields, 30 January 2007


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