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Contents Bulletin Scripting in shell and Perl Network troubleshooting History Humor

Shell Language Overview


See also

Best Shell Books

Recommended Links Papers, ebooks  tutorials

Man pages



Advanced navigation

Command history reuse


Dot files



Command completion

Vi editing mode

Loops in Shell Pipes in Loops Process Substitution in Shell Strange Files Deletion and Renaming Input and output redirection Restricted Shell Shell Prompts Bourne Shell and portability

Pushd, popd

Regular Expressions

Classic Unix Tools

Scripts Collections


Pretty Printing




General form a shell command (or shell language statement, if we try to be more formal) is as follows:

command options arguments

Command can internal or external:

Regular expressions in filenames

Shell regular expressions are of two types:

Primitive regular expressions metacharacers  are as following:

Bash 3.2 introduced "normal " regular expression and operator =~ to use them

Build-in macros

Born-shell family has special macros that expand to the home directory. They can be used only outside strings:

Shell Aliases

Shell aliases are parameteless positional macros.  They are recognized only if they are the first in the command string. General form

alias name='command'

alias command without parameters lists all active aliases. You should generally avoid self-aliased commands. But in some cases they are useful. For example, the command rm -i is often aliased as rm. The effect is that the -i option appears whenever you issue the rm command, whether or not you type the option. The -i option specifies that the shell will prompt for confirmation before deleting files. This helps avoid accidental deletion of files, which can be particularly hazardous when you're logged in as root. The alias ensures that you're prompted for confirmation even if you don't ask to be prompted. If you don't want to be prompted, you can issue a command like:
rm -f files

where files specifies the files to be deleted. The -f option has an effect opposite that of the -i option; it forces deletion of files without prompting for confirmation. Because the command is aliased, the command actually executed is:

rm -i -f files

Here the -f option takes precedence over the -i option, because it occurs later in the command line.

If you want to remove a command alias, you can issue the unalias command:

unalias alias

where alias specifies the alias you want to remove. Aliases last only for the duration of a log in session, so you needn't bother to remove them before logging off. If you want an alias to be effective each time you log in, you can use a shell script. The next subsection shows you how to do so.

Shell Scripts

A shell script is simply a file that contains commands. By storing commands as a shell script you make it easy to execute them again and again. As an example, consider a file named deleter, which contains the following lines:

echo -n Deleting the temporary files... 
rm -f *.tmp
echo Done.

The echo commands simply print text on the console. The -n option of the first echo command causes omission of the trailing newline character normally written by the echo command, so both echo commands write their text on a single line. The rm command removes from the current working directory all files having names ending in .tmp.

You can execute this script by issuing the sh command:

sh deleter

If you invoke the sh command without an argument specifying a script file, a new interactive shell is launched. To exit the new shell and return to your previous session, issue the exit command.

If the deleter file were in a directory other than the current working directory, you'd have to type an absolute path, for example:

sh /home/bill/deleter

You can make it a bit easier to execute the script by changing its access mode to include execute access. To do so, issue the following command:

chmod ugo+x deleter

This gives you, members of your group, and everyone else the ability to execute the file. To do so, simply type the absolute path of the file, for example:


If the file is in the current directory, you can issue the following command:


You may wonder why you can't simply issue the command:


In fact, this still simpler form of the command will work, so long as deleter resides in a directory on your search path. You'll learn about the search path later.

Dot files

Korn shell uses  several configuration scripts that are run at the begining of the user session. 

BASH can also use bash-specific shells:

See Dot files for more information. Among them

Input/Output Redirection and Piping

The shell provides three standard data streams:

By default, most programs read their input from stdin and write their output to stdout. Because both streams are normally associated with a console, programs behave as you generally want, reading input data from the console keyboard and writing output to the console screen. When a well-behaved program writes an error message, it writes the message to the stderr stream, which is also associated with the console by default. Having separate streams for output and error messages presents an important opportunity, as you'll see in a moment.

Although the shell associates the three standard input/output streams with the console by default, you can specify input/output redirectors that, for example, associate an input or output stream with a file:

To see how redirection works, consider the wc command on the console.

Perhaps you can now see the reason for having the separate output streams stdout and stderr. If the shell provided a single output stream, error messages and output would be mingled. Therefore, if you redirected the output of a program to a file, any error messages would also be redirected to the file. This might make it difficult to notice an error that occurred during program execution. Instead, because the streams are separate, you can choose to redirect only stdout to a file. When you do so, error messages sent to stderr appear on the console in the usual way. Of course, if you prefer, you can redirect both stdout and stderr to the same file or redirect them to different files. As usual in the Unix world, you can have it your own way.

A simple way of avoiding annoying output is to redirect it to the null file, /dev/null. If you redirect the stderr stream of a command to /dev/null, you won't see any error messages the command produces.

Just as you can direct the standard output or error stream of a command to a file, you can also redirect a command's standard input stream to a file, so that the command reads from the file instead of the console. For example, if you issue the wc command without arguments, the command reads its input from stdin. Type some words and then type the end of file character (Ctrl-D) and wc will report the number of lines, words, and characters you entered. You can tell wc to read from a file, rather than the console, by issuing a command like:

wc </etc/passwd

Of course, this isn't the usual way of invoking wc. The author of wc helpfully provided a command-line argument that lets you specify the file from which wc reads. However, by using a redirector, you could read from any desired file even if the author had been less helpful.

Some programs are written to ignore redirectors. For example, the passwd command expects to read the new password only from the console, not from a file. You can compel such programs to read from a file, but doing so requires techniques more advanced than redirectors.

When you specify no command-line arguments, many Unix programs read their input from stdin and write their output to stdout. Such programs are called filters. Filters can be easily fitted together to perform a series of related operations. The tool for combining filters is the pipe, which connects the output of one program to the input of another. For example, consider this command:

ls -l ~ | wc -l

The command consists of two commands, joined by the pipe redirector ( |). The first command lists the names of the files in the users home directory, one file per line. The second command invokes wc by using the -l option, which causes wc to print only the total number of lines, rather than printing the total number of lines, words, and characters. The pipe redirector sends the output of the ls command to the wc command, which counts and prints the number of lines in its input, which happens to be the number of files in the user's home directory.

This is a simple example of the power and sophistication of the Unix shell. Unix doesn't include a command that counts the files in the user's home directory and doesn't need to do so. Should the need to count the files arise, a knowledgeable Unix user can prepare a simple script that computes the desired result by using general-purpose Unix commands.

Shell Variables

If you've studied programming, you know that programming languages resemble algebra. Both programming languages and algebra let you refer to a value by a name. And both programming languages and algebra include elaborate mechanisms for manipulating named values.

The shell is a programming language in its own right, letting you refer to variables known as shell variables or environment variables. To assign a value to a shell variable, you use a command that has the following form: variable=value

For example, the command:


assigns the value


 to the shell variable named PATH. Shell variables are typeless and can have both athithmentic and non-numeric values.

Shell variables are widely used within shell scripts, because they provide a convenient way of transferring values from one command to another. Programs can obtain the value of a shell variable and use the value to modify their operation, in much the same way they use the value of command-line arguments.

You can see a list of shell variables by issuing the env command. Usually, the command produces more than a single screen of output. So, you can use a pipe redirector and the more command to view the output one screen at a time:

env | more

Press the Space bar to see each successive page of output. You'll probably see several of the shell variables described below:

You can use the value of a shell variable in a command by preceding the name of the shell variable by a dollar sign ($). To avoid confusion with surrounding text, you can enclose the name of the shell variable within curly braces ({}); it's good practice (though not necessary) to do so consistently. For example, you can change the current working directory to your home directory by issuing the command:

cd ${HOME}

An easy way to see the value of a shell variable is to specify the variable as the argument of the echo command. For example, to see the value of the PATH shell variable, issue the command:

echo $PATH

To make the value of a shell variable available not just to the shell, but to programs invoked by using the shell, you must export the shell variable. To do so, use the export command, which has the form:

export variable

where variable specifies the name of the variable to be exported. A shorthand form of the command lets you assign a value to a shell variable and export the variable in a single command:

export variable=value

You can remove the value associated with shell variable by giving the variable an empty value:


However, a shell variable with an empty value remains a shell variable and appears in the output of the set command. To dispense with a shell variable, you can issue the unset command:

unset variable

Once you unset the value of a variable, the variable no longer appears in the output of the set command.

The Search Path

The special shell variable PATH holds a series of paths known collectively as the search path. Whenever you issue an external command, the shell searches paths that comprise the search path, seeking the program file that corresponds to the command. The startup scripts establish the initial value of the PATH shell variable, but you can modify its value to include any desired series of paths. You must use a colon (:) to separate each path of the search path.

For example, suppose that PATH has the following value:


You can add a new search directory, say /opt/bin, with the following command:


Now, the shell will look for external programs in /opt/bin/ as well as the default directories. However, it will look there last. If you prefer to check /opt/bin first, issue the following command instead:


The which command helps you work with the PATH shell variable. It checks the search path for the file specified as its argument and prints the name of the matching path, if any. For example, suppose you want to know where the program file for the wc command resides. Issuing the command:

which wc

will tell you that the program file is /usr/bin/wc, or whatever other path is correct for your system.

Quoted Strings

Enclosing a command argument within single quotes, you can prevent the shell from expanding any special characters inside this string.

To see this in action, consider how you might cause the echo command to produce the output $PATH. If you simply issue the command:

echo $PATH

the echo command will print the value of the PATH shell variable. However, by enclosing the argument within single quotes, you obtain the desired result:

echo '$PATH'

Double quotes permit the expansion of shell variables.

Back quotes operate differently; they let you execute a command and use its output as an argument of another command. For example, the command:

echo My home directory contains `ls ~ | wc -l` files.

prints a message that gives the number of files in the user's home directory. The command works by first executing the command contained within back quotes:

ls ~ | wc -l

This command, as explained earlier, computes and prints the number of files in the user's directory. Because the command is enclosed in back quotes, its output is not printed; instead the output replaces the original back quoted text. When executed, this command prints the output:

My home directory contains 22 files.

Understanding Shell Scripts

This section explains how more advanced shell scripts work. The information is also adequate to equip you to write many of your own useful shell scripts.

Arithmetic Expressions

The ((...)) Command

The ((...)) command is equivalent to the let command, except that all characters between the (( and )) are treated as quoted arithmetic expressions. This is more convenient to use than let, because many of the arithmetic operators have special meaning to the Korn shell. The following commands are equivalent:

$ let "X=X + 1" 


$ ((X=X + 1)) 

Before the Korn shell let and ((...)) commands, the only way to perform arithmetic was with expr. For example, to do the same increment X operation using expr:
$ X=`expr $X + 1` 

In tests on a few systems, the let command performed the same operation 35-60 times faster! That is quite a difference.

Processing Arguments

You can easily write scripts that process arguments, because a set of special shell variables holds the values of arguments specified when your script is invoked.

For example, here's a simple one-line script that prints the value of its second argument:

echo My second argument has the value $2.

Suppose you store this script in the file second, change its access mode to permit execution, and invoke it as follows:

./second a b c

The script will print the output:

My second argument has the value b.
$0 The command name. $1, $2, ... , $9 The individual arguments of the command. $* The entire list of arguments, treated as a single word. $@ The entire list of arguments, treated as a series of words.$? The exit status of the previous command. The value 0 denotes successful completion. $$ he process id of the current process.

Notice that the shell provides variables for accessing only nine arguments. Nevertheless, you can access more than nine arguments. The key to doing so is the shift command, which discards the value of the first argument and shifts the remaining values down one position. Thus, after executing the shift command, the shell variable $9 contains the value of the tenth argument. To access the eleventh and subsequent arguments, you simply execute the shift command the appropriate number of times.

Exit Codes

The shell variable $? holds the numeric exit status of the most recently completed command. By convention, an exit status of zero denotes successful completion; other values denote error conditions of various sorts.

You can set the error code in a script by issuing the exit command, which terminates the script and posts the specified exit status. The format of the command is:


where status is a non-negative integer that specifies the exit status.

Conditional Logic

A shell script can employ conditional logic, which lets the script take different action based on the values of arguments, shell variables, or other conditions. The test command lets you specify a condition, which can be either true or false. Conditional commands (including the if, case, while, and until commands) use the test command to evaluate conditions.

The test command

 The test command evaluates its arguments and sets the exit status to 0, which indicates that the specified condition was true, or a non-zero value, which indicates that the specified condition was false. Some commonly used argument forms used with the test command:

To see the test command in action, consider the following script:

test -d $1
echo $?

This script tests whether its first argument specifies a directory and displays the resulting exit status, a zero or a non-zero value that reflects the result of the test.

Suppose the script were stored in the file tester, which permitted read access. Executing the script might yield results similar to the following:

$ ./tester /
$ ./tester /missing

These results indicate that the / directory exists and that the /missing directory does not exist.

The if command

The test command is not of much use by itself, but combined with commands such as the if command, it is useful indeed. The if command has the following form:


Usually the command that immediately follows the word if is a test command. However, this need not be so. The if command merely executes the specified command and tests its exit status. If the exit status is 0, the first set of commands is executed; otherwise the second set of commands is executed. An abbreviated form of the if command does nothing if the specified condition is false:


When you type an if command, it occupies several lines; nevertheless it's considered a single command. To underscore this, the shell provides a special prompt (called the secondary prompt) after you enter each line. Often, scripts are entered by using a text editor; when you enter a script using a text editor you don't see the secondary prompt, or any other shell prompt for that matter.

As an example, suppose you want to delete a file file1 if it's older than another file file2. The following command would accomplish the desired result:

if test file1 -ot file2
  rm file1

You could incorporate this command in a script that accepts arguments specifying the filenames:

if test $1 -ot $2
  rm $1
  echo Deleted the old file.

If you name the script riddance and invoke it as follows:

riddance thursday wednesday

the script will delete the file thursday if that file is older than the file wednesday.

The case command

The case command provides a more sophisticated form of conditional processing:

value in
commands ;;

The case command attempts to match the specified value against a series of patterns. The commands associated with the first matching pattern, if any, are executed. Patterns are built using characters and metacharacters, such as those used to specify command arguments. As an example, here's a case command that interprets the value of the first argument of its script:

case $1 in
  -r) echo Force deletion without confirmation ;;
  -i) echo Confirm before deleting ;;
   *) echo Unknown argument ;;

The command echoes a different line of text, depending on the value of the script's first argument. As done here, it's good practice to include a final pattern that matches any value.

The while command

The while command lets you execute a series of commands iteratively (that is, repeatedly) so long as a condition tests true:


Here's a script that uses a while command to print its arguments on successive lines:

echo $1
while shift 2> /dev/null
  echo $1

The commands that comprise the do part of a while (or another loop command) can include if commands, case commands, and even other while commands. However, scripts rapidly become difficult to understand when this occurs often. You should include conditional commands within other conditional commands only with due consideration for the clarity of the result. Include a comment command (#) to clarify difficult constructs.

The until command

The until command lets you execute a series of commands iteratively (that is, repeatedly) so long as a condition tests false:


Here's a script that uses an until command to print its arguments on successive lines, until it encounters an argument that has the value red:

until test $1 = red
  echo $1

For example, if the script were named stopandgo and stored in the current working directory, the command:

./stopandgo green yellow red blue

would print the lines:


The for command

The for command iterates over the elements of a specified list:

for variable in list

Within the commands, you can reference the current element of the list by means of the shell variable $ variable, where variable is the name specified following the for. The list typically takes the form of a series of arguments, which can incorporate metacharacters. For example, the following for command:

for i in 2 4 6 8
  echo $i

prints the numbers 2, 4, 6, and 8 on successive lines.

A special form of the for command iterates over the arguments of a script:

for variable

For example, the following script prints its arguments on successive lines:

for i
  echo $i

The break and continue commands

The break and continue commands are simple commands that take no arguments. When the shell encounters a break command, it immediately exits the body of the enclosing loop ( while, until, or for) command. When the shell encounters a continue command, it immediately discontinues the current iteration of the loop. If the loop condition permits, other iterations may occur; otherwise the loop is exited.


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