Bash pocket guide


February 26, 2021

Bash is like regular expressions: everyone uses it, but nobody knows it well. Every time I need to write Bash, I find myself googling a lot. The main purpose for writing this guide is to gather in a single place the things I google most often.

People usually don’t like Bash. I agree, it is not pretty and has many strange quirks. But Bash is useful if you are running a Unix machine (Docker anyone?). While in most cases you could replace Bash with your favorite programming language, using a few lines of Bash could lead to a much simpler code. For me, Bash is useful for automating repeated tasks like “download this, do something to those files, call this script, …”. Bash would be almost always available on the machine, so it is portable (no problems with dependencies!). It is also simple enough that others would easily understand what your code is doing. Bash is a tool for those fast-and-dirty tasks we often need to do on day to day basis.

If you are looking for more references on Bash, I recommend the Bash Pocket Reference book by Arnold Robbins and the Bite Size Bash cheatsheet from the ⭐ wizard zines ⭐ series by Julia Evans (@b0rk). If you need more advanced features than described below, then maybe you need some other tool than Bash for solving your problem?

What is /bin/sh?

People often wonder if /bin/sh and /bin/bash is the same and the answer is no. /bin/sh is just a symbolic link to Bash, Dash, etc. To check what is your default shell use echo "$SHELL". To change your default shell, use the chsh utility. Because the shells may differ in details of the implementation, make sure to start bash scripts with the shebang:


Bash should, but does not need to, be installed on all machines, so this is a safe choice. If unsure, use #!/bin/sh, but in such case, you need to remember that the shell you’ll be using would not guarantee to provide all the functionalities of Bash, only the basic ones defined by POSIX standard.

Hello World!

To print, you can use either echo, or printf (formatted).

$ echo "Hello World!"
Hello World!
$ printf "%.2f\n" 1.12345
$ printf "%s went to the %s and bought a %s\n" Jack shop lollypop
Jack went to the shop and bought a lollypop

In Bash, you don’t really need to quote the printed strings, but it is generally considered a good practice. Quotes improve readability, make the code more foolproof, and might be needed if the script will be evaluated using shells other than Bash. If you would use shellcheck for validating the script, it will always complain about variables that are not quoted, since it may lead to problems. When quoting strings, double quotes " will evaluate the variables, while single quotes, will take the string as-is.

$ echo "$PWD"
$ echo '$PWD'


To assign a local variable, use = without any spaces before or after it. The variables can be accessed by prefixing their name with $.

$ x = 2
x: command not found
$ x=2
$ x
x: command not found
$ echo "$x"

Alternatively, you can use ${} to access the variable, it may be useful when creating a string using a variable

$ foobar="hello!"
$ foo="Whiskey "
$ echo "$foobar"
$ echo "$foo"'bar'
Whiskey bar
$ echo "${foo}bar"
Whiskey bar

The variable can be freed by using unset

$ x=1
$ echo "x=$x"
$ unset x
$ echo "x=$x"

You can also define constants, that cannot be deleted, or altered

$ readonly PI=3.14
$ echo "$PI"
$ PI=3
sh: 5: PI: is read only
$ unset PI
sh: 6: unset: PI: is read only

Additionally, you can use export to make the variable available also to the child processes. There is a nice guide on Bash variables that goes into more detail.

Operations on the variables

Bash does not check if the variable exists when asking for its value, so echo $xsSXSaa would print an empty string, even if you never defined the xsSXSaa variable. Instead, it has a very advanced syntax for interacting with variables. If the variable does not have an assigned value, you can use ${variable:-default} to return the default value instead, or ${variable:=default} to assign and return the value. In some cases it may be useful to fail with an error message if the variable is not set ${variable?message}. Other expressions are summarized in the table below taken from this StackOverflow answer.

|   Expression    |  FOO="world"         |     FOO=""      |   unset FOO   |
|   in script:    |  (Set and Not Null)  |  (Set But Null) |    (Unset)    |
| ${FOO:-hello}   | world                | hello           | hello         |
| ${FOO-hello}    | world                | ""              | hello         |
| ${FOO:=hello}   | world                | FOO=hello       | FOO=hello     |
| ${FOO=hello}    | world                | ""              | FOO=hello     |
| ${FOO:?hello}   | world                | error, exit     | error, exit   |
| ${FOO?hello}    | world                | ""              | error, exit   |
| ${FOO:+hello}   | hello                | ""              | ""            |
| ${FOO+hello}    | hello                | hello           | ""            |

Additionally, Bash offers syntax for operating strings stored in the variables (everything is a string for Bash):

  • remove pattern from the beginning of the string: ${var#pattern}, ${var##pattern},
  • remove pattern from the back of the string: ${var%pattern}, ${var%%pattern},
  • substitute a pattern: ${var/pattern/replacement/}, or all it’s occurrences ${var//pattern/replacement/},
  • access substring ${var:offset}, ${var:offset:length}
  • convert first ${var^}, or all ${var^^} characters to uppercase,
  • convert first ${var,}, or all ${var,,} characters to lowercase.


Arrays can be created using round brackets. They are zero-indexed and the elements can be accessed using ${}.

$ arr=(1 2 3)
$ echo "${arr[0]}"
$ echo "${arr[@]}"
1 2 3
$ arr+=(4 5)
$ echo "${arr[@]}"
1 2 3 4 5

You can also iterate over the elements using a for loop.

arr=(1 2 3)
for x in "${arr[@]}"; do
    echo "$x"

Using curly brackets, you can create sequences ${start..end..step}.

$ echo {1..5}
1 2 3 4 5
$ echo {5..1..-2}
5 3 1
$ echo {a..z..3}
a d g j m p s v y

When using multiple curly brackets to create a string, it will create all the combinations of the possible strings. This can be used together with other commands, for example, to create or remove multiple files.

$ touch file_{1..3}{a..c}.{txt,md}
$ ls file*
file_1a.txt  file_1b.txt  file_1c.txt  file_2a.txt  file_2b.txt  file_2c.txt  file_3a.txt  file_3b.txt  file_3c.txt

Conditional statements

In Bash, you can use two different kinds of methods for evaluating logical expressions [ and [[. This can be very confusing at first since they can behave differently. This StackOverflow answer compares those operators, and in this thread that discusses additionally the use of ( and ((. More details can be found on the man page of the test. TL;DR you can safely use single [, unless you need some specific functionalities of the extended operator [[.

In Bash & and | are binary AND and OR operators, for logical operators, use instead &&, ||, and ! for negation.

It is useful to know some basic checks: -z empty string, -n non-empty string, -d directory exists, -f file exists, -s file is non-empty, -x executable file exists. Strings can be compared using the =, !=, <, >, operators, but beware of using == that behaves differently when used in [ and [[. For comparing numeric values use instead: -eq equal, -ne not equal, -lt lower than, -le less or equal, -gt greater than, -ge greater or equal. Alternatively, the ==, !=, <, <=, >, >= operators can be used in double round brackets to compare numeric values e.g. (( 2 < 3 )) is equivalent to [ 2 -lt 3 ].

Control flow

The control flow commands use their names inverted for closing the blocks, so there is if ... fi and case ... esac.

if cond1 ; then
elif cond2 ; then

I will use evaluating a basic mathematical expression to illustrate an if statement.

$ if [ "$(( 2 + 2 ))" -eq 4 ]; then
>   echo "wow! math works!"
> fi
wow! math works!

For checking multiple conditions, you can use the case ... in syntax.

case "$variable" in

Where the patterns can be either exact values that are matched, or wildcards and patterns. Moreover, different patterns can be combined using |. Additionally, there is a cool trick, that you can use ;& as a delimiter to call all the cases following the matched pattern, or ;;& to be able to match multiple patterns.

for and while loops

The for loop can either be used to iterate over explicitly listed elements

$ for name in "one" "two" "three"; do
>   echo "$name"
> done

or outputs of commands and arrays (see Arrays)

for f in "$(ls)"; do
    echo "$f"

For iterating until the brake condition is met, use while loop. The popular use case is iterating over lines of a file.

while IFS= read -r line; do
    echo "Text read from file: $line"
done < my_filename.txt

Evaluating expressions

To evaluate an expression you can use `...` or $(...), but using $(...) is recommended. While the quotes in the example below might look awkward, this is a valid approach in Bash, since variables need to be quoted and the whole the expression also should.

echo "$("$cmd")"
Tue 23 Feb 14:56:12 CET 2021

To evaluate math expressions, use double round brackets.

$ echo "$( 2 + 2 )"
2: command not found
$ echo "$(( 2 + 2 ))"


Functions in Bash are quite different from what you may know from another programming (scripting?) languages. They don’t include inputs in their definitions, instead, but use positional arguments accessed by $1, $2, … , ${10}, … etc. $0 is reserved for the name of the shell, or the shell script that contains the code.

$ hello() {
>   echo "Hello $1!"
> }
$ hello "Tim"
Hello Tim!

To access all elements, you can use $@.

$ first() { echo "$1"; }
$ first 1 2 3
$ all() { echo "$@"; }
$ all 1 2 3
1 2 3
$ tail() { shift; echo "$@"; }
$ tail 1 2 3
2 3

and $# holds the number of the arguments that were passed to the function.

$ count () { echo "$#"; }
$ count a b c

Remember to use the semicolon ; when writing multiple commands in a single line, this also applies to if ...; then, for ...; do, and if closing the curly braces in the same line ...; }.

Functions can also use read command to access files, or collect input from the user.

Functions in Bash do not return anything but the exit status. To provide an exit code using exit 0 for success, or any non-zero status, like exit 1 for error. The exit status of the most recently executed command is available through the $? variable. To communicate with the outside world, they use side effects like printing to stdout, or saving files.


Bash code often comes not as functions, but as scripts. The scripts behave like functions, so if you create the script, you can call it by invoking its name ./, you can also provide positional arguments like ./ -h. When the function is saved in a directory that was added to the $PATH, for example, /usr/bin/, you can call it by just invoking its filename. An example of a trivial script is given below.


if [[ "$1" == "-h" || "$1" == "--help" ]]; then
    echo "Usage: $(basename "$0") [-h|--help|name]"
    echo "Print 'Hello World!' or 'Hello [name]!' if name is provided."
    echo "options:"
    echo "-h or --help    Print this Help."
    exit 0

if [ -n "$1" ]; then
    echo "Hello $name!"
    echo "Hello World!"

As you can see, since Bash only has positional arguments, flags like -h are just strings passed as arguments. For simple scripts a bunch of if's would be enough, but otherwise you might need to use case ... in, combined with shift as described in the answers in this thread. But, if it gets that complicated, I usually drop Bash and switch to using a language that has more advanced ways of parsing the arguments.

The help gets printed when using the -h or --help flag and then the scripts exits with status 0 (success). There is no standard format for the documentation, though there is a popular convention that optional arguments are described in square brackets and alternatives are separated with |.

If you save the script to the file, next, you can validate it with shellcheck, make it executable, and run it.

$ shellcheck
$ chmod +x
$ ./ -h
Usage: [name]

Print 'Hello World!' or 'Hello [name]!' if name is provided.
$ ./
Hello World!
$ ./ Tim
Hello Tim!

Redirecting output and raising errors

While functions and scripts do not return any values, only the exit statuses, they can print to two channels stdout and stderr. The first one is used for regular printing, you see it in the console. The second one is standard error, we use it for throwing errors.

You can redirect the output of a command using >, or 1> for example, ls > files.txt will redirect the output of the ls function to the files.txt file. When redirecting to a file, > will overwrite the target file, to append it use >> instead. Use 2> if you want to redirect stderr. You can use two redirects ./ 1> output.txt 2> errors.log, or use &> to redirect both to the same target. If you want to suppress the output, just redirect it to /dev/null, for example,

$ find / -name "foo" 2> /dev/null

will suppress all the “Permission denied” errors. To redirect the stdout to both the console and a file, use the tee command.

In some cases, you may want to redirect stderr to stdout, this can be done using 2>&1, or the other way around 1>&2. This can be used to raise an error.

echo "Error!" 1>&2
exit 64

Another useful redirect method are the here strings <<<, that pass a string to a command as if it was a file.

$ wc -l "$(printf "first\nsecond\nthird\n")"
wc: 'first'$'\n''second'$'\n''third': No such file or directory
$ wc -l <<< "$(printf "first\nsecond\nthird\n")"

Chaining and piping

Multiple commands can be written in a single line when we combine them with &&, for example, sudo apt update && sudo apt upgrade. In such a case, they will be invoked sequentially, and the chain will stop in case one of them throws an error.

You can also pipe the output of one command as an input to another command. For example, ls | grep "foo" will redirect the list of files returned by ls and use grep to filter out all the names containing the “foo” phrase. For piping to sudo, you need to use the tee command.

To give a more advanced example of piping, we can use find to list all the Python files, use xargs to pass those file names to cat to print their contents, and use wc -l to count all the lines.

$ ( find ./ -name '*.py' -print0 | xargs -0 cat ) | wc -l

Parallel processes

To start two simultaneous processes, just combine them with &.

command1 &

You can initialize multiple processes from a for loop.

echo "Spawning 100 processes"
for i in {1..100}; do
    ( ./my_script & )
; done

To display a list of active jobs use the jobs command. fg [job_spec] moves the job to the foreground, Ctrl+Z or bg [job_spec] to the background, disown [job_spec] terminates it. To prevent the processes from dying with the shell being closed, you can use the “no hangup” nohup command.

Those commands are build-in and do not have man pages, so use fg --help or help fg for details. To list all the built-in commands use help alone.

Debugging and testing

To run a Bash script in debug mode use bash -x The debug mode can also be activated for chosen lines in a script by encapsulating them in set -x and set +x

Bash by default does not fail but continues running (to read more on the EOF trick, check this thread).

$ cat << EOF >
> #!/bin/bash
> foo
> bar
> echo "Done!"
$ bash
./ line 1: foo: command not found
./ line 2: bar: command not found

To turn this behavior off, you can add the following line in the beginning of your script:

set -euo pipefail

notice that using it has some pitfalls, so don’t use it blindly.

To discover common bugs and code smells in Bash scripts, you can use the open-source shellcheck tool. It conducts a static analysis of the script and provides many helpful hints for solving the issues.

If you want to add unit tests to your code, there is a useful script and the great bats testing framework.