Bash Programming

Everything we’ve covered about Bash up to now has really been Bash programming in disguise. However, all that you’ve really seen is how to run single lines of code. While some of these single lines are really powerful, we can do better.

Bash is a programming language like any other, and as such we can create files that contain Bash programs.

Conditionals (if)

The general syntax of a Bash if statement is

if <condition>; then

# OR

if <condition>; then

The condition is sort of tricky; Bash doesn’t have boolean values like true and false. Instead, it has commands, and every command that you run in the shell has to return a number. When programs run to completion without an error, they return 0. When an error occurs, they return an error code, which is usually 1, -1, or some other number that corresponds to the type of error that occurred.

For the most part, we ignore this and coerce Bash into behaving as if it had booleans. To do this, we use the test program, which is abbreviated as [. For a comprehensive reference, see man test. To see how it works though, let’s see some examples:


# check if variable equals a string
if [ "$myvar" = "something" ]; ...

# check if variable doesn't equal a string
if [ "$myvar" != "something" ]; ...

# test if a file exists and is a regular file
if [ -f "./myfile" ]; ...

# test if a directory exists
if [ -d "./myfile" ]; ...

# test if a file exists (of any type)
if [ -e "./myfile" ]; ...

# test if a string is the empty string (length zero)
if [ -z "$myvar" ]; ...

# test if either of two conditions are true (logical or)
if [ -z "$myvar" -o "$myvar" = "something" ]; ...

Again, for a complete list of flags you can use, check out man test.

Loops (for)

We’ll just be talking about for loops here, even though Bash also has while loops. While loops come up in a few programs, but for loops are far more common. Syntax:

for myvar in <items>; do
  # can access current item with $myvar

where <items> is a space-delimitted string. What happens is that myvar iteratively takes on the next “word” contained in <items>. <items> can be a valid Bash expressions, so you can loop over things like the contents of a variable, a Bash glob, or the result of a command substitution.


# .
# ├── colors
# │   ├── blue
# │   ├── green
# │   ├── red
# │   └── white
# └── seasons
#     ├── fall
#     ├── spring
#     ├── summer
#     └── winter

# using a bash glob (bash globs exapand to space-separated strings)
for file in *; do
  echo $file
# output:
# colors
# seasons

# using command substitution (the dictionary is newline-separated)
for word in $(cat /usr/share/dict/words); do
  echo "Current word: $word"
# output:
# Current word: A
# Current word: a
# Current word: aa
# Current word: aal
# Current word: aalii
# ...

# using contents of a variable
seasons="fall winter spring summer"
for season in $seasons; do
  echo $season
# output:
# fall
# winter
# spring
# summer

Positional Parameters

Let’s take a look at a simple program:

#!/usr/bin/env bash


if [ "$first_argument" = "hello" ]; then
  echo 'Hello!'
  echo "Aww, you didn't say hi to me..."

Notice that we used a special variable $1 in the previous command. We didn’t set it; rather, it was set for us before our Bash program started. It contains the first argument that the user specified at the command line after typing the command itself. Thus, we have to run

./ hello

in order for $first_argument to equal “hello” and get the program to say hi to us.

For more about positional parameters, check out this page.

In-Depth Bash Programming

Bash is a very intricate and powerful language. It’s much too large to be covered in full here; indeed, we’ve only scratched the surface. If you’re looking for a good resource to read cover-to-cover, check out the tutorial by The Linux Documentation Project.

Other than that, just be curious. A lot of the time, just recognizing that a particular Bash command would be handy to help you solve a problem is enough to form the beginnings of a Bash script. From there, well-formulated questions and Google searches will get you the rest of the way there.

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