Input & Output

Bash has tons of commands that print out information. While printing it to the terminal is great, there are many times when we’d like to be able to save the output for later or feed the output of one command into the input of another. Since bash is a shell, it has features that support these common tasks straight out of the box.

Streams (stdin, stdout, stderr)

Input and output between programs in a Unix environment is accomplished using “streams.” A stream is just a special file that either continuously receives text in or pushes text out.

Whenever a process starts, that process is given access to three “standard” streams.

Standard Streams short name number (fd)
standard input stdin 0
standard output stdout 1
standard error stderr 2
  • stdin is the type of stream that continuously receives input, and is one of the most common ways a program can receive input (other than from command line arguments).
  • stdout and stderr are the kind of stream that continuously send text out, and are the most common way that a process can communicate with the user or other programs.
    • stdout is generally used for normal program output
    • stderr is used to communicate something when an error has occurred.

All the streams are given a number (called a “file descriptor”), which you can see in the table.

Redirection (<, >, <<, >>)

When a process starts up normally, stdout and stderr are configured to print whatever they receive to the terminal screen. stdin is configured to continuously read input from the user’s keyboard (this is how you can communicate with programs that prompt you for input).

Using a bit of shell syntax, we can reconfigure what stdin, stdout, and stderr are for a program. We use some combination of less than (<) and greater than (>) symbols, along with a specific file where input or output should go. There are two flavors of outputting text: we can either overwrite the stream or append to it.

Syntax Meaning
command < file.txt Read the stdin of “command” from “file.txt”
command > file.txt Send the stdout of “command” to “file.txt”, overwriting its contents
command >> file.txt Append the stdout of “command” to the end of “file.txt”
command 2> file.txt Send the stderr of “command” to “file.txt”, overwriting its contents
command 2>> file.txt Append the stderr of “command” to the end of “file.txt”

If the specified file doesn’t exist, and you’re sending output there, the file will be created.


# 'hello.txt' doesn't exist, so it will be created
$ echo "Hello" > hello.txt
$ cat hello.txt

# Overwrite 'hello.txt'
$ echo "Goodbye" > hello.txt
$ cat hello.txt

# Append output
$ echo "Hello again :D" >> hello.txt
$ cat hello.txt
Hello again :D

# Redirecting stderr is useful for logging output for later reference
$ cat asdf
cat: asdf: No such file or directory
$ cat asdf 2> cat.log
$ cat cat.log
cat: asdf: No such file or directory

# Read input and save output in one line
$ cat < hello.txt > anotherfile.txt
$ cat anotherfile.txt
Hello again :D

# Send stdout somewhere and stdin somewhere else
# ... no redirection
$ cat asdf hello.txt
cat: asdf: No such file or directory
Hello again :D
# ... with redirection
$ cat asdf hello.txt 2> error.log > output.log
$ cat error.log
cat: asdf: No such file or directory
$ cat output.log
Hello again :D

Note: we’ve just been using cat and echo in these examples because it’s a simple command for demos. Redirection works on all shell commands!

Sending Both Output Streams

A very common task when using redirection is to send both stdout and stderr to the same place. This can be accomplished by actually redirecting one to the other!

# Send stderr to stdout, and then send stdout to a file
$ cat asdf hello.txt 2>&1 > alloutput.txt

# the numbers 2 and 1 come from the file descriptors mentioned above

# Same thing, but the other way around...
# Send stdout to stderr, and then send stderr to a file
$ cat asdf hello.txt 1>&2 2> alloutput.txt


Sometimes, we want to ignore the output of a command. There is a special file, called /dev/null which is a null device—that is, it discards anything written to it.

# Ignore all output, leave no trace
$ cat asdf hello.txt 2>&1 > /dev/null

Pipes (|)

Pipes are a way to chain together the output from one command with the input to another. Lines of shell code that uses pipes are sometimes referred to as “pipelines.” To create a pipe, we use the Unix pipe character: | (above the \ character on a U.S. keyboard).


Let’s say I want to figure out the number of words in the computer’s dictionary that contain the string “compute.” I could use the grep program (which searches a file for a pattern and prints all matches), and pipe the output to wc, a program that counts the number of lines given to it.

$ grep compute /usr/share/dict/words
... (shortened) ...

# Pipe output of grep (on stdout) to the input of wc (on stdin)
$ grep compute /usr/share/dict/words | wc -l
# Thus, 34 words have the word 'compute' in them

We’ll discuss the power of pipes in more detail in the section on Bash Oneliners. Using pipes effectively is a fine art which, when mastered, can reduce some incredibly hard problems down to one line of code!

Command Substitution ($(…))

While pipes are great for sharing stdin and stdout between processes, sometimes we want to use the output of a command in the arguments of another. We can accomplish this with the $(...) syntax.

# The date command can give us a convenient timestamp:
$ date +%s

# We can use command substitution to create a file with a timestamp
$ touch myfile-$(date +%s).txt
$ ls
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