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Bash is the program that is the command line itself. BASH stands for the "Bourne-Again" Shell, the default shell for Linux and Mac OS X (Bourne-again in reference an original UNIX shell written by Stephen Bourne; BASH is a free software rewrite, part of the GNU project).

BASH scripts are, in the simplest form, just a sequence of command line commands saved in a file (or files). In this way, you can save a complicated series of steps in a single file (or BASH script). Using variables, you can turn a script into a tool that can, for instance, be applied to different input files, or perform an image transformation to a variable degree.


echo Hello there name
echo Hello there $name

Unlike most scripting languages, Bash is not forgiving of extra spaces and gets confused if you add them. Notice also how unlike most programming languages, in Bash text is text first, and interpreted as an expression by exception. It may be helpful to think of the $ as meaning substitute the value.

The use of curly braces around the name is optional, but is helpful to sometimes mark the end of a name if necessary.

echo Hello there $name!
echo $name123
echo ${name}123

There are useful special forms of variable substitution in Bash:

${name:-Joe} Return a default value if the variable is undefined
If name exists and isn't null, return its value; otherwise, return 'Joe'.
String starting from offset, up to length chars. Length can be omitted in which case you get the rest of the text. A negative offset is relative to the end (-1 means last character).
${#name} Length
Returns the length of a variable.
${name:=Joe} Sets a default value if the variable is undefined
Return the value of name if it exists and isn't null; otherwise, set it to 'Joe' and return that.
${name:+value} Test for a variable being set
Return the value if name is defined
${name:?message} Catches errors from a variable being undefined
Return the value of name if it exists and isn't null; otherwise, prints the message and stops the script (though not guaranteed to stop -- depends on shell?)

"Pattern-strippers" (with ShellWildcards, note that these are different from a *Regular Expression*)

${variable#pattern} Delete pattern \from start (smallest match)
${variable##pattern} Delete pattern \from start (longest match)
${variable%pattern} Delete pattern \from end (smallest match)
${variable%%pattern} Delete pattern \from end (longest match)

Strip a filename extension



You can do some basic arithmetic in the Bash. Note that all match is whole-number based -- doing maths with fractional numbers requires a different scripting language (like Python!)... but for basics, Bash is fine.

echo $((1+2))
echo $((243-800))
echo $((10/3))
echo $((10*234))

Note that when using variables, you just need the outer $.

echo $((x+1))
echo $((x*17))

See also: [1]

Command Substitution

Command substitution is very powerful, allowing you to run a command and capture the result in a variable, to then use in another command. There are two forms for doing this, $() and "backticks".

Hey there $(whoami).

Backticks (angled-backward single quotes -- find them on your keyboard!) also work:

today=`date +%A`
echo Hello, today is $today


New style

for i in {1..20}
    echo counting $i
for i in {1..20..2}
    echo counting by 2 : $i


C-style counting loops

Bash supports C-style counting loops, example:

for ((i=0; i<10; i++))
echo $i

In this compact notation, the loop is determined by a description contained in double-parentheses with 3 parts separated by semi-colons:

for ((initialize; check; increment))


  1. Initialize: Done once before starting the loop, i=0 means use the variable named i, and start at 0.
  2. Check: Check this after each loop and stop when it's not true, i<10 means keep looping as long as i is smaller than 10.
  3. Increment: Do this at the end of each loop, i++ makes i go up by one each time. Note this actually happens before the check condition is tried.

Iteration on a list

A for loop can be a way to consider the possibilities of a list of things. The code placed inside the "body" of the loop gets performed for each of the things in the list of possibilities. A loop is the same as repeatedly setting the given variable name and performing the code inside the loop, for each value in the list one after the other.

for n in bob carol ted alice
  echo $n

Technically, a for loop is the same as assigning a variable (you provide the name) to each value in the list in turn, and each time running the code inside the loop. If we were to "unwrap the loop" it would look like this:

Some variations of the above using a variable, and the contents of a file for the list of possibilities, both would produce the same output as above.

names="bob carol ted alice"
for n in $names
  echo $n

for n in $(cat names.txt)
  echo $n

A nested loop allows you to consider all possible 'combinations'.

for n1 in $names
  for n2 in $names
    echo $n1 and $n2

would produce the output:

bob and bob
bob and carol
bob and ted
bob and alice
carol and bob
carol and carol
carol and ted
carol and alice
ted and bob
ted and carol
ted and ted
ted and alice
alice and bob
alice and carol
alice and ted
alice and alice

Looping over filenames

for x in *.jpg
  echo $x

Inifinte loops

while true do echo Stop this crazy thing!!! done

While loops

A while loop repeats a block of code as long as the test condition is true.

Using the read command, you can use a while loop to do something with the text of stdin, line by line (nb: line is just a variable name, it could be anything)...

while read line
  echo $line

You can also use a while loop to count... (nb: the spaces inside the brackets are important)

while [ $x -lt 10 ]
  echo and a $x...

If-Then-Else Braches

If-then is a fundamental control structure for a computer program. Virtually every procedural (how-to) programming language will contain an if-then statement.

In an 'if-then' structure, a test 'condition' is given which the computer first evaluates (checks) to either true or false. If the condition is true, the program runs the code listed after the 'then'.

In Bash, an if-then looks like:

if [ $name = "fred" ]
  echo Hi there Fred, long time no see!

Notice how the if "block" ends with the word "fi". (If spelled backwards, nerd humor ;).

Often, an 'else' clause is included with code to run when the condition is "false".

if [ $name = "fred" ]
  echo Hi there Fred, long time no see!
  echo Do I know you?

You can check other conditions using "elif", just add as many as you need:

read name
if [ $name = "fred" ]
  echo Hi there Fred, long time no see!
elif [ $name = "ethel" ]
  echo Hey Ethel, whatz cookin?
elif [ $name = "desi" ]
  echo Babalu!
  echo Do I know you?
echo bye bye

If-then is sometimes called a branch or branching statement. Notice that in terms of how the program "flows" and if-then-else structure creates a literal fork in the road, with *only one* road followed, never more than one.

read name

$name = "fred" ? $name = "ethel" ? $name = "desi" ? else...
echo Hi there Fred, long time no see! echo Hey Ethel, what's cookin? echo Babalu! echo Do I know you?

echo bye bye


You can think of defining a function as adding a new word to a programming languages vocabulary. In a BASH script, when you define a new function, the name of the that function becomes like a new command-line program that you can call just like any other. Note the two styles of defining a function: -

function greet {
  echo hello

goodbye () {
  echo bye

echo foo

Note that 'defining' a function doesn't have any immediate effect when the program runs. It's only once the function gets "called" (the functions name is used as a command, in the last 4 lines of the code above) that the code inside the function gets put into action.


Other tutorials for BASH scripting: