The first thing users of the UNIX or Linux operating systems come face to face with is the shell. “Shell” is the UNIX term for a user interface to the system—something that lets you communicate with the computer via the keyboard and the display. Shells are just separate programs that encapsulate the system, and, as such, there are many to choose from.

Systems are usually set up with a “standard” shell that new users adopt without question. However, some of these standard shells are rather old and lack many features of the newer shells. This is a shame, because shells have a large bearing on your working environment. Since changing shells is as easy as changing hats, there is no reason not to change to the latest and greatest in shell technology.

Of the many shells to choose from, this book introduces the Bourne Again shell (bash for short), a modern general-purpose shell. Other useful modern shells are the Korn shell (ksh) and the “Tenex C shell” (tcsh); both are also the subjects of O’Reilly handbooks.

bash Versions

This book is relevant to all versions of bash, although older versions lack some of the features of the most recent version.[1] You can easily find out which version you are using by typing echo $BASH_VERSION. The earliest public version of bash was 1.0, and the most recent is 3.0 (released in July 2004). If you have an older version, you might like to upgrade to the latest one. Chapter 12 shows you how to go about it.

Summary of bash Features

bash is a backward-compatible evolutionary successor to the Bourne shell that includes most of the C shell’s major advantages as well as features from the Korn shell and a few new features of its own. Features appropriated from the C shell include:

  • Directory manipulation, with the pushd, popd, and dirs commands.

  • Job control, including the fg and bg commands and the ability to stop jobs with CTRL-Z.

  • Brace expansion, for generating arbitrary strings.

  • Tilde expansion, a shorthand way to refer to directories.

  • Aliases, which allow you to define shorthand names for commands or command lines.

  • Command history, which lets you recall previously entered commands.

bash’s major new features include:

  • Command-line editing, allowing you to use vi- or emacs-style editing commands on your command lines.

  • Key bindings that allow you to set up customized editing key sequences.

  • Integrated programming features: the functionality of several external UNIX commands, including test, expr, getopt, and echo, has been integrated into the shell itself, enabling common programming tasks to be done more cleanly and efficiently.

  • Control structures, especially the select construct, which enables easy menu generation.

  • New options and variables that give you more ways to customize your environment.

  • One dimensional arrays that allow easy referencing and manipulation of lists of data.

  • Dynamic loading of built-ins, plus the ability to write your own and load them into the running shell.

Intended Audience

This book is designed to address casual UNIX and Linux users who are just above the “raw beginner” level. You should be familiar with the process of logging in, entering commands, and doing simple things with files. Although Chapter 1 reviews concepts such as the tree-like file and directory scheme, you may find that it moves too quickly if you’re a complete neophyte. In that case, we recommend the O’Reilly handbook, Learning the UNIX Operating System, by Jerry Peek, Grace Todino, and John Strang.

If you’re an experienced user, you may wish to skip Chapter 1 altogether. But if your experience is with the C shell, you may find that Chapter 1 reveals a few subtle differences between the bash and C shells.

No matter what your level of experience is, you will undoubtedly learn many things in this book that will make you a more productive bash user—from major features down to details at the “nook-and-cranny” level that you may not have been aware of.

If you are interested in shell programming (writing shell scripts and functions that automate everyday tasks or serve as system utilities), you should also find this book useful. However, we have deliberately avoided drawing a strong distinction between interactive shell use (entering commands during a login session) and shell programming. We see shell programming as a natural, inevitable outgrowth of increasing experience as a user.

Accordingly, each chapter depends on those previous to it, and although the first three chapters are oriented toward interactive use only, subsequent chapters describe interactive, user-oriented features in addition to programming concepts.

This book aims to show you that writing useful shell programs doesn’t require a computing degree. Even if you are completely new to computing, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to harness the power of bash within a short time.

Toward that end, we decided not to spend too much time on features of exclusive interest to low-level systems programmers. Concepts like file descriptors and special file types might only confuse the casual user, and anyway, we figure those of you who understand such things are smart enough to extrapolate the necessary information from our cursory discussions.

Code Examples

This book is full of examples of shell commands and programs designed to be useful in your everyday life as a user, not just to illustrate the feature being explained. In Chapter 4 and onwards, we include various programming problems, which we call tasks, that illustrate particular shell programming concepts. Some tasks have solutions that are refined in subsequent chapters. The later chapters also include programming exercises, many of which build on the tasks in the chapter.

Feel free to use any code you see in this book and to pass it along to friends and colleagues. We especially encourage you to modify and enhance it yourself.

If you want to try examples but you don’t use bash as your login shell, you must put the following line at the top of each shell script:


If bash isn’t installed as the file /bin/bash, substitute its pathname in the above.

Chapter Summary

If you want to investigate specific topics rather than read the entire book through, here is a chapter-by-chapter summary:

Chapter 1 introduces bash and tells you how to install it as your login shell. Then it surveys the basics of interactive shell use, including overviews of the UNIX file and directory scheme, standard I/O, and background jobs.

Chapter 2 discusses the shell’s command history mechanism (including the emacs- and vi-editing modes), history substitution and the fc history command, and key bindings with readline and bind.

Chapter 3 covers ways to customize your shell environment without programming by using the startup and environment files. Aliases, options, and shell variables are the customization techniques discussed.

Chapter 4 is an introduction to shell programming. It explains the basics of shell scripts and functions, and discusses several important “nuts-and-bolts” programming features: string manipulation operators, brace expansion, command-line arguments (positional parameters), and command substitution.

Chapter 5 continues the discussion of shell programming by describing command exit status, conditional expressions, and the shell’s flow-control structures: if, for, case, select, while, and until.

Chapter 6 goes into depth about positional parameters and command-line option processing, then discusses special types and properties of variables, integer arithmetic, and arrays.

Chapter 7 gives a detailed description of bash I/O. This chapter covers all of the shell’s I/O redirectors, as well as the line-at-a-time I/O commands read and echo. It also discusses the shell’s command-line processing mechanism and the eval command.

Chapter 8 covers process-related issues in detail. It starts with a discussion of job control, then gets into various low-level information about processes, including process IDs, signals, and traps. The chapter then moves to a higher level of abstraction to discuss coroutines and subshells.

Chapter 9 discusses various debugging techniques, like trace and verbose modes, and the “fake” signal traps. It then presents in detail a useful shell tool, written using the shell itself: a bash debugger.

Chapter 10 gives information for system administrators, including techniques for implementing system-wide shell customization and features related to system security.

Chapter 11 discusses ways to make bash scripts more maintainable.

Chapter 12 shows you how to go about getting bash and how to install it on your system. It also outlines what to do in the event of problems along the way.

Appendix A compares bash to several similar shells, including the standard Bourne shell, the POSIX shell standard, the Korn shell (ksh), the public-domain Korn shell (pdksh), and the Z Shell (zsh).

Appendix B contains lists of shell invocation options, built-in commands, built-in variables, conditional test operators, options, I/O redirection, and emacs- and vi-editing mode commands.

Appendix C gives information on writing and compiling your own loadable built-ins.

Appendix D looks at the basics of programmable completion.

Conventions Used in This Handbook

We leave it as understood that when you enter a shell command, you press RETURN at the end. RETURN is labeled ENTER on some keyboards.

Characters called CTRL-X, where X is any letter, are entered by holding down the CTRL (or CTL, or CONTROL) key and pressing that letter. Although we give the letter in uppercase, you can press the letter without the SHIFT key.

Other special characters are LINEFEED (which is the same as CTRL-J), BACKSPACE (same as CTRL-H), ESC, TAB, and DEL (sometimes labeled DELETE or RUBOUT).

This book uses the following font conventions:


Used for UNIX filenames, commands not built into the shell (which are files anyway), and shell functions. Italic is also used for dummy parameters that should be replaced with an actual value, to distinguish the vi and emacs programs from their bash modes, and to highlight special terms the first time they are defined.


Used for bash built-in commands, aliases, variables, and options, as well as command lines when they are within regular text. Bold is used for all elements typed in by the user within regular text.

Constant Width

Used in examples to show the contents of files or the output from commands.

Constant Bold

Used in examples to show interaction between the user and the shell; any text the user types in is shown in Constant Bold. For example:$ pwd/home/cam/adventure/carrol $

Constant Italic

Used in displayed command lines for dummy parameters that should be replaced with an actual value.

Square Brackets

Used in Chapter 2 to show the position of the cursor on the command line being edited. For example:grep -l Alice < ~cam/book/[a]iw

We use UNIX as a shorthand for “UNIX and Linux.” Purists will correctly insist that Linux is not UNIX—but as far as this book is concerned, they behave identically.

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Using Code Examples

This book is here to help you get your job done. In general, you may use the code in this book in your programs and documentation. You do not need to contact us for permission unless you’re reproducing a significant portion of the code. For example, writing a program that uses several chunks of code from this book does not require permission. Selling or distributing a CD-ROM of examples from O’Reilly books does require permission. Answering a question by citing this book and quoting example code does not require permission. Incorporating a significant amount of example code from this book into your product’s documentation does require permission.

We appreciate, but do not require, attribution. An attribution usually includes the title, author, publisher, and ISBN. For example "Learning the bash Shell, Third Edition, by Cameron Newham and Bill Rosenblatt. Copyright 2005 O’Reilly Media, Inc., 0-596-00965-8.”

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Acknowledgments for the First Edition

This project has been an interesting experience and wouldn’t have been possible without the help of a number of people. Firstly, I’d like to thank Brian Fox and Chet Ramey for creating bash and making it the polished product it is today. Thanks also to Chet Ramey for promptly answering all of my questions on bash and pointing out my errors.

Many thanks to Bill Rosenblatt for Learning the korn Shell, on which this book is based; Michael O’Reilly and Michael Malone at iiNet Technologies for their useful comments and suggestions (and my net.connection!); Chris Thorne, Justin Twiss, David Quin-Conroy, and my mum for their comments, suggestions, and corrections; Linus Torvalds for the Linux operating system which introduced me to bash and was the platform for all of my work on the book; Brian Fox for providing a short history of bash; David Korn for information on the latest Korn shell. Thanks also to Depeche Mode for “101” as a backdrop while I worked, Laurence Durbridge for being a likable pest and never failing to ask “Finished the book yet?” and Adam (for being in my book).

The sharp eyes of our technical reviewers picked up many mistakes. Thanks to Matt Healy, Chet Ramey, Bill Reynolds, Bill Rosenblatt, and Norm Walsh for taking time out to go through the manuscript.

The crew at O’Reilly were indispensable in getting this book out the door. I’d like to thank Lenny Muellner for providing me with the formatting tools for the job, Chris Reilley for the figures, and Edie Freedman for the cover design. On the production end, I’d like to thank David Sewell for his copyediting, Clairemarie Fisher O’Leary for managing the production process, Michael Deutsch and Jane Ellin for their production assistance, Ellen Siever for tools support, Kismet McDonough for providing quality assurance, and Seth Maislin for the index.

I’m grateful to Frank Willison for taking me up on my first piece of email to ORA: “What about a book on bash?”

Last but by no means least, a big thank you to my editor, Mike Loukides, who helped steer me through this project.

Acknowledgments for the Second Edition

Thanks to all the people at O’Reilly. Gigi Estabrook was the editor for the second edition. Nicole Gipson Arigo was the production editor and project manager. Nancy Wolfe Kotary and Ellie Fountain Maden performed quality control checks. Seth Maislin wrote the index. Edie Freedman designed the cover, and Nancy Priest designed the interior format of the book. Lenny Muellner implemented the format in troff. Robert Romano updated the illustrations for the second edition.

Acknowledgments for the Third Edition

Thanks to the production people at O’Reilly and to the indexer.

Thanks to Chet Ramey for once again swiftly answering my queries on bash and for providing helpful comments on the book. I’d also like to thank Ian Macdonald for his feedback on Programmable Completion.

[1] Throughout this book we have clearly marked with footnotes the features that are not present in the earlier versions.

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