Shell Field Guide

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

This booklet is intended to be a catalog of tricks and techniques you may want to use if you're doing some sort of complex scripting. Some are useful in "The Real World (TM)", some are more playful, and might not have such direct impact in your day-to-day life. Some are pure entertainment. You'll have to judge by yourself which belong to which. I'll try to keep the rhetoric to the minimum to maximize signal/noise.

The git repo is at Any feedback is greatly appreciated. Keep in mind this is not any kind of official doc. I just write MY current "state of the art" and I'll be updating the contents with useful stuff I find or discover, that are not widely explained in usual manuals/wikis.

You surely have some amount of sh/bash/zsh in your stack that probably started as one-off scripts, and later grew and were copypasted everywhere in your pipelines, repos, coworkers' ~/bin, or your coworkers use for their own things (with some variations), etc. Those scripts are very difficult to kill and they have a very high mutation rate.

2 Which Shell?

No matter if you use Linux, Mac, or Windows, you should be living most of the time in a shell to enjoy the content shown here. Some value comes from running scripts, and some comes from the daily usage and refinement of your helper functions, aliases, etc. in interactive mode.

In general the examples here are meant to run in Bash or Zsh, which are compatible for the most part.

3 Level

These examples are based on non-trivial real world code I've written using patterns I haven't seen applied in many places over the net. A few of the snippets are stolen from public repos I find interesting. Also, important scripting stuff might be missing if I don't feel I have anything to add to the generally available info around.

4 Patterns

4.1 Use Shellcheck

First, let's get that out of the way. This is low-hanging fruit. And you will get the most of this booklet by following it.

A lot of the most common errors we usually make are well known ones. And in fact, we all usually fail in similar ways. Bash is known for being error prone when dealing with testing variable values, string operations, or flaky subshells and pipes.

Installing shellcheck will flag many of those ticking bombs for you.

No matter which editor you are using, you should be able to install a plugin to do automatic checks while you're editing.

In emacs' case, the package is called flymake-shellcheck, and a quick configuration for it is:

(use-package flymake-shellcheck
  :ensure t
  :commands flymake-shellcheck-load
  (add-hook 'sh-mode-hook 'flymake-shellcheck-load))

Shellcheck is available on most distros, so it's just an apt, brew, or nix-env away.

4.2 Booleans and Conditionals

In any shell, foo && bar will execute bar only if foo succeeded. That means that foo returned 0. That means that to && (which you read like "and"), 0 is true. so yes. 0 is true, and other values are false.

4.3 Arrays

Ordered list of things.

foo=("ls" "/tmp/")

echo ${foo[-2]}
echo ${foo[-1]}
echo ${foo[0]}
echo ${foo[1]}
echo ${foo[2]}

for i in "${foo[@]}"; do
  echo $i

echo ${#foo[*]}
echo ${#foo[@]}

Are * and @ equal? nope.


  echo 'MAIN sees ' $# ' args'

main $*
main $@

main "$*"
main "$@"

### end ###

and I run it like this:

my_script 'a b c' d e

4.4 Pass Arrays around

a=('Track 01.mp3' 'Track 02.mp3')
myfun "${a[@]}" # pass array to a function
b=( "${a[@]}" ) # copy array

Read the great Oil Shell blogpost.

4.5 Slurping arrays

A nice way to read a bunch of elements in one go is to use readarray.

parse_args() {
  [[ $# -eq 0 ]] && die "Usage: $0 <version>"
  local version_split=$(echo $version | tr '.' '\n')
  readarray -t version_array <<< "$version_split"

  if [[ -z ${version_array[3]} ]]; then
    die "not enough version numbers"

Even nicer would be to use IFS so we'd be able to split in one go.

IFS=. read -a ver <<<""
echo ${ver[0]}
echo "next/${ver[0]}.${ver[1]}.x.x"

Or, use it in a destructuring fashion:

  local major minor patch
  # shellcheck disable=SC2034,SC2162
  IFS="." read major minor patch < <(get_nix_version)
  local -p

$ get_nix_version_parts

4.6 Array slices

you can slice an array like this:

a=(a b c d e f g)
echo "${a[@]:1}"  # tail of array
echo "${a[@]:1:2}"  # from that, take 2 elements

This is a parameter expansion, same as ${a/foo/bar} and similar replacements. As such, The $@ and $* are treated a bit differently.

Look at ${parameter:offset:length} in the parameter expansion bash manual and be amazed by the specialcasing :).

This concrete case is when the parameter is an indexed array name subscripted by '@' or '*'.

Don't ask me why, but when the array is $@, it seems that it behaves a bit differently. It's 'explained' in that same part of the docs.

 a=(a b c d e f g)
foo() {
 echo "${@:2}"  # tail of array
 echo "${@:2:2}"  # from that, take 2 elements
foo a b c d
foo "${a[@]}"

4.7 Read lines from file

The read command we used just above is part of the usual idiom to read a file line by line.

while read -r line; do
  echo $line
done < /tmp/file.txt

More related info in the BashFAQ001. But it's very rare the case where I need to iterate a file line by line.

4.8 Assign to $1,$2,$3…

set -- can be used as an incantation to assign to the positional parameters. Let me show you.

set -- a b c
echo $1 $2 $3
echo $@

See? here's how to "unshift" a parameter to the current arg list:

set -- "injected" "$@"

4.9 Functions

Functions are functions. They receive arguments, and they return a value.

The special thing about shell functions is that they also can use the file descriptors of the process. That means that they "inherit" STDIN, STDOUT, STDERR (and maybe more).

Use them.

Another point is that function names can be passed as parameters, because they are passed as strings, but you can call them inside as functions again. Maybe they are better than you think.

f() {
  $1 hi

f echo
f touch # will create a file 'hi'

4.10 Variables

By default variables are global, to a file. No matter if you assign them for the first time inside a function, or at the top level.

f() {
  echo $bar
f() {
echo $bar

You make a variable local to a function with local. Use it as much as you can (kinda obvious).

myfun() {
  local bar
  echo $bar

echo $bar
echo $bar

4.11 Variable/Parameter Expansions

They offer some variable manipulations using shell only, not having to create another process sed,awk,perl.

# substitute one
echo ${v/na/NA}   # baNAna

# substitute many
echo ${v//na/NA}  # baNANA

# substitute from the start (think ^ in PCRE)
echo ${v/#ba/NA}  # NAnana

# substitute from the end
echo ${v/%na/NA}  # banaNA

# Capitalize
echo ${v^}  # Banana

# Uppercase
echo ${v^^}  # BANANA

Take a read on and for more details.

And a nice non-obvious trick from here is to prefix or suffix a variable string:

echo ${v/%/na}   # bananana
echo ${v/#/na}   # nabanana

And a less obvious trick is to prefix every element of an array with a fixed string:

local arr=(var1=1 var2=2)
echo ${arr[*]/#/"--env "}

This will produce --env var1=1 --env var2=2. Super useful to be combined when building flags for docker.

Another nice trick is a portable realpath $PWD with ${0%/*}, which I found in picolisp's vip:

exec ${0%/*}/bin/picolisp ${0%/*}/lib.l @bin/vip "$@"

${0%/*}/bin/picolisp will replace keep the path of the current script and append /bin/picolisp. A cool way to get a realpath.

4.12 Interpolation

We previously saw that functions can be passed around as strings, and be called later on.

Something that might not be obvious is that the string can be created from shorter strings, and that allows for an extra flexibility, that comes with its own dangers, but it's a very useful pattern to dispatch functions based on user input or function outputs.

$l$s .

4.13 dispatch functions using args

A nice usage of the previous technique is using user input as a dispatching method.

You've probably seen this pattern already:

while [[ $# -gt 0 ]]; do

case $1 in
    exit 1

And it is useful for its own good, and flexible.

But for some simpler cases, we can dispatch based on the variable itself:

cmd_foo() {


The problem with this is that in case we supply a $1 that doesn't map to any cmd_$1 we'll get something like

bash: cmd_notexisting: command not found

4.14 command_not_found_handle

Here's a detail on a kinda obscure bash (only bash) feature.

You can set a hook that will be called when bash tries to run a command and it doesn't find it.

command_not_found_handle() {
  echo "$1 is not a correct command. Cmds allowed:"
  echo "$(typeset -F | grep cmd_ | sed -e 's/.*cmd_/cmd_/')"

cmd_foo() {
  echo "foo"

cmd_baz() {
  echo "baz"

You can unset the function command_not_found_handle to go back to the normal behavior.

4.15 Return Values for Conditionals

if 's test condition can use the return values of commands. That's a known thing, but a lot of code you see around relies on [[]] to test the return values of commands/functions anyway.

if echo "foo" | grep "bar" ; then
  echo "found!"

This is much clearer than

if [[ ! -z $( echo "foo" | grep "bar") ]]; then
  echo "found!"

As easy and trivial as it seems, this way of thinking pushes you forward to thinking about creating smaller functions that check the conditions and return 0 or non 0. It's syntactically smaller, and usually makes you play by the rules of the commands, more than just finding your way around the output strings.

if less_than $package "1.3.2"; then
  die "can't proceed"

4.16 set variable in an "if" test

Usual pattern to capture the output of a command and branch depending on its return value is:

res="$(... whatever ...)"
if [ "$?" -eq 0 ]; then ...

Well, you can test the return value AND capture the output at the same time!

if res="$(...)"; then

Unfortunately, it doesnt' work with local, so you can't be defining a local var in the same line. So, the variable is either global, or you spent a line to declare it local before. Still, I think I prefer to have a line to declare the variable as local rather than having explicit $?'s around.

local var1
if var1=$(f); then
  echo "$var1"


4.17 Do work on loop conditions

I've not seen it used a lot (and there might be a reason for it, who knows), while conditions are just plain commands, so you can put other stuff than []/[[]]/test there.

Heres's an idiomatic way to iterate through all the arguments of a function while consuming the $* array.

while(($#)) ; do

And here's a pseudo-repl that keeps shooting one-off commands. This will keep shooting tr commands to whatever strings you give it, with the usual rlwrap goodies.

while rlwrap -o -S'>> ' tr a-z A-Z ; do :; done

Note: : is a nop builtin in bash.

4.18 One Branch Conditionals

The usual conditionals one sees everywhere look like if.

if [[ some-condition ]]; then
  echo "yes"

This is all good and fine, but in the same vein of using the least powerful construct for each task, it's nice to think of the one way conditionals in the form of && and || as a way to explicitly say that we don't want to do anything else when the condition is not met. It's a hint to the reader.

some-condition || {
   echo "log: warning!"

other-condition && {
   echo "log: all cool"

This conveys the intention of doing something just in one case, and that the negation of this is not interesting at all. There's a big warning you have to be aware of. The same as with lua's ... and .. or .., bash || and && are not interchangeable for if...else...end. BashWiki has an explanation why, but, the same as in Lua's case, if the "then" part returns false, the else will run.

There are lots of references to this, but I like this recent post where it explains it for arrays in higher level languages like ruby:

An extended article of this kind of conditionals can be found here.

4.19 pushd/popd

pushd and popd are used to move to some directory and go back to it in a stack fashion, so nesting can happen and you never lose track. The problem is that it still is on you to have a popd per pushd.

pushd /tmp/my-dir
  echo $PWD

Here's an alternative way, that at least makes sure that you close all pushd with a popd.

Starting a new shell and cd-ing , will make all commands in that subshell be in that directory, and will come back to the old directory after closing the new spawned shell.

(cd /tmp/my-dir

Remember to inherit_errexit or set -e inside the subshell if you need. That's a very easy trap to fall into.

4.20 wrap functions

Bash can't pass blocks of code around, but the alternative is to pass functions. More on that later.

mute() {
  "$@" >/dev/null

mute pushd /tmp/foobar

4.21 use [[

Unless you want your script to be POSIX compliant, use [[ instead of [. [ is a regular command. It's like ls, or true. You can check it by searching for a file named [ in your path.

Being a normal command it always evaluates its params, like a regular function. On the other hand though, [[ is a special bash operator, and it evaluates the parameters lazily.

# [[ does lazy evaluation:
[[ a = b && $(echo foo >&2) ]]

# [ does not:
[ a = b -a "$(echo foo >&2)” ]


4.22 eval?

When you have mostly small functions that are mostly pure, you compose them like you'd do in any other language.

In the following snippet, we are in a release script. Some step builds a package inside a docker container, another step tests a package already built.

A nice way to build ubuntus, for example, is to add an ARG to the Dockerfile so we can build several ubuntu versions using the same file.

It'd look like this:


RUN apt-get ...

We build that image and do all the building inside it, mounting a volume shared with our host, so we can extract our .deb file easily.

After that, to do some smoke tests on the package, the idea is to install the .deb file in a fresh ubuntu image.

Let's pick the same base image we picked to build the package.

# evaluate the string "centos:$VERSION" (that comes from
# centos/Dockerfile) in the current scope
# DISTRO is ubuntu:18.04
local VERSION=$(get_version $DISTRO) # VERSION==18.04
run_test "file.deb" "$(eval echo $(awk '/^FROM /{print $2; exit}' $LOCAL_PATH/$(get_dockerfile_for $DISTRO)))" # ubuntu:18.04

The usage of eval is there to interpolate the string that we get from the FROM in the current environment.

WARNING: You know, anything that uses eval is dangerous per se. Do not use it unless you know very well what you're doing AND the input is 100% under your control. Usually, more restricted commands can achieve what you want to do. In this particular case, you could use envsubst, or just manually replace $\{?VERSION\}? in a sed.

test_release "$PACKAGE_PATH" $(awk '/^FROM /{print $2; exit}' $LOCAL_PATH/$(get_dockerfile_for $DISTRO) | sed -e "s/\$VERSION/$VERSION/")

Yet another way is using shell parameter expansions.

echo 'this is $var1' >/tmp/f.txt
f=$(cat /tmp/f.txt)
echo "${f}"  # this is $var1
echo "${f@P}"  # this is value

4.23 pass commands around

This one uses DRY_RUN. While refactoring a script that does some curls, we want to make sure that our refactored version does the exact same calls in the same order.

compare_outputs() {
  export DRY_RUN=1
  git checkout b1
  $@ 2>/tmp/1.out
  git checkout b2
  $@ 2>/tmp/2.out
  echo "diffing"
  diff /tmp/1.out /tmp/2.out
compare_outputs ./ -p rhel:6 -R 'internal-preview'

First we create a function compare_outputs, that gets a command to run as parameters. The function will run it once, redirecting the standard error to a file /tmp/1.out.

Then, it checks out the branch that contains our refactored version, and will run the command again, redirecting standard error to /tmp/2.out, and will diff the two outputs.

In case there's a difference between the two, diff will output them, and the function will return the non-zero exit value of diff. If everything went fine, compare_outputs will succeed.

Now that we know that for these inputs the command runs fine, we want to find out if it works for other types of releases, not only internal-preview.

Here I'm using zsh's global aliases to give a much more fluid interface to the commands, but you can use the regular while/for loops:

alias -g SPLIT='| tr " " "\n" '
alias -g FORI='| while read i ; do '
alias -g IROF='; done '

set -e
echo "ga internal-preview rc1 rc2" SPLIT FORI
   noglob compare_outputs ./ -p rhel:8 -R "$i"

So, combining the two, we can have a really smooth way of iterating over the possibilities, without really messing into the details of loops.

WARNING: This approach is not robust enough to put it anywhere in production, but to write quick one off scripts is a killer. Experimenting in a shell and creating tools and 2nd order tools to make interaction faster builds a language that grows on you, and keeps improving your toolbelt.

4.24 The Toplevel Is Hopeless

Shellscripts are thought as quick one-off programs, but when they are useful, they are sticky, so you better write them from the start as if it would be permanent. The upfront cost is very low anyway. Structure the script like a regular app.

Bash is extremely permissive in what it allows to be coded and ran. By default, failures do not make the program exit or throw an exception (no exceptions). And for some reason, the common usage of shellscripts is to put everything in the top level. Don't do that. Do the least possible things in the toplevel.

A way to improve the defaults, is setting a bunch of flags that make the script stricter, so it fails on many situations you'd want to stop anyway because something went wrong.

#!/usr/bin/env bash
set -eEuo pipefail
shopt -s inherit_errexit

main() {

main "$@"


Although… Why doesn't set -e do what I expected?

4.25 Check your deps

Giving useful information to the users will help them using the script, and you debugging it. Script dependencies is a common use case that we'll do it in a nice way.

deps() {
  for dep in "$@"; do
    mute command -v "$dep" || die "$dep dependency missing"

main() {
  deps jq curl
  # ...

4.26 source files

source is like require or import in some programming languages. It evaluates the sourced file in the context of the current script, so you get all definitions in your environment.

It's simple, but it helps you get used to modularize your code into libraries.

Be careful, it's very rudimentary, and it will be overwriting old vars or functions if names clash. There's no namespacing happening there.


# the same

4.27 Use Scripts as a Libs

A python-inspired way of using scripts as loadable libraries is to check whether the current file was the one that was called originally or it's being just sourced.

Again, no side effects in load time makes this functionality possible. otherwise, you're on your own.

# Allow sourcing of this script
if [[ $(basename "$(realpath "$0")") == "$(basename "${BASH_SOURCE}")" ]]; then
  parse_args "$@"

4.28 Tmpfiles Everywhere

Your script is not going to run alone. Don't assume paths are fixed or known.

CI/CD Pipelines run many jobs in the same node and files can start clashing.

Make use of $(mktemp -d /tmp/foo-bar.XXXXX). If you have to patch a file, do it in a clean fresh copy. Don't modify files in old paths

If you HAVE TO modify paths, do it idempotently. But really, don't do it.

git_clone_tmp() {
  local repo=${1:?repo is required}
  local ref=${2:?ref is required}
  tmpath=$(mktemp -d "/tmp/cloned-$repo-XXXXX")
  on_exit "rm -rf $tmpath"
  git clone -b ${ref} $repo $tmpath

CAVEAT: You have to manually delete the directory if you want it cleaned.

Here's an article with very good advice on tempfiles.

4.29 Cleanup tasks with trap

trap is used to 'subscribe' a callback when something happens. Many times it's used on exit. It's a good thing to cleanup tmpdirs after your script exits, so you can use the output of mktemp -d and subscribe a cleanup function for it.

on_exit() {
  rm -rf $1
local tmpath=$(mktemp -d /tmp/foo-bar.XXXXX)
trap "on_exit $tmpath" EXIT SIGINT

4.30 array of callbacks on_exit

Level up that pattern, we can have a helper to add callbacks to run on exit. Get used to these kind of patterns, they are super powerful and save you lots of manual bookkeeping.


function on_exit_fn {
  for cb in "${ON_EXIT[@]}"; do $cb || true; done
  return $EXIT_RES

trap on_exit_fn EXIT SIGINT

function on_exit {

local v_id=$(docker volume create)
on_exit "docker volume rm $v_id"
# Use your v_id knowing that it'll be available during your script but
# will be cleaned up before exiting.

4.31 stacktrace on error

Here's a nice helper for debugging errors in bash. In case of non-0 exit, it prints a stacktrace.

set -Eeuo pipefail
trap stacktrace EXIT
stacktrace() {
    if [ $rc != 0 ]; then
        printf '\nThe command "%s" triggerd a stacktrace:\n' "$BASH_COMMAND"
        for i in $(seq 1 $((${#FUNCNAME[@]} - 2))); do
          printf '\t%s: %s() called in %s:%s\n' "${BASH_SOURCE[$i]}" "${FUNCNAME[$i]}" "${BASH_SOURCE[$j]}" "${BASH_LINENO[$i]}";


4.32 Dots and colons allowed in function names!

A way to split the namespace is to have libs define functions with their own namespace.

I've gotten used to use dots or colons as namespace separator.

semver.greater() {
 # ...


semver:greater() {
 # ...

4.33 make steps of the process as composable as possible by using "$@"

By using $@ to pass commands as parameters around you can get to a degree of composability that allows for a nice chaining of commands.

Here's a very simple version of watch. See how you can every 2 ls -la. I think that style is called Bernstein Chaining. But I'm not sure if it's exactly the same. It also looks like currying or partial evaluation to me if you squint a little bit.

every() {
   while true; do
     sleep $secs;

As you know by now, bash doesn't pass blocks of code around, but the alternative is to pass function names.

mute() {
  $@ >/dev/null 2>/dev/null
mute ls

So now we can create the most useless command composition ever:

every 1 mute echo hi
mute every 1 echo hi

For the particular redirection problem, another option is to use aliases. Redirects can be written anywhere on your CLI (not just at the end), so the following will work using a plain alias:

alias mute='>/dev/null 2>/dev/null'
mute ls

4.34 do_times/foreach_*

shellscripts are highly side-efffecty, and even though the scoping of variables is not very empowering, you can get a limited amount of decomposition of loops by passing function names.

This is a lame example, but I hope it shows the use case, it allows you to group already existing functions while taking advantage of a fixed looping iterator, and leaving traces of the current loop vars in the global "variable" environment.

create_user() {
  uname="u$1" # leave uname in the global env so later functions see it
  http :8080/users name="$uname"

create_pet() {
  http :8080/users/$uname/pets name="$pname"

create_bundle() {
  create_user $1
  create_pet $1

do_times() {
  local n=$1; shift
  for i in $(seq $n); do
    "$@" $i

do_times 15 create_bundle

A bit more complex is runnning a command to every repo in an org:

run_tests() {

foreach_repo_with_index() {
  local counter=0
  local repos=$(http$1/repos)
  for entry in $(echo $repos | jq -r '.[].git_url'); do
    (git_clone_tmp $entry master
     cd $tmpath
     "$@" $counter $entry

foreach_repo_with_index kidd run_tests

4.35 <(foo) and >(foo)

Some commands ask for files as inputs. And sometimes you have that file, but sometimes you're only creating that file to pass it to the command. In those cases, creating temporary files is not necessary if you use <(cmd). Here's a way to diff the output of 2 commands without putting them in a temporary file.

diff <(date) <(date)
diff <(date) <(sleep 1; date)

The same happens with outputs. Commands that ask you for a destination file. You can trick them by using >(command) as a file. A nice trick is to use >(cat) to know what's going on there. Also useful to send stuff to the clipboard >(xclip) before running something on the output.

What the shell does in those cases is to bind a file descriptor of the process created inside < or > to the first process.

You can experiment with those using commands like echo <(pwd).

In Zsh you can use m-x expand-word to see the file descriptors being expanded.

A way to peek into a huge pipe is to tee >(cat)

4.36 Modify behavior by linking files

Imagine you want to remove the .bash_history file and not record history of commands. You don't can't avoid bash to write to that file, but what you can do is to link .bash_history to /dev/null. That way, bash will keep appending things to the expected output file, without noticing that it is really writing to /dev/null. The trick is to use: ln -sf /dev/null .bash_history.

4.37 Modify a file on the fly, without changing it on disk

If you want to use a slightly modified version of a file for a single use, and then throw it away, consider the following:

Everywhere that you should pass file, you could pass <(cat orig_file) instead, because they have the same content, only the second version is ephemeral.

If you want a modified version of it, we can attach more commands to the subshell.

Example of a command that reuses your ~/.psqlrc and adds a line in the end to make the session read-only.

ropsql() {
    cat ~/.psqlrc &&
    echo 'set session characteristics as transaction read only;') \
  psql "$@"

4.38 Use xargs

Continuing with other ways of plumbing commands into other commands, there's xargs. Some commands work seamlessly with pipes, by taking inputs from stdin and printing to stdout. But some others like to work with files, and they ask for their parameters in their args list. For example, evince. It wouldn't be even expected to cat a pdf and pass it to evince through stdin.

In general, to convert from this pattern: cmd param to echo param| cmd, xargs can be helpful. Look at its man page to know how to split or batch args in multiple cmd calls.

Xargs is helpful for parallelizing work. You should look at its man page, but just know it can help in running parallel processes (check -P in its man).

Other tips on this great Guide to xargs.

4.39 xargs + paste

paste can be thougth as zip, interleaving the outputs of several commands line by line.

paste <(./cmd1) <(./cmd2) | xargs -L1 ./cmd3


4.40 paste?

We just saw a use of paste. But this command can do all sorts of crazy stuff joining lines.

paste - - -d, < file   # joins every 2 lines with comma
paste - - - -d, < file   # joins every 3 lines with comma
paste -s -d",\n" file  #joins 1 and 2 lines with comma, 2 and 3 with \n

4.41 Scripts as filters

Strive to create scripts that can be used as filters. Perl had while(<>) { ... } that would open a file line by line, or get input from stdin depending on the actual arguments to the file.

In shellscripting, we can simulate (part of) it using

while IFS= read -r line
  echo "$line"
done < "${1:-/dev/stdin}"

Look here for more detailed explanations and variants.

4.42 Read or print to stdin inside a pipe

You can use /dev/tty to explicitly specify that some input or output has to come from tty (being screen or keyboard).

This is useful for code that might be called inside a pipeline, but you never want the contents of the pipe to be the ones that are read or echoed.

Here's a snippet that defines a function fzf (if fzf is not previously defined), that will naively replace fzf.

# fzf is either fzf or a naive version of it
# the input is a sed line number, so it can be
# single number: 42
# range: 1,10
# separate lines: 10p;50p
mute command -v fzf ||
  fzf() {
    local in=$(cat)
    for p in "${@}"; do
      [ "$p" = "-0" ] && [ "$(echo "$in" | wc -l)" -eq 1 ] && [ ""  = "$in" ] && return 1
      [ "$p" = "-1" ] && [ "$(echo "$in" | wc -l)" -eq 1 ] && [ "" != "$in" ] && echo "$in" && return
    cat -n <(echo "$in") >/dev/tty
    read -n num </dev/tty
    echo "$in" | sed -n "${num}p"

Well… after implementing this, I discovered `select`, which allows for these kinds of flows:

mute command -v fzf ||
fzf() {
  local in=$(cat)
  for p in "${@}"; do
    [ "$p" = "-0" ] && [ "$(echo "$in" | wc -l)" -eq 1 ] && [ ""  = "$in" ] && return 1
    [ "$p" = "-1" ] && [ "$(echo "$in" | wc -l)" -eq 1 ] && [ "" != "$in" ] && echo "$in" && return
  select opt in $(echo "$in"); do
    [ -n "$opt" ] && break
  done >/dev/tty </dev/tty
  echo $opt

4.43 change loops for "mapping/reducing" functions

4.43.1 find

Many times we want to run the same operation or test to lots of files. Instead of looping for each file, think if find -exec would solve it. Also, find supports multiple directories.

dirs=("/usr/local/bin" "/usr/bin")
for d in "${dirs[@]}"; do
  for f in $(find "$d"); do
    echo "check if owner of $f is johndoe and group is johndoe"
    [ `stat -c %U:%G $f` == "johndoe:johndoe" ] || die "error"

Compare it to:

[ $(find "$dirs[@]" -exec stat -c '%U:%G' {} \; | grep -vc "johndoe:johndoe") == "0" ] || die "error"

Other examples might be:

# count all lines of all docx in this dir
find . -type f -name "*docx" -exec pandoc "{}" -t plain \; | wc -l

#All your files have the same owner and group permissions
[ $(find "$files[@]" -exec stat -c '%a' {} \; | grep -Evc "^(.)\1") == "0" ]

4.43.2 grep -Fvf

Three magical flags that go well together.

  • -F Interpret the "pattern" as a Fixed string, not a pattern/regex
  • -v Negate the output. Print non matching lines.
  • -f The patterns to match are taken from a file.

The cool thing about combining -f and -v is that the negative matches mean "lines that are not ANY of the ones in the pattern file". So you can do list diffing. like sort + diff but more flexible.

Here's a practical case of finding version numbers that we have a git tag for, that do not have a title in the readme.

! grep -Fvf <(grep -P "^# \d\.\d\.\d\.\d$" "$f" | sed -e 's/^# //') \
            <(git tag | grep -P "^\d\.\d\.\d\.\d$")

4.43.3 grep -Pzo

Three flags that also combine pretty nicely.

With those, we can match multiple lines using plain old grep.

This is how I get only the table structure of a postgres database.

pg_dump -s | grep -Pzo "CREATE TABLE [^;]*;\n"

More info on this stackoverflow thread.

Use of this pattern will use \0's instead of \n, which is good for the grepping, but maybe it's not good for your output. You can convert back \0's to \n with tr.

pg_dump -s | grep -Pzo "CREATE TABLE public.($tables) [^;]*;\n" | tr '\0' '\n' | ...

Alternatively, depending on your requirements, you can leverage awk, with awk '/CREATE TABLE/,/;/', that won't suffer from the \0 problem. But then you need to explain the awk model to your coworker.

4.43.4 Set operations

There are lots of other "set level" operations you can perform on files/streams using basic unix tools.

This cheatsheet contains lots of them, which you should go read one by one, because bash, appart from being useful as it is, also has an Iversonian suggestivity that gets more useful with time.

4.44 jq

Jq is more powerful than you probably think. It's not just to fetch a value deep into a json dictionary.

You can fetch and transform values, and interpolate values inside a string template:

echo '{"a":1,"b":2}' | jq '. | "a is \(.a), and b is \(.b)."'

Or use this in a map:

echo '[{"a":1,"b":2},{"a":3,"b":4}]' | jq -r '. |map("a is \(.a), and b is \(.b).")[]'

Maybe a little more spicy:

echo '[{"host":"","user":"bob"},{"host":"","user":"alice"}]' |
  jq  'map("scp \(.user)@\(.host):/tmp/remote-file /tmp/local-file")[]' -r |
  xargs -d"\n" -n1 sh -c

And, make sure to read about jq functions. for example, reading nested json

echo '{"nested":"{\"a\":2}"}' | jq '.nested | fromjson | .a '

You can also edit values in place

echo '{"date":1643192480}' | jq '.date|=todateiso8601' #  {"date": "2022-01-26T10:22:48Z"}

And we can generalize it into a filter that updates many date fields

join_by() { local IFS="$1"; shift; echo "$*"; }
# usage: echo '[{"foo":1234567890,"bar":1234567891}]' | jq_pretty_dates '.[].foo' '.[].bar'
# => [{"foo":"2009-02-13T23:31:30Z","bar":"2009-02-13T23:31:31Z"}]
jq_pretty_dates() {
  # From the default ($@) append every element (/%/) with
  # |=todateiso8601). That, joined by |. And that becomes the "filter" to jq.
  jq "$(join_by "|" "${@/%/|=todateiso8601}")"

There are quite a few interesting commands in this AWS+JQ post.

Some other cool tips from This HN thread:

echo "FFFF\nDDDD" | jq -R    # reads raw text as strings. 1 line -> 1 string
echo "FFFF\nDDDD" | jq -R 'capture("(?<item>.*)")' # Capture groups as json elements

You can get pretty advanced with jq, and some say it's a decent substitute for sed as a line oriented editor.

Some more advanced tutorials here and here.

4.45 use jq . <<<"$var"

Newlines aren't allowed in json strings, and you might get a jq error like:

"parse error: Invalid string: control characters from U+0000 through U+001F must be escaped at line 148, column 99"

Sometimes, strings inside json might have encoded newlines like \n. If you would use

echo $var | jq . , bash would interpolate the \n inside the json string and when it gets to jq, it's an invalid json.

If instead you use echo -E, or <<<"$var", things go smoothly.

jq . <<<"$var"

4.46 pass flags as a splatted array

There's quite a bit to chew on this example. First of all, the core pattern is to build up your commandline options with an array, and splat it in the final command line. For complex commands like docker where you easily have 10+ flags it's a visual aid, and also opens up the opportunities for reusing or abstracting sets of options to logical blocks.

Once it's an array, we can add elements conditionally to that array depending on the current run, and build the line that we'll be running in the end.

# Allows Ctrl-C'ing on interactive shells
if [[ -t 1 ]]; then INTERACTIVE="-it"; fi

local flags=(
  # We mount it as read-only, so we make sure we are not writing anything
  # in there, and that everything is explicitly defined
  "-v $LOCAL_PATH/build-dir:/build-dir:ro,delegated"
  "-v $OUTPUT_DIR:/output:rw,consistent"
  "-v $tmp_dir:/tmp/work:rw,delegated"
if [[ -n $LOCAL_PATH ]]; then
  flags+=("-v $(realpath $LOCAL_PATH)/overrides/my-other-file:/build-dir/build.json:ro")
  flags+=("-e LOCAL_PATH=/tmp/local")

local v_id=$(docker volume create)
flags+=("-v $v_id:/tmp/build")
on_exit "docker volume rm $v_id"

docker run --rm $INTERACTIVE ${flags[*]} $image touch /tmp/build/foo.txt

docker run --rm $INTERACTIVE ${flags[*]} fpm:latest fpm-build /tmp/build/foo.txt
on_exit "chown_cache $tmp_dir"

In this example we see another cool trick. Mounting a volume in 2 differrent containers, so not for the purpose of sharing a local file/dir with the host but to share it between themselves. In that case, the 2 containers don't even coexist temporarily, but use the volume as a conveyor belt, passing it from container to container, and each one applies "its thing".

After all the mess, someone has to cleanup everything, but we know how to do it with on_exit trick.

4.47 inherit_errexit

bash 4.4+ , you can shopt -s inherit_errexit, and subshells will inherit the errexit flag value. meaning that if you set -Ee, anything that runs inside a subshell will throw an error at the moment any command exits with !=0.

4.48 GNU Parallel

I can't recommend parallel enough. The same as xargs, but in a much more flexible way, parallel lets you run various jobs at a time. If you have this tool into account, it doesn't just speed up your runtimes, but it will force you write cleaner code. Parallel execution will test your scripts so if they are not using randomized tmp working directories, things will clash, etc…

Parallel in itself is such a hackerfriendly tool it deserves to be deeply learned. You can use it just locally to run a process per core, you can send jobs to several machines connected via a simple ssh, you can bind tmux or sqlite to it, or you can write a trivial job queuing system.

Man pages and official examples are a goldmine.


  • Basic usage of heredocs:
     echo <<EOF
  • A dash after << replaces trailing spaces in here docs
echo <<-EOF
  • quoting the identifier disables interpolation of variables
echo <<'EOF'

The bash manual is super concise and to the point there.

The most complex case is having a heredoc which contains some bash code that is ment to run remotely, and wanting to interpolate some variables in the local env, and some in the remote one. Escaping is enough for regular vars, but if you want to use special ($1, $!, $?…) vars, check this out:

deploy () {
  local deploy_dir="$1"
  ssh server1 'bash -s' <<EOSSH
  echo "deploying => ${deploy_dir}"
  ls -tdr ~/my-project/artifacts/* | head -n -5 | xargs rm -rf   # remove all but latest 5 directories
  ln -nfs "\$HOME/my-project/artifacts/${deploy_dir}/my-project-0.1.0-SNAPSHOT-standalone.jar" "\$HOME/my-project/artifacts/current.jar"
  cat ~/my-project/artifacts/ | xargs kill
  java -jar ~/my-project/artifacts/current.jar &>/dev/null &
  lastpid=\$(echo \$!)
  echo \$lastpid > ~/my-project/artifacts/



It's the stripped down version of HEREDOCS. Inline a single string (or output of a single command) as an input string.

It's kinda similar to what you could do with a pipe.

cat <<<"HELLO"
cat <<<$(echo "HELLO")
echo "ECHOPIPE" | /bin/cat
echo "ECHOPIPE" | /bin/cat <(seq 5)
echo "ECHOPIPE" | /bin/cat <(seq 5) -
echo "ECHOPIPE" | /bin/cat <(seq 5) <<<"HERESTRING"
echo "ECHOPIPE" | /bin/cat <(seq 5) - <<<"HERESTRING"

4.51 __DATA__

I loved the Perl __END__ and DATA, features and realized it's possible to do it in shellscripts.

You can append to the current file. Here's an example of a super simple bookmark "manager":

#!/usr/bin/env sh

cmd_add() {
    echo "$@" >> "$0"

cmd_go() {
    sed '0,/^__DATA__$/d' "$0" |
    dmenu -i -l 20  |
    rev | cut -f1 -d' ' | rev |
    xargs xdg-open

main() {
    cmd_${1:-go} $@

main $@


4.52 Simple Templating

For trivial templating, there's no need for any external tool except for just variable interpolation. This is quite obvious, but I use it quite often to generate repetitive bash code itself

#!/usr/bin/env bash
is=("obj1" "obj2")
js=("resource1" "resource2")

for i in "${is[@]}"; do
  for j in "${js[@]}"; do
    echo "insert into t (obj, resource) values ('$i', '$j');"

4.53 Secrets

As, Smallstep article explains, you should be careful when passing around secret data like tokens between processes.

Env vars are not really safe, and there are a few tricks you can use to cover your assets.

4.54 Escape single quotes in single quoted strings

Escaping single quoted strings doesn't work the way you'd think.

# does not work
a='hi \'bob\''

Use $'' strings like:

# works!
a=$'hi \'bob\''
echo $a

Extra explanations: StackOverflow

4.55 any, every, lambdas, closures, and eval

Bash has no closures, and it's not "functional", but we're going to see how we can combine some tricks and get decent high-level functions

Here's an implementation of any and every

any() {
  local pred="$1"; shift
  for i in "$@"; do
    if $pred $i; then
      return 0
  return 1

every() {
  local pred="$1"; shift
  for i in "$@"; do
    if ! $pred $i; then
      return 1
  return 0

The usage is by passing a callback function that will return 0 or 1.

usage() {
  echo "help message"

is_help() {
  [ "$1" = "--help" ]

any is_help "$@" && usage

That's already cool.

Did you know that functions can start also with dashes?

usage() {
  echo "help message"

--help() {
  [ "$1" = "--help" ]

any --help "$@" && usage

That also works. It's kinda obfuscated a bit, but hey….

We can also, with the help of eval, create on demand functions. They are global, but as we're not going to multithread, we can assume it's ok.

usage() {
  echo "help message"

any_eq() {
  eval "_() { [ $1 = \$1 ] ; }"
  any _  "$@"

any_eq "--help" "$@" && usage
# or,
any_eq --help "$@" && usage

And the last trick, using command_not_found_handle, we can get into a kind of rails generators for these helpers

command_not_found_handle() {
  IFS=_ read -a cmd <<<"$1"
  [ "eq" = "${cmd[0]}" ] && eval "$1() { [ \"${cmd[1]}\" = \"\$1\" ] ; }"
any eq_--help "$@" && usage

All these last metaprogramming tricks are not thread safe, and even though it's mostly ok if you use them in isolation, maybe pipes or coprocs would mess up your inline functions.

5 Interactive

5.1 Save your small scripts

Rome wasn't built in a day, and like having a journal log, most of the little scripts you create, once you have enough discipline will be useful for some other cases, and your functions will be reusable.

Save your scripts into files early on, instead of crunching everything in the repl. learn how to use a decent editor that shortens the feedback cycle as much as possible.

5.2 Increased Interactivity

Knowing your shell's shortcuts for interactive use is a must. The same way you learned to touchtype and you learned your editor, you should learn all the shortcuts for your shell. Here's some of them.

key action
Ctrl-r reverse-history-search
C-a beginning-of-line
C-e end-of-line
C-w delete-word-backwards
C-k kill-line (from point to eol)
C-y paste last killed thing
A-y previous killed thing (after a c-y)
C-p previous-line
C-n next-line
A-. insert last agument
A-/ dabbrev-expand

A written form of A-. is $_. It retains the last argment and puts it in $_. test -f "FILE" && source "$_".

5.3 Aliases

Aliases are very simple substitutions of commands for a sequence of other commands. Usual example is

alias ls='ls --auto-color'

Now let's move on to the interesting stuff.

5.4 functions can generate aliases

Aliases live in a global namespace for the shell, so no matter where you define them, they take effect globally, possibly overwriting older aliases with the same name.

Well, it's not lexical scope (far from it), but using aliases you can create a string that snapshots the value you want, and capture it to run it later.

Some fun stuff:

  • aliasgen. Create an alias for each directory in ~/workspace/. This is superceeded by CDPATH, but the trick is still cool.
aliasgen() {
  for i in ~/workspace/*(/) ; do
      DIR=$(basename $i) ;
       alias $DIR="cd ~/workspace/$i";
  • a make a shortcut to the current directory.
function a() { alias $1=cd\ $PWD; }

mkdir -p /tmp/fing-longer
cd /tmp/fing-longer
a fl
cd /
echo $PWD   # /tmp/fing-longer

A man can dream…

  • unhist. functions can create aliases, and functions can receive functions as parameters (as a string (function name)), so we can combine them to advice existing functions.

    unhist () {
      alias $1=" $1"
    unhist unhist
    unhist grep
    unhist rg
    noglobber() {
        alias $1="noglob $1"
    noglobber http
    noglobber curl
    noglobber git
  • Problem: These commands do not compose. Combination of 2 of those doesn't work, because the second acts just on the textual representation that it received, not the current value of the alias.

5.5 Override (advice?) common functions

Overriding commands is generally a bad practice as it violates the principle of least surprise, but there might be occasions (mostly in your local machine) where you can integrate awesome finetunnings to your toolbelt.

Here we're going to get the original docker binary file location. After that we declare a function called docker that will proxy the parameters to the original docker program UNLESS you're calling docker run. In that case, we're injecting a mouted volume that mounts /root/.bash_history of the container to a file hosted in the host (duh). That's a pretty cool way of keeping a history of your recent commands in your containers, no matter how many times you start and kill them.

DOCKER_ORIG=$(which docker)
docker () {
    if [[ $1 == "run" ]]; then
        $DOCKER_ORIG run -v $HOME/.shared_bash_history:/root/.bash_history "$@"
        $DOCKER_ORIG "$@"

I'm particularly fond of this trick, as it saved me tons of typing. But at a personal level, it was mindblowing that sharing this around the internet caused the most disparity of opinions. Also, I recently read the great book "Docker in Practice" by Ian Miell and there's a snippet that is 99.9% like the one I created myself. That was a very cool moment.

5.6 Faster iteration on pipes

When testing complex pipelines:

  • Make them pure (no side effects).
  • One command per line.
  • End lines with the pipe character.
  • During development, end the pipeline with cat.

I usually use watch -n1 '' in a split window so I see the results of what I'm doing. The advantage of

curl              |
  pup ' > a attr{href}'                  |
  head -1                                         |
  xargs -I{} curl -L "{}" |
  pup 'script'                                    |
  grep file:                                      |
  sed -e "s/.*\(http[^ \"']*\).*/\1/"             |
# xargs vlc                                       |


curl                \
  | pup ' > a attr{href}'                  \
  | head -1                                         \
  | xargs -I{} curl -L "{}" \
  | pup 'script'                                    \
  | grep file:                                      \
  | sed -e "s/.*\(http[^ \"']*\).*/\1/"             \
# xargs vlc   # doesn't work

Is that you can comment out lines on the former one, but you can't do that on the latter. The cat trick makes it so that you have an 'exit' point, and you don't have to comment that one. Also, some editors will indent the first one correctly, while you'll have to manually indent the second one.

Small wins that compose just fine :)

5.7 Use ${var?error msg} on templates

If you write something to be copypasted by your user and filled in, instead of <var>, try ${var?You need to set var}. it allows for the user to set the variable in the environment without having to replace inline, and if the user forgets any, the shell will barf.

5.8 Idempotent functions

"My favourite shell scripting function definition technique: idempotent functions by redefining the function as a noop inside its body:

(The `true;` body is needed by some shells, e.g. bash, and not others, e.g. zsh.) " – chrismorgan

foo() {
    foo() { true; }
    echo "This bit will only be executed on the first foo call"

6 Debugging

6.1 adding bash to a script to debug

You can add bash inside any script, and it'll add a sort of a breakpoint, allowing you to check the state of the env and manually call functions around.

If you orgainse your code in small functions, it's easy to add breakpoints by just spawning bash processes inside your script.

This works also inside docker containers (if you provide -ti flag on run).

Let's see some usual uses of docker and how we can debug our scripts there:

# leaves you at a shell to fiddle if all is in place after build
docker run -it mycomplex-image bash

# Runs /tmp/ from the host inside. That's cool to make the
# container less airtight. Even if the image is not originally meant
# to, you can even override it and 'monkeypatch' the file with the one
# from the host anyway.
docker run -it -v $PWD:/tmp/ mycomplex-image /tmp/

# So now you can really add wtv you want there.
echo 'bash' >>$PWD/

# run+open shell at runtime to inspect the state of the script
docker run -it -v $PWD:/tmp/ mycomplex-image /tmp/


if [[-n "$DRY_RUN" ]]; then
  curl () {
    echo curl "$@"

use command curl to force the command, not the alias or anything

If you have many functions to mock, and you want to overabstract (bad thing):

mock() {
  for m in ${MOCKS[@]//,/ }; do
    eval "$m() { echo \"mocked $m\" "\$@"; }"


6.3 Cheap debugging flag

optargs "V" option; do
case $option in
    set -xa

6.4 explore a pipe with tee >(some_command) |

the >() is not very easy to use. Very few places where it fits. Here's a nice pipe inspector though, using tee >(cat 1>&2) trick.

plog() {
  # tee >(cat 1>&2)
  local msg=${1:-plog}
  tee >(sed -e "s/^/[$msg] /" 1>&2)
alias -g 'PL'=' |plog ' #zsh only

echo "a\nb" PL foo | tr 'a-z' 'A-Z' PL bar
# output:
# [foo] a     # stderr
# [foo] b     # stderr
# A           # stdout
# B           # stdout
# [bar] A     # stderr
# [bar] b     # stderr


6.5 tee+sudo

If you wat to store a file in a root-owned dir, in the middle of your pipeline, instead of running the whole thing as root, you can use sudo tee file:

ls | grep m >/usr/local/garbage  # fail
ls | grep m | sudo tee /usr/local/garbage # success!

6.6 quoting

Bash: To get a quoted version of a given string, here's what you can do:

# this is my "string" I want to 'comment "on"'

That gives us '#this is my "string" I want to '\''comment "on"'\'''. Neat!

I just found this trick here. From the associated HN thread:

function bashquote () {
  printf '%q' "$(cat)"

Zsh: If you're on zsh, a-' quotes the current line.

7 zsh-only

7.1 Word spliting

Word splitting works differently by default in zsh than in bash.

foo="ls -las"

This works in bash, but zsh will not split by words. To make zsh expand by words, there are 2 ways: setopt SH_WORD_SPLIT and ${=foo}. zsh has unsetop command, which allows to scope where you want the expansions to happen. unsetop SH_WORD_SPLIT.

The problem with both solutions is that none of them are compatible with bash, so you'll be cornering yourself to "this only works in zsh". A way to overcome this is to use arrays, which are expanded in the same way in both shells.

Or, use the same hack as you'll see later with noglob.


7.2 globbing

In zsh, getting a list of files that match some characteristics is doable using globbing. Bash has globbing also, but in a less sophisticated way.

The basic structure of a glob is pattern(qualifiers). Patterns can contain:

  • strings: they do exact match
  • wildcards: *, ?, **/
  • character classes: [0-9]
  • choices: (.pdf|.djvu)

The qualifiers are extra constraints you put on the matches. There are lots of different qualifiers. Look at zshexpn for the complete list. The ones I use more are:

  • . Files
  • / Directories
  • om[numberhere]. Nth latest modified

7.3 Global aliases:

Zsh has 3 kinds of aliases: normal, global, and suffix. Normal ones behave the same as in bash: They expand only in the first token of a line.

alias foo=ls
foo foo # -> ls: cannot access 'foo': No such file or directory

Global aliases expand anywhere in your cli, and they can expand to anything.

alias  -g foo=ls
foo foo # -> ls: cannot access 'ls': No such file or directory

These are some aliases I have in my ~/.zshrc that help me use a shell in a more fluid way.

alias -g P1='| awk "{print \$1}"'
alias -g P2='| awk "{print \$2}"'
alias -g P3='| awk "{print \$3}"'
alias -g P4='| awk "{print \$4}"'
alias -g P5='| awk "{print \$5}"'
alias -g P6='| awk "{print \$6}"'
alias -g PL='| awk "{print \$NF}"'
alias -g PN='| awk "{print \$NF}"'
alias -g HL='| head -20'
alias -g H='| head '
alias -g H1='| head -1'
alias -g TL='| tail -20'
alias -g T='| tail '
alias -g T1='T -1'
#alias -g tr='-ltr'
alias -g X='| xclip  '
alias -g TB='| nc 9999 '
alias -g L='| less -R '
alias -g LR='| less -r '
alias -g G='| grep '
alias -g GI='| grep -i '
alias -g GG=' 2>&1 | grep '
alias -g GGI=' 2>&1 | grep -i '
alias -g GV='| grep -v '
alias -g V='| grep -v '
alias -g TAC='| tac '
alias -g DU='du -B1'

alias -g E2O=' 2>&1 '
alias -g NE=' 2>/dev/null '
alias -g NO=' >/dev/null '

alias -g WC='| wc -l '

alias -g J='| noglob jq'
alias -g JQ='| noglob jq'
alias -g jq='noglob jq'
alias -g JL='| noglob jq -C . | less -R '
alias -g JQL='| noglob jq -C . | less -R '
alias -g XMEL='| xmlstarlet el'
alias -g XML='| xmlstarlet sel -t -v '

alias -g LYNX="| lynx -dump -stdin "
alias -g H2T="| html2text "
alias -g TRIM="| xargs "
alias -g XA='| xargs -d"\n" '
alias -g XE="| xargs e"
alias -g P="| pick "
alias -g PP="| percol | xargs "
alias -g W5="watch -n5 "
alias -g W1="watch -n1 "

alias -g CB="| col -b "
alias -g NC="| col -b "
alias -g U='| uniq '
alias -g XT='urxvt -e '
alias -g DM='| dmenu '
alias -g DMV='| dmenu -i -l 20 '

alias -g ...='../..'
alias -g ....='../../..'
alias -g .....='../../../..'

alias -g l10='*(om[1,10])'
alias -g l20='*(om[1,20])'
alias -g l5='*(om[1,5])'
alias -g l='*(om[1])'
alias -g '**.'='**/*(.)'
alias -g lpdf='*.pdf(om[1])'
alias -g lpng='*.png(om[1])'

alias -g u='*(om[1])'

alias lsmov='ls *.(mp4|mpg|mpeg|avi|mkv)'
alias lspdf='ls *.(pdf|djvu)'
alias lsmp3='ls *.mp3'
alias lspng='ls *.png'

Now, some sequences of words can start making sense:

  • lspdf -tr TL DM XA evince
  • docker exec -u root -ti $(docker ps -q H1) bash
  • docker ps DM P1 XA docker stop
  • docker ps P1 XA docker stop (P1 XA does an ad-hoc pipe-skimming)

7.4 Expansion of global aliases

Let's dig deeper.

alias -g DOCK='docker ps 2..N P P1'
DOCK  # works fine. Echoes the id of the chosen container
docker stop DOCK   # does not work , because it expands to docker stop docker ps 2..N P P1
docker stop $(DOCK) # works fine again
alias -g DOCK='$(docker ps 2..N P P1)'
docker stop DOCK   # yay!

So, you can bind words to expansion-time results of the aliases. It feels like a very powerful thing, to have this "compile time" expansions. Reminds me of CL's symbol-macrolet, or IMMEDIATE Forth words.

7.5 Autocomplete

Writting smart autocompletion scripts is not easy.

zsh supports compdef _gnu_generic type of completion, which gets you very far with 0 effort.

When autocompleting after a - in the commandline, if your command is configured like compdef _gnu_generic mycommand, zsh will call the script with --help and parse the output, trying to find flags, and will use them as suggestions. It's really great.

The compromise is to write a decent "–help" for your script. Which is cool because your user will love it too, and you just have to write it once.

The completion is not context aware though, so you can't autocomplete flags after the first non-flag argument. It seems this could be improved in zsh-land, by asking for the –help like mycommand args-so-far --help. But it doesn't work like that.

#!/usr/bin/env bash
# The script can be bash-only, while the completion work in zsh-only
set -Eeuo pipefail

help() {
  echo "  -h,--help    Show help"
  echo "  -c,--command Another thing"

if [ "$1" == "--help" ];

Now you can play with mycommand -<TAB>. Amazing, wow.

7.6 Create helpers and generate global aliases automagically

Borrowing a bit from Perl, a bit from Forth, and a bit from PicoLisp, I've come to create a few helpers that abstract words into a bit higher level concepts. Unifying the option selectors is one, and then, other line oriented operations like chomp, from, till.

pick() {
  if [ -z "$DISPLAY" ]; then
    percol || fzf || slmenu -i -l 20
    dmenu -i -l 20
alias -g P='| pick'

globalias() {
  alias -g `echo -n $1 | tr '[a-z]' '[A-Z]'`=" | $1 "

globalias fzf

# uniquify column
function uc () {
  awk -F" " "!_[\$$1]++"
globalias uc

function from() { perl -pe "s|.*?$1|\1|" }
globalias from

function till() { sed -e "s|$1.*|$1|" }
globalias till

function chomp () { sed -e "s|.$||" }
globalias chomp

Again, it's a pity those do not compose well. Just be well organized, or build a more elaborate hack so you can compose aliases with some sort of confidence. It'll always be a hack though.

7.7 suffix aliases don't have to match a filename

zsh has another type of aliases called "suffix alias". Those alias allow you to define programs to open/run file types.

alias -s docx="libreoffice"

With this said, if you write a name of a file ending with docx as the first token in a command line, it will use libreoffice to open it.

# will effectively call libreoffice invoice1.docx

The trick here is that the parser doesn't check that the file is indeed an existing file. It can be any string.

Let's look at an example of it.

alias -s git="git clone"

In this case, we can easily copy a [email protected]:.....git from a browser, and paste it into a zsh console. Then, zsh will run that "file" with the command git clone, effectively cloning that repository.

Cool, ain't it?

7.8 noglob

zsh has more aggressive parameter expansion, to the level that [,],... have special meanings, and will be interpreted and expanded before calling the final commands in your shell.

There are commands that you don't want ever expanded , for example, when using curl, it's much more likely that an open bracket will be ment to be there verbatim rather than expanded.

Zsh provides a command to quote the following expansions. And it's called noglob.

noglob curl\&a[]=1

7.9 make noglob 'transparent' to bash

zsh and bash are mostly compatible, but there's a few things not supported in bash. noglob is one of them. To build a shim inbetween, an easy way is to just create a ~/bin/noglob file


7.10 glob nested expansion

In there's a nice advanced example:

Variable expansion syntax, glob qualifiers, and history modifiers can
be combined/nested quite nicely. For example, this outputs all the
commands available from $PATH: `echo
${~${path/%/\/*(*N:t)}}`. `${~foo}` is to enable glob expansion on the
result of foo. `${foo/%/bar}` substitutes the end of the result of foo
to "bar" (i.e. it appends it); when foo is an array, it does it for
each element. In `/*(*N:t)`, we're adding the slash and star to the
paths from `$path`, then the parentheses are glob qualifiers. `*`
inside means only match the executables, `N` is to activate NULL_GLOB
for the match so that we don't get errors for globs that didn't match
anything, `:t` is a history mod used for globs that returns just the
"tail" of the result, i.e. the basename. IIRC, bash can't even nest
multiple parameter expansions; you need to save each step separately.

7.11 Some extra shortcuts for nice things

  • alt-' quotes the current line. It's like quotemeta. great to help you fight double and triple quoting when writing scripts.
  • alt-# comment/uncomment and execute. Nice way to store the current line for later and reach out to it again to run it for real.
  • ctrl-o kill-current-line, wait for a command, and paste.

7.12 =()

Zsh has <() and >() like Bash, but it also has =(). This varant is similar to <() but instead of creating a temporary pipe, it creates a temporary file. That is useful if we want to run commands that require a file instead of a pipe (most times, because it uses lseek to go through it).

Node is an example of this.

node <(echo 'setTimeout(() => console.log("foo"), 400)')   # fails
node =(echo 'setTimeout(() => console.log("foo"), 400)')   # works!


docker run --rm -ti -v =(echo "OHAI"):/tmp/foo ubuntu cat /tmp/foo

8 TODO patterns

8.1 just use cat/netcat/pipes with <()

  • input

    python executable will run the executable and monitor it for error messages. Depending on the error messages it will be doing.

    In order to test it, I want to run it with my own output. So what I do is python cat. That way I can type my stuff there, and even better, I can use a stream from the shell. myexecutable | python cat still works.

8.1.1 what's the unifying theory behind all that?

It's still not clear to me how they relate, but the feeling is that there's a common thread ruling all those commands. as if they generalize over the same things, or just a couple of very interrelated things.

echo is to cat what | is to xargs. and <() and >() are able to make static files be dynamic streams. putting cat and echo inside <() seem like either a noop, or a leap in what can be done there. Still have to figure it out.

<(grep a file.txt) , | xargs , cat, echo

you-have\it-wants executable file stream
executable X <(exe) exe |
file <(cat file) X cat file |
stream cat <(grep foo file.txt) X
  • output

    Most of those can be tested with and tee. Sometimes you would like the output to be an output to a file to be extramassaged.

    you-have\it-wants executable file stream
    executable X >()  
    file   X  
    stream   >(cat) X

    lnav <(tail -F /my/logfile-that-gets-rotated-or-truncated.log) cat <(date)

9 links

10 From shell to lisp and everything in between

11 Credits

Author: Raimon Grau

Emacs 26.1 (Org mode 9.1.9)