<- Special Characters | Patterns ->


Parameters are a sort of named space in memory you can use to retrieve or store information. Generally speaking, they will store string data, but can also be used to store integers, indexed and associative arrays.

Parameters come in two flavors: variables and special parameters. Special parameters are read-only, pre-set by BASH, and used to communicate some type of internal status. Variables are parameters that you can create and update yourself. Variable names are bound by the following rule:

To store data in a variable, we use the following assignment syntax:

$ varname=vardata

This command assigns the data vardata to the variable by name of varname.

Please note that you cannot use spaces around the = sign in an assignment. If you write this:

# This is wrong!
$ varname = vardata

BASH will not know that you are attempting to assign something. The parser will see varname with no = and treat it as a command name, and then pass = and vardata to it as arguments.

To access the data stored in a variable, we use parameter expansion. Parameter expansion is the substitution of a parameter by its value, which is to say, the syntax tells bash that you want to use the contents of the variable. After that, Bash may still perform additional manipulations on the result. This is a very important concept to grasp correctly, because it is very much unlike the way variables are handled in other programming languages!

To illustrate what parameter expansion is, let's use this example:

$ foo=bar
$ echo "Foo is $foo"

When Bash is about to execute your code, it first changes the command by taking your parameter expansion (the $foo), and replacing it by the contents of foo, which is bar. The command becomes:

$ echo "Foo is bar"
Foo is bar

Now, Bash is ready to execute the command. Executing it shows us the simple sentence on screen.

It is important to understand that parameter expansion causes the $parameter to be replaced by its contents. Note the following case, which relies on an understanding of the previous chapter on argument splitting:

$ song="My song.mp3"
$ rm $song
rm: My: No such file or directory
rm: song.mp3: No such file or directory

Why did this not work? Because Bash replaced your $song by its contents, being My song.mp3; then it performed word splitting; and only THEN executed the command. It was as if you had typed this:

$ rm My song.mp3

And according to the rules of word splitting, Bash thought you meant for My and song.mp3 to mean two different files, because there is white space between them and it wasn't quoted. How do we fix this? We remember to put double quotes around every parameter expansion!

Special Parameters and Variables

Let's get our vocabulary straight before we get into the real deal. There are Parameters and Variables. Variables are actually just one kind of parameter: parameters that are denoted by a name. Parameters that aren't variables are called Special Parameters. I'm sure you'll understand things better with a few examples:

$ # Some parameters that aren't variables:
$ echo "My shell is $0, and has these options set: $-"
My shell is -bash, and has these options set: himB
$ # Some parameters that ARE variables:
$ echo "I am $LOGNAME, and I live at $HOME."
I am lhunath, and I live at /home/lhunath.

Please note: Unlike PHP/Perl/... parameters do NOT start with a $-sign. The $-sign you see in the examples merely causes the parameter that follows it to be expanded. Expansion basically means that the shell replaces the parameter by its content. As such, LOGNAME is the parameter (variable) that contains your username. $LOGNAME is an expression that will be replaced with the content of that variable, which in my case is lhunath.

I think you've got the drift now. Here's a summary of most of the Special Parameters:

Parameter Name





Contains the name, or the path, of the script. This is not always reliable.

1 2 etc.

"$1" etc.

Positional Parameters contain the arguments that were passed to the current script or function.



Expands to all the words of all the positional parameters. Double quoted, it expands to a single string containing them all, separated by the first character of the IFS variable (discussed later).



Expands to all the words of all the positional parameters. Double quoted, it expands to a list of them all as individual words.



Expands to the number of positional parameters that are currently set.



Expands to the exit code of the most recently completed foreground command.



Expands to the PID (process ID number) of the current shell.



Expands to the PID of the command most recently executed in the background.



Expands to the last argument of the last command that was executed.

And here are a few examples of Variables that the shell provides for you:

(There are many more -- see the manual for a comprehensive list.) Of course, you aren't restricted to only these variables. Feel free to define your own:

$ country=Canada
$ echo "I am $LOGNAME and I currently live in $country."
I am lhunath and I currently live in Canada.

Notice what we did to assign the value Canada to the variable country. Remember that you are NOT allowed to have any spaces before or after that equals sign!

$ language = PHP
-bash: language: command not found
$ language=PHP
$ echo "I'm far too used to $language."
I'm far too used to PHP.

Remember that Bash is not Perl or PHP. You need to be very well aware of how expansion works to avoid big trouble. If you don't, you'll end up creating very dangerous situations in your scripts, especially when making this mistake with rm:

$ ls
no secret  secret
$ file='no secret'
$ rm $file
rm: cannot remove `no': No such file or directory

Imagine we have two files, no secret and secret. The first contains nothing useful, but the second contains the secret that will save the world from impending doom. Unthoughtful as you are, you forgot to quote your parameter expansion of file. Bash expands the parameter and the result is rm no secret. Bash splits the arguments up by their whitespace as it normally does, and rm is passed two arguments: 'no' and 'secret'. As a result, it fails to find the file no and it deletes the file secret. The secret is lost!

Variable Types

Although Bash is not a typed language, it does have a few different types of variables. These types define the kind of content they are allowed to have. Type information is stored internally by Bash.

Arrays are basically indexed lists of strings. They are very convenient for their ability to store multiple strings together without relying on a delimiter to split them apart (which is tedious when done correctly and error-prone when not).

Defining variables as integers has the advantage that you can leave out some syntax when trying to assign or modify them:

$ a=5; a+=2; echo "$a"; unset a
$ a=5; let a+=2; echo "$a"; unset a
$ declare -i a=5; a+=2; echo "$a"; unset a
$ a=5+2; echo "$a"; unset a
$ declare -i a=5+2; echo "$a"; unset a

However, in practice the use of declare -i is exceedingly rare. In large part, this is because it creates behavior that can be surprising to anyone trying to maintain the script, who misses the declare statement. Most experienced shell scripters prefer to use explicit arithmetic commands (with ((...)) or let) when they want to perform arithmetic.

It is also rare to see an explicit declaration of an array using declare -a. It is sufficient to write array=(...) and Bash will know that the variable is now an array. The exception to this is the associative array, which must be declared explicitly: declare -A myarray.

Parameter Expansion

Parameter Expansion is the term that refers to any operation that causes a parameter to be expanded (replaced by content). In its most basic appearance, the expansion of a parameter is achieved by prefixing that parameter with a $ sign. In certain situations, additional curly braces around the parameter's name are required:

$ echo "'$USER', '$USERs', '${USER}s'"
'lhunath', '', 'lhunaths'

This example illustrates what basic parameter expansions (PE) look like. The second PE results in an empty string. That's because the parameter USERs is empty. We did not intend to have the s be part of the parameter name. Since there's no way Bash could know you want a literal s appended to the parameter's value, you need to use curly braces to mark the beginning and end of the parameter name. That's what we do in the third PE in our example above.

Parameter Expansion also gives us tricks to modify the string that will be expanded. These operations can be terribly convenient:

$ for file in *.JPG *.jpeg
do mv -- "$file" "${file%.*}.jpg"

The code above can be used to rename all JPEG files with a .JPG or a .jpeg extension to have a normal .jpg extension. The expression ${file%.*} cuts off everything from the end starting with the last period (.). Then, in the same quotes, a new extension is appended to the expansion result.

Here's a summary of most of the PE tricks that are available:




Use Default Value. If 'parameter' is unset or null, 'word' (which may be an expansion) is substituted. Otherwise, the value of 'parameter' is substituted.


Assign Default Value. If 'parameter' is unset or null, 'word' (which may be an expansion) is assigned to 'parameter'. The value of 'parameter' is then substituted.


Use Alternate Value. If 'parameter' is null or unset, nothing is substituted, otherwise 'word' (which may be an expansion) is substituted.


Substring Expansion. Expands to up to 'length' characters of 'parameter' starting at the character specified by 'offset' (0-indexed). If ':length' is omitted, go all the way to the end. If 'offset' is negative (use parentheses!), count backward from the end of 'parameter' instead of forward from the beginning. If 'parameter' is @ or an indexed array name subscripted by @ or *, the result is 'length' positional parameters or members of the array, respectively, starting from 'offset'.


The length in characters of the value of 'parameter' is substituted. If 'parameter' is an array name subscripted by @ or *, return the number of elements.


The 'pattern' is matched against the beginning of 'parameter'. The result is the expanded value of 'parameter' with the shortest match deleted.
If 'parameter' is an array name subscripted by @ or *, this will be done on each element. Same for all following items.


As above, but the longest match is deleted.


The 'pattern' is matched against the end of 'parameter'. The result is the expanded value of 'parameter' with the shortest match deleted.


As above, but the longest match is deleted.


Results in the expanded value of 'parameter' with the first (unanchored) match of 'pat' replaced by 'string'. Assume null string when the '/string' part is absent.


As above, but every match of 'pat' is replaced.


As above, but matched against the beginning. Useful for adding a common prefix with a null pattern: "${array[@]/#/prefix}".


As above, but matched against the end. Useful for adding a common suffix with a null pattern.

You will learn them through experience. They come in handy far more often than you think they might. Here are a few examples to kickstart you:

$ file="$HOME/.secrets/007"; \
echo "File location: $file"; \
echo "Filename: ${file##*/}"; \
echo "Directory of file: ${file%/*}"; \
echo "Non-secret file: ${file/secrets/not_secret}"; \
echo; \
echo "Other file location: ${other:-There is no other file}"; \
echo "Using file if there is no other file: ${other:=$file}"; \
echo "Other filename: ${other##*/}"; \
echo "Other file location length: ${#other}"
File location: /home/lhunath/.secrets/007
Filename: 007
Directory of file: /home/lhunath/.secrets
Non-secret file: /home/lhunath/.not_secret/007

Other file location: There is no other file
Using file if there is no other file: /home/lhunath/.secrets/007
Other filename: 007
Other file location length: 26

Remember the difference between ${v#p} and ${v##p}. The doubling of the # character means patterns will become greedy. The same goes for %:

$ version=1.5.9; echo "MAJOR: ${version%%.*}, MINOR: ${version#*.}."
MAJOR: 1, MINOR: 5.9.
$ echo "Dash: ${version/./-}, Dashes: ${version//./-}."
Dash: 1-5.9, Dashes: 1-5-9.

Note: You cannot use multiple PEs together. If you need to execute multiple PEs on a parameter, you will need to use multiple statements:

$ file=$HOME/image.jpg; file=${file##*/}; echo "${file%.*}"

<- Special Characters | Patterns ->

BashGuide/Parameters (last edited 2016-03-07 03:46:36 by ool-182ff09d)