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Writing Clean Shell Scripts

I don’t enjoy writing such code that much.

It’s often used when all you want is automate a mundane task. “I’ll just copy/paste the commands I usually run, add a few ifs and fors and that will be enough”

Well, that’s how many shell scripts come to existence I guess, but nonetheless writing such scripts is not as easy as it sounds, and there are many pitfalls to avoid.

Here a few tips you may find useful.

Use Bash #

Sometimes you’ll come across a .sh script with a /bin/sh shebang. (That is, a file that starts with #!/bin/sh)

I believe you should not do that, unless you know what you are doing.

If your script starts with #!/bin/sh, it’s telling the operating system that the script should be run with the /bin/sh binary.

POSIX says that /bin/sh should exist and point to a “POSIX compliant” shell.

But on debian, it’s a symlink to /bin/dash, and on Arch Linux, it’s a symlink to /usr/bin/bash.

So if you use a #!/bin/sh shebang, be prepared to get weird errors when switching distributions, or prove yourself that the code you wrote is indeed “POSIX”.

I find it much easier to just stick a #/bin/bash shebang and call it a day.

Update: It seems bash will still do The Right Thing (tm) if it detects that argv[0] is /bin/sh

Enable nice options #

Bash has a lot of “switches” you can activate with the set built-in.

(Type set -o to get a list of them)

Here are a few useful ones.

set -e #

(Or set -o errexit if using long options better suits you)

Adding that at the top of the script will make sure errors will not be silently ignored, which is nice.

Note if you do want to allow a command to fail, you can simply use a || true to do the trick:

set -o errexit

cd path/to/foo
command-that-may-fail || true

set -u #

(Or set -o nounset)

You will get an error each time you use a “unbound” variable, that is a variable that has no value yet.

set -o nounset


echo $my_optoin
$ bash line 4: my_optoin: unbound variable

Update: By the way, you should really use printf '%s\n' "$my_option" instead to avoid problems if for instance my_option is -e

shopt -s failglob #

Let’s say you want to do something with all the markdown files (ending with .md) in the current directory.

But sometimes there are no such files:

# Without `shopt -s failglob`
$ do_something *.md
# calls do_something with the literal '*.md' string

# With shopt -s failglob
$ do_something *.md
# fails with: line 6: no match: *.md

Avoid useless pipes #

Very often you can get rid of a pipe if you use the correct syntax.

Here are some examples:

# bad
cat foo.txt | grep bar
# better
grep bar foo.txt

# bad
grep bar foo.txt | wc -l
# better
grep -c bar foo.txt

# you want to replace 'foo' by 'bar' in the
# value of $my_var:

# bad
my_new_var=$(echo $my_var | sed -e s/foo/bar/)
# better

By the way, the last example is one of the many things you can do with Bash variables. Here’s a list of the parameter substitutions you can use.

Learn to use sub-shells #

Let’s say you want to run the make command in all the subdirectories of your current working directory.

|_ Makefile
|_ proj_1.c
|_ Makefile
|_ proj_1.c

You may start by writing:

for project in */; do
  cd ${project} && make

But that won’t work. After cd proj_1, you must go back to the top directory so that cd proj_2 can work.

You could workaround that using popd and pushd that allow you to maintain a “stack” of working directories, but there’s an easier way:

for project in */; do
  (cd ${project} && make)

By using parentheses, you’ve created a “sub-shell” that won’t interfere with the main script.

Use static analysis #

Yes, you can do this for bash scripts too :)

I like to use shellcheck for this.

Here’s a sample of what shellcheck can do:

In line 40:
find . -name "*.back" | xargs rm
^-- SC2038: Use -print0/-0 or -exec + to allow for non-alphanumeric filenames.

read name
^-- SC2162: read without -r will mangle backslashes.

$bin/foo bar.txt
^-- SC2086: Double quote to prevent globbing and word splitting.

my_cmd *
^-- SC2035: Use ./*glob* or -- *glob* so names with dashes won't become options.

The best thing about shellcheck is that each error message leads you to a detailed page explaining the issue.

Be careful with coreutils #

The so-called coreutils (cp, mv, ls, …) come with various flavours. Basically, there’s the “GNU” and the “BSD” flavors, so be careful to not use things that only work in the “GNU” version.

This can happen when you switch from linux to OSX or vice-versa.

(for instance cp foo.txt bar.txt --verbose will not work on OSX, you have to put the option --verbose before the arguments)

Alternatives to shell scripts #

Actually, I’d highly recommend using a high level langage for this.

For instance, with Python, and sh you can write code that “feels” like shell script but is not:

# In Bash:
for project in */ ; do
    cd "${project}"
    git clean --force
    git reset --hard
# In Python:
import path
import sh

for project in path.Path(".").dirs():
    with project:

Note that by default sh swallows the output when the command is successful, but displays a nice error message when something goes wrong, which is usually what you want. If you still want to display the output of the command, you can use print(sh.make()) or something similar.

Thanks for reading this far :)

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