4.4. Special Variable Types

local variables

variables visible only within a code block or function (see also local variables in functions)

environmental variables

variables that affect the behavior of the shell and user interface


In a more general context, each process has an "environment", that is, a group of variables that hold information that the process may reference. In this sense, the shell behaves like any other process.

Every time a shell starts, it creates shell variables that correspond to its own environmental variables. Updating or adding new environmental variables causes the shell to update its environment, and all the shell's child processes (the commands it executes) inherit this environment.


The space allotted to the environment is limited. Creating too many environmental variables or ones that use up excessive space may cause problems.

bash$ eval "`seq 10000 | sed -e 's/.*/export var&=ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ/'`" bash$ du bash: /usr/bin/du: Argument list too long 

Note: this "error" has been fixed, as of kernel version 2.6.23.

(Thank you, Stéphane Chazelas for the clarification, and for providing the above example.)

If a script sets environmental variables, they need to be "exported", that is, reported to the environment local to the script. This is the function of the export command.


A script can export variables only to child processes, that is, only to commands or processes which that particular script initiates. A script invoked from the command line cannot export variables back to the command line environment. Child processes cannot export variables back to the parent processes that spawned them.

Definition: A child process is a subprocess launched by another process, its parent.


positional parameters

arguments passed to the script from the command line: $0, $1, $2, $3 . . .

$0 is the name of the script itself, $1 is the first argument, $2 the second, $3 the third, and so forth. [1] After $9, the arguments must be enclosed in brackets, for example, ${10}, ${11}, ${12}.

The special variables $* and $@ denote all the positional parameters.

Example 4-5. Positional Parameters

#!/bin/bash # Call this script with at least 10 parameters, for example # ./scriptname 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 MINPARAMS=10 echo echo "The name of this script is \"$0\"." # Adds ./ for current directory echo "The name of this script is \"`basename $0`\"." # Strips out path name info (see 'basename') echo if [ -n "$1" ] # Tested variable is quoted. then echo "Parameter #1 is $1" # Need quotes to escape # fi if [ -n "$2" ] then echo "Parameter #2 is $2" fi if [ -n "$3" ] then echo "Parameter #3 is $3" fi # ... if [ -n "${10}" ] # Parameters > $9 must be enclosed in {brackets}. then echo "Parameter #10 is ${10}" fi echo "-----------------------------------" echo "All the command-line parameters are: "$*"" if [ $# -lt "$MINPARAMS" ] then echo echo "This script needs at least $MINPARAMS command-line arguments!" fi echo exit 0

Bracket notation for positional parameters leads to a fairly simple way of referencing the last argument passed to a script on the command line. This also requires indirect referencing.

args=$# # Number of args passed. lastarg=${!args} # Note: This is an *indirect reference* to $args ... # Or: lastarg=${!#} (Thanks, Chris Monson.) # This is an *indirect reference* to the $# variable. # Note that lastarg=${!$#} doesn't work.

Some scripts can perform different operations, depending on which name they are invoked with. For this to work, the script needs to check $0, the name it was invoked by. There must also exist symbolic links to all the alternate names of the script. See Example 15-2.


If a script expects a command line parameter but is invoked without one, this may cause a null variable assignment, generally an undesirable result. One way to prevent this is to append an extra character to both sides of the assignment statement using the expected positional parameter.

variable1_=$1_ # Rather than variable1=$1 # This will prevent an error, even if positional parameter is absent. critical_argument01=$variable1_ # The extra character can be stripped off later, like so. variable1=${variable1_/_/} # Side effects only if $variable1_ begins with an underscore. # This uses one of the parameter substitution templates discussed later. # (Leaving out the replacement pattern results in a deletion.) # A more straightforward way of dealing with this is #+ to simply test whether expected positional parameters have been passed. if [ -z $1 ] then exit $E_MISSING_POS_PARAM fi # However, as Fabian Kreutz points out, #+ the above method may have unexpected side-effects. # A better method is parameter substitution: # ${1:-$DefaultVal} # See the "Parameter Substition" section #+ in the "Variables Revisited" chapter.


Example 4-6. wh, whois domain name lookup

#!/bin/bash # ex18.sh # Does a 'whois domain-name' lookup on any of 3 alternate servers: # ripe.net, cw.net, radb.net # Place this script -- renamed 'wh' -- in /usr/local/bin # Requires symbolic links: # ln -s /usr/local/bin/wh /usr/local/bin/wh-ripe # ln -s /usr/local/bin/wh /usr/local/bin/wh-cw # ln -s /usr/local/bin/wh /usr/local/bin/wh-radb E_NOARGS=65 if [ -z "$1" ] then echo "Usage: `basename $0` [domain-name]" exit $E_NOARGS fi # Check script name and call proper server. case `basename $0` in # Or: case ${0##*/} in "wh" ) whois $1@whois.ripe.net;; "wh-ripe") whois $1@whois.ripe.net;; "wh-radb") whois $1@whois.radb.net;; "wh-cw" ) whois $1@whois.cw.net;; aboutauthor.html aliases.html arithexp.html arrays.html asciitable.html assortedtips.html authorsnote.html awk.html bash2.html bash-options.html bashver2.html bashver3.html basic.html biblio.html colorizing.html command-line-options.html commandsub.html communications.html comparison-ops.html complexfunct.html contributed-scripts.html copyright.html credits.html dblparens.html debugging.html declareref.html devproc.html devref1.html disclaimer.html dosbatch.html endnotes.html escapingsection.html exercises.html exitcodes.html exit-status.html external.html extmisc.html filearchiv.html files.html fto.html functions.html globbingref.html gotchas.html here-docs.html histcommands.html index.html intandnonint.html internal.html internalvariables.html invoking.html io-redirection.html ioredirintro.html ivr.html list-cons.html localization.html localvar.html loopcontrol.html loops1.html loops.html mathc.html mirrorsites.html miscellany.html moreadv.html nestedifthen.html nestedloops.html numerical-constants.html operations.html opprecedence.html ops.html optimizations.html options.html othertypesv.html parameter-substitution.html part1.html part2.html part3.html part4.html part5.html portabilityissues.html prelimexer.html process-sub.html procref1.html quoting.html quotingvar.html randomvar.html recess-time.html recurnolocvar.html recursionsct.html redirapps.html redircb.html refcards.html regexp.html restricted-sh.html revisionhistory.html sample-bashrc.html scriptanalysis.html scrstyle.html securityissues.html sedawk.html sha-bang.html special-chars.html standard-options.html string-manipulation.html subshells.html sysscripts.html systemdirs.html system.html terminalccmds.html testbranch.html testconstructs.html testsandcomparisons.html tests.html testtest.html textproc.html timedate.html todolist.html toolsused.html unofficialst.html untyped.html varassignment.html variables2.html variables.html varsubn.html wherehelp.html why-shell.html winscript.html wrapper.html writingscripts.html x16044.html x16712.html x16834.html x21467.html x8885.html xrefindex.html zeros.html ) echo "Usage: `basename $0` [domain-name]";; esac exit $?


The shift command reassigns the positional parameters, in effect shifting them to the left one notch.

$1 <--- $2, $2 <--- $3, $3 <--- $4, etc.

The old $1 disappears, but $0 (the script name) does not change. If you use a large number of positional parameters to a script, shift lets you access those past 10, although {bracket} notation also permits this.

Example 4-7. Using shift

#!/bin/bash # shft.sh: Using 'shift' to step through all the positional parameters # Name this script something like shft.sh, #+ and invoke it with some parameters. #+ For example: # sh shft.sh a b c def 23 skidoo until [ -z "$1" ] # Until all parameters used up . . . do echo -n "$1 " shift done echo # Extra line feed. exit 0 # See also the echo-params.sh script for a "shiftless" #+ alternative method of stepping through the positional params.

The shift command can take a numerical parameter indicating how many positions to shift.

#!/bin/bash # shift-past.sh shift 3 # Shift 3 positions. # n=3; shift $n # Has the same effect. echo "$1" exit 0 # ======================== # $ sh shift-past.sh 1 2 3 4 5 4 # However, as Eleni Fragkiadaki, points out, #+ attempting a 'shift' past the number of #+ positional parameters ($#) returns an exit status of 1, #+ and the positional parameters themselves do not change. # This means possibly getting stuck in an endless loop. . . . # For example: # until [ -z "$1" ] # do # echo -n "$1 " # shift 20 # If less than 20 pos params, # done #+ then loop never ends! # # When in doubt, add a sanity check. . . . # shift 20 || break # ^^^^^^^^


The shift command works in a similar fashion on parameters passed to a function. See Example 33-16.



The process calling the script sets the $0 parameter. By convention, this parameter is the name of the script. See the manpage (manual page) for execv.