Bash Parameters and Variables

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Parameters and Variables

Shell stores values internally using entities named parameters.

Parameters can be designated by a number (e.g. 1), a special character (e.g. *), or a name (e.g. blue). Parameters designated by a name are referred to as variables. The variables that have a special meaning to the shell (for example "IFS") are known as internal, keyword or built-in variables. Non-variable parameters can be further categorized in positional parameters, which are the shell's command line arguments, retrievable as $1, $2, etc. and special parameters, that are denoted by special characters.

Parameter and Variable Expansion - Accessing a Parameter's or Variable's Value

A dollar sign ($) that is NOT followed by an open parenthesis initiates parameter or variable expansion. The simplest case of expansion is retrieving the parameter or variable value: the associated value is retrieved by prefixing the parameter/variable's number, character or name with $ or enclosing it in ${...}. bash supports complex parameter expansion rules, documented here:
Parameter and Variable Expansion

Positional Parameters $1, $2, ...

A positional parameter is a parameter denoted by one or more digits, other than the single digit 0 (the single digit 0 denotes the special parameter $0).

bash allows only nine parameters to be referenced directly (n = 1–9) as in:


$1 is equivalent with ${1}.

When a positional parameter consisting of more than a single digit is expanded, it must be enclosed in braces. For n values greater than 9, the command line arguments must be specified as ${n}:


Positional parameters are assigned from the shell’s arguments when it is invoked. They may not be assigned to with assignment statements, but they can be reassigned with set builtin command and they can be shifted left with the bash built-in command shift.

The positional parameters are temporarily replaced when a shell function is executed.

Iterating over Positional Paramenters

Solution 1

while [ -n "$1" ]; do

Solution 2

Use an Array

Special Parameters

Special Parameters


A variable is a shell parameter designated by a name, not a number or a special character. Variables can be user-created, or built-in (also known as internal or keyword variables).

Built-in Variables

The variables that have a special meaning to the shell (for example "IFS") are known as internal, keyword or built-in variables.

Built-in Variables

Variable Assignment

Variable Assignment

Unlike positional parameters and special parameters, variable can be assigned values by using the "=" character, with no spaces before or after:


If the value of the variable is obtained with command substitution, then the exit code of the assignment operation is given by the exit value of the command:

if blue=$(command-that-produces-blue); then
  # command succeeded,  'blue' is assigned with the content sent to the standard output of the command (if any)
  # command failed, 'blue' is assigned with the content sent to the standard output of the command (if any)

Also see Local Variable Assignment and Failure below.

Undeclared Variable

An undeclared variable is equivalent with an empty string when referenced. There is no error when such a variable is referenced in a bash program:

echo ">${no_such_var}<" 

Uninitialized Variable

An uninitialized variable is equivalent with an empty string when referenced. There is no error when such a variable is referenced in a bash program:

local some_var
echo ">${some_var}<" 

Global Variable

Global variables are only maintained within the context of the current shell. When the shell exits, the global variables are discarded.

Once a global variable was declared in a shell, thus placed in the shell's environment, the variable is visible inside the functions executed within that shell and inside functions invoked from function invoked from the shell, recursively. If a function declares a global variable, the variable is placed in the shell's environment and it will be available to all subsequent functions invoked (possibly recursively) after that.

There's an utility named envsubst that can be used to perform variable substitution in text files.

The value of a global variable is not available to subshell, unless the variable is exported, with the export keyword. If a function is invoked from a subshell, with $(...), it will not have access to non-exported global variables of the parent shell.


export VAR=VALUE

Declaring a global variable to be exported causes the variable and its value to be copied in the environment of a subshell. The subshell gets a copy of the variable, not a reference. The subshell has no access to the parent process's environment whatsoever. Modifying the variable from the subshell does not reflect into the value of the global variable maintained by the invoking shell. When the shell sub-process terminates any changes made to its environment are lost. There is no way to modify directly the parent's environment.

Variables exported by Sub-Shells

If a sub-shell invoked from another shell exports a global variable, once the subshell exits, the exported variables are discarded, and the invoking shell does not sees them.

To Explain

The following code displays "blue" twice, even if the second execution happens in a subshell, which is supposed to not see the global variable, unless is exported. Why?

echo ${COLOR}
(echo ${COLOR})

Local Variable

If a variable is declared inside a function, without any qualifier, it automatically becomes a global variable, and it is visible to the entire shell after the function execution, even after the function exits.

In order to prevent a variable declared inside of a function to become global, it must be declared as local: the local keyword designates a local variable. Local variables can only be declared inside a function. A local variable is visible to the scope in which was declared in, and to all functions recursively invoked from that scope after the variable has been declared.


local a=b

Local Variable Assignment and Failure

Do not do a local variable assignment from a function that may return non-zero and expect to use the return value to exit

Do not do something like this:

local a=$(do_something) || exit 1 # hoping to exit if 'do_something' returns a non-zero value
Even if do_something returns a non-zero error code, that is not detected and exit is not executed.

This is because the return value that is being tested is not generated by the command execution, but by the 'local a' declaration, which is always successful.

Do this instead:

local a;
a=$(do_something) || exit

Listing Declared Variables

Use declare or typeset:

declare -p

A way of obtaining the value for a specific variable is:

local var_name="HISTSIZE"
declare -p | grep "declare .. ${var_name}" | sed -e 's/.*=//'


Recommended usage pattern:




${some_var} && echo "this will execute"

if ${some_var}; then
   echo "this will execute"

Do not use:

if [ ${some_var} ]; then ...

This will always evaluate to "true" regardless of the some_var value.

Negation with "!" works:

if ! ${some_var}; then
  echo "something"
 echo "something else"