Good coding practices for bash

When building scripts, a little consistency and care can pay off in the long run.

The best bash scripts not only work, but are written in such a way that they are easy to understand and modify. A lot of this comes from using consistent names for variables and a consistent coding style. Verifying that proper arguments are provided by the user and checking whether commands run successfully can also keep your scripts usable for a long time. Here are some tips that have worked for me.

Use good indentation

It really makes code far more readable and, thus, more maintainable. This is especially true

when you have more than three levels of logic. Indentation makes it easy to see the basic form of your script's logic. It doesn't matter much whether how many space you indent, though most people seem to use 4 spaces or 8. Just make sure that your do's and done's line up and you'll be fine.


if [ $# -ge 1 ] && [ -d $1 ]; then
    for file in `ls $1`
        if [ $debug == "on" ]; then
            echo working on $file
        wc -l $1/$file
    echo "USAGE: $0 directory"
    exit 1

Provide usage statements

Usage statements can help anyone running your scripts -- even yourself two years later -- to know what they're expected to provide as


if [ $# == 0 ]; then
    echo "Usage: $0 filename"
    exit 1

Use sensible commenting

Provide comments that explain your code, especially when it's complicated, but don't explain the obvious lines, but explain every command that you're using or the important ones get lost in the mix.


# make sure the account exists on the system
grep ^$username: /etc/passwd
if [ $? != 0 ]; then
    echo "No such user: $username"
    exit 1

Exit with a return code when something goes wrong

Even if you don't think you'll look at them, returning a non-zero return code when something goes wrong is a good idea. Someday, you might want an easy way to check what went wrong in the script and a return code of 1 or 4 or 11 might help you figure this out very quickly.

echo -n "In what year were you born?> "
read year

if [ $year -gt `date +%Y` ]; then
    echo "Sorry, but that's just not possible."
    exit 2

Use functions rather than repeating groups of commands

Functions can also make your code readable and more maintainable. Don't bother if it's only one command you're using repeatedly, but if it's easy to separate a handful of focused commands, it's worth the trouble. If you have to make a change later on, you will only have to make it on one place.

function lower()
    local str="$@"
    local output
    output=$(tr '[A-Z]' '[a-z]'<<<"${str}")
    echo $output

Give your variables meaningful names

Unix admins generally bend over backwards to avoid typing a few extra characters, but don't do this in your scripts. Take the extra time to give your variables meaningful names and to use some consistency in your naming.


if [ $# != 1 ]; then
    echo "Usage: $0 address"
    exit 1

Check that arguments are of the correct type

You can save yourself a lot of trouble if you check to make sure the arguments provided to your script are of the type expected before you start to use them. Here's an easy way to check if an argument is numeric.

if ! [ "$1" -eq "$1" 2> /dev/null ]
  echo "ERROR: $1 is not a number!"
  exit 1

Check for missing arguments or arguments provided in the wrong order

Don't assume use knows what he's doing. If he's supposed to provide more than one argument, make sure he does.

if [ $# != 3 ]; then
    echo "What part of THREE ARGUMENTS don't you understand?"

Check if needed files actually exist

It's easy to check that a file exists before trying to use it. Here's a simple check to see whether the first argument is actually a file on the system.

if [ ! -f $1 ]; then
    echo "$1 -- no such file"

Send output to /dev/null

Sending command output to /dev/null and telling users what went wrong in a more "friendly" way can make your scripts easier on those who need to run them.

if [ $1 == "help" ]; then
    echo "Sorry -- No help available for $0"
    CMD=`which $1 >/dev/null 2>&1`
    if [ $? != 0 ]; then
        echo "$1: No such command -- maybe misspelled or not on your search path"
        exit 2
        cmd=`basename $1`
        whatis $cmd

Make use of error codes

You can use return codes within your script to determine if a command got the expected result or not.

# check if the person is still logged in or has running processes
ps -U $username 2> /dev/null
if [ $? == 0 ]; then
    echo "processes:" >> /home/oldaccts/$username
    ps -U $username >> /home/oldaccts/$username

Give feedback

Don't forget to tell the people running your scripts what they need to know. They shouldn't have to read your code to be reminded where you created a file for them -- especially if it's not in the current directory.

date >> /tmp/report$$
echo "Your report is /tmp/report$$"

quote all parameter expansions

If you're using characters that expand within your scripts, don't forget to use quotes so that you don't get a very different result than you expected.


msg="Be careful to name your files *.txt"
# this will expand *.txt
echo $msg
# this will not
echo "$msg"

Use $@ when referring to all arguments

The $@ variable lists all the arguments provided to your script and it's easy to use as we see in this little script excerpt.


for i in "$@"
    echo "$i"

A little extra care and consistency might mean that scripts that you write today will still be easy to use years from now.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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