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Unix Dweeb

The truth about Linux true and false commands

Jan 11, 20225 mins

How the true and false commands work, and how to put them to use on the command line and in scripts.

yes no neon sign cancel buzzwords just say no red neon by sarawuth702 getty
Credit: sarawuth702 / Getty Images

True and false are common concepts in all forms of computing. They’re critical to Boolean logic after all, but did you know that true and false are also commands on Linux? Do you know how to use them?

The simplest explanation is that the true command generates an exit code of 0 and that the false command generates an exit code of 1. This explanation, however, doesn’t provide much detail on how these commands can best be used.

In this post, we’ll look at how the true and false commands work and how you might put them to use on the command line or in your scripts.

Viewing exit codes

First, it’s important to remember that a successful exit code (a.k.a. “return code”) on Linux systems is 0. Think of this as meaning “zero errors”. Exit codes indicating some form of failure will have values of 1 or greater.

Anytime you run a command on Linux, an exit code is generated. While you’ll see the expected output or error messages, you’ll only see the exit codes if you ask. To ask, you just need to use the command echo $?. The $? string represents the exit code and the echo command will display the code like this:

$ echo hello
$ echo $?

The command echo hello was successful, so the exit code is 0.

Here’s a simple example of displaying an exit code when a command is not successful. Hit a bunch of random keys on your keyboard, and you’ll end up seeing something like this:

$ asjdlkjdad
bash: asjdlkjdad: command not found...

Ask to see the exit code immediately afterwards and you’ll see this:

$ echo $?

An exit code of 127 indicates that the command you just typed doesn’t exist on the system.

Here’s another example in which we try to display a file that doesn’t exist:

$ cat dhksdfhjksfjhskfhjd
cat: dhksdfhjksfjhskfhjd: No such file or directory
$ echo $?

The 1 exit code is something of a general exit code and will be returned for a variety of errors.

Using true and false

The simplest way to see how the true and false commands work on the command line is to run these commands:

$ true; echo $?
$ false; echo $?

As you can see, true simply returns a 0 and false simply returns a 1.

Probably the most common use of the true command is to start an infinite loop. Instead of starting a loop with a command like while [ $num -le 12345678 ], you can use while true and the loop continues until you stop it will a ^c.

while true
    echo “still running”
    sleep 10

A while false loop would fail immediately. However, another way to start an infinite loop is to use syntax like this:

until false; do
    echo still running
    sleep 10

When you halt an otherwise infinite loop by typing ^c and then check the return code, you should see this:

$ run-forever
still running
still running
^C$ echo $?

The 130 exit code confirms that the loop was terminated with a ^c.

$ more run-forever
until false; do
    echo still running
    sleep 10

If you want a command to result in a successful exit code even if the command itself fails, you can pipe its output to true like this:

$ cat nosuchfile | true; echo $?
cat: nosuchfile: No such file or directory

You still get an error message, but the exit code will be 0 (success).

If you use an if test like those shown below, if true will always run the command specified and, as you likely expect, if false will never execute the embedded command.

if true
> then
>    echo This command always runs
> fi
This command always runs
if false
> then
>    echo This command never runs
> fi

As you see, the if false command has no output because the echo command isn’t run.

Using a colon in place of true has the same effect as using true. Here’s an example:

$ if :
> then
>     echo This command always runs
> else
>     echo This command never runs
> fi
This command always runs

It’s also possible to set your own exit codes. For example, if you have the command exit 111 in a script as shown in the example below, the exit code for the script will be 111.


if [ $# == 0 ]; then
    echo “$0 filename”
    exit 1

echo $0
exit 111

When we run the script, we’ll see something like this:

$ myscript oops

We see the full name of the file being verified.

When we check the exit code, however, all we’ll see this:

$ echo $?


The true and false commands have limited functionality, but they can be helpful when you need some control over exit codes or you want to run a command until you’re ready to kill it.

Unix Dweeb

Sandra Henry-Stocker has been administering Unix systems for more than 30 years. She describes herself as "USL" (Unix as a second language) but remembers enough English to write books and buy groceries. She lives in the mountains in Virginia where, when not working with or writing about Unix, she's chasing the bears away from her bird feeders.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Sandra Henry-Stocker and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.

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