Chapter 14. Command Substitution

Command substitution reassigns the output of a command [1] or even multiple commands; it literally plugs the command output into another context. [2]

The classic form of command substitution uses backquotes (`...`). Commands within backquotes (backticks) generate command line text.
script_name=`basename $0`
echo "The name of this script is $script_name."

The output of commands can be used as arguments to another command, to set a variable, and even for generating the argument list in a for loop.

rm `cat filename`   # "filename" contains a list of files to delete.
# S. C. points out that "arg list too long" error might result.
# Better is              xargs rm -- < filename 
# ( -- covers those cases where "filename" begins with a "-" )

textfile_listing=`ls *.txt`
# Variable contains names of all *.txt files in current working directory.
echo $textfile_listing

textfile_listing2=$(ls *.txt)   # The alternative form of command substitution.
echo $textfile_listing2
# Same result.

# A possible problem with putting a list of files into a single string
# is that a newline may creep in.
# A safer way to assign a list of files to a parameter is with an array.
#      shopt -s nullglob    # If no match, filename expands to nothing.
#      textfile_listing=( *.txt )
# Thanks, S.C.


Command substitution invokes a subshell.


Command substitution may result in word splitting.
COMMAND `echo a b`     # 2 args: a and b

COMMAND "`echo a b`"   # 1 arg: "a b"

COMMAND `echo`         # no arg

COMMAND "`echo`"       # one empty arg

# Thanks, S.C.

Even when there is no word splitting, command substitution can remove trailing newlines.
# cd "`pwd`"  # This should always work.
# However...

mkdir 'dir with trailing newline

cd 'dir with trailing newline

cd "`pwd`"  # Error message:
# bash: cd: /tmp/file with trailing newline: No such file or directory

cd "$PWD"   # Works fine.

old_tty_setting=$(stty -g)   # Save old terminal setting.
echo "Hit a key "
stty -icanon -echo           # Disable "canonical" mode for terminal.
                             # Also, disable *local* echo.
key=$(dd bs=1 count=1 2> /dev/null)   # Using 'dd' to get a keypress.
stty "$old_tty_setting"      # Restore old setting. 
echo "You hit ${#key} key."  # ${#variable} = number of characters in $variable
# Hit any key except RETURN, and the output is "You hit 1 key."
# Hit RETURN, and it's "You hit 0 key."
# The newline gets eaten in the command substitution.

Thanks, S.C.


Using echo to output an unquoted variable set with command substitution removes trailing newlines characters from the output of the reassigned command(s). This can cause unpleasant surprises.
dir_listing=`ls -l`
echo $dir_listing     # unquoted

# Expecting a nicely ordered directory listing.

# However, what you get is:
# total 3 -rw-rw-r-- 1 bozo bozo 30 May 13 17:15 1.txt -rw-rw-r-- 1 bozo
# bozo 51 May 15 20:57 -rwxr-xr-x 1 bozo bozo 217 Mar 5 21:13

# The newlines disappeared.

echo "$dir_listing"   # quoted
# -rw-rw-r--    1 bozo       30 May 13 17:15 1.txt
# -rw-rw-r--    1 bozo       51 May 15 20:57
# -rwxr-xr-x    1 bozo      217 Mar  5 21:13

Command substitution even permits setting a variable to the contents of a file, using either redirection or the cat command.

variable1=`<file1`      #  Set "variable1" to contents of "file1".
variable2=`cat file2`   #  Set "variable2" to contents of "file2".
                        #  This, however, forks a new process,
                        #+ so the line of code executes slower than the above version.

#  Note:
#  The variables may contain embedded whitespace,
#+ or even (horrors), control characters.

#  Excerpts from system file, /etc/rc.d/rc.sysinit
#+ (on a Red Hat Linux installation)

if [ -f /fsckoptions ]; then
        fsckoptions=`cat /fsckoptions`
if [ -e "/proc/ide/${disk[$device]}/media" ] ; then
             hdmedia=`cat /proc/ide/${disk[$device]}/media`
if [ ! -n "`uname -r | grep -- "-"`" ]; then
       ktag="`cat /proc/version`"
if [ $usb = "1" ]; then
    sleep 5
    mouseoutput=`cat /proc/bus/usb/devices 2>/dev/null|grep -E "^I.*Cls=03.*Prot=02"`
    kbdoutput=`cat /proc/bus/usb/devices 2>/dev/null|grep -E "^I.*Cls=03.*Prot=01"`


Do not set a variable to the contents of a long text file unless you have a very good reason for doing so. Do not set a variable to the contents of a binary file, even as a joke.

Example 14-1. Stupid script tricks

# Don't try this at home, folks.
# From "Stupid Script Tricks," Volume I.

dangerous_variable=`cat /boot/vmlinuz`   # The compressed Linux kernel itself.

echo "string-length of \$dangerous_variable = ${#dangerous_variable}"
# string-length of $dangerous_variable = 794151
# (Does not give same count as 'wc -c /boot/vmlinuz'.)

# echo "$dangerous_variable"
# Don't try this! It would hang the script.

#  The document author is aware of no useful applications for
#+ setting a variable to the contents of a binary file.

exit 0

Notice that a buffer overrun does not occur. This is one instance where an interpreted language, such as Bash, provides more protection from programmer mistakes than a compiled language.

Command substitution permits setting a variable to the output of a loop. The key to this is grabbing the output of an echo command within the loop.

Example 14-2. Generating a variable from a loop

# Setting a variable to the output of a loop.

variable1=`for i in 1 2 3 4 5
  echo -n "$i"                 #  The 'echo' command is critical
done`                          #+ to command substitution here.

echo "variable1 = $variable1"  # variable1 = 12345

variable2=`while [ "$i" -lt 10 ]
  echo -n "$i"                 # Again, the necessary 'echo'.
  let "i += 1"                 # Increment.

echo "variable2 = $variable2"  # variable2 = 0123456789

# It's possible to embed a loop within a variable declaration.

exit 0


The $(COMMAND) form has superseded backticks for command substitution.

output=$(sed -n /"$1"/p $file)   # From ""	example.
# Setting a variable to the contents of a text file.
File_contents1=$(cat $file1)      
File_contents2=$(<$file2)        # Bash permits this also.

The $(...) form of command substitution treats a double backslash in a different way than `...`.

bash$ echo `echo \\`

bash$ echo $(echo \\)

Examples of command substitution in shell scripts:

  1. Example 10-7

  2. Example 10-26

  3. Example 9-27

  4. Example 12-3

  5. Example 12-18

  6. Example 12-15

  7. Example 12-43

  8. Example 10-13

  9. Example 10-10

  10. Example 12-27

  11. Example 16-7

  12. Example A-18

  13. Example 28-2

  14. Example 12-36

  15. Example 12-37

  16. Example 12-38



For purposes of command substitution, a command may be an external system command, an internal scripting builtin, or even a script function.


In a more technically correct sense, command substitution extracts the stdout of a command, then assigns it to a variable using the = operator.