Shell Input and Output

The Bourne shell provides a number of ways to read and write files, display text, and get information from the user, including echo (described previously in Shell Script Basics), printf, read, cat, pipes, and redirection. This chapter describes these mechanisms.

Shell Script Input and Output Using printf and read

The Bourne shell syntax provides basic input with very little effort.

printf "What is your name?  -> "
read NAME
echo "Hello, $NAME.  Nice to meet you."

You will notice two things about this script. The first is that it introduces the printf command. This command is used because, unlike echo, the printf command does not automatically add a newline to the end of the line of output. This behavior is useful when you need to use multiple lines of code to output a single line of text. It also just happens to be handy for prompts.

The second thing you'll notice is the read command. This command takes a line of input and separates it into a series of arguments. Each of these arguments is assigned to the variables in the read statement in the order of appearance. Any additional input fields are appended to the last entry.

You can modify the behavior of the read command by modifying the shell variable IFS (short for internal field separators). The default behavior is to split inputs everywhere there is a space, tab, or newline. By changing this variable, you can make the shell split the input fields by tabs, newlines, semicolons, or even the letter 'q'. This change in behavior is demonstrated in the following example:

printf "Type three numbers separated by 'q'. -> "
echo "You said: $NUMBER1, $NUMBER2, $NUMBER3"

If, for example, you run this script and enter 1q3q57q65, the script replies with You said: 1, 3, 57q65. The third value contains 57q65 because only three values are requested in the read statement.

But what if you don’t know how many parameters the user will specify? Obviously, a single read statement cannot split the input up into an arbitrary number of variables, and the Bourne shell does not contain true arrays. Fortunately, the eval builtin can be used to simulate an array using multiple shell variables. This technique is described in Using the eval Builtin for Data Structures, Arrays, and Indirection.

Alternatively, you can use the for statement, which splits a single variable into multiple pieces based on the internal field separators. This statement is described in The for Statement.

Bulk I/O Using the cat Command

For small I/O, the echo command is well suited. However, when you need to create large amounts of data, it may be convenient to send multiple lines to a file simultaneously. For these purposes, the cat command can be particularly useful.

By itself, the cat command really doesn’t do anything that can’t be done using redirect operators (except for printing the contents of a file to the user’s screen). However, by combining it with the special operator <<, you can use it to send a large quantity of text to a file (or to the screen) without having to use the echo command on every line.

For example:

cat > mycprogram.c << EOF
#include <stdio.h>
int main(int argc, char *argv[])
    char array[] = { 0x25, 115, 0 };
    char array2[] = { 68, 0x61, 118, 0x69, 0144, 040,
                        0107, 97, 0x74, 119, 0157, 0x6f,
                        100, 0x20, 0x72, 117, 'l', 0x65,
                        115, 041, 012, 0 };
    printf(array, array2);

This example script takes the text after the line containing the cat command up to (but not including) the line that begins with EOF and stores it into the file mycprogram.c. Note that the token EOF can be replaced with any token, so long as the following conditions are met:

This technique is also frequently used for printing instructions to the user from an interactive shell script. This avoids the clutter of dozens of lines of echo commands and makes the text much easier to read and edit in an external text editor (if desired).

Another classic example of this use of cat in action is the .shar file format, created by the tool shar (short for SHell ARchive). This tool takes a list of files as input and uses them to create a giant shell script which, when executed, recreates those original files. To avoid the risk of the end-of-block token appearing in the input file, it prepends each line with a special character, then strips that character off on output.

Pipes and Redirection

As you may already be aware, the true power of shell scripting lies not in the scripts themselves, but in the ability to read and write files and chain multiple programs together in interesting ways.

Each program in a UNIX-based or UNIX-like system has three basic file descriptors (normally a reference to a file or socket) reserved for basic input and output: standard input (often abbreviated stdin), standard output (stdout), and standard error (stderr).

The first, standard input, normally takes input from the user's keyboard (when the shell window is in the foreground, of course). The second, standard output, normally contains the output text from the program. The third, standard error, is generally reserved for warning or error messages that are not part of the normal output of the program. This distinction between standard output and standard error is a very important one, as explained in Pipes and File Descriptor Redirection (Bourne Shell).

Basic File Redirection

One of the most common types of I/O in shell scripts is reading and writing files. Fortunately, it is also relatively simple to do. Reading and writing files in shell scripts works exactly like getting input from or sending output to the user, but with the standard input redirected to come from a file or with the standard output redirected to a file.

For example, the following command creates a file called MyFile and fills it with a single line of text:

echo "a single line of text" > MyFile

Appending data is just as easy. The following command appends another line of text to the file MyFile.

echo "another line of text" >> MyFile

You should notice that the redirect operator (>) creates a file, while the append operator (>>) appends to the file.

Many (but not all) Bourne-compatible shells support a third operator in this family, the merging redirect operator (>&) that redirects standard error and standard output simultaneously to a file. For example:

ls . THISISNOTAFILE >& filelistwitherrors

This creates a file called filelistwitherrors, containing both a listing of the current directory and an error message about the nonexistence of the file THISISNOTAFILE. The standard output and standard error streams are merged and written out to the resulting file.

Pipes and File Descriptor Redirection (Bourne Shell)

The simplest example of the use of pipes is to pipe the standard output of one program to the standard input of another program. Type the following on the command line:

ls -l | grep 'rwx'

You will see all of the files whose permissions (or name) contain the letters rwx in order. The ls command lists files to its standard output, and the grep command takes its input and sends any lines that match a particular pattern to its standard output. Between those two commands is the pipe operator (|). This tells the shell to connect the standard output of ls to the standard input of grep.

Where the distinction between standard output becomes significant is when the ls command gives an error.


You should notice that the ls command issued an error message (unless you have a file called THISFILEDOESNOTEXIST in your home directory, of course). If the ls command had sent this error message to its standard output, it would have been gobbled up by the grep command, since it does not match the pattern rwx. Instead, the ls command sent the message to its standard error descriptor, which resulted in the message going directly to your screen.

In some cases, however, it can be useful to redirect the error messages along with the output. You can do this by using a special form of the combining redirection operator (>&).

Before you can begin, though, you need to know the file descriptor numbers. Descriptor 0 is standard input, descriptor 1 is standard output, and descriptor 2 is standard error. Thus, the following command combines standard error into standard output, then pipes the result to grep:

ls -l THISFILEDOESNOTEXIST 2>&1 | grep 'rwx'

This operator is also often useful if your script needs to send a message to standard error. The following command sends “an error message” to standard error:

echo "an error message" 1>&2

This works by taking the standard output (descriptor 1) of the echo command and redirects it to standard error (descriptor 2).

You should notice that the ampersand (&) appears to behave somewhat differently than it did in Basic File Redirection. Because the ampersand is followed immediately by a number, this causes the output of one data stream to be merged into another stream. In actuality, however, the effect is the same (assuming your shell supports the use of >& by itself).

The redirect (>) operator implicitly redirects standard output. When combined with an ampersand and followed by a filename, in some shells, it merges standard output and standard error and writes the result to a file, though this behavior is not portable. By specifying numbers, your script is effectively overriding which file descriptor to use as its source and specifying a file descriptor to receive the result instead of a file.

Pipes and File Descriptor Redirection (C Shell)

The C shell does not support the full set of file descriptor redirection that the Bourne shell supports. In some cases, alternatives are provided. For example, you can pipe standard output and standard error to the same process using the |& operator as shown in the following snippet:

ls -l THISFILEDOESNOTEXIST |& grep 'rwx'

Some other operations, however, are not possible. You cannot, for example, redirect standard error without redirecting standard output. At best, if you can determine that your standard output will always be /dev/tty, you can work around this by redirecting standard output to /dev/tty first, then redirecting both the now-empty standard output and standard error using the >& operator. For example, to redirect only standard error to /dev/null, you could do this:

(ls > /dev/tty) >& /dev/null

This technique is not recommended for general use, however, as it will send output to your screen if anyone runs your script with standard output set to a file or pipe.

You can also work around this using a file, but not in an interactive way. For example:

(ls > /tmp/mytemporarylslisting) >& /dev/null
cat /tmp/mytemporarylslisting

It is, however, possible to discard standard output and capture standard input. For example:

(ls / /bogusfile > /dev/null) |& more

It is not possible to redirect messages to standard error using the C shell unless you write a Bourne shell script or C program to do the redirection for you.