Unix Shell Scripting

Scripting : You Can Do It

“Shell scripting” sounds like a really scary topic. Isn’t scripting for uber-geeks? Unix gurus? Isn’t scripting really spooky stuff?

It isn’t if you already know how to open a command window, change directories, and copy and move files. You’ve already got the basic tools. Promise.

The only difference between a shell script and the commands you’d normally use at the command prompt is that you’ll save your commands to a file. A shell script is no more than a list of commands that are run in sequence.


First Lines

Now you’re going to write a script. You’re going to need to create a file called hello.sh .

Use the command:

vi hello.sh

If you’re using gedit or kedit, use a command like:

gedit hello.sh &
#Don’t forget that & !

To begin, a shell script has to start with a line like this:






depending on the system. This line indicates that the script should be run in the Bourne/bash shell regardless of which interactive shell the user has chosen. This is very important, since the syntax of different shells can vary greatly. Generically, the #! symbol is called a “shebang” (my preference) or a “hashpling.”

Take a good look at the line again:


It’s very easy to make a mistake right here that will cause an error:
You must not leave a space after the bang.
There are a few command interpreters that can handle it; most can’t.

Here’s a very simple example of a shell script for you to copy. It runs a few simple commands:

echo “Hello, $USER.” # list user’s files
echo “Your current directory is $PWD”

# list files
echo “It contains these files:” `ls`

Notice that this script uses a command (echo) to call a command (ls -la), and employs two environmental variables ($USER and $PWD). Not bad for a start! Now copy this script.

  1. Run this script. How do you call it?
  2. What else do you need to do to make it run?



See the comment on line three:

# list files

In a Bourne/bash script, anything following a pound sign # (besides the shell name on the first line) is a comment: the shell ignores it. It is there for the benefit of people reading the script.

$USER and $PWD are environment variables. These are standard variables defined outside the Bourne/bash shell itself, so they needn’t be defined in the script.

Variables are expanded when the variable name is inside double quotes. “Expanded” is an appropriate word: the shell sees the string $USER and replaces it with the variable’s value.



You define a variable and give it a value like this:

X=”hello you”

You get a value back out of it by referring to it as:


For instance, you can see X’s value by echoing it to the screen:

echo “$X”

Formally, $X is used to denote the value of the variable X.


No Spaces With =

Especially Note:
Your shell will be very unhappy if you leave a space on either side of the = sign.

For example, try both the following:

X = hello


Technically, you don’t need quotes unless your variable names include spaces. For example,

X=hello world # error
X=”hello world” # good

This is because the shell essentially sees the command line as a string of commands and command arguments, separated by spaces. (Read that twice more.)


is considered a command (which it is: it’s the assignment command in action). The problem with

foo = bar

is that the shell sees the word foo separated by spaces and interprets it as a command. Likewise, the problem with the command

X=hello world

is that the shell interprets X=hello as a command, and the word “world” doesn’t make any sense as its argument either.

The one critical thing you must remember about script files is this:
You must make the script file executable in order for it to run.
This means you must change its mode.


Change Mode

Make your script executable with either of the following commands:

chmod +x hello.sh


chmod 755 hello.sh

Now you can run your script with the simple command:


  1. For whom is the script now executable?
  2. Under what user’s permissions will it run?
  3. How could you avoid having to use ./ ?


Calling A Script

If a script has been made executable, you can run it simply by calling its name:




or just


There is a way around the executable limitation. If you have read access to the script, you can call the script by opening a new Bash subshell, using the script’s name as an argument:

bash ./hello.sh


This leads to a good point: you can run many kinds of script files be specifying the shell or interpreter (for instance, the Perl or PHP interpreter, or the C shell) and the script name:

perl ./perlscript.pl

csh ./cscript.sh


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