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The Bourne Again Shell

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The Bourne Again Shell and TC Shell are command interpreters and high-level programming languages. As command interpreters, they process commands you enter on the command line in response to a prompt. This chapter focuses primarily on the Bourne Again Shell, while noting where it differs from the TC Shell.
This chapter is from the book


  • Startup Files
  • Redirecting Standard Error
  • Writing a Simple Shell Script
  • Job Control
  • Manipulating the Directory Stack
  • Parameters and Variables
  • Processes
  • History
  • Reexecuting and Editing Commands
  • Aliases
  • Functions
  • Controlling bash Features and Options
  • Processing the Command Line

This chapter picks up where Chapter 5 left off by focusing on the Bourne Again Shell (bash). It notes where the TC Shell (tcsh) implementation of a feature differs from that of bash; if appropriate, you are directed to the page where the alternative implementation is discussed. Chapter 13 expands on this chapter, exploring control flow commands and more advanced aspects of programming the Bourne Again Shell. The bash home page is www.gnu.org/software/bash. The bash info page is a complete Bourne Again Shell reference.

The Bourne Again Shell and TC Shell are command interpreters and high-level programming languages. As command interpreters, they process commands you enter on the command line in response to a prompt. When you use the shell as a programming language, it processes commands stored in files called shell scripts. Like other languages, shells have variables and control flow commands (for example, for loops and if statements).

When you use a shell as a command interpreter, you can customize the environment you work in. You can make your prompt display the name of the working directory, create a function or alias for cp that keeps it from overwriting certain kinds of files, take advantage of keyword variables to change aspects of how the shell works, and so on. You can also write shell scripts that do your bidding, from a one-line script that stores a long, complex command to a longer script that runs a set of reports, prints them, and mails you a reminder when the job is done. More complex shell scripts are themselves programs; they do not just run other programs. Chapter 13 has some examples of these types of scripts.

Most system shell scripts are written to run under the Bourne Again Shell. If you will ever work in single-user mode—as when you boot your system or do system maintenance, administration, or repair work, for example—it is a good idea to become familiar with this shell.

This chapter expands on the interactive features of the shell described in Chapter 5, explains how to create and run simple shell scripts, discusses job control, introduces the basic aspects of shell programming, talks about history and aliases, and describes command line expansion. Chapter 9 covers interactive use of the TC Shell and TC Shell programming, and Chapter 13 presents some more challenging shell programming problems.


The Bourne Again Shell is based on the Bourne Shell (the early UNIX shell; this book refers to it as the original Bourne Shell to avoid confusion), which was written by Steve Bourne of AT&T's Bell Laboratories. Over the years the original Bourne Shell has been expanded but it remains the basic shell provided with many commercial versions of UNIX.

sh Shell

Because of its long and successful history, the original Bourne Shell has been used to write many of the shell scripts that help manage UNIX systems. Some of these scripts appear in Mac OS X as Bourne Again Shell scripts. Although the Bourne Again Shell includes many extensions and features not found in the original Bourne Shell, bash maintains compatibility with the original Bourne Shell so you can run Bourne Shell scripts under bash. On UNIX systems the original Bourne Shell is named sh. On Mac OS X sh is a copy of bash ensuring that scripts that require the presence of the Bourne Shell still run. When called as sh, bash does its best to emulate the original Bourne Shell.

Korn Shell

System V UNIX introduced the Korn Shell (ksh), written by David Korn. This shell extended many features of the original Bourne Shell and added many new features. Some features of the Bourne Again Shell, such as command aliases and command line editing, are based on similar features from the Korn Shell. Recent releases of Mac OS X include the Korn Shell.

POSIX standards

The POSIX (the Portable Operating System Interface) family of related standards is being developed by PASC (IEEE's Portable Application Standards Committee, www.pasc.org). A comprehensive FAQ on POSIX, including many links, appears at www.opengroup.org/austin/papers/posix_faq.html.

POSIX standard 1003.2 describes shell functionality. The Bourne Again Shell provides the features that match the requirements of this POSIX standard. Efforts are under way to make the Bourne Again Shell fully comply with the POSIX standard. In the meantime, if you invoke bash with the --posix option, the behavior of the Bourne Again Shell will more closely match the POSIX requirements.

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