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Chapter 33. Scripting With Style

Get into the habit of writing shell scripts in a structured and systematic manner. Even "on-the-fly" and "written on the back of an envelope" scripts will benefit if you take a few minutes to plan and organize your thoughts before sitting down and coding.

Herewith are a few stylistic guidelines. This is not intended as an Official Shell Scripting Stylesheet.

33.1. Unofficial Shell Scripting Stylesheet

  • Comment your code. This makes it easier for others to understand (and appreciate), and easier for you to maintain.

    # It made perfect sense when you wrote it last year, but now it's a complete mystery.
    # (From Antek Sawicki's "pw.sh" script.)

    Add descriptive headers to your scripts and functions.

    #                   xyz.sh                       #
    #           written by Bozo Bozeman              #
    #                July 05, 2001                   #
    #                                                #
    #           Clean up project files.              #
    E_BADDIR=65                       # No such directory.
    projectdir=/home/bozo/projects    # Directory to clean up.
    # --------------------------------------------------------- #
    # cleanup_pfiles ()                                         #
    # Removes all files in designated directory.                #
    # Parameter: $target_directory                              #
    # Returns: 0 on success, $E_BADDIR if something went wrong. #
    # --------------------------------------------------------- #
    cleanup_pfiles ()
      if [ ! -d "$1" ]  # Test if target directory exists.
        echo "$1 is not a directory."
        return $E_BADDIR
      rm -f "$1"/*
      return 0   # Success.
    cleanup_pfiles $projectdir
    exit 0
    Be sure to put the #!/bin/bash at the beginning of the first line of the script, preceding any comment headers.

  • Avoid using "magic numbers," [1] that is, "hard-wired" literal constants. Use meaningful variable names instead. This makes the script easier to understand and permits making changes and updates without breaking the application.

    if [ -f /var/log/messages ]
    # A year later, you decide to change the script to check /var/log/syslog.
    # It is now necessary to manually change the script, instance by instance,
    # and hope nothing breaks.
    # A better way:
    LOGFILE=/var/log/messages  # Only line that needs to be changed.
    if [ -f "$LOGFILE" ]

  • Choose descriptive names for variables and functions.

    fl=`ls -al $dirname`                 # Cryptic.
    file_listing=`ls -al $dirname`       # Better.
    MAXVAL=10   # All caps used for a script constant.
    while [ "$index" -le "$MAXVAL" ]
    E_NOTFOUND=75                        # Uppercase for an errorcode,
                                         # and name begins with "E_".
    if [ ! -e "$filename" ]
      echo "File $filename not found."
      exit $E_NOTFOUND
    MAIL_DIRECTORY=/var/spool/mail/bozo  # Uppercase for an environmental variable.
    GetAnswer ()                         # Mixed case works well for a function.
      echo -n $prompt
      read answer
      return $answer
    GetAnswer "What is your favorite number? "
    echo $favorite_number
    _uservariable=23                     # Permissable, but not recommended.
    # It's better for user-defined variables not to start with an underscore.
    # Leave that for system variables.

  • Use exit codes in a systematic and meaningful way.

    exit $E_WRONG_ARGS
    See also Appendix D.

    Ender suggests using the exit codes in /usr/include/sysexits.h in shell scripts, though these are primarily intended for C and C++ programming.

  • Use standardized parameter flags for script invocation. Ender proposes the following set of flags.

    -a      All: Return all information (including hidden file info).
    -b      Brief: Short version, usually for other scripts.
    -c      Copy, concatenate, etc.
    -d      Daily: Use information from the whole day, and not merely
            information for a specific instance/user.
    -e      Extended/Elaborate: (often does not include hidden file info).
    -h      Help: Verbose usage w/descs, aux info, discussion, help.
            See also -V.
    -l      Log output of script.
    -m      Manual: Launch man-page for base command.
    -n      Numbers: Numerical data only.
    -r      Recursive: All files in a directory (and/or all sub-dirs).
    -s      Setup & File Maintenance: Config files for this script.
    -u      Usage: List of invocation flags for the script.
    -v      Verbose: Human readable output, more or less formatted.
    -V      Version / License / Copy(right|left) / Contribs (email too).

    See also Appendix F.

  • Break complex scripts into simpler modules. Use functions where appropriate. See Example 35-4.

  • Don't use a complex construct where a simpler one will do.

    if [ $? -eq 0 ]
    # Redundant and non-intuitive.
    if COMMAND
    # More concise (if perhaps not quite as legible).


... reading the UNIX source code to the Bourne shell (/bin/sh). I was shocked at how much simple algorithms could be made cryptic, and therefore useless, by a poor choice of code style. I asked myself, "Could someone be proud of this code?"

 Landon Noll



In this context, "magic numbers" have an entirely different meaning than the magic numbers used to designate file types.

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