4.4. Special Variable Types

local variables

variables visible only within a code block or function (see also local variables in functions)

environmental variables

variables that affect the behavior of the shell and user interface


In a more general context, each process has an "environment", that is, a group of variables that hold information that the process may reference. In this sense, the shell behaves like any other process.

Every time a shell starts, it creates shell variables that correspond to its own environmental variables. Updating or adding new environmental variables causes the shell to update its environment, and all the shell's child processes (the commands it executes) inherit this environment.


The space allotted to the environment is limited. Creating too many environmental variables or ones that use up excessive space may cause problems.

bash$ eval "`seq 10000 | sed -e 's/.*/export var&=ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ/'`"

bash$ du
bash: /usr/bin/du: Argument list too long

(Thank you, S. C. for the clarification, and for providing the above example.)

If a script sets environmental variables, they need to be "exported", that is, reported to the environment local to the script. This is the function of the export command.


A script can export variables only to child processes, that is, only to commands or processes which that particular script initiates. A script invoked from the command line cannot export variables back to the command line environment. Child processes cannot export variables back to the parent processes that spawned them.


positional parameters

arguments passed to the script from the command line - $0, $1, $2, $3... $0 is the name of the script itself, $1 is the first argument, $2 the second, $3 the third, and so forth. [1] After $9, the arguments must be enclosed in brackets, for example, ${10}, ${11}, ${12}.

The special variables $* and $@ denote all the positional parameters.

Example 4-5. Positional Parameters


# Call this script with at least 10 parameters, for example
# ./scriptname 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


echo "The name of this script is \"$0\"."
# Adds ./ for current directory
echo "The name of this script is \"`basename $0`\"."
# Strips out path name info (see 'basename')


if [ -n "$1" ]              # Tested variable is quoted.
 echo "Parameter #1 is $1"  # Need quotes to escape #

if [ -n "$2" ]
 echo "Parameter #2 is $2"

if [ -n "$3" ]
 echo "Parameter #3 is $3"

# ...

if [ -n "${10}" ]  # Parameters > $9 must be enclosed in {brackets}.
 echo "Parameter #10 is ${10}"

echo "-----------------------------------"
echo "All the command-line parameters are: "$*""

if [ $# -lt "$MINPARAMS" ]
  echo "Give me at least $MINPARAMS command-line arguments!"


exit 0

The bracket notation for positional parameters leads to a fairly simply way of referencing the last argument passed to a script on the command line. This also requires indirect referencing.

args=$#           # Number of args passed.
lastarg=${!args}  # Note that lastarg=${!$#} doesn't work.

Some scripts can perform different operations, depending on which name they are invoked with. For this to work, the script needs to check $0, the name it was invoked by. There must also exist symbolic links to all the alternate names of the script.


If a script expects a command line parameter but is invoked without one, this may cause a null variable assignment, generally an undesirable result. One way to prevent this is to append an extra character to both sides of the assignment statement using the expected positional parameter.

# This will prevent an error, even if positional parameter is absent.


# The extra character can be stripped off later, if desired, like so.
variable1=${variable1_/_/}   # Side effects only if $variable1_ begins with "_".
# This uses one of the parameter substitution templates discussed in Chapter 9.
# Leaving out the replacement pattern results in a deletion.

#  A more straightforward way of dealing with this is
#+ to simply test whether expected positional parameters have been passed.
if [ -z $1 ]


Example 4-6. wh, whois domain name lookup


# Does a 'whois domain-name' lookup on any of 3 alternate servers:
#                    ripe.net, cw.net, radb.net

# Place this script, named 'wh' in /usr/local/bin

# Requires symbolic links:
# ln -s /usr/local/bin/wh /usr/local/bin/wh-ripe
# ln -s /usr/local/bin/wh /usr/local/bin/wh-cw
# ln -s /usr/local/bin/wh /usr/local/bin/wh-radb

if [ -z "$1" ]
  echo "Usage: `basename $0` [domain-name]"
  exit 65

case `basename $0` in
# Checks script name and calls proper server
    "wh"     ) whois [email protected];;
    "wh-ripe") whois [email protected];;
    "wh-radb") whois [email protected];;
    "wh-cw"  ) whois [email protected];;
    *        ) echo "Usage: `basename $0` [domain-name]";;

exit 0


The shift command reassigns the positional parameters, in effect shifting them to the left one notch.

$1 <--- $2, $2 <--- $3, $3 <--- $4, etc.

The old $1 disappears, but $0 (the script name) does not change. If you use a large number of positional parameters to a script, shift lets you access those past 10, although {bracket} notation also permits this.

Example 4-7. Using shift

# Using 'shift' to step through all the positional parameters.

#  Name this script something like shft,
#+ and invoke it with some parameters, for example
#          ./shft a b c def 23 skidoo

until [ -z "$1" ]  # Until all parameters used up...
  echo -n "$1 "

echo               # Extra line feed.

exit 0


The shift command also works on parameters passed to a function. See Example 34-10.



The process calling the script sets the $0 parameter. By convention, this parameter is the name of the script. See the manpage for execv.