Bourne Shell Scripting/Modularization

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If you've ever done any programming in a different environment than the shell, you're probably familiar with the following scenario: you're writing your program, happily typing away at the keyboard, until you notice that

  • you have to repeat some code you typed earlier because your program has to perform exactly the same actions in two different locations; or
  • your program is just too long to understand anymore.

In other words, you've reached the point where it becomes necessary to divide your program up into modules that can be run as separate subprograms and called as often as you like. Working in the Bourne Shell is no different than working in any other language in this respect. Sooner or later you're going to find yourself writing a shell script that's just too long to be practical anymore. And the time will have come to divide your script up into modules.

Named functions[edit | edit source]

Of course, the easy and obvious way to divide a script into modules is just to create a couple of different shell scripts — just a few separate text files with executable permissions. But using separate files isn't always the most practical solution either. Spreading your script over multiple files can make it hard to maintain. Especially if you end up with shell scripts that aren't really meaningful unless they are called specifically from one other, particular shell script.

Especially for this situation the Bourne Shell includes the concept of a named function: the possibility to associate a name with a command list and execute the command list by using the name as a command. This is what it looks like:

name () command group
* Where name is a text string
and command group is any grouped command list (either with curly braces or parentheses)

This functionality is available throughout the shell and is useful in several situations. First of all, you can use it to break a long shell script up into multiple modules. But second, you can use it to define your own little macros in your own environment that you don't want to create a full script for. Many modern shells include a built-in command for this called alias, but old-fashioned shells like the original Bourne Shell did not; you can use named functions to accomplish the same result.

Creating a named function[edit | edit source]

Functions with a simple command group[edit | edit source]

Let's start off simply by creating a function that prints "Hello World!!". And let's call it "hw". This is what it looks like:

Hello world as a named function
hw() {
>  echo 'Hello World!!';

We can use exactly the same code in a shell script or in the interactive shell — the example above is from the interactive shell. There are several things to notice about this example. First of all, we didn't need a separate keyword to define a function, just the parentheses did it. To the shell, function definitions are like extended variable definitions. They're part of the environment; you set them just by defining a name and a meaning.

The second thing to note is that, once you're past the parentheses, all the normal rules hold for the command group. In our case we used a command group with braces, so we needed the semicolon after the echo command. The string we want to print contains exclamation points, so we have to quote it (as usual). And we were allowed to break the command group across multiple lines, even in interactive mode, just like normal.

Here's how you use the new function:

Calling our function


$ hw


Hello World!!

Functions that execute in a separate process[edit | edit source]

The definition of a function takes a command group. Any command group. Including the command group with parentheses rather than braces. So if we want, we can define a function that runs as a subprocess in its own environment as well. Here's hello world again, in a subprocess:

Hello world as a named function
hw() ( echo 'Hello World!!' )

It's all on one line this time to keep it short, but the same rules apply as before. And of course the same environment rules apply as well, so any variables defined in the function will not be available anymore once the function ends.

Functions with parameters[edit | edit source]

If you've done any programming in a different programming language you know that the most useful functions are those that take parameters. In other words, ones that don't always rigidly do the same thing but can be influenced by values passed in when the function is called. So here's an interesting question: can we pass parameters to a function? Can we create a definition like

functionWithParams (ARG0, ARG1) { do something with ARG0 and ARG1 }

And then make a call like 'functionWithParams(Hello, World)'? Well, the answer is simple: no. The parenthese are just there as a flag for the shell to let it know that the previous name is the name of a function rather than a variable and there is no room for parameters.

Or actually, it's more a case of the above being the simple answer rather than the answer being simple. You see, when you execute a function you are executing a command. To the shell there's really very little difference between executing a named function and executing 'ls'. It's a command like any other. And it may not be able to have parameters, but like any other command it can certainly have command line arguments. So we may not be able to define a function with parameters like above, but we can certainly do this:

Functions with command-line arguments


$ repeatOne () { echo $1; }
$ repeatOne 'Hello World!'


Hello World!

And you can use any other variable from the environment as well. Of course, that's a nice trick for when you're calling a function from the command line in the interactive shell. But what about in a shell script? The positional variables for command-line arguments are already taken by the arguments to the shell script, right? Ah, but wait! Each command executed in the shell (no matter how it was executed) has its own set of command-line arguments! So there's no interference and you can use the same mechanism. For example, if we define a script like this: A function in a shell script

myFunction() {
  echo $1

echo $1
myFunction "Hello World"
echo $1

Then it executes exactly the way we want:

Executing the script


$ . 'Goodbye World!!'


Goodbye World!

Hello World

Goodbye World!

Functions in the environment[edit | edit source]

We've mentioned it before, but let's delve a little deeper into it now: what are functions exactly? We've hinted that they're an alias for a command list or a macro and that they're part of the environment. But what is a function exactly?

A function, as far as the shell is concerned, is just a very verbose variable definition. And that's really all it is: a name (a text string) that is associated with a value (some more text) and can be replaced by that value when the name is used. Just like a shell variable. And we can prove it too: just define a function in the interactive shell, then give the 'set' command (to list all the variable definitions in your current environment). Your function will be in the list.

Because functions are really a special kind of shell variable definition, they behave exactly the same way "normal" variables do:

  • Functions are defined by listing their name, a definition operator and then the value of the function. Functions use a different definition operator though: '()' instead of '='. This tells the shell to add some special considerations to the function (like not needing the '$' character when using the function).
  • Functions are part of the environment. That means that when commands are issued from the shell, functions are also copied into the copy of the environment that is given to the issued command.
  • Functions can also be passed to new subprocesses if they are marked for export, using the 'export' command. Some shells will require a special command-line argument to 'export' for functions (bash, for instance, requires you to do an 'export -f' to export functions).
  • You can drop function definitions by using the 'unset' command.

Of course, when you use them functions behave just like commands (they are expanded into a command list, after all). We've already seen that you can use command-line arguments with functions and the positional variables to match. But you can also redirect input and output to and from commands and pipe commands together as well.