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Learning the Korn Shell

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Korn Shell Basics
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1.9 Special Characters and Quoting

The characters <, >, |, and & are four examples of special characters that have particular meanings to the shell. The wildcards we saw earlier in this chapter (*, ?, and [...]) are also special characters.

Table 1.6 gives indications of the meanings of all special characters within shell command lines only. Other characters have special meanings in specific situations, such as the regular expressions and string-handling operators we'll see in Chapter 3 and Chapter 4.

Table 1.6: Special Characters
CharacterMeaningSee Chapter
~Home directory1
lsquo;Command substitution (archaic)4
$Variable expression3
&Background job1
*String wildcard1
(Start subshell8
)End subshell8
\Quote next character1
[Start character-set wildcard1
]End character-set wildcard1
{Start code block7
}End code block7
;Shell command separator3
'Strong quote1
"Weak quote1
<Input redirect1
>Output redirect1
/Pathname directory separator1
?Single-character wildcard1

1.9.1 Quoting

Sometimes you will want to use special characters literally, i.e., without their special meanings. This is called quoting. If you surround a string of characters with single quotes, you strip all characters within the quotes of any special meaning they might have.

The most obvious situation where you might need to quote a string is with the print command, which just takes its arguments and prints them to the standard output. What is the point of this? As you will see in later chapters, the shell does quite a bit of processing on command lines - most of which involves some of the special characters listed in Table 1.6. print is a way of making the result of that processing available on the standard output.

But what if we wanted to print the string, 2 * 3 > 5 is a valid inequality? Suppose you typed this:

$ print 2 * 3 > 5 is a valid inequality.

You would get your shell prompt back, as if nothing happened! But then there would be a new file, with the name 5, containing "2", the names of all files in your current directory, and then the string 3 is a valid inequality. Make sure you understand why. [12]

[12] This should also teach you something about the flexibility of placing I/O redirectors anywhere on the command line-even in places where they don't seem to make sense.

However, if you type:

$ print '2 * 3 > 5 is a 
valid inequality.'

the result is the string, taken literally. You needn't quote the entire line, just the portion containing special characters (or characters you think might be special, if you just want to be sure):

$ print '2 * 3 > 5' is a valid inequality.

This has exactly the same result.

Notice that Table 1.6 lists double quotes (") as weak quotes. A string in double quotes is subjected to some of the steps the shell takes to process command lines, but not all. (In other words, it treats only some special characters as special.) You'll see in later chapters why double quotes are sometimes preferable; Chapter 7 contains the most comprehensive explanation of the shell's rules for quoting and other aspects of command-line processing. For now, though, you should stick to single quotes.

1.9.2 Backslash-escaping

Another way to change the meaning of a character is to precede it with a backslash (\). This is called backslash-escaping the character. In most cases, when you backslash-escape a character, you quote it. For example:

$ print 2 \* 3 \> 5 is a valid inequality.

will produce the same results as if you surrounded the string with single quotes. To use a literal backslash, just surround it with quotes ('\') or, even better, backslash-escape it (\\).

Here is a more practical example of quoting special characters. A few UNIX commands take arguments that often include wildcard characters, which need to be escaped so the shell doesn't process them first. The most common such command is find, which searches for files throughout entire directory trees.

To use find, you supply the root of the tree you want to search and arguments that describe the characteristics of the file(s) you want to find. For example, the command find . -name string searches the directory tree whose root is your current directory for files whose names match the string. (Other arguments allow you to search by the file's size, owner, permissions, date of last access, etc.)

You can use wildcards in the string, but you must quote them, so that the find command itself can match them against names of files in each directory it searches. The command find . -name '*.c' will match all files whose names end in .c anywhere in your current directory, subdirectories, sub-subdirectories, etc.

1.9.3 Quoting Quotation Marks

You can also use a backslash to include double quotes within a quoted string. For example:

$ print \"2 \* 3 \> 5\" is a valid inequality.

produces the following output:

"2 * 3 > 5" is a valid inequality.

However, this won't work with single quotes inside quoted expressions. For example, print 'Bob\'s hair is brown' will not give you Bob's hair is brown. You can get around this limitation in various ways. First, try eliminating the quotes:

$ print Bob\'s hair is brown

If no other characters are special (as is the case here), this works. Otherwise, you can use the following command:

$ print 'Bob'\''s hair is brown'

That is, '\'' (i.e., single quote, backslash, single quote, single quote) acts like a single quote within a quoted string. Why? The first ' in '\'' ends the quoted string we started with (' Bob), the \' inserts a literal single quote, and the next ' starts another quoted string that ends with the word "brown". If you understand, then you will have no trouble resolving the other bewildering issues that arise from the shell's often cryptic syntax.

1.9.4 Continuing Lines

A related issue is how to continue the text of a command beyond a single line on your terminal or workstation window. The answer is conceptually simple: just quote the RETURN key. After all, RETURN is really just another character.

You can do this in two ways: by ending a line with a backslash, or by not closing a quote mark (i.e., by including RETURN in a quoted string). If you use the backslash, there must be nothing between it and the end of the line-not even spaces or TABs.

Whether you use a backslash or a single quote, you are telling the shell to ignore the special meaning of the RETURN character. After you press RETURN, the shell understands that you haven't finished your command line (i.e., since you haven't typed a "real" RETURN), so it responds with a secondary prompt, which is > by default, and waits for you to finish the line. You can continue a line as many times as you wish.

For example, if you want the shell to print the first sentence of Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, you can type this:

$ print A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the \
> time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known \
> as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. 

Or you can do it this way:

$ print ' A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the  
> time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known 
> as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment.' 

1.9.5 Control Keys

Control keys-those that you type by holding down the CONTROL (or CTRL) key and hitting another key-are another type of special character. These normally don't print anything on your screen, but the operating system interprets a few of them as special commands. You already know one of them: RETURN is actually the same as [CTRL-M] (try it and see). You have probably also used the BACKSPACE or DEL key to erase typos on your command line.

Actually, many control keys have functions that don't really concern you-yet you should know about them for future reference and in case you type them by accident.

Perhaps the most difficult thing about control keys is that they can differ from system to system. The usual arrangement is shown in Table 1.7 which lists the control keys that all major modern versions of UNIX support. Note that [CTRL-\] and [CTRL-|] (control-backslash and control-pipe) are the same character notated two different ways; the same is true of DEL and [CTRL-?].

You can use the stty command to find out what your settings are and change them if you wish; see Chapter 8 for details. If the version of UNIX on your system is one of those that derive from BSD (such as SunOS and Ultrix), type stty all to see your control-key settings; you will see something like this:

erase  kill   werase rprnt  flush  lnext  susp   intr   quit   stop   eof
^?     ^U     ^W     ^R     ^O     ^V     ^Z/^Y  ^C     ^|     ^S/^Q  ^D

Table 1.7: Control Keys
Control Keystty NameFunction Description

Stop current command


End of input

[CTRL-\] or [CTRL-|]quit

Stop current command, if [CTRL-C] doesn't work


Halt output to screen


Restart output to screen

DEL or [CTRL-?]erase

Erase last character


Erase entire command line


Suspend current command (see Chapter 8)

The ^X notation stands for CTRL-X. If your UNIX version derives from System III or System V (this includes AIX, HP/UX, SCO, and Xenix), type stty -a; the resulting output will include this information:

intr = ^c; quit = ^|; erase = DEL; kill = ^u; eof = ^d; eol = ^`; swtch = ^`
susp = ^z; dsusp <undef>;

The control key you will probably use most often is [CTRL-C], sometimes called the interrupt key. This stops-or tries to stop-the command that is currently running. You will want to use this when you enter a command and find that it's taking too long, you gave it the wrong arguments by mistake, you change your mind about wanting to run it, or whatever.

Sometimes [CTRL-C] doesn't work; in that case, if you really want to stop a job, try [CTRL-\]. But don't just type CTRL-\; always try [CTRL-C] first! Chapter 8 explains why in detail. For now, suffice it to say that [CTRL-C] gives the running job more of a chance to clean up before exiting, so that files and other resources are not left in funny states.

We've already seen an example of [CTRL-D]. When you are running a command that accepts standard input from your keyboard, [CTRL-D] tells the process that your input is finished-as if the process were reading a file and it reached the end of the file. mail is a utility in which this happens often. When you are typing in a message, you end by typing [CTRL-D]. This tells mail that your message is complete and ready to be sent. Most utilities that accept standard input understand [CTRL-D] as the end-of-input character, though many such programs accept commands like q, quit, exit, etc. The shell itself understands [CTRL-D] as the end-of-input character: as we saw earlier in this chapter, you can normally end a login session by typing [CTRL-D] at the shell prompt. You are just telling the shell that its command input is finished.

CTRL-S and [CTRL-Q] are called flow-control characters. They represent an antiquated way of stopping and restarting the flow of output from one device to another (e.g., from the computer to your terminal) that was useful when the speed of such output was low. They are rather obsolete in these days of high-speed local networks and dialup lines. In fact, under the latter conditions, CTRL-S and [CTRL-Q] are basically a nuisance. The only thing you really need to know about them is that if your screen output becomes "stuck," then you may have hit [CTRL-S] by accident. Type [CTRL-Q] to restart the output; any keys you may have hit in between will then take effect.

The final group of control characters gives you rudimentary ways to edit your command line. DEL acts as a backspace key (in fact, some systems use the actual BACKSPACE or [CTRL-H] key as "erase" instead of DEL); [CTRL-U] erases the entire line and lets you start over. Again, these are outmoded. [13] Instead of using these, go to the next chapter and read about Korn shell's editing modes, which are among its most exciting features.

[13] Why are so many outmoded control keys still in use? They have nothing to do with the shell per se; instead, they are recognized by the tty driver, an old and hoary part of the operating system's lower depths that controls input and output to/from your terminal.

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