[EnglishFrontPage] [TitleIndex] [WordIndex

How can I use array variables?

This answer assumes you have a basic understanding of what arrays are in the first place. If you're new to this kind of programming, you may wish to start with the guide's explanation. This page is more detailed and thorough.

1. Intro

BASH and KornShell have one-dimensional arrays indexed by a numerical expression, e.g.:

# Bash
host=(mickey minnie goofy)
for ((i=0;i<n;i++)); do
    echo "host number $i is ${host[i]}"

The indexing always begins with 0, unless you specifically choose otherwise. The awkward expression ${#host[*]} or ${#host[@]} returns the number of elements for the array host. (We'll go into more detail on syntax below.)

Ksh93, Zsh and Bash 4.0 have Associative Arrays as well. These are not available in Bourne, ash, ksh88 or older bash shells and are not specified by POSIX.

POSIX and Bourne shells are not guaranteed to have arrays at all.

BASH and Korn shell arrays are sparse. Elements may be added and deleted out of sequence.

# Bash/ksh
arr[42]="what was the question?"
unset 'arr[2]'
echo "${arr[*]}"
# prints 0 1 what was the question?

You should try to write your code in such a way that it can handle sparse arrays, unless you know in advance that an array will never have holes.

2. Loading values into an array

Assigning one element at a time is simple, and portable:

# Bash/ksh
arr[42]='the answer'

It's possible to assign multiple values to an array at once, but the syntax differs across shells.

# Bash/ksh93
array=(zero one two three four)

# Korn
set -A array -- zero one two three four

When initializing in this way, the first index will be 0.

You can also initialize an array using a glob (see also NullGlob):

# Bash/ksh93

# Korn
set -A oggs -- *.ogg

or using a substitution of any kind:

# Bash
letters=({a..z})    # Bash 3.0 or higher

# Korn
set -A words -- $sentence

When the arrname=(...) syntax is used, any unquoted substitutions inside the parentheses undergo WordSplitting and glob expansion according to the regular shell rules. In the first example above, if any of the words in $sentence contain glob characters, filename expansion may occur.

set -f and set +f may be used to disable and re-enable glob expansion, respectively, so that words like * will not be expanded into filenames. In some scripts, set -f may be in effect already, and therefore running set +f may be undesirable. This is something you must manage properly yourself; there is no easy or elegant way to "store" the glob expansion switch setting and restore it later. (And don't try to say parsing the output of set -o is easy, because it's not.)

2.1. Loading lines from a file or stream

In bash 4, the mapfile command (also known as readarray) accomplishes this:

# Bash 4
mapfile -t lines < myfile

# or
mapfile -t lines < <(some command)

See ProcessSubstitution and FAQ #24 for more details on the <() syntax.

mapfile handles blank lines (it inserts them as empty array elements), and it also handles missing final newlines from the input stream. Both those things become problematic when reading data in other ways, as we shall see momentarily.

mapfile does have one serious drawback: it can only handle newlines as line terminators. It can't, for example, handle NUL-delimited files from find -print0.

When mapfile is not available, we have to work very hard to try to duplicate it. There are a great number of ways to almost get it right, but fail in subtle ways.

These examples will duplicate most of mapfile's basic functionality:

# Bash 2.04+, Ksh93
unset lines i
while IFS= read -r; do lines[i++]=$REPLY; done < <(your command)   # or < file
[[ $REPLY ]] && lines[i++]=$REPLY

# Ksh88
unset lines; i=0
while IFS= read -r; do lines[i]=$REPLY; i=$((i+1)); done < file
[ "$REPLY" ] && lines[i]=$REPLY i=$((i+1))

Now let's look at some simpler cases that fail, so you can see why we used such a complicated solution.

Some people might start out like this:

# These examples only work with certain kinds of input files.

# Bash
set -f; IFS=$'\n' lines=($(< myfile)); unset IFS; set +f

# Ksh
set -f; IFS='
'; set -A lines -- $(< myfile); unset IFS; set +f

That's a literal newline (and nothing else) between the single quotes in the Korn shell example.

We use IFS (setting it to a newline) because we want each line of input to become an array element, not each word.

However, relying on IFS WordSplitting causes issues if you have repeated whitespace delimiters, because they will be consolidated. E.g., a file with blank lines will have repeated newline characters. If you wanted the blank lines to be stored as empty array elements, IFS's behavior will backfire on you; the blank lines will disappear. There is no clean workaround for this other than to scrap the whole approach.

# bash
# \v is a vertical tab and rarely/never used, so we can use it to mark empty lines
# additionally bash won't collapse multiple \v .
# now empty lines are preserved in array as empty elements
set -f; IFS=$'\n\v' eval lines='( $(sed -re 's/^$/\v/' myfile) )'; set +f

A second approach would be to read the elements one by one, using a loop. This one does not work (with normal input; ironically, it works with some degenerate inputs):

# Does not work!
unset arr i
while IFS= read -r 'arr[i++]'; do :; done < file

Why doesn't it work? It puts a blank element at the end of the array, because the read -r arr[i++] is executed one extra time after the end of file. However, we'll revisit this approach later.

This one gets us much closer:

# Bash
unset arr i
while read -r; do arr[i++]=$REPLY; done < yourfile

# or
while read -r; do arr[i++]=$REPLY; done < <(your command)

The square brackets create a math context. Inside them, i++ works as a C programmer would expect. (That shortcut works in ksh93, but not in ksh88.)

This approach handles blank lines, but it fails if your file or stream is missing its final newline. So we need to handle that case specially:

# Bash
unset arr i
while read -r; do arr[i++]=$REPLY; done < <(your command)
# Append unterminated data line if there was one.
[[ $REPLY ]] && arr[i++]=$REPLY

This is the "final solution" we gave earlier, handling both blank lines inside the file, and an unterminated final line.

Our second try above (the read -r 'arr[i++]' one) works great if there's an unterminated line (since the array element is populated with the partial data before the exit status of read is checked). Unfortunately, it puts an empty element on the end of the array if the data stream is correctly terminated. So to fix that one, we need to remove the empty element after the loop:

# Bash
unset arr i
while IFS= read -r 'arr[i++]'; do :; done < <(your command)
# Remove trailing empty element, if any.
if [[ ${arr[i-1]} = "" ]]; then unset 'arr[--i]'; fi

This is also a working solution. Whether you prefer to read too many and then have to remove one, or read too few and then have to add one, is a personal choice.

NOTE: it is necessary to quote the 'arr[i++]' passed to read, so that the square brackets aren't interpreted as globs. This is also true for other non-keyword builtins that take a subscripted variable name, such as let and unset.

2.2. Reading NUL-delimited streams

If you are trying to deal with records that might have embedded newlines, you will be using an alternative delimiter such as the NUL character ( \0 ) to separate the records. In that case, you'll need to use the -d argument to read as well:

# Bash
unset arr i
while IFS= read -rd '' 'arr[i++]'; do :; done < <(find . -name '*.ugly' -print0)
if [[ ${arr[i-1]} = "" ]]; then unset 'arr[--i]'; fi

# or
while read -rd ''; do arr[i++]=$REPLY; done < <(find . -name '*.ugly' -print0)
[[ $REPLY ]] && arr[i++]=$REPLY

read -d '' tells Bash to keep reading until a NUL byte; normally it reads until a newline. There is no equivalent in Korn shell as far as we're aware.

2.3. Appending to an existing array

If you wish to append data to an existing array, there are several approaches. The most flexible is to keep a separate index variable:

# Bash/ksh93
arr[i++]="new item"

If you don't want to keep an index variable, but you happen to know that your array is not sparse, then you can use the highest existing index:

# Bash/ksh
# This will FAIL if the array has holes (is sparse).
arr[${#arr[*]}]="new item"

If you don't know whether your array is sparse or not, but you don't mind re-indexing the entire array (and also being very slow), then you can use:

# Bash
arr=("${arr[@]}" "new item")

# Ksh
set -A arr -- "${arr[@]}" "new item"

If you're in bash 3.1 or higher, then you can use the += operator:

# Bash 3.1
arr+=("new item")

NOTE: the parentheses are required, just as when assigning to an array. (Or you will end up appending to ${arr[0]} which $arr is a synonym for.)

For examples of using arrays to hold complex shell commands, see FAQ #50 and FAQ #40.

3. Retrieving values from an array

${#arr[*]} or ${#arr[@]} gives the number of elements in an array:

# Bash
shopt -s nullglob
echo "There are ${#oggs[*]} Ogg files."

* is reported to be quicker than @ when testing on Bash 3. * and @ both seem to work at the same speed when testing on Bash 4.1.

Single elements are retrieved by index:

echo "${foo[0]} - ${bar[j+1]}"

The square brackets are a math context. Arithmetic can be done there, and parameter expansions are done even without $.

Using array elements en masse is one of the key features of shell arrays. In exactly the same way that "$@" is expanded for positional parameters, "${arr[@]}" is expanded to a list of words, one array element per word. For example,

# Korn/Bash
for x in "${arr[@]}"; do
  echo "next element is '$x'"

This works even if the elements contain whitespace. You always end up with the same number of words as you have array elements.

If one simply wants to dump the full array, one element per line, this is the simplest approach:

# Bash/ksh
printf "%s\n" "${arr[@]}"

For slightly more complex array-dumping, "${arr[*]}" will cause the elements to be concatenated together, with the first character of IFS (or a space if IFS isn't set) between them. As it happens, "$*" is expanded the same way for positional parameters.

# Bash
arr=(x y z)
IFS=/; echo "${arr[*]}"; unset IFS
# prints x/y/z

Unfortunately, you can't put multiple characters in between array elements using that syntax. You would have to do something like this instead:

# Bash/ksh
arr=(x y z)
tmp=$(printf "%s<=>" "${arr[@]}")
echo "${tmp%<=>}"    # Remove the extra <=> from the end.
# prints x<=>y<=>z

BASH 3.0 added the ability to retrieve the list of index values in an array, rather than just iterating over the elements:

# Bash 3.0 or higher
arr=(0 1 2 3) arr[42]='what was the question?'
unset 'arr[2]'
echo "${!arr[@]}"
# prints 0 1 3 42

Retrieving the indices is extremely important in certain kinds of tasks, such as maintaining parallel arrays with the same indices (a cheap way to mimic having an array of structs in a language with no struct):

# Bash 3.0 or higher
unset file title artist i
for f in ./*.mp3; do
  title[i]=$(mp3info -p %t "$f")
  artist[i++]=$(mp3info -p %a "$f")

# Later, iterate over every song.
# This works even if the arrays are sparse, just so long as they all have
# the SAME holes.
for i in "${!file[@]}"; do
  echo "${file[i]} is ${title[i]} by ${artist[i]}"

3.1. Retrieving with modifications

Bash's Parameter Expansions may be performed on array elements en masse:

# Bash
arr=(abc def ghi jkl)
echo "${arr[@]#?}"          # prints bc ef hi kl
echo "${arr[@]/[aeiou]/}"   # prints bc df gh jkl

Parameter Expansion can also be used to extract elements from an array. Some people call this slicing:

# Bash
echo "${arr[@]:1:3}"        # three elements starting at #1 (second element)
echo "${arr[@]:(-2)}"       # last two elements
echo "${@:(-1)}"            # last positional parameter
echo "${@:(-2):1}"          # second-to-last positional parameter

4. Using @ as a pseudo-array

As we see above, the @ array (the array of positional parameters) can be used almost like a regularly named array. This is the only array available for use in POSIX or Bourne shells. It has certain limitations: you cannot individually set or unset single elements, and it cannot be sparse. Nevertheless, it still makes certain POSIX shell tasks possible that would otherwise require external tools:

set -- *.mp3
if [ -e "$1" ]; then
  echo "there are $# MP3 files"
  echo "there are 0 MP3 files"

# Add an option to our dynamically generated list of options
set -- "$@" -f "$somefile"
foocommand "$@"

(Compare to FAQ #50's dynamically generated commands using named arrays.)

See Also


2012-07-01 04:05