03. Substitution Operators :-, :=, :?, :+

It's extremely important that the variables in your shell scripts are set - otherwise the results can be disastrous!

Take, for example:

$ rm -r /Users/johnPC/$UNSET_VARIABLE
# Same as rm -r /Users/JohnPC/ if variable unset!

We wouldn't want to destroy our entire home folder, would we?

Luckily there are several ways around this, with the use of substitution operators.

The following four operators are used to substitute for a variable if its value is null. Assume we have an unset variable named $TEST.

1) Simply return -

With the dash (-), we can simply return the value if our variable is not set.

#!/bin/bash
echo "${TEST:-hello world}"
echo "$TEST"
$ ./test
hello world
 

2) Set and return =

With the =, we may set the value, and also return it.

#!/bin/bash
echo "${TEST:=hello world}"
echo "$TEST"
$ ./test
hello world
hello world

3) Abort if unset ?

To abort the entire program if the variable is unset, use the question mark (?).

#!/bin/bash
echo "${TEST:?hello world}"
echo "$TEST"
$ ./test
./test: line 2: TEST: hello world

4) Inverse +

We may also return a different value if the variable is set with the plus symbol (+).

#!/bin/bash
echo "${TEST:+hello world}"
echo "$TEST"
$ ./test
 
 

Since our $TEST variable is unset, we return nothing.

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