Discover How to Avoid Common Shell Scripting Mistakes with These Code Examples

Table of content

  1. Introduction
  2. The Importance of Shell Scripting
  3. Common Mistakes to Avoid When Writing Shell Scripts
  4. Example 1: Misuse of Quotes
  5. Example 2: Neglecting Exit Codes
  6. Example 3: Overcomplicating Logic
  7. Example 4: Not Checking File Existence
  8. Conclusion


Shell scripting is an essential skill for Linux users and system administrators. It allows you to automate complex and repetitive tasks, saving you time and effort. However, scripting can also be challenging, and there are many common mistakes that can cause problems and errors.

To help you avoid these pitfalls, we have compiled a set of code examples that illustrate some of the most common scripting mistakes and show you how to correct them. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced scripter, these examples can help you improve your skills and write more efficient, error-free scripts.

In the following sections, we will explore some of the most common scripting mistakes and how to avoid them. We will cover a range of topics, including variable assignments, command substitution, if statements, loops, and functions. By the end of this article, you will have a solid understanding of best practices for shell scripting and be able to write more effective and reliable scripts.

The Importance of Shell Scripting

Shell scripting is an essential skill for any developer working on Unix or Unix-like systems, including Linux and macOS. A shell script is a program written in a shell language, which is a command line interpreter that allows you to interact with the operating system. Shell scripting provides numerous benefits, including:

  • Automate repetitive tasks: Shell scripts allow you to automate repetitive tasks, such as backups, deploying software, or running tests. Automating tasks reduces the chance of human error and saves time for developers.

  • Increase productivity: By automating tasks and streamlining workflows, shell scripts can increase developer productivity. Developers can focus on more important tasks while shell scripts take care of the routine work.

  • Improve code quality: Shell scripting can help improve code quality by automating code reviews and testing. Shell scripts can also be used to enforce code formatting or run checks regularly, ensuring that code follows established standards.

  • Simplify maintenance: Shell scripts can simplify maintenance by reducing manual work and increasing consistency. Maintenance tasks can be executed with a single command, reducing the chance of errors and saving time.

In addition to these benefits, shell scripting is a valuable skill in the job market. Employers value developers who can write efficient, reliable shell scripts, which are required for many DevOps and system administration roles.

In conclusion, shell scripting is an essential tool for developers working on Unix or Unix-like systems. Shell scripts automate tasks, increase productivity, and improve code quality, making maintenance easier and more efficient. By learning shell scripting, developers can improve their skills and become more valuable to employers.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Writing Shell Scripts

Writing shell scripts is not an easy task, and it can be quite easy to make mistakes that will cause your script to fail or behave unexpectedly. Here are some :

  • Not setting the shebang: The shebang is the first line of the script that tells the interpreter which shell to use for running the script. If you don't set the shebang correctly or forget to set it at all, your script may not run at all or may run using the wrong shell.
  • Not checking return codes: Many shell commands return a value that indicates whether the command succeeded or failed. Ignoring these return codes can lead to unexpected behavior or hard-to-debug issues. Always check return codes and take appropriate action if a command fails.
  • Not using quotes: Shell commands often include spaces or other special characters that need to be properly quoted to be interpreted correctly. If you don't put quotes around command arguments when necessary, your script may misbehave or not work at all.
  • Not testing scripts thoroughly: Even if your script seems to work when you test it once or twice, you should test it thoroughly in different scenarios to make sure it behaves as intended. This includes testing with different inputs, error conditions, and on different systems.

By avoiding these common mistakes, you can create more robust and reliable shell scripts that will work as expected in a variety of situations.

Example 1: Misuse of Quotes

One common mistake when writing shell scripts is misusing quotes. There are three types of quotes in shell scripting: single quotes, double quotes, and backticks. Each of these has a specific use case, and understanding them is important for writing error-free scripts.

Single Quotes

Single quotes are used to enclose a string that should not be interpreted by the shell. The string is interpreted literally, which means that no variable expansion or command substitution will occur. For example, the following command will output the string $VAR, not the value of the variable VAR:

echo '$VAR'

Double Quotes

Double quotes are used to enclose a string that should be interpreted by the shell. Variable expansion and command substitution are allowed inside double quotes. For example, the following command will output the value of VAR:

echo "$VAR"


Backticks are used to execute a command and include the output of the command in a string. For example, the following command will execute the ls command and include the output in the string Files::

echo "Files: `ls`"

One common mistake is to misuse quotes, which can lead to unexpected behavior. For example, if single quotes are used around a string that contains a single quote, the string will not be interpreted correctly. The same is true for double quotes and backticks. Here are some examples of common mistakes:

# Incorrect use of single quotes
echo 'It's a beautiful day'
# Correct use of single quotes
echo 'It'\''s a beautiful day'

# Incorrect use of double quotes
echo "The value of $VAR is $VAR"
# Correct use of double quotes
echo "The value of VAR is $VAR"

# Incorrect use of backticks
echo "The date is `date`"
# Correct use of backticks (or better yet, use $() instead of backticks)
echo "The date is $(date)"

Remember to pay close attention to the use of quotes in your scripts to avoid these common mistakes.

Example 2: Neglecting Exit Codes

Exit codes are numerical values returned by a command or program to communicate its status to the parent process. When writing shell scripts, it's important to pay attention to exit codes to ensure that your script behaves as expected. Neglecting exit codes can lead to unexpected results and errors. Here are some common mistakes to avoid:

  • Not checking exit codes: If you don't check the exit code of a command, you won't know if it succeeded or failed. This can lead to issues if you assume that the command always succeeds. Always check the exit code and take appropriate action based on it.
  • Not setting exit codes: If you're writing your own scripts or commands, make sure to set the appropriate exit code when the operation is done. A zero exit code indicates success, while non-zero codes indicate errors or other non-successful conditions.
  • Ignoring errors: If a command fails but you ignore the error, your script may continue executing as if nothing happened. This can cause further issues down the line. Always handle errors appropriately by exiting the script or taking other corrective action.

Here's an example script that neglects exit codes:

rm -r /tmp/*
cp /home/user/files/* /tmp/

In this script, the rm command and the cp command both have exit codes, but the script doesn't check them. If either command fails, the script will keep executing as if everything succeeded. To fix this, we could modify the script like this:

rm -r /tmp/*
if [ $? -ne 0 ]; then
    echo "Error: failed to delete files."
    exit 1
cp /home/user/files/* /tmp/
if [ $? -ne 0 ]; then
    echo "Error: failed to copy files."
    exit 1

Here, we added checks for the exit codes of both commands. If either command fails, the script will exit with an error message and an exit code of 1. This ensures that the script won't continue executing if something goes wrong.

Example 3: Overcomplicating Logic

Another common mistake that beginners make when writing shell scripts is overcomplicating their logic. This can lead to code that is difficult to read, understand, and maintain. Some common symptoms of overcomplicated logic include:

  • Nested if statements that are difficult to follow
  • Long chains of commands that are hard to read and debug
  • Repeated code that could be combined into a function

To avoid overcomplicating your logic, you should follow these best practices:

Simplify your logic

Avoid writing code that is overly complex or has convoluted logic. Instead, focus on writing code that is easy to read, understand, and maintain. This will make it easier for you to debug your code and make changes as needed.

Use functions judiciously

Functions are a great way to simplify your code and make it more modular. However, you should use them judiciously and avoid overusing them. Functions should be used to encapsulate code that is reused multiple times, or to break up long chains of commands into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Avoid nested if statements

If you find yourself writing nested if statements, it's a sign that your code may be too complex. Instead, try to simplify your logic by using logical operators like "&&" and "||". This will make your code easier to read and follow, and will also help you avoid bugs caused by complex branching.

By following these best practices, you can avoid overcomplicating your code and write shell scripts that are easy to read, understand, and maintain. This will make it easier for you to debug your code and make changes as needed, and will also help you avoid common mistakes that can lead to bugs and other issues.

Example 4: Not Checking File Existence

One of the most common mistakes that developers make when writing shell scripts is forgetting to check whether a file exists before trying to access it. This can lead to all kinds of problems, from unexpected errors to security vulnerabilities.

Here's an example of what can happen when you don't check file existence:

cat /etc/passwd

In this script, we're using the cat command to print out the contents of the /etc/passwd file. However, if that file doesn't exist on the system where this script is being run, the script will fail with an error message. This could be a problem if the script is part of a larger workflow or automation process.

To avoid this problem, it's always a good idea to check whether a file exists before trying to access it. Here's an updated version of the script that includes a file existence check:

if [ -f /etc/passwd ]; then
    cat /etc/passwd
    echo "File not found!"

In this version of the script, we're using the -f option to check whether the /etc/passwd file exists. If it does, we print out its contents using the cat command. If it doesn't, we print out an error message instead.

By adding this simple file existence check, we can avoid errors and ensure that our scripts run smoothly, even in unexpected circumstances.


In , shell scripting can be a powerful tool for automating tasks and managing systems, but it can also be easy to make mistakes that can cause issues down the line. By following some best practices and avoiding common mistakes, you can ensure that your scripts are efficient, reliable, and easy to maintain.

Remember to always use proper syntax, avoid hardcoding values, and test your scripts thoroughly before deploying them to production. Additionally, consider utilizing tools and frameworks like BashLint and ShellCheck to help flag potential issues and errors. By taking these steps, you can help ensure that your shell scripts are effective and efficient, while minimizing the risk of errors or downtime.

Cloud Computing and DevOps Engineering have always been my driving passions, energizing me with enthusiasm and a desire to stay at the forefront of technological innovation. I take great pleasure in innovating and devising workarounds for complex problems. Drawing on over 8 years of professional experience in the IT industry, with a focus on Cloud Computing and DevOps Engineering, I have a track record of success in designing and implementing complex infrastructure projects from diverse perspectives, and devising strategies that have significantly increased revenue. I am currently seeking a challenging position where I can leverage my competencies in a professional manner that maximizes productivity and exceeds expectations.
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