Aurélien Gâteau

A template for shell-based command-line scripts

written on Wednesday, June 4, 2014

If you write shell scripts, you may be familiar with the situation where you wrote a script, and now would like to extend it to add some optional argument. Said script being a temporary hack (as temporary as those tend to be...) you end up writing a quick'n'dirty command-line parser, suffering limitations like fixed argument orders or other things which make tools annoying to use, but which would take too much time to get right than would be worth for this tiny shell script.

I felt this annoyance many times while writing scripts. To avoid that situation, I used to have a template which made use of the getopt binary but I always found it cumbersome: annoying to work with and hard to read again when coming back to my code after a while. Recently I came up with a simpler, slightly more manual, alternative.

The whole template looks like this:

set -e

PROGNAME=$(basename $0)

die() {
    echo "$PROGNAME: $*" >&2
    exit 1

usage() {
    if [ "$*" != "" ] ; then
        echo "Error: $*"

    cat << EOF
Usage: $PROGNAME [OPTION ...] [foo] [bar]
<Program description>.

-h, --help          display this usage message and exit
-d, --delete        delete things
-o, --output [FILE] write output to file

    exit 1

while [ $# -gt 0 ] ; do
    case "$1" in
        usage "Unknown option '$1'"
        if [ -z "$foo" ] ; then
        elif [ -z "$bar" ] ; then
            usage "Too many arguments"

if [ -z "$bar" ] ; then
    usage "Not enough arguments"

cat <<EOF

Note: the die function is not used by the template itself, but most of the scripts I write needs such a function at some point, which is why it is there.

This template supports:

  • Short and long options (-d and --delete for example)
  • Options with and without arguments
  • Arbitrary position for options: myscript foo -d will do the same as myscript -d foo
  • Aborting when invalid options are passed
  • Checks for mandatory positional arguments

This last feature is done in two parts. First the *) case in the while loop sets variables as it goes through arguments and aborts if too many arguments are passed. Once the code leaves the while loop, a check is done on the last argument: if it is empty the code aborts complaining about missing arguments.

Supporting a variable number of arguments

A common change is accepting a variable number of arguments. If you are confident your arguments will never contain spaces or other weird characters, then you can do the following changes:

  1. Declare an empty args variable before the while loop:

  2. Replace the code in the *) case with something like this:

        args="$args $1"
  3. Remove the check for the last argument or alter it to check if args is empty.

  4. Iterate over the arguments with:

    for arg in $args ; do
        # Do work here

If you want to support arguments which contain spaces, that's another story. The simplest solution I know of is to make use of Bash arrays. The changes would thus look like this:

  1. Change the shebang to #!/bin/bash.

  2. Declare an empty args array before the while loop:

  3. Replace the code in the *) case with something like this:

        args=("${args[@]}" "$1")
  4. Same as before: remove the check for the last argument or alter it to check if args is empty.

  5. Iterate over the arguments with:

    for arg in "${args[@]}" ; do
        # Do work here

Higher percentage of cabalistic symbols in there, but that's the price one has to pay to manipulate arrays with Bash.

Pros and cons

Compared to getopt, this template has a few advantages but also limitations one must be aware of:

  • Pros
    • No need to list the options again in a call to getopt
    • Less boilerplate: getopt requires you to run it, then eval its output
    • Positional arguments are handled in the same loop which handles the options
  • Cons
    • No support for concatenated short options: -ab is not the same as -a -b.
    • No support for separating option arguments with an equal sign: you must write --output file.log and not --output=file.log.

That's it for this template, hope it is useful to you.

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This post was tagged Shell and Tips
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