For Beginners

Use quotes when using variables in Bash


Let’s see, what happens when we use / don’t use quotes:

~ $ VAR="tmp/*"
~ $ echo $VAR
tmp/a tmp/b
~ $ echo "$VAR"

– * gets expanded to whatever matches in the file path.

General rule: quote it if it can either be empty or contain spaces (or any whitespace really) or special characters (wildcards). Not quoting strings with spaces often leads to the shell breaking apart a single argument into many.

Also you should use curly braces:

~ $ echo $VARa
~ $ echo "$VARa"
~ $ echo "${VAR}a"
~ $ echo ${VAR}a

Curly braces are also unconditionally required when:

  • expanding array elements, as in ${array[42]}
  • using parameter expansion operations, as in ${filename%.*} (remove extension)
  • expanding positional parameters beyond 9: "$8 $9 ${10} ${11}"

Doing this everywhere, instead of just in potentially ambiguous cases, can be considered good programming practice. This is both for consistency and to avoid surprises like $foo_$bar.jpg, where it’s not visually obvious that the underscore becomes part of the variable name.