A Tour of the Oil Language

This document describes the Oil language from clean slate perspective. We don't assume you know Unix shell or the compatible OSH language, but shell users will see similarities, simplifications, and upgrades.

Remember, Oil is for Python and JavaScript users who avoid shell! See the project FAQ for more color on that.

This document is long because it demonstrates nearly every feature of the language. You may want to read it in multiple sittings, or read The Simplest Explanation of Oil first.

Here's a summary of what follows:

  1. Oil has interleaved word, command, and expression languages.
  2. Oil has two kinds of builtins that form the "standard library".
  3. Languages for data (like JSON) are complementary to Oil code.
  4. OSH and Oil share both an interpreter data model and a process model (provided by the Unix kernel). Understanding these common models will make you both a better shell user and Oil user.

Keep these points in mind as you read the details below.

Table of Contents
Hello World Script
A Taste of Oil
Word Language: Expressions for Strings (and Arrays)
Three Kinds of String Literals
Five Kinds of Substitution
Arrays of Strings: Globs, Brace Expansion, Splicing, and Splitting
Command Language: I/O, Control Flow, Abstraction
Simple Commands and Redirects
Keywords for Using Variables
Loops: for, while
Conditionals: if, case
Error Handling
Abstraction: proc and Blocks
Builtin Commands
Expression Language: Python-like Types
Types and Literals: Int, List, Dict, ...
Builtin Functions
Egg Expressions (Oil Regexes)
Three Interleaved Languages
How Do They Work Together?
Languages for Data (Interchange Formats)
Lines of Text (traditional), and QSN
Structured: JSON, QTT
The Runtime Shared by OSH and Oil
Interpreter Data Model
Process Model (the kernel)
Related Docs
Appendix: Features Not Shown
Deprecated Shell Constructs
Not Yet Implemented
Appendix: Example of an Oil Module


Start Oil just like you start bash or Python:

bash$ oil                # assuming it's installed

oil$ echo 'hello world'  # command typed into Oil
hello world

In the sections below, we'll save space by showing output in comments, with =>:

echo 'hello world'       # => hello world

Multi-line output is shown like this:

echo one
echo two
# =>
# one
# two


Hello World Script

You can also type commands into a file hello.oil. This is a complete Oil program, which is identical to a shell program:

echo 'hello world'     # => hello world

A Taste of Oil

Unlike shell, Oil has const and var keywords:

const name = 'world'
echo "hello $name"     # => hello world

They take rich Python-like expressions on the right:

var x = 42             # an integer, not a string
setvar x = min(x, 1)   # mutate with the 'setvar' keyword

setvar x += 5          # Increment by 5
echo $x                # => 6

Oil also has Ruby-like blocks:

cd /tmp {
  echo hi > greeting.txt  # file created inside /tmp
  echo $PWD               # => /tmp
echo $PWD                 # prints the original directory

And utilities to read and write JSON:

var d = {name: 'bob', age: 42}
json write :d  # :d refers to the variable d
# =>
# {
#   "name": "bob",
#   "age": 42,
# }

Word Language: Expressions for Strings (and Arrays)

Let's describe the word language first, and then talk about commands and expressions. Words are a rich language because strings are a central concept in shell.

Three Kinds of String Literals

You can choose the type of quote that's most convenient to write a given string.

Single-Quoted, Double-Quoted, and C-Style

Double-quoted strings allow interpolation with $:

var person = 'alice'
echo "hi $person, $(echo bye)"  # => hi bob, bye

Denote operators by escaping them with \:

echo "\$ \" \\ "                # => $ " \

In single-quoted strings, all characters are literal (except ', which can't be denoted):

echo 'c:\Program Files\'        # => c:\Program Files\

C-style strings look like $'foo' and respect backslash character escapes:

echo $' A is \x41 \n line two, with backslash \\'
# =>
#  A is A
#  line two, with backslash \

(The $ before the quote doesn't mean "interpolation". It's an unfortunate syntax collision.)

Multiline Strings

Multiline strings are surrounded with triple quotes. They come in the same three varieties, and leading whitespace is stripped in a convenient way.

sort <<< """
var sub: $x
command sub: $(echo hi)
expression sub: $[x + 3]
# =>
# command sub: hi
# expression sub: 9
# var sub: 6

sort <<< '''
$2.00  # literal $, no interpolation
# =>
# $1.99
# $2.00

sort <<< $'''
# =>
# A        B
# C        D

(Use multiline strings instead of shell's here docs.)

Five Kinds of Substitution

Oil has syntax for 5 types of substitution, all of which start with $. That is, these things can all be converted to a string:

  1. Variables
  2. The output of commands
  3. The output of builtins and procs that invoke them (a performance optimization)
  4. The value of expressions
  5. The return value of functions (which is syntactic sugar, since functions are expressions)

Variable Sub

The syntax $a or ${a} converts a variable to a string:

var a = 'ale'
echo $a                          # => ale
echo _${a}_                      # => _ale_
echo "_ $a _"                    # => _ ale _

The shell operator :- is occasionally useful in Oil:

echo ${not_defined:-'default'}   # => default

Command Sub

The $(echo hi) syntax runs a command and captures its stdout:

echo $(hostname)                 # => example.com
echo "_ $(hostname) _"           # => _ example.com _

Builtin Sub

The syntax ${.myproc $s arg2} is called a builtin sub. It's similar to a command sub $(myproc $s arg2), but it doesn't fork a process. It can only capture the output of echo, printf, and write.

It exists to efficiently build up long strings (like web pages) with sequences of commands rather than expressions. It can be used in config files which can't perform I/O.

TODO: Builtin sub isn't yet implemented.

proc p(x) {
  echo start
  echo "_ $x _"
  echo end

# var s = ${.p 'bean'}             # capture stdout as a variable
# echo $s
# =>
# start
# _ bean _
# end

Expression Sub

The $[myexpr] syntax evaluates an expression and converts it to a string:

echo $[a]                        # => ale
echo $[1 + 2 * 3]                # => 7
echo "_ $[1 + 2 * 3] _"          # => _ 7 _

Function Sub

As a shortcut for $[f(x)], you can turn the result of a function into a string with $f(x):

var foods = ['pea', 'nut']
echo $join(foods)               # => peanut

Function subs can't be used in double quotes, so echo "_ $join(foods) _" is invalid. Use the longer expression sub instead:

echo "_ $[join(foods)] _"       # => _ peanut _

Arrays of Strings: Globs, Brace Expansion, Splicing, and Splitting

There are four constructs that evaluate to an list of strings, rather than a single string.


Globs like *.py evaluate to a list of files.

touch foo.py bar.py  # create the files
write *.py
# =>
# foo.py
# bar.py

If no files match, it evaluates to an empty list ([]).

Brace Expansion

The brace expansion mini-language lets you write strings without duplication:

write {alice,bob}@example.com
# =>
# alice@example.com
# bob@example.com

Array Splice

The @ operator splices an array into a command:

var myarray = %(ale bean)
write S @myarray E
# =>
# S
# ale
# bean
# E

Function Splice

You can also splice the result of a function returning an array:

write -- @split('ale bean')
# => 
# ale
# bean

Recall that function sub looks like $join(mylist), which is consistent with function splice.

Split Command Sub / Split Builtin Sub

There are also variants of command sub and builtin sub that split first:

write @(seq 3)  # write gets 3 arguments
# =>
# 1
# 2
# 3

Builtin sub isn't implemented yet:

proc digits {
  echo '4 5'

# write @{.digits}     # write gets 2 arguments
# =>
# 4
# 5

Command Language: I/O, Control Flow, Abstraction

Simple Commands and Redirects

A simple command is a space-separated list of words, which are often unquoted. Oil looks up the first word to determine if it's a proc or shell builtin.

echo 'hello world'   # The shell builtin 'echo'

proc greet(name) {   # A proc is a user-defined unit of code
  echo "hello $name"

# Now the first word will resolve to the proc
greet alice          # => hello alice

If it's neither, then it's assumed to be an external command:

ls -l /tmp           # The external 'ls' command

You can redirect stdin and stdout of simple commands:

echo hi > tmp.txt  # write to a file
sort < tmp.txt


Pipelines are a powerful method manipulating data streams:

ls | wc -l                       # count files in this directory
find /bin -type f | xargs wc -l  # count files in a subtree

The stream may contain (lines of) text, binary data, JSON, TSV, and more. Details below.

Keywords for Using Variables

Constants can't be modified:

const s = 'mystr'
# setvar s = 'foo' would be an error

Modify variables with the setvar keyword:

var num_beans = 12
setvar num_beans = 13

A more complex example:

var d = {name: 'bob', age: 42}  # dict literal
setvar d->name = 'alice'        # d->name is a synonym for d['name']
echo $[d->name]                 # => alice

That's most of what you need to know about assignments. Advanced users may want to use setglobal or setref in certain situations.

More details: Variable Declaration and Mutation.

Loops: for, while

For loops iterate over words:

for x in oil $num_beans {pea,coco}nut {
  echo $x
# =>
# oil
# 13
# peanut
# coconut

While loops can use a command as the termination condition:

while test --file lock {
  sleep 1

Or an expression, which is surrounded in ():

var i = 3
while (i < 6) {
  echo "i = $i"
  setvar i += 1
# =>
# i = 3
# i = 4
# i = 5

Conditionals: if, case

If statements test the exit code of a command, and have optional elif and else clauses:

if test --file foo {
  echo 'foo is a file'
  rm --verbose foo     # delete it
} elif test --dir foo {
  echo 'foo is a directory'
} else {
  echo 'neither'

Invert with the exit with !:

if ! grep alice /etc/passwd { 
  echo 'alice is not a user'

As with while loops, the condition can also be an expression wrapped in ():

if (num_beans > 0) {
  echo 'so many beans'

var done = false
if (not done) {        # negate with 'not' operator (contrast with !)
  echo "we aren't done"

The case statement matches a string against glob patterns, and executes the corresponding block:

case $s {
    echo 'python'
    rm --verbose $s
    echo 'shell'
    echo 'neither'

(Shell style like if foo; then ... fi and case $x in ... esac is also legal, but discouraged in Oil code.)

Error Handling

If statements are also used for error handling:

if ! cp foo /tmp {
  echo 'error copying'

When invoking a proc in the condition, wrap it with the try builtin:

if ! try myproc {
  echo 'failed'

break, continue, return, exit

The exit keyword exits a process (it's not a shell builtin.) The other 3 control flow keywords behave like they do in Python and JavaScript.

Abstraction: proc and Blocks

Define units of reusable code with the proc keyword, and invoke them just like any other command:

proc mycopy(src, dest) {
  cp --verbose $src $dest

touch log.txt
# the first word 'mycopy' is resolved as a proc
mycopy log.txt /tmp  # runs cp --verbose

Ruby-like Blocks

Some builtins take blocks as arguments:

shopt --unset errexit {  # ignore errors
  mycopy ale /tmp
  mycopy bean /bin

For more details, see Procs, Blocks, and Funcs (under construction).

TODO: User-defined procs can also take blocks.

Builtin Commands

Shell builtins like cd and read are the "standard library" of the command language. Each one takes various flags:

cd -L .                      # follow symlinks

echo foo | read --line       # read a line of stdin

Here are some categories of builtin:

Syntax quirk: builtins like read use the colon as a "pseudo-sigil":

var x = ''
whoami | read :x  # mutate variable x

It's just a visual indication that the string arg is a variable name.

Expression Language: Python-like Types

Oil expressions are more like Python and JavaScript than traditional shell syntax. For example, we write if (x < y) instead of if [ $x -lt $y ].

Types and Literals: Int, List, Dict, ...

Let's go through Oil's Python-like data types and see the syntax for literals.

Null and Bool

Oil uses JavaScript-like spellings these three "atoms":

var x = null

var b1, b2 = true, false

if (b1) {
  echo 'yes'
}  # => yes


There are many ways to write integers:

var small, big = 42, 65_536
echo "$small $big"                  # => 42 65536

var hex, octal, binary = 0x0001_0000, 0o755, 0b0001_0101
echo "$hex $octal $binary"           # => 65536 493 21

"Runes" are integers that represent Unicode code points. The'yre not common in Oil code, but can make certain string algorithms more readable.

# Pound rune literals are similar to ord('A')
const a = #'A'

# Backslash rune literals can appear outside of quotes
const newline = \n  # Remember this is an integer
const backslash = \\  # ditto

# Unicode rune literal is syntactic sugar for 0x3bc
const mu = \u{3bc}

echo "chars $a $newline $backslash $mu"  # => chars 65 10 92 956


Floats are written like you'd expect, but the initial version of the Oil language doesn't have them. (Help wanted!)

var small = 1.5e-10
var big = 3.14


See the section above called Three Kinds of String Literals. It described 'single quoted', "double ${quoted}", and $'c-style\n' strings; as well as their multiline variants.

Strings are UTF-8 encoded in memory, like strings in the Go language. There isn't a separate string and unicode type, as in Python.

List (and Arrays)

All lists can be expressed with Python-like literals:

var foods = ['ale', 'bean', 'corn']
var recursive = [1, [2, 3]]

As a special case, list of strings are called arrays. It's often more convenient to write them with shell-like literals:

# No quotes or commas
var foods = %(ale bean corn)

# You can use the word language here
var other = %(foo $s *.py {alice,bob}@example.com)


Dicts use syntax that's more like JavaScript than Python. Here's a dict literal:

var d = {
  name: 'bob',  # unquoted keys are allowed
  age: 42,
  'key with spaces': 'val'

There are two syntaxes for key lookup. If the key doesn't exist, it's a fatal error.

var v1 = d['name']
var v2 = d->name               # shorthand for the above
var v3 = d['key with spaces']  # no shorthand for this

Keys names can be computed wth expressions in []:

var key = 'alice'
var d2 = {[key ++ '_z']: 'ZZZ'}  # Computed key name
echo $[d2->alice_z]  # => ZZZ    # Reminder: expression sub

Omitting the value causes it to be taken from a variable of the same name:

var d3 = {key}             # value is taken from the environment
echo "name is $[d3->key]"  # => name is alice


var empty = {}
echo $len(empty)  # => 0

Block, Expr, and ArgList

These types are for reflection on Oil code. Most Oil programs won't use them directly.


Operators are generally the same as in Python:

if (10 <= num_beans and num_beans < 20) {
  echo 'enough'
}  # => enough

Oil has a few operators that aren't in Python. Equality can be approximate or exact:

var n = ' 42 '
if (n ~== 42) {
  echo 'equal after stripping whitespace and type conversion'
}  # => equal after type conversion

if (n === 42) {
  echo "not reached because strings and ints aren't equal"

Pattern matching can be done with globs (~~ and !~~)

const filename = 'foo.py'
if (filename ~~ '*.py') {
  echo 'Python'
}  # => Python

if (filename !~~ '*.sh') {
  echo 'not shell'
}  # => not shell

or regular expressions (~ and !~). See the Eggex section below for an example of the latter.

Concatenation is ++ rather than + because it avoids confusion in the presence of type conversion:

var n = 42 + 1    # string plus int does implicit conversion
echo $n           # => 43

var y = 'ale ' ++ "bean $n"  # concatenation
echo $y  # => ale bean 43

Builtin Functions

In addition to shell-like builtins, Oil also has builtin functions. These are like the "standard library" for the expression language. Examples:

Egg Expressions (Oil Regexes)

Eggex is a language for regular expressions which is part of Oil's expression language. It translates to POSIX ERE syntax, for use with tools like egrep, awk, and sed --regexp-extended (GNU only).

It's designed to be readable and composable. Example:

var D = / digit{1,3} /
var ip_pattern = / D '.' D '.' D '.' D'.' /

var z = ''
if (z ~ ip_pattern) {           # Use the ~ operator to match
  echo "$z looks like an IP address"
}  # => looks like an IP address

if (z !~ / '.255' %end /) {
  echo "doesn't end with .255"
}  # => doesn't end with .255"

See the Egg Expressions doc for details.


Let's review what we've seen before moving onto other Oil features.

Three Interleaved Languages

Here are the languages we saw in the last 3 sections:

  1. Words evaluate to a string, or list of strings. This includes:
  2. Commands are used for
  3. Expressions on typed data are borrowed from Python, with some JavaScript influence.

How Do They Work Together?

Here are two examples:

(1) In this this command, there are four words. The fourth word is an expression sub $[].

write hello $name $[d['age'] + 1]
# =>
# hello
# world
# 43

(2) In this assignment, the expression on the right hand side of = concatenates two strings. The first string is a literal, and the second is a command sub.

var food = 'ale ' ++ $(echo bean | tr a-z A-Z)
write $food  # => ale BEAN

So words, commands, and expressions are mutually recursive. If you're a conceptual person, skimming Syntactic Concepts may help you understand this on a deeper level.

Languages for Data (Interchange Formats)

In addition to languages for code, Oil also deals with languages for data. JSON is a prominent example of the latter.

Lines of Text (traditional), and QSN

Traditional Unix tools like grep and awk operate on streams of lines. Oil supports this style as well as any other shell.

But Oil also has QSN: Quoted String Notation, an interchange format which is borrowed from Rust's string literal notation.

It lets you encode arbitrary byte strings into a single (readable) line, including those with newlines and terminal escape sequenecs.


# A line with a tab char in the middle
var mystr = $'pea\t' ++ $'42\n'

# Print it to stdout
write --qsn $mystr  # => 'pea\t42\n'

# Write and read
write --qsn $mystr h| read --qsn --line
if (_line === mystr) {
  echo 'serialized string to QSN and back'
}  # => serialized string to QSN and back

Structured: JSON, QTT

Tree-shaped data can be read and written as JSON:

var d = {key: 'value'}
json write :d                 # dump variable d as JSON
# =>
# {
#   "key": "value"
# }

echo '["ale", 42]' > example.json

json read :d2 < example.json  # parse JSON into var d2
pp cell d2                    # inspect the in-memory value
# =>
# ['ale', 42]

Table-shaped data can be read and written as QTT: Quoted, Typed Tables. (TODO: not yet implemented.)

The Runtime Shared by OSH and Oil

Although we describe OSH and Oil as different languages, they use the same interpreter under the hood. This interpreter has various shopt flags that are flipped for different behavior, e.g. with shopt --set oil:all.

Understanding this interpreter and its interface to the Unix kernel will help you understand both languages!

Interpreter Data Model

The Interpreter State doc is under construction. It will cover:

Process Model (the kernel)

The Process Model doc is under construction. It will cover:


Oil is a large language that evolved from Unix shell. It has Python-like expressions on typed data, and Ruby-like command blocks.

Even though it's large, you can "forget" the bad parts of shell like [ $x -lt $y ].

These concepts are central to Oil:

  1. Interleaved word, command, and expression languages.
  2. A standard library of shell builtins, as well as builtin functions
  3. Languages for data: JSON, QSN, and QTT
  4. A runtime shared by OSH and Oil

Related Docs

Appendix: Features Not Shown


These shell features are part of Oil, but aren't shown for brevity.

Deprecated Shell Constructs

The shared interpreter supports many shell constructs that are deprecated:

Not Yet Implemented

This document mentions a few constructs that aren't yet implemented. Here's a summary:

# Unimplemented syntax:

my-qtt | where (size > 10)   # lazy arg lists
var myarglist = ^{size > 10}
var myexpr = ^[1 + 2*3]

echo ${x|html}               # formatters
echo ${x %.2f}               # statically-parsed printf

echo ${.myproc arg1}         # builtin sub

... cat file.txt             # convenient multiline syntax
  | sort
  | uniq -c

Important builtins that aren't implemented:

Appendix: Example of an Oil Module

Oil can be used to write simple "shell scripts" or longer programs. It has procs and modules to help with the latter.

A module is just a file, like this:

#!/usr/bin/env oil
### Deploy script

module main || return 0         # declaration, "include guard"
use bin cp mkdir                # optionally declare binaries used

source $_this_dir/lib/util.oil  # defines 'log' helper

const DEST = '/tmp'

proc my-sync(@files) {
  ### Sync files and show which ones

  cp --verbose @files $DEST

proc main {
  mkdir -p $DEST

  log "Copying source files"
  my-sync *.py {build,test}.sh

  if test --dir /tmp/logs {
    cd /tmp/logs

    log "Copying logs"
    my-sync *.log

main @ARGV                      # The only top-level statement

You wouldn't bother with the boilerplate for something this small. But this example illustrates the idea, which is that the top level often contains these words: proc, const, module, source, and use.

Generated on Tue Sep 14 11:39:31 EDT 2021