Simple Word Evaluation in Unix Shell

This document describes the YSH word evaluation semantics (shopt -s simple_word_eval) for experienced shell users. It may also be useful to those who want to implement this behavior in another shell.

The main idea is that YSH behaves like a traditional programming language:

  1. It's parsed from start to end in a single pass.
  2. It's evaluated in a single step too.

That is, parsing and evaluation aren't interleaved, and code and data aren't confused.

Table of Contents
An Analogy: Word Expressions Should Be Like Arithmetic Expressions
Design Goals
No Implicit Splitting, Dynamic Globbing, or Empty Elision
Splicing, Static Globbing, and Brace Expansion
Where These Rules Apply
Opt In to the Old Behavior With Explicit Expressions
More Word Evaluation Issues
More shopt Options
Arithmetic Is Statically Parsed
Related Documents
Tip: View the Syntax Tree With -n

An Analogy: Word Expressions Should Be Like Arithmetic Expressions

In YSH, "word expressions" like

"hello $name"
'abc'$x${y:-${z//pat/replace}}"$(echo hi)$((a[i] * 3))"

are parsed and evaluated in a straightforward way, like this expression when x == 2:

1 + x / 2 + x * 3        → 8  # Python, JS, Ruby, etc. work this way

In contrast, in shell, words are "expanded" in multiple stages, like this:

1 + "x / 2 + \"x * 3\""  → 8  # Hypothetical, confusing language

That is, it would be odd if Python looked inside a program's strings for expressions to evaluate, but that's exactly what shell does! There are multiple places where there's a silent eval, and you need quoting to inhibit it. Neglecting this can cause security problems due to confusing code and data (links below).

In other words, the defaults are wrong. Programmers are surprised by shell's behavior, and it leads to incorrect programs.

So in YSH, you can opt out of the multiple "word expansion" stages described in the POSIX shell spec. Instead, there's only one stage: evaluation.

Design Goals

The new semantics should be easily adoptable by existing shell scripts.


In the following examples, the argv command prints the argv array it receives in a readable format:

$ argv one "two three"
['one', 'two three']

I also use the YSH var keyword for assignments. (TODO: This could be rewritten with shell assignment for the benefit of shell implementers)

No Implicit Splitting, Dynamic Globbing, or Empty Elision

In YSH, the following constructs always evaluate to one argument:

That is, quotes aren't necessary to avoid:

Here's an example showing that each construct evaluates to one arg in YSH:

ysh$ var pic = 'my pic.jpg'  # filename with spaces
ysh$ var empty = ''
ysh$ var pat = '*.py'        # pattern stored in a string

ysh$ argv ${pic} $empty $pat $(cat foo.txt) $((1 + 2))
['my pic.jpg', '', '*.py', 'contents of foo.txt', '3']

In contrast, shell applies splitting, globbing, and empty elision after the substitutions. Each of these operations returns an indeterminate number of strings:

sh$ pic='my pic.jpg'  # filename with spaces
sh$ empty=
sh$ pat='*.py'        # pattern stored in a string

sh$ argv ${pic} $empty $pat $(cat foo.txt) $((1 + 2))
['my', 'pic.jpg', '', '', 'contents', 'of', 'foo.txt', '3']

To get the desired behavior, you have to use double quotes:

sh$ argv "${pic}" "$empty" "$pat", "$(cat foo.txt)" "$((1 + 2))"
['my pic.jpg', '', '*.py', 'contents of foo.txt', '3']

Splicing, Static Globbing, and Brace Expansion

The constructs in the last section evaluate to a single argument. In contrast, these three constructs evaluate to 0 to N arguments:

  1. Splicing an array: "$@" and "${myarray[@]}"
  2. Static Globbing: echo *.py. Globs are static when they occur in the program text.
  3. Brace expansion: {alice,bob}

In YSH, shopt -s parse_at enables these shortcuts for splicing:


ysh$ var myarray = :| 'a b' c |  # array with 2 elements
ysh$ set -- 'd e' f              # 2 arguments

ysh$ argv @myarray @ARGV *.py {ian,jack}
['a b', 'c', 'd e', 'f', '', '', '', '']

is just like:

bash$ myarray=('a b' c)
bash$ set -- 'd e' f

bash$ argv "${myarray[@]}" "$@" *.py {ian,jack}
['a b', 'c', 'd e', 'f', '', '', '', '']

Unchanged: quotes disable globbing and brace expansion:

$ echo *.py

$ echo "*.py"            # globbing disabled with quotes

$ echo {spam,eggs}.sh

$ echo "{spam,eggs}.sh"  # brace expansion disabled with quotes

Where These Rules Apply

These rules apply when a sequence of words is being evaluated, exactly as in shell:

  1. Command: echo $x foo
  2. For loop: for i in $x foo; do ...
  3. Array Literals: a=($x foo) and var a = :| $x foo | (ysh-array)

Shell has other word evaluation contexts like:

sh$ x="${not_array[@]}"
sh$ echo hi > "${not_array[@]}"

which aren't affected by simple_word_eval.

Opt In to the Old Behavior With Explicit Expressions

YSH can express everything that shell can.

More Word Evaluation Issues

More shopt Options

Strict options cause fatal errors:

Arithmetic Is Statically Parsed

This is an intentional incompatibility described in the Known Differences doc.


YSH word evaluation is enabled with shopt -s simple_word_eval, and proceeds in a single step.

Variable, command, and arithmetic substitutions predictably evaluate to a single argument, regardless of whether they're empty or have spaces. There's no implicit splitting, globbing, or elision of empty words.

You can opt into those behaviors with explicit expressions like @[split(mystr)], which evaluates to an array.

YSH also supports shell features that evaluate to 0 to N arguments: splicing, globbing, and brace expansion.

There are other options that "clean up" word evaluation. All options are designed to be gradually adopted by other shells, shell scripts, and eventually POSIX.


Related Documents

Tip: View the Syntax Tree With -n

This gives insight into how Oils parses shell:

$ osh -n -c 'echo ${x:-default}$(( 1 + 2 ))'
(C {<echo>} 
      token: <Id.VSub_Name x>
      suffix_op: (suffix_op.Unary op_id:Id.VTest_ColonHyphen arg_word:{<default>})
          op_id: Id.Arith_Plus
          left: (arith_expr.ArithWord w:{<Id.Lit_Digits 1>})
          right: (arith_expr.ArithWord w:{<Id.Lit_Digits 2>})

You can pass --ast-format text for more details.

Evaluation of the syntax tree is a single step.

Generated on Sun, 04 Feb 2024 00:32:22 -0500