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The characters <, >, |, and & are four examples of special characters that have particular meanings to the shell. The wildcards we saw earlier in this chapter (*, ?, and [...]) are also special characters.
Table 1-6 gives the meanings of all special characters within shell command lines only. Other characters have special meanings in specific situations, such as the regular expressions and string-handling operators that we'll see in Chapter 3 and Chapter 4.
Sometimes you will want to use special characters literally, i.e., without their special meanings. This is called quoting. If you surround a string of characters with single quotation marks (or quotes), you strip all characters within the quotes of any special meaning they might have.
The most obvious situation where you might need to quote a string is with the echo command, which just takes its arguments and prints them to the standard output. What is the point of this? As you will see in later chapters, the shell does quite a bit of processing on command lines most of which involves some of the special characters listed in Table 1-6. echo is a way of making the result of that processing available on the standard output.
What if we want to print the string 2 * 3 > 5 is a valid inequality? Suppose you type this:
$ echo 2 * 3 > 5 is a valid inequality.
You would get your shell prompt back, as if nothing happened! But then there would be a new file, with the name 5, containing "2", the names of all files in your current directory, and then the string 3 is a valid inequality. Make sure you understand why.
However, if you type:
$ echo '2 * 3 > 5 is a valid inequality.'
the result is the string, taken literally. You needn't quote the entire line, just the portion containing special characters (or characters you think might be special, if you just want to be sure):
$ echo '2 * 3 > 5' is a valid inequality.
This has exactly the same result.
Notice that Table 1-6 lists double quotes (") as weak quotes. A string in double quotes is subjected to some of the steps the shell takes to process command lines, but not all. (In other words, it treats only some special characters as special.) You'll see in later chapters why double quotes are sometimes preferable; Chapter 7 contains the most comprehensive explanation of the shell's rules for quoting and other aspects of command-line processing. For now, though, you should stick to single quotes.
Another way to change the meaning of a character is to precede it with a backslash (\). This is called backslash-escaping the character. In most cases, when you backslash-escape a character, you quote it. For example:
$ echo 2 \* 3 \> 5 is a valid inequality.
will produce the same results as if you surrounded the string with single quotes. To use a literal backslash, just surround it with quotes ('\') or, even better, backslash-escape it (\\).
Here is a more practical example of quoting special characters. A few UNIX commands take arguments that often include wildcard characters, which need to be escaped so the shell doesn't process them first. The most common such command is find, which searches for files throughout entire directory trees.
To use find, you supply the root of the tree you want to search and arguments that describe the characteristics of the file(s) you want to find. For example, the command find . -name string searches the directory tree whose root is your current directory for files whose names match the string. (Other arguments allow you to search by the file's size, owner, permissions, date of last access, etc.)
You can use wildcards in the string, but you must quote them, so that the find command itself can match them against names of files in each directory it searches. The command find . -name `*.c' will match all files whose names end in .c anywhere in your current directory, subdirectories, sub-subdirectories, etc.
1.9.3. Quoting Quotation Marks
You can also use a backslash to include double quotes within a quoted string. For example:
$ echo \"2 \* 3 \> 5\" is a valid inequality.
produces the following output:
"2 * 3 > 5" is a valid inequality.
However, this won't work with single quotes inside quoted expressions. For example, echo `Hatter\'s tea party' will not give you Hatter's tea party. You can get around this limitation in various ways. First, try eliminating the quotes:
$ echo Hatter\'s tea party
If no other characters are special (as is the case here), this works. Otherwise, you can use the following command:
$ echo 'Hatter'\''s tea party'
That is, `\'' (i.e., single quote, backslash, single quote, single quote) acts like a single quote within a quoted string. Why? The first ' in `\'' ends the quoted string we started with (`Hatter), the \' inserts a literal single quote, and the next ' starts another quoted string that ends with the word "party". If you understand this, then you will have no trouble resolving the other bewildering issues that arise from the shell's often cryptic syntax.
1.9.4. Continuing Lines
A related issue is how to continue the text of a command beyond a single line on your terminal or workstation window. The answer is conceptually simple: just quote the RETURN key. After all, RETURN is really just another character.
You can do this in two ways: by ending a line with a backslash, or by not closing a quote mark (i.e., by including RETURN in a quoted string). If you use the backslash, there must be nothing between it and the end of the line not even spaces or TABs.
Whether you use a backslash or a single quote, you are telling the shell to ignore the special meaning of the RETURN character. After you press RETURN, the shell understands that you haven't finished your command line (i.e., since you haven't typed a "real" RETURN), so it responds with a secondary prompt, which is > by default, and waits for you to finish the line. You can continue a line as many times as you wish.
For example, if you want the shell to print the first sentence of of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, you can type this:
$ echo The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some \ > time in silence: at last Caterpillar took the hookah out of its \ > mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.
Or you can do it this way:
$ echo 'The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some > time in silence: at last Caterpillar took the hookah out of its > mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.'
1.9.5. Control Keys
Control keys those that you type by holding down the CONTROL (or CTRL) key and hitting another key are another type of special character. These normally don't print anything on your screen, but the operating system interprets a few of them as special commands. You already know one of them: RETURN is actually the same as CTRL-M (try it and see). You have probably also used the BACKSPACE or DEL key to erase typos on your command line.
Actually, many control keys have functions that don't really concern you yet you should know about them for future reference and in case you type them by accident.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about control keys is that they can differ from system to system. The usual arrangement is shown in Table 1-7, which lists the control keys that all major modern versions of UNIX support. Note that DEL and CTRL-? are the same character.
You can use the stty command to find out what your settings are and change them if you wish; see Chapter 8 for details. If the version of UNIX on your system is one of those that derive from BSD (such as SunOS and OS X), type stty all to see your control-key settings; you will see something like this:
erase kill werase rprnt flush lnext susp intr quit stop eof ^? ^U ^W ^R ^O ^V ^Z/^Y ^C ^\ ^S/^Q ^D
The ^X notation stands for CTRL-X. If your UNIX version derives from System III or System V (this includes AIX, HP/UX, SCO, Linux, and Xenix), type stty -a.
The resulting output will include this information:
intr = ^c; quit = ^|; erase = DEL; kill = ^u; eof = ^d; eol = ^`; swtch = ^`; susp = ^z; dsusp <undef>;
The control key you will probably use most often is CTRL-C, sometimes called the interrupt key. This stops or tries to stop the command that is currently running. You will want to use this when you enter a command and find that it's taking too long, you gave it the wrong arguments, you change your mind about wanting to run it, or whatever.
Sometimes CTRL-C doesn't work; in that case, if you really want to stop a job, try CTRL-\. But don't just type CTRL-\; always try CTRL-C first! Chapter 8 explains why in detail. For now, suffice it to say that CTRL-C gives the running job more of a chance to clean up before exiting, so that files and other resources are not left in funny states.
We've already seen an example of CTRL-D. When you are running a command that accepts standard input from your keyboard, CTRL-D tells the process that your input is finished as if the process were reading a file and it reached the end of the file. mail is a utility in which this happens often. When you are typing in a message, you end by typing CTRL-D. This tells mail that your message is complete and ready to be sent. Most utilities that accept standard input understand CTRL-D as the end-of-input character, though many such programs accept commands like q, quit, exit, etc.
CTRL-S and CTRL-Q are called flow-control characters. They represent an antiquated way of stopping and restarting the flow of output from one device to another (e.g., from the computer to your terminal) that was useful when the speed of such output was low. They are rather obsolete in these days of high-speed networks. In fact, under the latter conditions, CTRL-S and CTRL-Q are basically a nuisance. The only thing you really need to know about them is that if your screen output becomes "stuck," then you may have hit CTRL-S by accident. Type CTRL-Q to restart the output; any keys you may have hit in between will then take effect.
The final group of control characters gives you rudimentary ways to edit your command line. DEL acts as a backspace key (in fact, some systems use the actual BACKSPACE or CTRL-H key as "erase" instead of DEL); CTRL-U erases the entire line and lets you start over. Again, these have been superseded. The next chapter will look at bash's editing modes, which are among its most useful features and far more powerful than the limited editing capabilities described here.
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