Deeper into Function Complexities with Shell Scripting

As a Linux user, you may already be familiar with shell scripting, the practice of writing scripts in the command-line interface to automate tasks and improve efficiency. While simple shell scripts can be easy to write and understand, more complex scripts can be challenging to debug and maintain. In this blog post, we will explore some of the deeper complexities of shell scripting, including functions, and discuss how to write and debug more advanced shell scripts.

Reviewing Shell Scripting

Before we dive into the complexities of shell scripting, let's review the basics of shell scripts. A shell script is a text file that contains a series of commands that are executed in the order they appear in the file. These commands can be anything that can be executed in the shell, such as basic Linux commands or more complex commands that execute other programs.

One of the benefits of shell scripting is the ability to automate repetitive tasks, such as file backups or system updates. By writing a script to perform these tasks, you can save time and reduce the risk of errors that can occur when performing the same task manually.

Reviewing Functions in Shell Scripting

Functions are a powerful feature of shell scripting that can help you write more modular and reusable code. A function is a block of code that performs a specific task and can be called from anywhere in the script. Functions can take arguments, perform calculations, and return values.

Here's an example of a simple function in shell scripting that takes two arguments and returns their sum −


# Define the function
function sum {
  local arg1=$1
  local arg2=$2
  local result=$((arg1 + arg2))
  echo $result

# Call the function with two arguments
result=$(sum 2 3)
echo "The result is: $result"

In this example, we define a function called sum that takes two arguments, arg1 and arg2. Inside the function, we assign the values of the arguments to local variables, result calculates the sum of arg1 and arg2, and then returns the value of result using the echo command. We then call the sum function with the arguments 2 and 3 and store the result in a variable called result.

Using Functions to Modularize Code

Functions can be used to modularize your code and make it more reusable. For example, you can define a function to perform a specific task, such as copying files from one directory to another, and then call that function from different parts of your script.

Here's an example of a function that copies all files from one directory to another −


# Define the function
function copy_files {
  local source_dir=$1
  local dest_dir=$2
  cp -r $source_dir/* $dest_dir/

# Call the function to copy files from one directory to another
copy_files /home/user/documents /mnt/external_drive/documents

In this example, we define a function called copy_files that takes two arguments, source_dir and dest_dir. Inside the function, we use the cp command to copy all files from source_dir to dest_dir. We then call the copy_files function with the arguments /home/user/documents and /mnt/external_drive/documents.

Parameter Passing

In addition to using positional parameters, you can also pass arguments to functions using named parameters or flags. The getopts command is a useful tool for parsing command-line options in shell scripts. It allows you to define short and long options for your script and provides a way to handle invalid options or missing arguments.

Here's an example of using getopts to define command-line options for a function −


function myfunction {
  while getopts "f:n:" opt; do
   case ${opt} in
    f )
    n )
    \? )
      echo "Invalid option: -$OPTARG" 1>&2
      exit 1
     : )
      echo "Option -$OPTARG requires an argument." 1>&2
       exit 1
  echo "File: $file"
  echo "Name: $name"

myfunction -f myfile.txt -n "John Doe"

In this example, the getopts command is used to define two options: -f for the filename and -n for the name. The OPTARG variable contains the argument for each option, which is assigned to the corresponding variable. If an invalid option is provided or an option requires an argument, an error message is printed to the console.

Return Values

Functions can also return values to the calling script, which can be useful for passing data between functions or for making decisions based on the result of a function. The return command is used to pass values back to the calling script.

Here's an example of using the return command to pass a value from a function −


function add {
   sum=$(($1 + $2))
   return $sum

result=$(add 2 3)
echo "Result: $result"

In this example, the add function takes two arguments and calculates their sum. The return command is used to pass the result back to the calling script, where it is assigned to the result variable and printed to the console.

Scope and Variable Visibility

In shell scripting, variables have different levels of visibility depending on where they are defined. By default, variables defined in a function have local scope, meaning they are only visible within the function. You can define global variables that are visible across the entire script using the declare command with the -g option.

Here's an example of defining a global variable in a function −


function myfunction {
  declare -g myvar="Hello"

echo $myvar

In this example, the declare command is used to define a global variable called myvar with the value "Hello" inside the myfunction function. The echo command is used to print the value of the myvar variable to the console after the function is called.

Advanced Function Techniques

Finally, there are more advanced techniques for working with functions in shell scripting. For example, you can create recursive functions that call themselves, or use function pointers to pass functions as arguments to other functions.

Recursive functions can be useful when you need to perform a repetitive task that requires a sequence of steps, such as searching for files in a directory structure. Here's an example of a recursive function that prints all files in a directory structure −


function print_files {
  for file in "$1"/*; do
    if [ -d "$file" ]; then
      print_files "$file"
      echo "$file"

print_files "/path/to/directory"

In this example, the print_files function takes a directory path as an argument and recursively prints all files in that directory structure. The function uses a for loop to iterate over all files in the directory, and checks if each file is a directory. If it is, the function calls itself with the new directory path. If it's a file, the function prints the file path to the console.

Function pointers are a more advanced technique that allows you to pass functions as arguments to other functions. This can be useful when you need to pass a callback function to another function for processing. Here's an example of using a function pointer to sort an array of integers −


function bubble_sort {
  local i j temp
  local -n arr=$1
  local len=${#arr[@]}
  for (( i=0; i<$len; i++ )); do
   for (( j=0; j<$len-i-1; j++ )); do
      if (( ${arr[j]} > ${arr[j+1]} )); then

function compare {
  if (( $1 < $2 )); then
    return 0
    return 1

declare -a myarray=(3 2 1 5 4)
bubble_sort myarray
echo "${myarray[@]}"

declare -a myarray2=(5 4 3 2 1)
bubble_sort myarray2
echo "${myarray2[@]}"

In this example, the bubble_sort function takes an array as an argument and sorts it using the bubble sort algorithm. The compare function is defined separately and takes two integer arguments, returning 0 if the first argument is less than the second, and 1 otherwise. The bubble_sort function takes a function pointer to the compare function as an optional second argument, allowing you to define your own comparison function for sorting. If no comparison function is provided, the default is to sort the array in ascending order.

Debugging Functions in Shell Scripting

As shell scripts become more complex, it can be challenging to debug issues that arise. Functions can be especially tricky to debug, as errors may occur outside the function but manifest themselves inside the function. Here are some tips for debugging functions in shell scripts −

  • Check the function call − Make sure that the function is being called correctly, with the correct arguments.

  • Check the function definition − Make sure that the function is defined correctly, with the correct syntax and variables.

  • Use debugging tools − Use the set -x command to enable debugging mode in your script, which will print each command as it is executed. You can also use the echo command to print variables and debug statements to the terminal.

  • Use error checking − Use the set -e command to exit the script if any errors occur, and use the trap command to catch and handle errors.

  • Use comments − Use comments to document your code and explain what each function does and how it should be called.


Shell scripting is a powerful tool for automating tasks and improving efficiency in the Linux environment. Functions are a key feature of shell scripting that can help you write more modular and reusable code. By using functions, you can break your code down into smaller, more manageable pieces and make it easier to debug and maintain.

While functions can be challenging to debug in shell scripting, using debugging tools, error checking, and comments can help you identify and fix issues that arise. By following best practices for writing and debugging shell scripts, you can become a more efficient and effective Linux user.

Updated on: 26-Jun-2023


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