Work the Shell - Conditional Statements and Flow Control

IF you need conditions in your scripts, THEN this is the column for you.

The last of the basic building blocks of shell scripting are conditional statements, allowing you to decide programmatically whether to execute a block of statements based on a logical test, and flow control statements, the great innovation from the earliest days of programming where you could have a block of code execute more than once. We explore both of these in this column and, finally, are done with the proverbial Lego blocks of scripting, allowing us to start exploring how to solve complex scripting problems with novel and unique combinations of simple statements.

The most obvious conditional statement is if-then-else, which in shell scripting looks like:

if condition ; then ; statements ; else ; statements2 ; fi

Of course, you'd usually see this on multiple lines, so it's more likely to look like this:

if condition; then

There are some variations on this, including safely omitting any sort of else clause, but more interestingly, you can “chain” conditionals together with an else if structure:

if condition; then
elif condition2 ; then

That's perfectly valid and, worth noting, functionally different from the structure:

if condition
  if condition2; then

The difference will be obvious to anyone who has programmed before. In the first example, statements2 would execute if condition was false and condition2 were true. In the latter example, however, statements2 would be executed only if condition were true and condition2 were true. Subtle, but very important!

Specific logical conditions can take on a wide variety of appearances, because the only requirement for a conditional expression is that it return zero if the evaluated condition is false and nonzero if it should be considered true. Indeed, there are commands in Linux called false and true, so you can use statements like “if true; then....” Most conditions, however, are built around the invaluable test command, with its many different flags and options.

Want to compare two string (text) values? You could use:

if  test $myvar = "exit" ; then

or its shortcut alternative of:

if [ $myvar = "exit" ] ; then

Compare two numeric values with:

if test $numval -lt 10 ; then

There's also a world of file and variable tests available in the test command too, including -r to test if a file is readable, -e to see if it exists at all, -s to see if the file exists and has a nonzero size, and -d to test for a directory and -f to test for a regular file.

So if you want to differentiate whether $filename is a file, directory or other file type, you could use a statement sequence like:

if test -f $filename ; then
  echo "$filename is a regular file"
elif test -d $filename ; then
  echo "$filename is a directory"
  echo "$filename is neither a file nor a directory."

Check out the test man page (use man test) to read about all the many different conditionals you can use in a shell script.

Flow Control

There are a number of different looping and flow control structures above and beyond simply the if-then-else conditional, luckily, and here are the big three:

  • for x in y; do; statements; done

  • while x; do; statements; done

  • case x in ; condition1) statements ;; condition2) statements ;; esac

There are more conditional statements, but you'll find that in the vast majority of cases, having for loops, while loops, case statements and if-then-else statements will serve as the building blocks of even the most complex script.

The for loop is particularly useful in its variations. Want to step through the parameters given to the shell script itself? Use something like this:

for value ; do ; statements ; done

Want to step through a set of matching filenames for a given pattern? Here's how to do that in a script:

for filename in *.c ; do

Let's look at how a couple of these can be combined in useful ways, rather than just duplicate the man page, however. Here's a simple script that examines each entry in the current directory, indicating whether it's a file or directory:

for name in *
  if [ -f "$name" ] ; then
    echo "$name is a file"
  elif [ -d "$name" ] ; then
    echo "$name is a directory"
    echo "$name is neither a file nor directory"

For illustrative purposes, let's try another version of this script, one that recognizes *.c as C source files, *.h as included header files and *.o as intermediate object files, but this time we'll use the case statement:

for name in *
  case "$name" in
    *.c ) echo "$name is a C source file"       ;;
    *.h ) echo "$name is a header file"         ;;
    *.o ) echo "$name is an object file"        ;;

From a readability perspective, the case statement is hard to beat!


Dave Taylor has been hacking shell scripts for over thirty years. Really. He's the author of the popular "Wicked Cool Shell Scripts" and can be found on Twitter as @DaveTaylor and more generally at

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