---
Author: 'Ian! D. Allen -- -- [www.idallen.com]'
date: 'Winter 2019 - January to April 2019 - Updated 2018-10-26 09:49 EDT'
title: 'Shell integer arithmetic: expr, let, $((...))'
---
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Shell integer arithmetic
========================
The shell is not a normal programming language and it does not do arithmetic
or mathematics well. In particular, the shell only accepts integer numbers --
no floating-point (real, decimal) numbers.
Even integer arithmetic was not built-in to the original shells. To do
arithmetic, the shells once used "helper" commands. Modern shells now have
the arithmetic built-in to the shell, but many, many older shell scripts
still use the old helper commands.
There are several historic ways to use helper commands to allow the shell to
do integer arithmetic.
> Shells don't do math on floating-point (real) numbers (numbers with decimal
> points, e.g. `3.7`). If you want to do floating-point arithmetic, you
> really do need to use a helper program such as `dc` or `bc`.
The universal `expr` arithmetic helper command
----------------------------------------------
The oldest and most universal arithmetic helper command is the `expr`
command, and it is often used in older scripts inside the historic back-quote
form of Command Substitution to capture its output value:
$ expr 2 + 2 * 9
20
$ x=`expr 2 + 2 * 9` # historic `...` command substitution syntax
$ echo "$x"
20
The individual arguments to the `expr` command constitute the arithmetic
expression to be evaluated and the value is printed on standard output. Shell
meta-characters such as `*` (GLOB) must be quoted to hide them from the
shell. All numbers and operators must be individual arguments, separated by
blanks, otherwise `expr` simply echoes the unrecognized expression back to
the user without any error message and without doing any mathematics:
$ expr 2 + 2
4
$ expr 2+2
2+2
The `expr` command is the original shell arithmetic helper command. It is
standard and works in all Unix/Linux shells ever written.
Because `expr` is often an external command in many shells, not a shell
built-in, it is slow. Using it in a loop that has to iterate hundreds or
thousands of times will not be fast.
You can read more in the manual page `expr(1)`.
Don't use the legacy `expr` command in modern shell scripts.
The occasional `let` built-in arithmetic helper command
-------------------------------------------------------
Some later Bourne shells invented and used the `let` built-in helper command
to do arithmetic:
$ let x=4 y=5 z=x+y
$ echo "$x $y $z"
4 5 9
- Each argument is an arithmetic expression to evaluate
- Shell variables are allowed with or without leading `$`
- Arithmetic expressions can involve assignment of values to variables,
where `=` is the basic assignment operator
- See the **ARITHMETIC EVALUATION** section of the `bash` man page
The `let` helper command is not universally available in all Bourne shells.
(In particular, the `dash` shell used as `/bin/sh` under Ubuntu does not
support it!) Don't use it in new scripts.
You can read more in the BASH shell help page `help let`.
Don't use the legacy `let` command in modern shell scripts.
The modern `$((...))` syntax for Arithmetic Expansion
-----------------------------------------------------
The modern way to do arithmetic that we will use in this course does away
with all the old helper commands. Arithmetic expressions are done directly by
the shell using a special dollar-and-double-parenthesis **Arithmetic
Expansion** syntax: `$((`*expression*`))`
The enclosed *expression* is designed for arithmetic and is *not* GLOB
expanded. Arguments do not need surrounding spaces or special quoting and
variables do not need leading `$`:
$ echo $(( 2 + 2 * 9 ))
20
$ echo $((2+2*9))
20
$ x=2 y=3 ; echo $((x*y))
6
- The `$((`*expression*`))`is an Arithmetic Expansion, like a variable
expansion, and it can be used anywhere that you might use a variable.
- Just as with variable substitution, the `$((`*expression*`))`is is
replaced by the results of the evaluated Arithmetic Expression
Here is a small example shell script using basic arithmetic:
#!/bin/sh -u
linkcount=$( ls -ld "$1" | awk '{print $2}' )
subdir=$(( linkcount - 2 ))
echo "Directory $1 has link count $linkcount and $subdir sub-directories"
Running the above script:
$ ./example.sh /etc
Directory /etc has link count 183 and 181 sub-directories
$ ./example.sh /
Directory / has link count 25 and 23 sub-directories
The same script could be written as a single line, but it would have to
execute the `ls` pipeline twice and would be be much harder to read (remember
blanks are optional inside the *expression*):
#!/bin/sh -u
echo "Directory $1 has link count $(ls -ld "$1"|awk '{print $2}') and $(($(ls -ld "$1"|awk '{print $2}')-2)) sub-directories"
Yes, that line contains a Command Substitution *inside* an Arithmetic
Expression. Don't write hard-to-read code like this! Write the script on
separate (shorter) lines so you can read it.
Legacy `$[...]` syntax for Arithmetic Expansion
-----------------------------------------------
Some older versions of the Bourne shells use the old syntax
`$[`*expression*`]` for Arithmetic Expansion, but this is now obsolete
and deprecated:
$ echo $[2+2*9] # deprecated; do not use this syntax
20
Don't use the legacy `$[...]` syntax in modern shell scripts.
--
| Ian! D. Allen, BA, MMath - idallen@idallen.ca - Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
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