I've been using Bash functions quite liberally over the past couple years, but last week I discovered that they can be much better than I thought. In this post, I'll explain how I thought they worked, why I was wrong, and how that makes them better.

### Function syntax

I've always seen the syntax of Bash functions presented as:

function_name() {
# code
}


While that does indeed produce a function, that's not the whole story. The actual syntax is (from the Bash manual):

function_name() compound-command [ redirections ]


where { code; } is just one of the possible options for a command list. Other options include looping and conditional constructs (which in this context include (()) and [[]]), as well as subshells.

If the subshell syntax is used when defining a function, running the function will result, as one should expect, in the code of the function running in a subshell.

So what? Why am I excited about that? First, let's take a look at a few of the drawbacks of Bash functions (specifically, the ones defined using {}).

### Function local state

Bash functions can have "local" variables declared with the keyword local. Otherwise, variables defined within a function body are global variables, because the function body (when using {}) executes in the same Bash environment as the rest of the file.

I've often seen the recommendation to use local liberally with Bash functions. That makes sense, as clobbering the global environment would be bad. But it's annoying to have to remember to do it, and it's a bit tedious (and error-prone) when refactoring code.

These variables are also somewhat less local than one would expect: they are actually dynamically scoped, as in, functions down the call stack can see them. Here's an example of what that means:

$cat dynamic.sh #/usr/bin/env bash set -euo pipefail func1() { local a a=1 func3 } func2() { local a a=2 func3 } func3() { echo$a
}

func1
func2
$./dynamic.sh 1 2$


Chances are you did not know that. I didn't until recently. Overall, since the first (arguably accidental) introduction of the idea in the original Lisp in 1958, the programming world seems to have largely agreed that dynamic scope is bad, and that we should use lexical scope instead.

Now, perhaps you're thinking "if it's a bad idea, I can just not use it", and that's the right attitude. However, there is a chance it may still happen to you accidentally through some typo or refactoring. It's just one more trap to look out for.

### Nested functions

Nested functions are a great tool to organize code into little, well-scoped chunks. But with Bash functions ({}) living in their parent's scope, they may not work as one would expect. See:

$cat nested.sh #!/usr/bin/env bash set -euo pipefail func1() { func3() { echo "within func1" } func3 } func2() { func3() { echo "within func2" } func3 } func1 func3 func2 func3$ ./nested.sh
within func1
within func1
within func2
within func2
$ Yes, calling either func1 or func2 above (re)defines a global func3. Perhaps you're now thinking: Yes, that makes sense, because by default variables are global. But you just need to declare func3 as local. Well, here you go: $ cat nested.sh
#!/usr/bin/env bash

set -euo pipefail

func1() {
local func3
func3() {
echo "within func1"
}
func3
}

func2() {
local func3
func3() {
echo "within func2"
}
func3
}

func1
func3
func2
func3
$./nested.sh within func1 within func1 within func2 within func2$


So that doesn't work. Of course, you can still "just not call" func3 outside the scope where you intend for it to be defined, and make sure that at that point it has the right definition, and that should work out. Right?

### Cleanup

One of my favourite Bash features I discovered recently (i.e. in the last couple years) is the ability to trap EXIT. I had been aware of signals for a while, but I'd never really had a good use-case for trapping the usual ones (TERM & KILL being the ones that come to mind most readily). But since I discovered that you can trap the "synthetic" EXIT signal, I've been using it quite a bit for clean-up. Create a temp file? Delete it at the end:

tmp=$(mktemp) trap "rm -f$tmp" EXIT


Not only do you not need to remember to delete that file twenty lines below, you're also guaranteed that you will (at least try to) delete that file even if the program exits with an error, or gets killed.

Why am I mentioning this in the context of functions? Well, because it simply doesn't work for them: returning from a function does not trigger the EXIT signal. So if you want to write composable functions in Bash that have some side-effect-y clean-up you want to encapsulate, you have two options:

• Give up on clean-up if you crash. That's the easy way out, but in many cases it's decidedly not great. You shouldn't have to make your software more brittle just because you want to introduce some syntactic abstractions.
• Override EXIT, and try to do it properly. Something like:
my_fun() {
local restore_trap tmp
restore_trap=$(trap -p EXIT) tmp=$(mktemp)
cleanup="rm -f $tmp" trap "$cleanup; $(echo$restore_trap | sed "s/trap -- '$$.*$$' EXIT/\1/")" EXIT
# code
eval "$cleanup" eval "$restore_trap"
}


which, you know, looks nice and all, but, looking at it right now, are you convinced it's correct?

Now, what was the point of all this? Surely I did not set out to bash bash... Oh, yes, parentheses. As a lisp enthusiast, I can appreciate occasions, like this one, where parentheses shine.

### Subshell awesomeness

Now, say we define our functions with a slightly different syntax:

my_func() (
# code
)


All we've done is replace the {} with (). It may look like a benign change, but now, whenever that function is invoked, it will be run within a subshell. What does that mean? Well, it means that:

• Variables are lexically scoped. You can read variables from the outer shell from within a subshell, but you cannot write to them. Variables defined within a subshell are invisible to the outer shell. In short, local variables within a subshell-function work exactly like you'd expect function-local variables to work in most languages. They're also not dynamically scoped.
• Subfunctions work just like you would expect, too: functions defined within a subshell are local to that subshell. They can still see the variables defined in the outer shell, but not modify them (again, lexical scope). This nesting works on as many levels as you need, provided you keep using parentheses to define your functions.
• Subshells are, as the name suggests, running in a subshell. They don't strictly have to be OS subprocesses (because it can be more efficient for them not to be), but they have to behave as if they were. This means that they get their own EXIT trap if they need one. When the subshell exits, normally or due to a crash, it will run its own EXIT handler, then pass on its exit code to the parent, which may at that point still run its own EXIT handler. It all nests as you'd want.

### Conclusion

Given all that, I simply do not understand why people keep recommending the {} syntax at all. It's a rare case where you'd want all the associated issues. Essentially, the only "advantage" of not running your functions in a subshell is that you can write to global variables. I'm willing to believe there are cases where that is useful, but it should definitely not be the default.

Tags: bash