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I used

history | less

to get the lines of previous commands and from the numbers on the left hand side I found the line I wanted repeated (eg. 22) and did


at the command prompt and it worked -- executing the set of commands on the line I did at that time. I cannot figure out where the exclamation mark is used, what does it represent in terms of actions taken by bash, and where to use it. From the documentation I do not see an explanation that is 'tangible'.

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This answer might help –  Michael Mrozek Nov 3 '10 at 21:50
Not an answer to your question, but <ctrl>+R will allow you to interactively search your history and then immediately execute if you find what you were looking for. –  kasterma Nov 3 '10 at 22:25

4 Answers 4

up vote 39 down vote accepted

! is a feature that originally appeared in the C shell, back in the days before you could count on terminals to have arrow keys. It's especially useful if you add the current command number to the prompt (PS1="\!$ ") so you can quickly look at your screen to get numbers for past commands.

Now that you can use arrow keys and things like Ctrl-R to search the command history, I don't see much use for the feature.

One variant of it you might still find useful is !!, which re-executes the previous command. On its own, I don't find !!Enter any faster than just Enter, but it can be helpful when combined into a larger command.

Example: A common pilot error on sudo based systems is to forget the sudo prefix on a command that requires extra privileges. A novice retypes the whole command. The diligent student edits the command from the shell's command history. The enlightened one types sudo !!.

Bash lets you disable ! processing in the shell with set +o histexpand or set +H. You can disable it in Zsh with set -K.

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I agree about Up Enter –  phunehehe Nov 4 '10 at 14:43
I find Ctrl-P Ctrl-J to be pretty fast; faster than Up Enter, at least. –  ephemient Nov 5 '10 at 1:55
If you just want to run the last command, Up/Enter is fine, but if you want to add to it in some way (say, you forgot to sudo, or something), then you can do sudo !!, for example. That might be a bit faster than "Up/Ctrl-A(or Home, if you are lucky enough)/sudo/space/enter". YMMV. :) –  malvim Jan 14 '11 at 20:57
omg, thx now I get its meaning! btw, cant it simply be disabled? it has caused me so much trouble... every echo that ends with ! causes trouble.. –  Aquarius Power Jul 18 '13 at 15:11
@AquariusPower: Just quote it. Either echo 'Hi!' or echo "Hi!" or echo Hi\!. All do the same thing. –  Warren Young Jul 18 '13 at 16:14

A lot more can be done with ! such as:

  • execute a command which is typed before 3 commands: !-3
  • execute a command that starts with !ls

and a lot more. See 15 Linux Bash History Expansion Examples You Should Know

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A friend of mine emailed me this:

It's part of GNU history library. In bash it is used to re-run commands in your history. If you want to be hardcore, grep for history_expansion_char in bash-4.1/lib/readline/histexpand.c for implementation details.

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If there isn't a longer answer here there's certainly one on Super User, since I've read one recently. The man page has a huge section titled HISTORY EXPANSION on the matter.

You can do a whole host more than just run the last command, or command number X. You can do things like !cat to run the last command that started with cat. Or !!:s/bash/csh/ runs the last command containing bash but replaces it with csh.

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Although not directly an answer to OP's question, this needs way more upvotes. So useful! Thanks, Havok. –  malvim Apr 30 at 19:09

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