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I know I can solve this problem several ways, but I'm wondering if there is a way to do it using only bash built-ins, and if not, what is the most efficient way to do it.

I have a file with contents like




by which I only mean it has several lines and each line may or may not have spaces. I want to run a command like


If I use cmd $(< file) I get


and if I use cmd "$(< file)" I get


How do I get each line treated a exactly one parameter?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Looks like the canonical way to do this in bash is something like

unset args
while IFS= read -r line; do 
done < file

cmd "${args[@]}"

or, if your version of bash has mapfile:

mapfile -t args < filename
cmd "${args[@]}"

The only difference I can find between the mapfile and the while-read loop versus the one-liner

(set -f; IFS=$'\n'; cmd $(<file))

is that the former will convert a blank line to an empty argument, while the one-liner will ignore a blank line. In this case the one-liner behavior is what I'd prefer anyway, so double bonus on it being compact.

I would use IFS=$'\n' cmd $(<file) but it doesn't work, because $(<file) is interpreted to form the command line before IFS=$'\n' takes effect.

Though it doesn't work in my case, I've now learned that a lot of tools support terminating lines with null (\000) instead of newline (\n) which does make a lot of this easier when dealing with, say, file names, which are common sources of these situations:

find / -name '*.config' -print0 | xargs -0 md5

feeds a list of fully-qualified file names as arguments to md5 without any globbing or interpolating or whatever. That leads to the non-built-in solution

tr "\n" "\000" <file | xargs -0 cmd

although this, too, ignores empty lines, though it does capture lines that have only whitespace.

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You can do this with a temporary array.


$ cat input
$ cat t.sh
#! /bin/bash
echo "$1"
echo "$2"
echo "$3"

Fill the array:

$ IFS=$'\n'; set -f; foo=($(<input))

Use the array:

$ for a in "${foo[@]}" ; do echo "--" "$a" "--" ; done
-- AAA --
-- A B C --
-- DE F --

$ ./t.sh "${foo[@]}"

Can't figure out a way of doing that without that temporary variable - unless the IFS change isn't important for cmd, in which case:

$ IFS=$'\n'; set -f; cmd $(<input) 

should do it.

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IFS always gets me confused. IFS=$'\n' cmd $(<input) doesn't work. IFS=$'\n'; cmd $(<input); unset IFS does work. Why? I guess I'll use (IFS=$'\n'; cmd $(<input)) –  Old Pro May 27 '12 at 23:27
@OldPro IFS=$'\n' cmd $(<input) doesn't work because it only sets IFS in the environment of cmd. $(<input) is expanded to form the command, before the assignment to IFS is performed. –  Gilles May 28 '12 at 0:17
Thanks for the corrections @Gilles, hadn't thought about globbing at all... and must have messed up my IFS when I tested the last one :( –  Mat May 28 '12 at 6:06


set -f              # turn off globbing
'                   # split at newlines only
cmd $(cat <file)
unset IFS
set +f

Or using a subshell to make the IFS and option changes local:

( set -f; IFS='
'; exec cmd $(cat <file) )

The shell performs field splitting and filename generation on the result of a variable or command substitution that is not in double quotes. So you need to turn off filename generation with set -f, and configure field splitting with IFS to make only newlines separate fields.

There's not much to be gained with bash or ksh constructs. You can make IFS local to a function, but not set -f.

In bash or ksh93, you can store the fields in an array, if you need to pass them to multiple commands. You need to control expansion at the time you build the array. Then "${a[@]}" expands to the elements of the array, one per word.

set -f; IFS=$'\n'
a=($(cat <file))
set +f; unset IFS
cmd "${a[@]}"
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You could use the bash built-in mapfile to read the file into an array

mapfile -t foo < filename
cmd "${foo[@]}"

or, untested, xargs might do it

xargs cmd < filename
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From the mapfile documentation: "mapfile isn't a common or portable shell feature". And indeed is it not supported on my system. xargs doesn't help, either. –  Old Pro May 27 '12 at 22:36
You would need xargs -d or xargs -L –  James Youngman May 27 '12 at 22:48
@James, no, I don't have a -d option and xargs -L 1 runs the command once per line but still splits args on whitespace. –  Old Pro May 27 '12 at 23:43
@OldPro, well you did ask for "a way to do it using only bash built-ins" instead of "a common or portable shell feature". If your version of bash is too old, can you update it? –  glenn jackman May 28 '12 at 1:32
mapfile is very handy for me, as it grabs blank lines as array items, which the IFS method does not do. IFS treats contiguous newlines as a single delimiter... Thanks for presenting it, as I wasn't aware of the command (though, based on the OP's input data and the expected command line, it seems he actually wants to ignore blank lines). –  Peter.O May 28 '12 at 5:02

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