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For Bash versions prior to "GNU bash, Version 4.2" are there any equivalent alternatives for the -v option of the test command? For example:

shopt -os nounset
test -v foobar && echo foo || echo bar
# Output: bar
test -v foobar && echo foo || echo bar
# Output: foo
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3 Answers 3

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Portable to all POSIX shells:

if [ -n "${foobar+1}" ]; then
  echo "foobar is defined"
  echo "foobar is not defined"

Make that ${foobar:+1} if you want to treat foobar the same way whether it is empty or not defined. You can also use ${foobar-} to get an empty string when foobar is undefined and the value of foobar otherwise (or put any other default value after the -).

In ksh, if foobar is declared but not defined, as in typeset -a foobar, then ${foobar+1} expands to the empty string.

Zsh doesn't have variables that are declared but not set: typeset -a foobar creates an empty array.

In bash, arrays behave in a different and surprising way. ${a+1} only expands to 1 if a is a non-empty array, e.g.

typeset -a a; echo ${a+1}    # prints nothing
e=(); echo ${e+1}            # prints nothing!
f=(''); echo ${f+1}          # prints 1

The same principle applies to associative arrays: array variables are treated as defined if they have a non-empty set of indices.

A different, bash-specific way of testing whether a variable of any type has been declared is to check whether it's listed in ${!PREFIX*}:

case " ${!foobar*} " in
  *" foobar "*) echo "foobar is declared";;
  *) echo "foobar is not declared";;

This is equivalent to testing the return value of typeset -p foobar or declare -p foobar.

In bash, like in ksh, set -o nounset; typeset -a foobar; echo $foobar triggers an error in the attempt to expand the undefined variable foobar. Unlike in ksh, set -o nounset; foobar=(); echo $foobar (or echo "${foobar[@]}") also triggers an error.

Note that in all situations described here, ${foobar+1} expands to 1 if and only if $foobar would cause an error under set -o nounset.

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What about arrays? In Bash version "GNU bash, version 4.1.10(4)-release (i686-pc-cygwin)" echo "${foobar:+1}" doesn't print 1 if declare -a foobar was previously issued and thus foobar is an indexed array. declare -p foobar correctly reports declare -a foobar='()'. Does "${foobar:+1}" only work for non-array variables? –  Tim Friske Nov 27 '12 at 9:29
@TimFriske ${foobar+1} (without the :, I inverted two examples in my original answer) is correct for arrays in bash if your definition of “defined” is “would $foobar work under set -o nounset”. If your definition is different, bash is a bit weird. See my updated answer. –  Gilles Nov 27 '12 at 10:56
Regarding the topic "In bash, arrays behave in a different and surprising way." the behavior can be explained from the bash(1) manpages, section "Arrays". It states that "Referencing an array variable without a subscript is equivalent to referencing the array with a subscript of 0.". Thus if neither a 0 index nor a key is defined as it is true for a=(), ${a+1} correctly returns nothing. –  Tim Friske Nov 27 '12 at 21:57
@TimFriske I know that the bash implementation conforms to its documentation. But treating an empty array like an undefined variable is really strange design. –  Gilles Nov 27 '12 at 22:19

To sum up with Gilles' answer I made up my following rules:

  1. Use [[ -v foobar ]] for variables in Bash version >= 4.2.
  2. Use declare -p foobar &>/dev/null for array variables in Bash version < 4.2.
  3. Use (( ${foo[0]+1} )) or (( ${bar[foo]+1} )) for subscripts of indexed (-a) and keyed (-A) arrays (declare), respectively. Options 1 and 2 don't work here.
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I use the same technique for all variables in bash, and it works, e.g.:

[ ${foobar} ] && echo "foobar is set" || echo "foobar is unset"


foobar is unset


foobar=( "val" "val2" )
[ ${foobar} ] && echo "foobar is set" || echo "foobar is unset"


foobar is set
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Had to remove [@] if array has more than one value. –  steinim Apr 17 '13 at 9:22

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