Bash lets you specify a redirected input before a command:

$ <lines sed 's/^/line: /g'
line: foo
line: bar

Bash also lets you redirect input to a compound command like a while loop:

$ while read line; do echo "line: $line"; done <lines
line: foo
line: bar

However, when I try to specify a redirected input before a while loop, I get a syntax error:

$ <lines while read line; do echo "line: $line"; done
bash: syntax error near unexpected token `do'

What's wrong with this? Is it not possible to specify a redirected input before a compound command in Bash? If so, why not?

  • (I specifically want to know because I'm directing a command's output to a while loop in the current shell context via process substitution, and I'd prefer it if the first part of the code didn't have to appear after the second part.) Sep 17, 2014 at 14:04

4 Answers 4


man bash says:

... redirection operators may precede or appear anywhere within a simple command or may follow a command.

while is not a simple command.


You can in zsh, not in bash and choroba has already pointed you to the documentation, but if you want to have the redirection before, you can do things like:

< file eval '
  while IFS= read -r line; do

Or (on systems with support for /dev/fd/n):

< file 3<< 'EOF' . /dev/fd/3
while IFS= read -r line; do

(not that's you'd want to do it).

You can also do:

exec 3< file
while IFS= read -r line <&3; do
exec 3<&-

(note that exec will exit the script if file can't be open).

Or use a function:

  while IFS= read -r line; do

< file process
  • Wonder if eval and /dev/fd/ routes are equally fast. Sep 17, 2014 at 19:31
  • 1
    @DeerHunter, << EOF involves creating a temp file, filing it up and then open it, read it and interpret as you read it. It's bound to be less fast, though probably not noticeably as it's all going to happen in memory anyway. Sep 17, 2014 at 20:09
  • "Use a function" doesn't really help - I still have to write the function before the code that gets directed into it (although I suppose I can write a function for that, with the two functions in either order). Sep 17, 2014 at 22:21
  • command exec can handle the exit issue as w/ other builtins. but it gets in way too late too handle the reserved word bits.
    – mikeserv
    Sep 18, 2014 at 5:38
  • @StéphaneChazelas What's the reason for using a temporary file rather than a pipe?
    – kasperd
    Sep 18, 2014 at 10:09

You can use that substitution, if you want to precede the input:

cat lines | while read line; do echo "line: $line"; done
  • 1
    I need this to be executed within the current shell context - no pipelines. (The code in the question was just a simplified example.) Sep 17, 2014 at 14:35

You can use exec to redirect the stdin.

In a script:

exec < <(cat lines)
while read line ; do echo "line: $line"; done

You can't use in a login shell though (it will dump the file on the stdout and exit). In that case you can open a different file descriptor:

exec 3< <(cat lines)
while read -u 3 line ; do echo "line: $line"; done

For reference: Using exec

  • And if I'm using stdin for something else I ihave to surround the code in exec 3<&0 and exec <&3, right? (that or use &3 for the redirect ie. your second example) Sep 17, 2014 at 18:07
  • Yes, you "save" the current stdin to another file descriptor and when you finished you can restore it. (it's well explained in the first example in the linked doc)
    – spider
    Sep 18, 2014 at 8:55

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