I was reading this Q&A: How to loop over the lines of a file?

What is the IFS variable? And what is its usage in the context of for-loops?

  • 1
    I notice that the answers mostly focus on the definition if the IFS internal variable, and not how to "see" (i.e. human-readable) what it contains, which is a possible interpretation of this question. Simply trying to echo the variable will mostly get a blank line, as the default contents is non-printable. Use a hex viewer to "see": eg. > echo "$IFS" | hexdump. Then look up the codes in an ASCII or matching character table for your system.
    – sarlacii
    Aug 30, 2021 at 13:15

4 Answers 4


IFS isn't directly related to looping, it's related to word splitting. IFS indirectly determines how the output from the command is broken up into pieces that the loop iterates over.

When you have an unprotected variable substitution $foo or command substitution $(foo), there are two cases:

  • If the context expects a single word, e.g. when the substitution is between double quotes "$foo", or in a variable assignment x=$foo, then the string resulting from the substitution is used as-is.
  • If the context expects multiple words, which is the case most of the times, then two further expansions are performed on the resulting string:
    • The string is split into words. Any character that appears in $IFS is considered a word separator. For example IFS=":"; foo="12:34::78"; echo $foo prints 12 34 ​ 78 (with two spaces between 34 and 78, since there's an empty word).
    • Each word is treated as a glob pattern and expanded into a list of file names. For example, foo="*"; echo $foo prints the list of files in the current directory.

For loops, like many other contexts, expect a list of words. So

for x in $(foo); do …

breaks $(foo) into words, and treats each word as a glob pattern. The default value of IFS is space, tab and newline, so if foo prints out two lines hello world and howdy then the loop body is executed with x=hello, then x=world and x=howdy. If IFS is explicitly changed to contain a newline only, then the loop is executed for hello world and howdy. If IFS is changed to be o, then the loop is executed for hell, ​ w, rld​␤h (where ​␤ is a newline character) and wdy.

  • Why you mentioned "Indirectly" in "IFS indirectly determines how ..."? May 28, 2018 at 14:43
  • 1
    @αғsнιη IFS (directly) determines how the output of the command substitution is broken up, which then (indirectly) determines what the loop loops over. May 28, 2018 at 18:58
  • For a very long time I was thinking that I was understanding that but I was wrong. The first paragraph could be misleading, IMO it should mention explicitly that literal strings are not splitted.
    – Amazigh_05
    Dec 20, 2021 at 11:09

IFS stands for Input Internal Field Separator - it's a character that separates fields. In the example you posted, it is set to new line character (\n); so after you set it, for will process text line by line. In that example, you could change the value of IFS (to some letter that you have in your input file) and check how text will be split.

BTW, from the answer you posted the second solution is the recommended one...

As @jasonwryan noticed, it's not Input but Internal. Name Input came from awk in which there is also OFS - Output Field Separator.

  • 1
    Note that IFS is also used for combining parameters for output. From the bash man page: "When the expansion occurs within double quotes, it expands to a single word with the value of each parameter separated by the first character of the IFS special variable."
    – Eric
    Nov 30, 2015 at 16:25
  • 1
    One should also note that while S was for separator in the Bourne shell where it originated from. In the Korn shell and most other Bourne-like shell as that has now been specified by POSIX, the S is for Delimiter (just stretch your imagination a bit) as A::B: for instance is split into "A", "" and "B" (no extra ""). That's different from awk's FS or the s parameter expansion flag of zsh. Mar 13, 2017 at 10:15

From man bash

IFS The Internal Field Separator that is used for word splitting after expansion and to split lines into words with the read builtin command. The default value is "<space><tab><newline>".

This is one of Bash's internal variables. It determines how Bash recognizes fields, or word boundaries, when it interprets character strings.

While it defaults to whitespace (space, tab, and newline), it may be changed, for example, to parse a comma-separated data file.



In addition to previous great answers, let me just add that IFS is very useful for efficient and portable parsing in simple cases in combination with set. Efficient, because avoids using of subshells and spawning tools like grep or sed:

for res in $resolutions; do
    set -- $res
    # handle width and height

Just note that we need to store and recover previous value of IFS to avoid undesired breakages in other parts of script.

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