I need to parse a tab-separated CSV file using bash, examine the contents of the record, and, if the record meets certain criteria, add it to an array. Basically, I want to filter records out of a CSV file before doing something with them.

My thought was to take each row in the file, put each field into an array. I could then look at the array to see if the record meets certain conditions (e.g. field3="value", etc). If yes, I would then "reconstruct" the tab separated line and append it to a new array.

Where this seems to fail is the line where I create record. It appears to be appending a space rather than a tab because later on, the size of details is the same as if the record were space delimited instead of tab.

header=$(head -n 1 $datafile)
IFS=$'\t' read -r -a fields <<< "$header"

while IFS=$'\t' read -r -a documents; do

    # processing to determine if current row in csv file matches certain criteria
    # if it does, the following will happen

    for r in ${documents[@]}; do record+="$r"$'\t'; done #appending space instead?
done < $datafile

for r in "${records[@]}"; do
    IFS=$'\t' read -r -a details <<< "$r"

    # size of details here is as if record is separated by spaces instead of tabs

    for i in "${!fields[@]}" ; do
        echo "${fields[i]}: ${details[i]}"

Example: If this record is process:

Hello World  [TAB]  nice weather we are having today  [TAB]  do you agree?

The size of details should be 3, but I'm getting 11 instead. Why?

  • While you can do this in bash, you're probably better off doing it (or most of it) in a language that is better suited to the task, such as awk or perl. The code will be shorter, simpler, easier to read and understand, and run much faster than using bash arrays and read in multiple loops.
    – cas
    Apr 13, 2016 at 23:02
  • @cas I'm not too good with awk, and this script does some things that I wasn't really how to get working in awk. You are right; it could certainly be more efficient. Apr 14, 2016 at 12:02

2 Answers 2


Your problem is covered Why does my shell script choke on whitespace or other special characters? . I'll just briefly explain what's going on here.

The culprit is for r in ${documents[@]}. Since the variable expansion is left unquoted, you're using the “split+glob” operation: the value of each array element is split into words according to the value of IFS, and each word is treated as a wildcard pattern. Since you only ever set IFS for the duration of the read (see Why is `while IFS= read` used so often, instead of `IFS=; while read..`?), the value of IFS at this point is the default one, which includes spaces. In addition, if you had a field containing something like foo *, you'd see file names in the current directory appear. The solution is for r in "${documents[@]}", which is the standard way of iterating over an array: the double quotes turn this into a straight variable dereference with no splitting and globbing, and the [@] causes each array element to be placed in a separate word.

While setting IFS=$'\t' for the whole script appears to solve the problem, it in fact only solves half the problem: it doesn't prevent globbing from happening with ${documents[@]}. While you can turn off globbing with set -f, using double quotes is clearer.


The issue was apparently with the multiple declarations of IFS=$'\t'. Removing them and just having one declaration for IFS seems to have solved the problem.

(Although for the life of me, I don't see why this was an issue. There must have been a subtle typo.)

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