For a command (builtin or external), what is the difference of running it directly in a bash shell process and with bash -c in the bash shell? What are their advantages and disadvantages comparing to each other?

For example, in a bash shell, run `date` directly, and run `bash -c
date`. Also consider a builtin command instead of an external one.
  1. The -c option allows programs to run commands.  It’s a lot easier to fork and do

    execl("/bin/sh", "sh", "-c", "date | od -cb  &&  ps > ps.out", NULL);

    than it is to fork, create a pipe, fork again, call execl in each child, call wait, check the exit status, fork again, call close(1), open the file, ensure that it is open on file descriptor 1, and do another execl.  I believe that this was the reason why the option was created in the first place.

    The system() library function runs a command by the above method.

  2. It provides a way to take an arbitrarily complex command and make it look like a simple command.  This is useful with programs that run a user-specified command, such as find … -exec or xargs.  But you already knew that; it was part of the answer to your question, How to specify a compound command as an argument to another command?
  3. It can come in handy if you’re running an interactive shell other than bash.  Conversely, if you are running bash, you can use this syntax

    $ ash  -c "command"
    $ csh  -c "command"
    $ dash -c "command"
    $ zsh  -c "command"

    to run one command in another shell, as all of those shells also recognize the -c option.  Of course you could achieve the same result with

    $ ash
    ash$ command
    ash$ exit
    $ csh
    csh$ command
    csh$ exit
    $ dash
    dash$ command
    dash$ exit
    $ zsh
    zsh$ command
    zsh$ exit

    I used ash$ , etc., to illustrate the prompts from the different shells; you probably wouldn’t actually get those.

  4. It can come in handy if you want to run one command in a “fresh” bash shell; for example,

    $ ls -lA
    total 0
    -rw-r--r-- 1 gman gman   0 Apr 14 20:16 .file1
    -rw-r--r-- 1 gman gman   0 Apr 14 20:16 file2
    $ echo *
    $ shopt -s dotglob
    $ echo *
    .file1 file2
    $ bash -c "echo *"


    $ type shift
    shift is a shell builtin
    $ alias shift=date
    $ type shift
    shift is aliased to ‘date’
    $ bash -c "type shift"
    shift is a shell builtin
  5. The above is a misleading over-simplification.  When bash is run with -c, it is considered a non-interactive shell, and it does not read ~/.bashrc, unless is -i specified.  So,

    $ type cp
    cp is aliased to ‘cp -i’          # Defined in  ~/.bashrc
    $ cp .file1 file2
    cp: overwrite ‘file2’? n
    $ bash -c "cp .file1 file2"
                                      # Existing file is overwritten without confirmation!
    $ bash -c -i "cp .file1 file2"
    cp: overwrite ‘file2’? n

    You could use -ci, -i -c or -ic instead of -c -i.

    This probably applies to some extent to the other shells mentioned in paragraph 3, so the long form (i.e., the second form, which is actually exactly the same amount of typing) might be safer, especially if you have initialization/configuration files set up for those shells.

  6. As Wildcard explained, since you’re running a new process tree (a new shell process and, potentially, its child process(es)), changes to the environment made in the subshell cannot affect the parent shell (current directory, values of environment variables, function definitions, etc.)  Therefore, it’s hard to imagine a shell builtin command that would be useful when run by sh -c.  fg, bg, and jobs cannot affect or access background jobs started by the parent shell, nor can wait wait for them.  sh -c "exec some_program" is essentially equivalent to just running some_program the normal way, directly from the interactive shell.  sh -c exit is a big waste of time.  ulimit and umask could change the system settings for the child process, and then exit without exercising them.

    Just about the only builtin command that would be functional in a sh -c context is kill.  Of course, the commands that only produce output (echo, printf, pwd and type) are unaffected, and, if you write a file, that will persist.

  7. Of course you can use a builtin in conjunction with an external command; e.g.,
    sh -c "cd some_directory; some_program"
    but you can achieve essentially the same effect with a normal subshell:
    (cd some_directory; some_program)
    which is more efficient.  The same (both parts) can be said for something like
    sh -c "umask 77; some_program"
    or ulimit (or shopt).  And since you can put an arbitrarily complex command after -c — up to the complexity of a full-blown shell script — you might have occasion to use any of the repertoire of builtins; e.g., source, read, export, times, set and unset, etc.
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  • +1 except I think you go too far on builtins. To be clear echo printf type pwd are builtins; so are set shopt shift read readarray mapfile trap declare/typeset export local let readonly unset which don't affect the parent but may still be useful inside a moderately complicated -c. – dave_thompson_085 Apr 15 '16 at 8:06
  • What is your point?  Did you read my 6th bullet, where I said that builtins are useful in conjunction with external command(s)?  Are you saying that I should give more examples in bullet #6? – G-Man Says 'Reinstate Monica' Apr 15 '16 at 8:56
  • Thanks. Someone said that your reply also answered another question, but is that true? – Tim Apr 15 '16 at 15:53
  • @Tim: What question?  I see five question marks in that “question”.  OK, I’m kidding — a little.  What are you still unsure about?  I showed an example of sh -c being used with a complex command line including three programs, a pipe, a &&, and a redirection; I showed an example of it being used with a compound command line including a cd, a ;, and a program; I showed an example of it being used with exec; and I said it could be used with builtins like echo, kill, printf, pwd and type (and also exit, ulimit, and umask).  What more do you want to know?  … (Cont’d) – G-Man Says 'Reinstate Monica' Apr 15 '16 at 22:45
  • (Cont’d) …  If you mean “Does it mean execve() can operate on a script?”, (1) that has nothing to do with bash -c, and (2) what research have you done?  The execve man page answers this, and a search of this site yields this, this, this, this, this, and this. – G-Man Says 'Reinstate Monica' Apr 15 '16 at 22:45

Running bash -c "my command here" vs. just running my command here is primarily different in that the former starts a subshell and the latter runs the commands in the current shell.

As far as built-in commands vs. external commands, it doesn't really relate—anything you can run in the current shell, you can run in a subshell.

There are a number of differences in the effects, however:

  • Changes to the environment made in the subshell cannot affect the parent shell (current directory, values of environment variables, function definitions, etc.)
  • Variables set in the parent shell that have not been exported will be unavailable in the subshell.

This is far from an exhaustive list of differences, but it contains the key point: you are running a different process with bash -c; it's not the same process as your original shell.

There is also a performance hit incurred by spawning a subshell; this is most relevant if your script is run frequently, or if your command is inside a loop of some kind.

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  • 1
    FYI, I quoted your answer in my answer.  I tried to ping you from there, knowing that that doesn't work. – G-Man Says 'Reinstate Monica' Apr 15 '16 at 2:46

The -c option basically runs a mini-shell script provided as a CLI argument rather than a file.

$ bash -c the_script the_scriptname 1 2 3 

is virtually equivalent to:

$ echo the_script > the_scriptname
$ bash the_scriptname 1 2 3
$ rm the_scriptname

As you can see from:

$ bash -c 'printf " ->%s\n" $0 "$@"; echo $-;' scriptname 1 2 3

(In English: $0 == scriptname; $@ == (1 2 3); and bash will: hash commands; perform Brace expansion, and it has been run with the -c flag)


 $ echo 'printf " ->%s\n" $0 "$@"; echo $-;' > scriptname
 $ bash scriptname 1 2 3 
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-c string

If the -c option is present, then commands are read from string. If there are arguments after the string, they are assigned to the positional parameters, starting with $0.

This will solve your questions I guess

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  • thanks. can you explain explicitly to my questions? – Tim Apr 14 '16 at 23:27

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