I was surprised to find out that setting an environment variable modified the last exist code variable $?:

$ false
$ echo $?
$ false
$ echo $?

The bash manual says only this about $?:

($?) Expands to the exit status of the most recently executed foreground pipeline.

Where is the exit code of a variable being set documented? Can it fail?

  • FOO=$(BAR) it failed – Ipor Sircer Aug 16 '16 at 20:13
  • @IporSircer I tried that and you're right. It returned 127. However, is that the return code from "setting the variable" or from attempting to run a command that doesn't exist? – Steve Aug 16 '16 at 20:15
  • 1
    Also empty= a=${empty:?} – choroba Aug 16 '16 at 20:15
  • @Steve Yes that 127 is from the command not being found. I don't know where this was documented but this - the result of the command inside the substitution being transparently passed through variable assignment - is universal behavior that you can rely on, and any new shell that fails to implement this behavior while aiming to be Bourne-like/compatible is wrong. – mtraceur May 21 at 18:45

Assignment can fail if the right hand expression fails to evaluate


$ x=$((1/0))
bash: 1/0: division by 0 (error token is "0")
$ echo $?

In this scenario the value of $x is left unchanged:

$ echo $x
| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    Where is this documented? – Steve Aug 16 '16 at 20:30
  • Hmm, not sure where this is documented, but the return code from a variable assignment is the return code of the evaluation of the right hand side. That's why x=$(Nosuchcommand) returns an exit code of 127 because that's the standard "command not found" exit code. – Stephen Harris Aug 16 '16 at 20:36
  • man bash and search for EXIT STATUS. Is this the location that is being sought? – Timothy Martin Aug 16 '16 at 20:43
  • @TimothyMartin Not sure ... the man page talks about "commands" and "built-in commands", but that's where I'm confused. I never would have thought setting a variable was a "command" (although something like $(command) is obviously a command). – Steve Aug 17 '16 at 12:14
  • It's not entirely accurate, but I like to think of an assignment statement as a pre-command assignment that just happens to precede a null command that behaves like :. The assignments affect the current shell just like redirections on exec with no arguments affect the current shell. – chepner Aug 17 '16 at 17:12

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