This question is not about how to write a properly escaped string literal. I couldn't find any related question that isn't about how to escape variables for direct consumption within a script or by other programs.

My goal is to enable a script to generate other scripts. This is because the tasks in the generated scripts will run anywhere from 0 to n times on another machine, and the data from which they are generated may change before they're run (again), so doing the operations directly, over a network will not work.

Given a known variable that may contain special characters such as single quotes, I need to write that out as a fully escaped string literal, e.g. a variable foo containing bar'baz should appear in the generated script as:


which would be written by appending "qux=$foo_esc" to the other lines of script. I did it using Perl like this:

foo_esc="'`perl -pe 's/('\'')/\\1\\\\\\1\\1/g' <<<"$foo"`'"

but this seems like overkill.

I have had no success in doing it with bash alone. I have tried many variations of these:


but either extra slashes appear in the output (when I do echo "$foo"), or they cause a syntax error (expecting further input if done from the shell).

  • alias and/or set fairly universally – mikeserv Jul 28 '18 at 7:48
  • @mikeserv Sorry, I'm not sure what you mean. – Walf Jul 28 '18 at 14:39
  • alias "varname=$varname" varname or var=value set – mikeserv Jul 28 '18 at 14:58
  • 2
    @mikeserv That's not enough context for me to understand what your suggestion is supposed to do, nor how I would use it as a generic method of escaping any variable. It's a solved problem, mate. – Walf Aug 1 '18 at 5:58

Bash has a parameter expansion option for exactly this case:

${parameter@Q} The expansion is a string that is the value of parameter quoted in a format that can be reused as input.

So in this case:


This is supported in Bash 4.4 and up. There are several options for other forms of expansion as well, and for specifically generating complete assignment statements (@A).

  • 7
    Neat, but only have 4.2 which gives bad substitution. – Walf Jul 18 '17 at 6:26
  • 3
    The Z shell equivalent is "${foo:q}". – JdeBP Jul 18 '17 at 12:04
  • Really save my life! "${foo@Q}" works! – hao Jun 3 '19 at 6:07
  • @JdeBP that Z shell equivalent doesn't work. Any other ideas for zsh? – Steven Shaw Jun 12 '19 at 5:05
  • 1
    I found the answer: "${(@qq)foo}" – Steven Shaw Jun 12 '19 at 11:23

Bash provides a printf builtin with %q format specifier, which performs shell escaping for you, even in older (<4.0) versions of Bash:

printf '[%q]\n' "Ne'er do well"
# Prints [Ne\'er\ do\ well]

printf '[%q]\n' 'Sneaky injection $( whoami ) `ls /root`'
# Prints [Sneaky\ injection\ \$\(\ whoami\ \)\ \`ls\ /root\`]

This trick can also be used to return arrays of data from a function:

function getData()
  printf '%q ' "He'll say hi" 'or `whoami`' 'and then $( byebye )'

declare -a DATA="( $( getData ) )"
printf 'DATA: [%q]\n' "${DATA[@]}"
# Prints:
# DATA: [He\'ll\ say\ hi]
# DATA: [or\ \`whoami\`]
# DATA: [and\ then\ \$\(\ byebye\ \)]

Note that the Bash printf builtin is different than the printf utility which comes bundled with most Unix-like operating systems. If, for some reason, the printf command invokes the utility instead of the builtin, you can always execute builtin printf instead.

  • I'm not sure how that helps if what I'd need printed would be 'Ne'\''er do well', etc., i.e. quotes included in the output. – Walf Jul 30 '18 at 3:15
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    @Walf I think you're not understanding that the two forms are equivalent, and both are perfectly as safe as each other. E.g. [[ 'Ne'\''er do well' == Ne\'er\ do\ well ]] && echo 'equivalent!' will echo equivalent! – Dejay Clayton Jul 30 '18 at 17:39
  • I did miss that :P however I prefer the quoted form as it's easier to read in a syntax-highlighting viewer/editor. – Walf Jul 31 '18 at 23:43
  • @Walf it seems like your approach is pretty dangerous, considering that in your example Perl, passing a value like 'hello' results in the incorrect value ''\''hello'', which has an unnecessary leading empty string (the first two single quotes), and an inappropriate trailing single quote. – Dejay Clayton Aug 1 '18 at 3:02
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    @Walf, for clarification, $'escape-these-chars' is the ANSI-C quoting feature of Bash that causes all characters within the specified string to be escaped. Thus, to easily create a string literal that contains a newline within the filename (e.g. $'first-line\nsecond-line'), use \n within this construct. – Dejay Clayton Aug 6 '18 at 19:56

I guess I didn't RTFM. It can be done like so:


Then echo "$foo_esc" gives the expected 'bar'\''baz'

How I'm actually using it is with a function:

function esc_var {
    local mid_q=\'\\\'\'
    printf '%s' "'${1//\'/$mid_q}'"


foo_esc="`esc_var "$foo"`"

Modifying this to use the printf built-in from Dejay's solution:

function esc_vars {
    printf '%q' "$@"
  • 3
    I would use @michael-homer's solution if my version supported it. – Walf Jul 26 '17 at 1:36

There are several solutions to quote a var value:

  1. alias
    In most shells (where alias is available)(except csh, tcsh and probably others csh like):

    $ alias qux=bar\'baz
    $ alias qux

    Yes, this works in many sh-like shells like dash or ash.

  2. set
    Also in most shells (again, not csh):

    $ qux=bar\'baz
    $ set | grep '^qux='
  3. typeset
    In some shells (ksh, bash and zsh at least):

    $ qux=bar\'baz
    $ typeset -p qux
    typeset qux='bar'\''baz'             # this is zsh, quoting style may
                                         # be different for other shells.
  4. export
    First do:

    export qux=bar\'baz

    Then use:
    export -p | grep 'qux=' export -p | grep 'qux='
    export -p qux

  5. quote
    echo "${qux@Q}"
    echo "${(qq)qux}" # from one to four q's may be used.

  • The alias approach is clever and seems like it is specified by POSIX. For maximum portability I think this is the way to go. I believe the suggestions involving grep with export or set may break on variables containing embedded newlines. – jw013 Jan 2 at 19:34

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