I have a question on how I'm adding arguments when executing a shell script.

I have a simple script which helps me block ip ranges:


if [ ! $3 ]
 echo "usage ~/block_ip.sh (DROP/ACCEPT) '' 'amsterdam'"
 exit 1

echo "adding $3"
sudo iptables -I INPUT -s $2 -j $1 -m comment --comment "$3"

If I execute this without arguments the output is as expected:

~$ ./block_ip.sh
usage ~/block_ip.sh (DROP/ACCEPT) '' 'amsterdam'

However the spaces seem to be the cause of the unexpected output of "binary operator expected":

~$ ./block_ip.sh DROP '' 'south brisbane qld'
./block_ip.sh: line 1: [: brisbane: binary operator expected
adding south brisbane au

But then it adds it despite the unexpected output:

Chain INPUT (policy ACCEPT)
num  target     prot opt source           destination
1    DROP       all  --        anywhere         /* south brisbane au */

If this is a quoting issue, how do I form the arguments (without using backslashes to escape the spaces)? Of course, I expect I may need a change to the script, that is an acceptable solution, too.

  • 1
    If your goal in testing $3 is just to be sure that there are three parameters, then you can use the simpler $# shell variable, which holds the number of parameters, eg. if [ $# -ne 3 ]. Feb 8, 2018 at 17:45

1 Answer 1


Yep, that's a quoting issue: [ ! $3 ] expands to [ ! south brisbane qld ] (four arguments between [ and ]). And when it sees four arguments, with the first one a !, [ expects to see something like [ ! arg1 op arg2 ] where op is a binary operator. (this, again is one of the things different between [ .. ] and [[ .. ]]; see this Q and also this Q)

brisbane isn't a valid operator, so it complains and returns 2, which is falsy so the statements inside the if are not executed. To tell the difference between an error and a regular failing test, you'd need to explicitly test the return value against 2.

On the other hand, if $3 is empty, then the test becomes [ ! ], a one-argument test that checks if the only argument is nonempty (it is, it's the one-character string !). In that case, it works as intended, though perhaps not for the reason you'd expect.

You want [ ! "$3" ] or [ -z "$3" ] to keep the string as one argument for [.

Of course you could also invert the sense of the test, and do the actual work inside the if, so that an error in the test would avoid running the main commands. But that would make the code structure a bit more unclear.

  • nice - so the reason it is working then is that even though it errors, $3 isn't empty so it passes the ! test and then i have it quoted in the iptables command so its expansion to include spaces is handled already - is that right?
    – WEBjuju
    Feb 8, 2018 at 15:55
  • and they'll want to quote the parameters in the iptables line as well
    – Jeff Schaller
    Feb 8, 2018 at 16:00
  • @WEBjuju, ah yes, I meant to write about that, edited why it works. And yes, you had the quotes in the iptables command so there it works fine.
    – ilkkachu
    Feb 8, 2018 at 16:04
  • @ilkkachu gotcha, yes, it seems silly on my end. somehow i knew it subconsciously but couldn't bring forth the knowledge to a working solution. i have somehow muddled through without knowing this basic tenant until now, but i just seriously leveled up. much thanks!
    – WEBjuju
    Feb 8, 2018 at 16:14

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .