I suddenly realized I don't know how to execute things over SSH.

I tried to do

$ ssh user@server sh -c 'echo "hello"'

but it outputs nothing, or rather, it outputs an empty line. If the command given to ssh is run through $SHELL -c on the remote host, then I can see why that is (or I can try to rationalize it to myself anyway).

Ok, second try:

$ ssh user@server 'echo "hello"'

All well and good.

Now for what I was really hoping would work:

$ ssh user@server 'echo "hello $1"' sh "world"
hello  sh world

Hmm... where does the sh come from? This is indicating that $1 is empty and that what really gets executed on the other side is something like

$SHELL -c 'echo "hello  sh world"'

and not what I had hoped,

$SHELL -c 'echo "hello $1"' sh "world"

Is there a way to safely pass arguments to the script executed via ssh, in a sane and sensible way that is analogous to running

sh -c 'script text' sh "my arg1" "my arg2" "my arg3" ...

but on the remote host?

My login shell, both locally and remotely is /bin/sh.

Safely = Preserving whitespace etc. in arguments.

Sanely = No crazy escaping of quotes.


1 Answer 1


The first thing to understand in this process is how ssh handles its arguments. I don't mean the arguments to the thing you're trying to run, but arguments of ssh. When you invoke ssh, the arguments after the remote host specification (user@server) are concatenated together, and passed through the shell on the remote end. This is important to note, as just because your arguments are properly split on the local side, does not mean they will be properly split on the remote side.

To use your example:

ssh user@server 'echo "hello $1"' sh "world"

These arguments get concatenated as the command:

echo "hello $1" sh world

This is why you get

hello  sh world

The double space between hello and sh is because that's where $1 was supposed to go, but there is no $1.


As another example, without the $1, is:

ssh user@server echo "foo      bar" baz

Which results in the output:

foo bar baz

This is because the arguments are being concatenated together, so you end up with the command:

echo foo      bar baz


Since there is no way to get around the command being passed through a shell, you just have to ensure that what you passed can survive the shell evaluation. The way I usually accomplish this is with printf "%q "

For example:

cmd=(echo "foo      bar" baz)
ssh user@server "$(printf "%q " "${cmd[@]}")"

Which results in the output:

foo      bar baz

While it's cleaner and easier to understand with cmd being a separate var, it's not required. The following works just the same:

ssh user@server "$(printf "%q " echo "foo      bar" baz)"


This also works fine with your shell argument example:

cmd=(sh -c 'echo 1="<$1>" 2="<$2>" 3="<$3>"' sh "my arg1" "my arg2" "my arg3")
ssh user@server "$(printf "%q " "${cmd[@]}")"

Which results in the output:

1=<my arg1> 2=<my arg2> 3=<my arg3>


As an alternative solution, you can pass your command as a complete shell script. For example:

ssh user@server <<'EOF'
sh -c 'echo 1="<$1>" 2="<$2>" 3="<$3>"' sh "my arg1" "my arg2" "my arg3"

There are drawbacks to this solution though as it's harder to do programmatically (generating the doc to pass on STDIN). Also because you're using STDIN, if you want the script on the remote side to read STDIN, you can't (at least not without some trickery).

  • I was excited to find this, but sadly, the %q format specifier for printf isn't available in alpine, debian or ubuntu.
    – ErikE
    Jan 4, 2023 at 18:50

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