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Examples

I've recently found examples of using pairs of enclosing braces {}, with nothing in between the opening and closing braces, as arguments to commands and even to their options:

cat foo | xargs -I{} echo {}

find . -size 0 -exec rm -i {} \;

No Documentation

My problem is that I cannot find a documentation in the GNU Bash Manual that describes the usage of {} in such context as in the examples above.

I do not think it is a parameter expansion, because a dollar sign must precede the enclosing braces in a parameter expansion as in ${}.

It cannot be a brace expansion either, because it takes the form of {x..y[..incr]}, where x and y are not optional.

It also cannot be a command grouping either, because {} is used as arguments.

Questions

  1. What does a pair of enclosing braces {} even mean, in general, as an argument to any command that accepts it?

  2. Where can I find a documentation that describes the usage of {} as arguments?

  • Some commands have this options {} - meaning targets to act on, with find command, it's remove/rm found files. – Tuyen Pham Jan 15 at 3:48
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These curly braces are left alone by bash; they belong to find and xargs, respectively, and are described in their man-pages.

man find

-exec command ;

Execute command; true if 0 status is returned. All following arguments to find are taken to be arguments to the command until an argument consisting of ; is encountered. The string {} is replaced by the current file name being processed everywhere it occurs in the arguments to the command, not just in arguments where it is alone, as in some versions of find. Both of these constructions might need to be escaped (with a \) or quoted to protect them from expansion by the shell. See the EXAMPLES section for examples of the use of the -exec option. The specified command is run once for each matched file. The command is executed in the starting directory. There are unavoidable security problems surrounding use of the -exec action; you should use the -execdir option instead.

-exec command {} +

This variant of the -exec action runs the specified command on the selected files, but the command line is built by appending each selected file name at the end; the total number of invocations of the command will be much less than the number of matched files. The command line is built in much the same way that xargs builds its command lines. Only one instance of {} is allowed within the command. The command is executed in the starting directory. If find encounters an error, this can sometimes cause an immediate exit, so some pending commands may not be run at all. This variant of -exec always returns true.

-execdir command ;

-execdir command {} +

Like -exec, but the specified command is run from the subdirectory containing the matched file, which is not normally the directory in which you started find. This a much more secure method for invoking commands, as it avoids race conditions during resolution of the paths to the matched files. As with the -exec action, the + form of -execdir will build a command line to process more than one matched file, but any given invocation of command will only list files that exist in the same subdirectory. If you use this option, you must ensure that your $PATH environment variable does not reference .; otherwise, an attacker can run any commands they like by leaving an appropriately-named file in a directory in which you will run -execdir. The same applies to having entries in $PATH which are empty or which are not absolute directory names. If find encounters an error, this can sometimes cause an immediate exit, so some pending commands may not be run at all. The result of the action depends on whether the + or the ; variant is being used; -execdir command {} + always returns true, while -execdir command {} ; returns true only if command returns 0.

man xargs

-I replace-str

Replace occurrences of replace-str in the initial-arguments with names read from standard input. Also, unquoted blanks do not terminate input items; instead the separator is the newline character. Implies -x and -L 1.

-i[replace-str], --replace[=replace-str]

This option is a synonym for -Ireplace-str if replace-str is specified. If the replace-str argument is missing, the effect is the same as -I{}. This option is deprecated; use -I instead.

Edit: and here WHY bash ignores those curly braces:

man bash

{ list; }

list is simply executed in the current shell environment. list must be terminated with a newline or semicolon. This is known as a group command. The return status is the exit status of list. Note that unlike the metacharacters ( and ), { and } are reserved words and must occur where a reserved word is permitted to be recognized. Since they do not cause a word break, they must be separated from list by whitespace or another shell metacharacter.

For emphasis: list must be terminated with a newline or semicolon.

  • 1
    Thank you! I'm annoyed that whoever wrote man xargs did not even bother to explain what {} actually means, nor did the author redirect (no pun intended) the reader to the explanation of -exec in the man-page of find. – Niko Gambt Jan 15 at 4:20
  • @NikoGambt - I sympathise ... – tink Jan 15 at 4:26
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    @NikoGambt Well, {} doesn't really mean anything to xargs, except for being the default value for -i, which is deprecated. I'm not sure what explanation is necessary beyond that. In the example you posted, it might as well have been xargs -Iab echo ab; it's a purely arbitrary choice. – Random832 Jan 15 at 6:05
  • @Random832 After doing some more testing with -I, I now understand what that option actually does. Yes, {} is arbitrary, as you said. I was just confused by the explanation If the replace-str argument is missing, the effect is the same as -I{}. If -I without argument were the same as -I{}, then cat foo | xargs -I echo {} would produce the same result as running cat foo | xargs -I{} echo {}. However, they are not the same. The former is an error, and what confused me even more was the error message xargs: {}: No such file or directory, but that's just due to implementation. – Niko Gambt Jan 15 at 7:56
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    @NikoGambt -I (uppercase I) cannot be run without an argument. The argument to -I was echo. This is the primary difference between -I and -i (and the reason -i is deprecated, since options with non-required arguments are uncommon and confusing) – Random832 Jan 15 at 14:46

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