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I have a file called -.

I want to display its contents.

One way is to do

cat ./-

since cat - reads from standard input. However, why are cat "-" and cat '-' also interpreted by the shell as cat -?

marked as duplicate by Gilles shell Feb 12 at 20:59

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  • 3
    cat is specifically implemented to interpret the file name - as "use stdin". This means you cannot quote - to remove this meaning. If you pass additional quotes to cat, e.g. with cat \"-\", it will look for a file name "-" that includes quotes. So cat would need an option to disable the special meaning of -. If you happen to have a file - and pass it to cat by shell globbing, e.g. cat *, you would have to use something like cat ./* to work around the problem. For better suggestions, please, describe your use case where you have to avoid problems with a file -. – Bodo Feb 12 at 11:41
  • 1
    Related: unix.stackexchange.com/q/1519/117549 – Jeff Schaller Feb 12 at 13:52
  • 3
    Note that the purpose of ./- is not to "disguise" the argument from the shell, but to make it distinct from - for cat. The convention that - represents standard input is handled internally by programs. – chepner Feb 12 at 14:23
  • The answer is in the manual: gnu.org/software/bash/manual/bash.html#Quote-Removal – glenn jackman Feb 12 at 14:59
  • 1
    @GiacomoAlzetta, Of course there are, and many to choose from. But seriously, there are guidelines (POSIX Utility Syntax Guidelines), and conventions (getopt), if not all-encompassing mandatory standards. – ilkkachu Feb 12 at 17:44

The shell removes any quotes before cat sees them. So cat - and cat "-" and cat '-' all get passed through as the array ['cat', '-'] after whitespace tokenization, wildcard expansion, and quote removal by the shell.


Quotes are use by the shell, and not passed to the command:


cat "hello world" #this passes the single token `hello world`, to `cat`, as argument 1. However the quotes are not passed.
cat "-" # this passes the single token `-`, to `cat`, as argument 1. The same as if no quotes had been used.

GNU cat is coded to compare the given filename against the string "-" before trying to open it as a file:

  if (STREQ (infile, "-"))
      have_read_stdin = true;
      input_desc = STDIN_FILENO;
      if (file_open_mode & O_BINARY)
        xset_binary_mode (STDIN_FILENO, O_BINARY);
      input_desc = open (infile, file_open_mode);
      if (input_desc < 0)
          error (0, errno, "%s", quotef (infile));
          ok = false;

So, if you have a file named -, you need to defeat this logic by giving cat the path and name.

Quotation marks protect a value from white space splitting and, if single quotes, variable expansion. Quotation marks do not signal that the thing quoted is a file. To explicitly signal a value is a file, prefix it with a relative or absolute path.

All that said, one might suggest that GNU cat should also check if - is a file in the current working directory, but it'd be unusual for filenames to start with a hyphen or to be solely a hyphen, so that may be a performance concern. David Wheeler's essay, Fixing UNIX and Linux Filenames, has a nice discussion of this problem in historical context.

  • 4
    This behaviour (- designating standard input) is mandated by the POSIX standard for the cat utility and therefore not something that GNU cat should or could change. – Kusalananda Feb 12 at 19:55
  • @Kusalananda GNU could change it: "The GNU Project regards standards published by other organizations as suggestions, not orders. We consider those standards, but we do not 'obey' them." With POSIXLY_CORRECT unset, GNU cat could also check for a file in the current working directory named - and use that file. That is likely the desired behavior, even though it countermands the letter of the standard. – bishop Feb 12 at 20:42
  • 1
    It would also possibly break existing code and/or introduce serious security issues (add a file called - and have it be injected in place of standard input in a pipeline). – Kusalananda Feb 12 at 20:46

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