I was writing some "if then" statements and found what seemed to me an odd behavior. Upon investigation I realized that it boiled down to the exit code of the comparison I was making. I illustrate my findings in the following code snippet.

As you can see

[ $rc -eq 0 ]
[ $rc=0 ]
echo "es_num is $es_num"
echo "es_str is $es_str"


es_num is 1
es_str is 0

Is there any documentation, preferably from the POSIX standards, that talks about the difference in the exit statuses of -eq and = in a test construct?

What should I be aware of when writing conditional statements? What are some best practices regarding this?

Portable code is preferable to Bash code (which I'm using).

  • I didn't know about the space being necessary. What I meant with "odd" is "weird if you read as pseudo code, ignoring the quirks of the language". Thanks. @ilkkachu – Elegance Mar 7 at 19:16
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    The only way I can get [ $rc=0 ] to fail with rc=1 is to set IFS to 1 as well. That would cause both tests to error out and set $? to 2 (in bash). – Kusalananda Mar 7 at 19:25
  • @ilkkachu There was a typo. Of course I can't ignore them, but if I knew them, I wouldn't have to ask. That's exactly the point of the question. – Elegance Mar 7 at 21:29
  • @Elegance, ok, good, thanks. And yes, you're right, you wouldn't have to ask if you knew. It's just that even a typo like that can send the readers off in the wrong direction, looking for some really weird edge case that could explain the result. (The shell can be a bit quirky sometimes so there might have been a remote possibility of an edge case where both would return 1...) – ilkkachu Mar 7 at 21:52
  • @ilkkachu Thank you for the helpful feedback. – Elegance Mar 7 at 22:08


True if the integers n1 and n2 are algebraically equal; otherwise, false.



True if the strings s1 and s2 are identical; otherwise, false.


So -eq compares integers and = compares strings (which will also work with some limited integer cases).

You do have a syntax issue though, it should be:

[ "$rc" = 0 ]

And not

[ $rc=0 ]

[ "$rc" = 0 ] should exit with 1 because rc does not equal 0

[ $rc=0 ] should actually exit with 0 because it's likely going to be treated as a string and the presence of a string within the [ test construct will evaluate to true

With the sh [ test there are a few differences:

# leading 0
$ [ 01 -eq 1 ]; echo $?
# adjacent whitespace
$ [ ' 1' -eq 1 ]; echo $?
# negative 0 vs positive 0
$ [ 0 -eq -0 ]; echo $?

However with the bash [[ test there are a large number of differences (Including the ones mentioned above):

# base 8
$ [[ 032 -eq 26 ]]; echo $?
# Arithmetic expressions
$ [[ 1*6+32/15*2-1 -eq 9 ]]; echo $?
# Base 64
$ [[ 64#Hello_world -eq -5506400892957379251 ]]; echo $?
  • I'm just a bit confused about what is meant by numeric and string comparisons. Let's say I use = to compare numbers. When is it not going to not yield the same result as a numeric comparison? – Elegance Mar 7 at 19:17
  • Any examples with strings that have nothing but digits, and don't have leading zeros? – Elegance Mar 7 at 19:21
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    @Elegance The point is that with -eq, the left and right hand side are compared as integers, not as strings. The test would evaluate the strings as integers (probably by passing them through strtol() or some such C function) before carrying out the comparison. – Kusalananda Mar 7 at 19:43
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    @Elegance In a bash test with [[ ... -eq ... ]] you could even have arithmetic calculations on either side, as in [[ 1+1 -eq 2 ]]. Obviously, [[ 1+1 == 2 ]] would not be true. – Kusalananda Mar 7 at 20:02
  • @Jesse_b You shared the same link twice. I take it the first one is incorrect. – Elegance Mar 7 at 22:09

For numeric comparisons you have to use -eq whereas = is for string comparisons (as from your variable naming you already seem to know).

One of the best introductions on the test aka [ command I know is The Unix Shell's Humble If

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