When writing a long pipe it is usually clearer to separate it in two lines.

This long command line:

ruby -run -e httpd -- -p 5000 . 2>&1 | tee >(grep -Fq 'WEBrick::HTTPServer#start' && open localhost:5000) 

Could be divided as:

ruby -run -e httpd -- -p 5000 . 2>&1 \
   | tee >(grep -Fq 'WEBrick::HTTPServer#start' && open localhost:5000) 


ruby -run -e httpd -- -p 5000 . 2>&1 |
    tee >(grep -Fq 'WEBrick::HTTPServer#start' && open localhost:5000) 

In short:

command1 \
    | command2


command1 |

I realize that this might be a style (opinion) issue, but: Is there a preferred way, and, if so, why?

  • 1
    My first instinct is to declutter (and clarify) the whole pipeline by predefining variables containing the strings starting "WEB" and "local". After that, folding may not even be required. – Paul_Pedant Apr 8 at 10:56
  • 9
    Related, recommends the opposite of the acceped answer. – schrodigerscatcuriosity Apr 8 at 13:38
  • 2
    @guillermochamorro Of course, that recommendation doesn't provide a rationale for using explicit line continuation, and certainly doesn't address the very real issue mentioned in the accepted answer. – chepner Apr 8 at 14:04
  • 1
    @chepner Yeah, I just wanted to add a different a view on the matter (at least style wise), but as you said , it's not explained why (I think the idea is that it's more clear when you read the code). BTW, once I spent hours trying to fix my code, and it was... an invisible space like shown in the answer ^^. Cheers! – schrodigerscatcuriosity Apr 8 at 14:09
  • Just to note: The accepted answer could change in the future if some other option gets more votes (or becomes "a better answer"). There nothing saying that it could not change. – Isaac Apr 8 at 16:56

Ask your self what would this do?

command1 \ 
   | command2

Can't see the difference. Neither can I, but the shell can. Look closely, there is a space after the \. This stops the newline from being escaped.

Therefore use the other form, as it is safer. Shown here with the same error (a space after the | in this case). But it does not cause a bug.

command1 | 
| improve this answer | |
  • 3
    But the shell would catch that situation and give an error. So it's not a very strong reason. – gidds Apr 8 at 16:25
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    @gidds the shell will NOT catch that as an error command \<space><newline> will just pass a space as the first argument to command. That being said, this Q is pointless, and there's a double standard on this site, where perfectly technical & objective Qs are closed on sight, but "opinion collectors" like this thrive and fester. – mosvy Apr 8 at 16:43
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    @mosvy I think gidds is referring to how the shell would raise a syntax error on | command2, indicating the file and line number it happened on. – JoL Apr 8 at 16:47
  • 5
    @JoL but it will still run command <space> without redirecting it through the pipeline, even if errors out on the next line. The shell is different from perl or python (or most other languages) -- it will evaluate the whole script line by line, not parse it whole first and then execute it. – mosvy Apr 8 at 17:10
  • 3
    @mosvy There's also the issue that by this argument, one should never use line-continuation escapes. Writing multi-line pipes is not the only use for them. They're also useful for breaking up long simple commands that have lots of arguments. Are we going to stop doing that too because we can't trust ourselves to not put a space after it? – JoL Apr 8 at 17:44

I'm going to disagree with most folks here; I always prefer to wrap before a joining operator such as a pipe:

command1 \
| command 2

(You don't need to indent the second line; the pipe itself links it very obviously to the first.)

There are a few reasons for this:

  • It's easier to see the joiner; it doesn't get lost amongst the details of the line.  (This is especially important if the line is long, and the joiner might have got scrolled out of sight, or lost amongst line wrapping.)  When you scan code quickly, you look down the left-hand side, because that's where the overall structure is: in the indentation, the braces, or whatever a particular languages uses.  Pipes and other joiners are important to the structure, so they too should be on the left.

  • It lines up if you're spanning 3 or more lines.  Again, this makes the structure of the pipeline easy to take in at a glance.

  • It's closer to the way we think.  (This is the most subtle and contentious point…)  If you're reading a list out slowly, so someone can write it down, you'd say “[Item 1]… (pause)… and [Item 2]… (pause)… and [Item 3].”; it would feel unnatural to say “[Item 1] and… (pause)… [Item 2] and… (pause)… [Item 3].”  That's because we think of the joiner as attaching to the following item more than the previous one.  (You can think of the minus sign in arithmetic in similar terms; it works like addition, but connects more closely to the following number by negating it.)  Code is easier to follow when it reflects our thinking.

I've tried both ways in many languages over the years, and have found that putting joiners on the following line really does help in most cases.

| improve this answer | |
  • Beside "better looking", is there any bug or problem that this option would avoid ? – Isaac Apr 8 at 16:39
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    How do you put comments in a pipe line? – Ole Tange Apr 8 at 19:15
  • You might want just to drop point 3: that's an argument for Japanese speakers to do it the other way. (I.e., it's based on your local/community convention, not logic about how the world works.) – cjs Apr 9 at 0:13
  • @Isaac Any bug that might be put in by a programmer misreading code. – cjs Apr 9 at 0:16

Well, just to avoid it looking like nobody would prefer:

command1 \
   | command2

I'm going to say that I do.

I see the trailing space problem raised by ctrl-alt-delor as a non-issue. Editors can warn about it; git warns about it. To top it off, the shell would raise a syntax error on | command2, providing the user with the file and line number of the error and cease interpreting the rest of the file:

$ cat f.sh

echo foo \ 
| command2

echo bar
$ ./f.sh
./f.sh: line 4: syntax error near unexpected token `|'
./f.sh: line 4: `| command2'

There's also the fact that there are more uses for line-continuation escapes. For example, to break simple commands that have many arguments:

ffmpeg \
  -f x11grab \
  -video_size "$size" \
  -framerate "${framerate:-10}" \
  -i "${DISPLAY}${offset}" \
  -c:v ffvhuff \
  -f matroska \

Should we avoid such usage too because we can't trust ourselves not to put a space after the escape?

My preference is purely a matter of readability and quite subjective. Here's a real-life example from my shell history (with details substituted with foobar):

org-table-to-csv foobar.org \
| cq +H -q "
  select foo
    from t
    where bar = 'baz'
      and foo != ''" \
| sed -r 's/^|$/'\''/g' \
| sed -r ':b;$!{N;bb};s/\n/, /g'

Compare to:

org-table-to-csv foobar.org |
  cq +H -q "
    select foo
      from t
      where bar = 'baz'
        and foo != ''" |
  sed -r 's/^|$/'\''/g' |
  sed -r ':b;$!{N;bb};s/\n/, /g'

Here's another:

sed 's/ .*//' <<< "$blame_out"
| sort \
| uniq \
| tee >(sed "s/^/from pipe before grep filtering: /" > /dev/tty) \
| grep -vF "$(git show -s --format=%h "$from_commit")" \
| tee >(sed "s/^/from pipe before git show: /" > /dev/tty) \
| xargs git show -s --format='%cI %h' \
| tee >(sed "s/^/from pipe after git show: /" > /dev/tty) \
| sort -k1 \
| tail -1 \
| cut -d' ' -f2

Compare to:

sed 's/ .*//' <<< "$blame_out"
  sort |
  uniq |
  tee >(sed "s/^/from pipe before grep filtering: /" > /dev/tty) |
  grep -vF "$(git show -s --format=%h "$from_commit")" |
  tee >(sed "s/^/from pipe before git show: /" > /dev/tty) |
  xargs git show -s --format='%cI %h' |
  tee >(sed "s/^/from pipe after git show: /" > /dev/tty) |
  sort -k1 |
  tail -1 |
  cut -d' ' -f2
| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    I must say that if the bug raised by ctrl-alt-delor is a ""non-issue** then yes, the whole question falls into the realm of preferences and opinion, well IMhOpinion as well. – Isaac Apr 8 at 17:11
  • I try to avoid long lines. I will put things in to variables to make them shorter (I use long-ish variable names, but it still makes it shorter). But sometime I do line continuation just as you have shown. My dockerfiles have a lot of them. And yes I use an editor to highlight errors, and shellcheck. (+1 by the way. As I like your argument.) – ctrl-alt-delor Apr 8 at 18:13
  • It is a very long command without comments. Can you add comments above each line explaining what it does? – Ole Tange Apr 8 at 18:26

I thought the answer to this was easy, but I can see @JoL and @gidds disagree with me.

My brain prefers reading a line and not having to scan the next line \

  foo bar baz ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... \

In the above I will have to see \
, what is on line 2 \
, before I can tell \
, what the command does \
. Maybe the command is complete \
? Or maybe the command continues \
  on the next line \

To me it is much easier to read,
if \ is only used,
when a command cannot fit on a line.

Reading through my code, I also see comments as an issue:

foo ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... |
    # Now this does bar
    bar ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ||
    # And if that fails: fubar

I am not sure how you would at all do comments in the middle of a pipeline if you use \ + newline before | or || or &&. If that is not possible, I think this is the most important problem. Code is not maintainable without comments, and comments should normally be as close to the code as possible to encourage updating the documentation when you change the code.

Emacs does the indentation for me automatically, so the indentation is not even an extra burden:

# This is indented automatically in emacs
ruby -run -e httpd -- -p 5000 . 2>&1 |
    # Send the output to the screen and to grep
    tee >(grep -Fq 'WEBrick::HTTPServer#start' &&
              # If grep matches, open localhost:5000
              open localhost:5000) 
# Here is where emacs indents the next command to
| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Clever!  But I'd argue that in this context commas, full stops, and question marks are terminators.  Not separators.  :-) – gidds Apr 8 at 17:53
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    I like the idea to include comments. – Isaac Apr 8 at 18:31

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