Possible Duplicate:
running script with “. ” and with “source ”

I have used both the dot command '.' and 'source' to reload a given rc file (typically to update my environment variables) but I am not sure if they are different and if one is preferred. What is the difference between the two ?


2 Answers 2


. is the Bourne and POSIX shell command while source is the C-Shell command.

Some Bourne-shell derivatives like bash, zsh and most implementations of ksh also have a source command which is generally an alias for . - however, it may behave slightly differently (e.g. in zsh and ksh).

For bash, . and source behave the same, but their behaviour is affected by whether they are run in POSIX mode or not¹.

POSIX requires that the . command exits the shell process² if it can't open the file for reading and requires that the file be found through a search of the directories in $PATH if the provided path doesn't contain a /.

csh's source interprets the argument as a path, and never looks the file up in $PATH.

bash . and source behave as POSIX requires when in POSIX mode, and as pdksh's source when not, that is they don't exit the script if they fail to open the file for reading (same as command .) and lookup the file in $PATH and the current directory if the provided path doesn't contain a /.

zsh . behaves as POSIX requires, while source looks in the current directory first and then $PATH (even in csh emulation) when the argument doesn't contain a /. (see info zsh . and info zsh source for details). If . or source fail to find/open the file, that only aborts the shell when in POSIX mode (sh emulation) though.

AT&T ksh's source doesn't exit the shell either but doesn't look for the file in the current directory.

All in all, in Bourne-like shells (though not the Bourne shell that doesn't have a command builtin), if you want a consistent behaviour, you could do

command . /path/to/the-file-to-source || handle-error

And if the-file-to-source is meant to be in the current directory, be sure to write:

command . ./the-file-to-source || handle-error

In sh scripts (where sh is a POSIX sh) you should be able to rely on the POSIX behaviour stated above.

¹ zsh and bash enable the POSIX mode when called as sh. For bash, also when it receives POSIXLY_CORRECT in its environment (even when called as bash even though there's no POSIX command called bash), or when it receives SHELLOPTS=posix, or when called with bash --posix or bash -o posix or after a set -o posix. With zsh, you use emulate sh to emulate sh. Emulations alter a whole bunch of options that change the behaviour of zsh. In this case, the option is POSIX_BUILTINS.

In bash, you can check if in POSIX mode or not with the (non-POSIX), [ -o posix ] command. In zsh, you check the output of emulate to see if you're in sh emulation, or [[ -o posixbuiltins ]] to check whether that particular option is enabled. You can also temporarily enable a given emulation mode with emulate -L (to emulate in the current local scope only).

² for non-interactive shells. For interactive shells, the behaviour varies between shells, some ignore the failure, some will return to the prompt like some syntax errors would. Also, when run in a subshell, that exits the subshell only.

  • Great answer, do you also happen to know, if you use bash or zsh, how do you find out what mode you're in? I mean, save for testing with a file that does not exist. Commented Dec 17, 2012 at 22:44
  • I still don't understand why zsh uses the current working directory if the path doesn't contain any / with source but not with .. Or maybe that has changed in the meanwhile? Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 14:05

source is there for readability and self-documentation, . exists because it is quick to type. The commands are identical. Perl has long and short versions of many of its control variables for the same reason.

  • source and . behave different in zsh. source searches the current directory, . doesn't Commented Feb 27, 2020 at 12:44

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .