${var?} and &&: Two simple tips for shell commands in tech docs

tl;dr: Use error-if-unset ${placeholders?} and join commands with && to make it easier and safer to copy-paste shell commands from technical documentation.

I frequently read documentation that includes shell commands, and copy-paste them into a shell. It might look something like this:

To install a JDK:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install openjdk-<VERSION>-jdk

Obviously this example is particularly simple and clear. A more realistic case might have several 160+ character commands invoking unfamiliar tools and utility scripts with a variety of fixed and variable parameters. To see far too many instances of this, check out your company’s internal wiki.

You, as the documentation author or editor, can improve such command listings in two simple ways.

Use ${NAME?} instead of ad-hoc placeholders like <NAME> or NAME

If I accidentally miss one of the placeholders where I was supposed to insert something, this error-if-unset POSIX compatible syntax will cause a command to fail fast with a simple and clear error message:

$ sudo apt-get install openjdk-${VERSION?}-jdk
bash: VERSION: parameter not set

(Assuming there is no existing environment variable by the same name, that is!)

Compare this to the original angle brackets, which in the best case fail somewhat obtusely:

$ sudo apt-get install openjdk-<VERSION>-jdk
bash: VERSION: No such file or directory

and otherwise, will create/truncate files while giving misleading errors (if I’m lucky enough to get one):

$ sudo apt-get install openjdk-<VERSION>-jdk
E: Unable to locate package openjdk
$ grep VERSION *
grep: invalid option -- 'j'

Here the redirection >-jdk was interpreted as a file redirection (just like in to echo Hi > foo.txt), and created a file -jdk that causes otherwise fine commands with globs to fail in unexpected ways (and imagine what would happen with grep <alias name> ~/.bashrc!)

For just an uppercase word, it can be hard to tell whether something like ID is part of the command or whether it’s a placeholder. The command will try to execute whether or not I guess correctly.

Use && between consecutive commands

I get not just one but two benefits when you use && to join multiple consecutive commands:

sudo apt-get update &&
sudo apt-get install openjdk-${VERSION?}-jdk

The first and well known one is that each command will only run if the previous ones succeeded. Instead of powering through errors and running commands from an increasingly unknown state, the shell will stop so I can get it back on track and continue correctly.

The second and more subtle benefit is that this will make the shell read all commands up front, before it starts executing any. This matters when any of the commands request input. Here’s what happens when I paste the original example:

$ sudo apt-get update
[sudo] password for vidar:
Sorry, try again.
[sudo] password for vidar:

I pasted two commands, but the first one requested a password. The second command was then read as that password, leading to the "Sorry, try again" error.

When I now enter my actual password, only the first command will run. I won’t have any further indication that one of the commands has been swallowed up.

Compare this to using &&, where the shell patiently reads all of the commands beforehand (with a continuation prompt >), and only then executes them:

$ sudo apt-get update &&
> sudo apt-get install openjdk-14-jdk
[sudo] password for vidar:

When I enter my password now, both commands will run as expected.

Conclusion

These simple tips, alone or together, can help make it easier for users to follow instructions involving shell commands, leading to fewer and more easily fixed mistakes. This makes their lives easier, and by extension, yours.

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