What exactly was the point of [ “x$var” = “xval” ]?

In shell scripting you sometimes come across comparisons where each value is prefixed with "x". Here are some examples from GitHub:

if [ "x${JAVA}" = "x" ]; then
if [ "x${server_ip}" = "xlocalhost" ]; then
if test x$1 = 'x--help' ; then

I’ll call this the x-hack.

For any POSIX compliant shell, the value of the x-hack is exactly zero: this comparison works without the x 100% of the time. But why was it a thing?

Online sources like this stackoverflow Q&A are a little handwavy, saying it’s an alternative to quoting (oof), pointing towards issues with "some versions" of certain shells, or generally cautioning against the mystic behaviors of especially ancient Unix system without concrete examples.

To determine whether or not ShellCheck should warn about this, and if so, what its long form rationale should be, I decided to dig into the history of Unix with the help of The Unix Heritage Society‘s archives. I was unfortunately unable to peer into the closely guarded world of the likes of HP-UX and AIX, so dinosaur herders beware.

These are the cases I found that can fail.

Left-hand side matches a unary operator

The AT&T Unix v6 shell from 1973, at least as found in PWB/UNIX from 1977, would fail to run test commands whose left-hand side matched a unary operator. This must have been immediately obvious to anyone who tried to check for command line parameters:

% arg="-f"
% test "$arg" = "-f"
syntax error: -f
% test "x$arg" = "x-f"

This was fixed in the AT&T Unix v7 Bourne shell builtin in 1979. However, test and [ were also available as separate executables, and appear to have retained a variant of the buggy behavior:

$ arg="-f"
$ [ "$arg" = "-f" ]
$ [ "x$arg" = "x-f" ]

This happened because the utility used a simple recursive descent parser without backtracking, which gave unary operators precedence over binary operators and ignored trailing arguments.

The "modern" Bourne shell behavior was copied by the Public Domain KornShell in 1988, and made part of POSIX.2 in 1992. GNU Bash 1.14 did the same thing for its builtin [, and the GNU shellutils package that provided the external test/[ binaries followed POSIX, so the early GNU/Linux distros like SLS were not affected, nor was FreeBSD 1.0.

The x-hack is effective because no unary operators can start with x.

Either side matches string length operator -l

A similar issue that survived longer was with the string length operator -l. Unlike the normal unary predicates, this one was only parsed as part as part of an operand to binary predicates:

[ -l "$var" -gt 8 ] && echo "String is longer than 8 chars"

It did not make it into POSIX because, as the rationale puts it, "it was undocumented in most implementations, has been removed from some implementations (including System V), and the functionality is provided by the shell", referring to [ ${#var} -gt 8 ].

It was not a problem in UNIX v7 where = took precedence, but Bash 1.14 from 1996 would parse it greedily up front:

$ var="-l"
$ [ "$var" = "-l" ]
test: -l: binary operator expected
$ [ "x$var" = "x-l" ]

It was also a problem on the right-hand side, but only in nested expressions. The -l check made sure there was a second argument, so you would need an additional expression or parentheses to trigger it:

$ [ "$1" = "-l" -o 1 -eq 1 ]
[: too many arguments
$ [ "x$1" = "x-l" -o 1 -eq 1 ]

This operator was removed in Bash 2.0 later that year, eliminating the problem.

Left-hand side is !

Another issue in early shells was when the left-hand side was the negation operator !:

$ var="!"
$ [ "$var" = "!" ]
test: argument expected            (UNIX v7, 1979)
test: =: unary operator expected   (bash 1.14, 1996)
(false)                            (pd-ksh88, 1988)
$ [ "x$var" = "x!" ]

Again, the x-hack is effective by preventing the ! from being recognized as a negation operator.

ksh treated this the same as [ ! "=" ], and ignored the rest of the arguments. This quiety returned false, as = is not a null string. Ksh continues to ignore trailing arguments to this day:

$ [ -e / random words/ops here ]
(true)                              (ksh93, 2021)
bash: [: too many arguments         (bash5, 2021)

Bash 2.0 and ksh93 both fixed this problem by letting = take precedence in the 3-argument case, in accordance with POSIX.

Left-hand side is "("

This is by far my favorite.

The UNIX v7 builtin failed when the left-hand side was a left-parenthesis:

$ left="(" right="("
$ [ "$left" = "$right" ]
test: argument expected
$ [ "x$left" = "x$right" ]

This happens because the ( takes precedence over the =, and becomes an invalid parenthesis group.

Why is this my favorite? Behold Dash 0.5.4 up until 2009:

$ left="(" right="("
$ [ "$left" = "$right" ]
[: 1: closing paren expected
$ [ "x$left" = "x$right" ]

That was an active bug when the StackOverflow Q&A was posted.

But wait, there’s more!

Here’s Zsh in late 2015, right before version 5.3:

% left="(" right=")"
% [ "$left" = "$right" ]
% [ "x$left" = "x$right" ]

Amazingly, the x-hack could be used to work around certain bugs all the way up until 2015, seven years after StackOverflow wrote it off as an archaic relic of the past!

The bugs are of course increasingly hard to come across. The Zsh one only triggers when comparing left-paren against right-paren, as otherwise the parser will backtrack and figure it out.

Another late holdout was Solaris, whose /bin/sh was the legacy Bourne shell as late as Solaris 10 in 2009. However, this was undoubtedly for compatibility, and not because they believed this was a viable shell. A "standards compliant" shell had been an option for a long time before Solaris 11 dragged it kicking and screaming into 21th century — or at least into the 90s — by switching to ksh93 by default in 2011.

In all cases, the x-hack is effective because it prevents the operands from being recognized as parentheses.


The x-hack was indeed useful and effective against several real and practical problems in multiple shells.

However, the value was mostly gone by the mid-to-late 1990s, and the few remaining issues were cleaned up before 2010 — shockingly late, but still over a decade ago.

The last one managed to stay until 2015, but only in the very specific case of comparing opening parenthesis to a closed parenthesis in one specific non-system shell.

I think it’s time to retire this idiom, and ShellCheck now offers a style suggestion by default.


The Dash issue of [ "(" = ")" ] was originally reported in a form that affected both Bash 3.2.48 and Dash 0.5.4 in 2008. You can still see this on macOS bash today:

$ str="-e"
$ [ \( ! "$str" \) ]
[: 1: closing paren expected     # dash
bash: [: `)' expected, found ]   # bash

POSIX fixes all these ambiguities for up to 4 parameters, ensuring that shells conditions work the same way, everywhere, all the time.

Here’s how Dash maintainer Herbert Xu put it in the fix:

 * POSIX prescriptions: he who wrote this deserves the Nobel
 * peace prize.

The curious pitfalls in shell redirections to $((i++))

ShellCheck v0.7.1 has just been released. It primarily has cleanups and bugfixes for existing checks, but also some new ones. The new check I personally find the most fascinating is this one, for an issue I haven’t really seen discussed anywhere before:

In demo line 6:
  cat template/header.txt "$f" > archive/$((i++)).txt
  SC2257: Arithmetic modifications in command redirections
          may be discarded. Do them separately.

Here’s the script in full:

for f in *.txt
  echo "Archiving $f as $i.txt"
  cat template/header.txt "$f" > archive/$((i++)).txt

Seasoned shell scripter may already have jumped ahead, tried it in their shell, and found that the change is not discarded, at least not in their Bash 5.0.16(1):

bash-5.0$ i=0; echo foo > $((i++)).txt; echo "$i" 

Based on this, you may be expecting a quick look through the Bash commit history, and maybe a plea that we should be kind to our destitute brethren on macOS with Bash 3.

But no. Here’s the demo script on the same system:

bash-5.0$ ./demo
Archiving chocolate_cake_recipe.txt as 1.txt
Archiving emo_poems.txt as 1.txt
Archiving project_ideas.txt as 1.txt

The same is true for source ./demo, which runs the script in the exact same shell instance that we just tested on. Furthermore, it only happens in redirections, and not in arguments.

So what’s going on?

As it turns out, Bash, Ksh and BusyBox ash all expand the redirection filename as part of setting up file descriptors. If you are familiar with the Unix process model, the pseudocode would be something like this:

if command is external:
  fork child process:
    filename := expandString(command.stdout) # Increments i
    fd[1] := open(filename)
    execve(command.executable, command.args)
  filename := expandString(command.stdout)   # Increments i
  tmpFd := open(filename)
  run_internal_command(command, stdout=tmpFD)

In other words, the scope of the variable modification depends on whether the shell forked off a new process in anticipation of executing the command.

For shell builtin commands that don’t or can’t fork, like echo, this means that the change takes effect in the current shell. This is the test we did.

For external commands, like cat, the change is only visible between the time the file descriptor is set up until the command is invoked to take over the process. This is what the demo script does.

Of course, subshells are well known to experienced scripters, and also described on this blog in the article Why Bash is like that: Subshells, but to me, this is a new and especially tricky source of them.

For example, the script works fine in busybox sh, where cat is a builtin:

$ busybox sh demo
Archiving chocolate_cake_recipe.txt as 1.txt
Archiving emo_poems.txt as 2.txt
Archiving project_ideas.txt as 3.txt

Similarly, the scope may depend on whether you overrode any commands with a wrapper function:

awk() { gawk "$@"; }
# Increments
awk 'BEGIN {print "hi"; exit;}' > $((i++)).txt
# Does not increment
gawk 'BEGIN {print "hi"; exit;}' > $((i++)).txt  

Or if you want to override an alias, the result depends on whether you used command or a leading backslash:

# Increments
command git show . > $((i++)).txt
# Does not increment
\git show . > $((i++)).txt

To avoid this confusion, consider following ShellCheck’s advice and just increment the variable separately if it’s part of the filename in a redirection:

anything > "$((i++)).txt"
: $((i++))

Thanks to Strolls on #bash@Freenode for pointing out this behavior.

PS: While researching this article, I found that dash always increments (though with $((i=i+1)) since it doesn’t support ++). ShellCheck v0.7.1 still warns, but git master does not.

Lessons learned from writing ShellCheck, GitHub’s now most starred Haskell project

ShellCheck is a static analysis tool that points out common problems and pitfalls in shell scripts.

As of last weekend it appears to have become GitHub’s most starred Haskell repository, after a mention in MIT SIPB’s Writing Safe Shell Scripts guide.

While obviously a frivolous metric in a niche category, I like to interpret this as meaning that people are finding ShellCheck as useful as I find Pandoc, the excellent universal document converter I use for notes, blog posts and ShellCheck’s man page, and which held a firm grip on the top spot for a long time.

I am very happy and humbled that so many people are finding the project helpful and useful. The response has been incredibly and overwhelmingly positive. Several times per week I see mentions from people who tried it out, and it either solved their immediate problem, or it taught them something new and interesting they didn’t know before.

I started the project 8 years ago, and this seems like a good opportunity to share some of the lessons learned along the way.

Quick History

ShellCheck is generally considered a shell script linter, but it actually started life in 2012 as an IRC bot (of all things!) on #bash@Freenode. It’s still there and as active as ever.

The channel is the home of the comprehensive and frequently cited Wooledge BashFAQ, plus an additional list of common pitfalls. Between them, they currently cover 178 common questions about Bash and POSIX sh.

Since no one ever reads the FAQ, an existing bot allowed regulars to e.g. answer any problem regarding variations of for file in `ls` with a simple !pf 1, and let a bot point the person in the right direction (the IRC equivalent of StackOverflow’s "duplicate of").

ShellCheck’s original purpose was essentially to find out how many of these FAQs could be classified automatically, without any human input.

Due to this, ShellCheck was designed for different goals than most linters.

  1. It would only run on buggy scripts, because otherwise they wouldn’t have been posted.
  2. It would only run once, and should be as helpful as possible on the first pass.
  3. It would run on my machine, not on arbitrary user’s systems.

This will become relevant.

On Haskell

Since ShellCheck was a hobby project that wasn’t intended to run on random people’s machines, I could completely ignore popularity, familiarity, and practicality, and pick the language that was the most fun and interesting.

That was, of course, Haskell.

As anyone who looks at code will quickly conclude, ShellCheck was my first real project in the language.

Some things worked really well:

  • QuickCheck has been beyond amazing. ShellCheck has 1500 unit tests just because they’re incredibly quick and convenient to write. It’s so good that I’m adding a subsection for it.
  • Parsec is a joy to write parsers in. Initially I dreaded e.g. implementing backticks because they require recursively re-invoking the parser on escaped string data, but every time I faced such issues, they turned out to be much easier than expected.
  • Haskell itself is a very comfy, productive language to write. It’s not at all arcane or restrictive as first impressions might have you believe. I’d take it over Java or C++ for most things.
  • Haskell is surprisingly portable. I was shocked when I discovered that people were running ShellCheck natively on Windows without problems. ARM required a few code changes at the time, but wouldn’t have today.

Some things didn’t work as well:

  • Haskell has an undeniably high barrier to entry for the uninitiated, and ShellCheck’s target audience is not Haskell developers. I think this has seriously limited the scope and number of contributions.
  • It’s easier to write than to run: it’s been hard to predict and control runtime performance. For example, many of ShellCheck’s check functions take an explicit "params" argument. Converting them to a cleaner ReaderT led to a 10% total run time regression, so I had to revert it. It makes me wonder about the speed penalty of code I designed better to begin with.
  • Controlling memory usage is also hard. I dropped multithreading support because I simply couldn’t figure out the space leaks.
  • For people not already invested in the ecosystem, the runtime dependencies can be 100MB+. ShellCheck is available as a standalone ~8MB executable, which took some work and is still comparatively large.
  • The Haskell ecosystem moves and breaks very quickly. New changes would frequently break on older platform versions. Testing the default platform version of mainstream distros in VMs was slow and tedious. Fortunately, Docker came along to make it easy to automate per-distro testing, and Stack brought reproducible Haskell builds.

If starting a new developer tooling project for a mainstream audience, I might choose a more mainstream language. I’d also put serious consideration into how well the language runs on a JSVM, since (love it or hate it) this would solve a lot of distribution, integration, and portability issues.

ShellCheck’s API is not very cohesive. If starting a new project in Haskell today, I would start out by implementing a dozen business logic functions in every part of the system in my best case pseudocode. This would help me figure out the kind of DSL I want, and help me develop a more uniform API on a suitable stack of monads.

Unit testing made fun and easy

ShellCheck is ~10k LoC, but has an additional 1.5k unit tests. I’m not a unit testing evangelist, 100% completionist or TDD fanatic: this simply happened by itself because writing tests was so quick and easy. Here’s an example check:

prop_checkSourceArgs1 = verify checkSourceArgs "#!/bin/sh\n. script arg"
prop_checkSourceArgs2 = verifyNot checkSourceArgs "#!/bin/sh\n. script"
prop_checkSourceArgs3 = verifyNot checkSourceArgs "#!/bin/bash\n. script arg"
checkSourceArgs = CommandCheck (Exactly ".") f
f t = whenShell [Sh, Dash] $
    case arguments t of
	(file:arg1:_) -> warn (getId arg1) 2240 $
	    "The dot command does not support arguments in sh/dash. Set them as variables."
	_ -> return ()

The prop_.. lines are individual unit tests. Note in particular that:

  • Each test simply specifies whether the given check emits a warning for a snippet. The boilerplate fits on the same line
  • The test is in the same file and place as the function, so it doesn’t require any cross-referencing
  • It doubles as a doc comment that explains what the function is expected to trigger on
  • checkSourceArgs is in OO terms an unexposed private method, but no OO BS was required to "expose it for testing"

Even the parser has tests like this, where it can check whether a given function parses the given string cleanly or with warnings.

QuickCheck is better known for its ability to generate test cases for invariants, which ShellCheck makes some minimal use of, but even without that I’ve never had a better test writing experience in any previous project of any language.

On writing a parser

ShellCheck was the first real parser I ever wrote. I’ve since taken up a day job as a compiler engineer, which helps to put a lot of it into perspective.

My most important lessons would be:

  • Be careful if your parser framework makes it too easy to backtrack. Look up good parser design. I naively wrote a character based parser function for each construct like ${..}, $(..), $'..', etc, and now the parser has to backtrack a dozen times to try every possibility when it hits a $. With a tokenizer or a parser that read $ followed by {..}, (..) etc, it would have been much faster — in fact, just grouping all the $ constructs behind a lookahead decreased total checking time by 10%.
  • Consistently use a tab stop of 1 for all column counts. This is what e.g. GCC does, and it makes life easier for everyone involved. ShellCheck used Parsec’s default of 8, which has been a source of alignment bugs and unnecessary conversions ever since.
  • Record the full span and not just the start index of your tokens. Everyone loves squiggly lines under bad code. Also consider whether you want to capture comments and whitespace so you can turn the AST back into a script for autofixing. ShellCheck retrofitted end positions and emits autofixes as a series of text edits based on token spans, and it’s neither robust nor convenient.

ShellCheck’s parser has historically also been, let’s say, "pragmatic". For example, shell scripts are case sensitive, but ShellCheck accepted While in place of while for loops.

This is generally considered heresy, but it originally made sense when ShellCheck needed to be as helpful as possible on the first try for a known buggy script. Neither ShellCheck nor a human would not point out that While sleep 1; do date; done has a misplaced do and done, but most linters would since While is not considered a valid start of a loop.

These days it not as useful, since any spurious warnings about do would disappear when the user fixed the warning for While and reran ShellCheck.

It also gets in the way for advanced users who e.g. write a function called While and capitalized it that way because they don’t want it treated as a shell keyword. ShellCheck has rightly received some critisism for focusing too much on newbie mistakes at the expense of noise for advanced users. This is an active area of development.

If designed again, ShellCheck would parse more strictly according to spec, and instead make liberal use of lookaheads with pragmatic interpretations to emit warnings, even if it often resulted in a single useful warning at a time.

On writing a static analysis tool

I hadn’t really pondered, didn’t really use, and definitely hadn’t written any static analysis or linting tools before. The first versions of ShellCheck didn’t even have error codes, just plain English text befitting an IRC bot.

  • Supplement terse warnings with a wiki/web page. ShellCheck’s wiki has a page for each warning, like SC2162. It has an example of code that triggers, an example of a fix, a mention of cases where it may not apply, and has especially received a lot of praise for having an educational rationale explaining why this is worth fixing.
  • You’re not treading new ground. There are well studied algorithms for whatever you want to do. ShellCheck has some simplistic ad-hoc algorithms for e.g. variable liveness, which could and should have been implemented using robust and well known techniques.
  • If designed today with 20/20 hindsight, ShellCheck would have a plan to work with (or as) a Language Server to help with editor integrations.
  • Include simple ways to suppress warnings. Since ShellCheck was originally intended for one-shot scenarios, this was an afterthought. It was then added on a statement level where the idea was that you could put special comments in front of a function, loop, or regular command, and it would apply to the entire thing. This has been an endless source of confusion (why can’t you put it in front of a case branch?), and should have been done on a per-line level instead.
  • Give tests metadata so you can filter them. ShellCheck’s original checks were simple functions invoked for each AST node. Some of them only applied to certain shells, but would still be invoked thousands of times just to check that they don’t apply and return. Command specific checks would all duplicate and repeat the work of determining whether the current node was a command, and whether it was the command. Disabled checks were all still run, and their hard work simply filtered out afterwards. With more metadata, these could have been more intelligently applied.
  • Gather a test corpus! Examining the diff between runs on a few thousand scripts has been invaluable in evaluating the potential, true/false positive rate, and general correctness of checks.
  • Track performance. I simply added time output to the aforementioned diff, and it stopped several space leaks and quadratic explosions.

For a test corpus, I set up one script to scrape pastebin links from #bash@Freenode, and another to scrape scripts from trending GitHub projects.

The pastebin links were more helpful because they exactly represented the types of scripts that ShellCheck wanted to check. However, though they’re generally simple and posted publically, I don’t actually have any rights to redistribute them, so I can’t really publish them to allow people to test their contributions.

The GitHub scripts are easier to redistribute since there’s provenance and semi-structured licensing terms, but they’re generally also less buggy and therefore less useful (except for finding false positives).

Today I would probably have tried parsing the Stack Exchange Data Dump instead.

Finally, ShellCheck is generally reluctant to read arbitrary files (e.g. requiring a flag -x to follow included scripts). This is obviously because it was first a hosted service on IRC and web before containerization was made simple, and not because this is in any way helpful or useful for a local linter.

On having a side project while working at a large company

I worked at Google when I started ShellCheck. They were good sports about it, let me run the project and keep the copyright, as long as I kept it entirely separate from my day job. I later joined Facebook, where the policies were the same.

Both companies independently discovered and adopted ShellCheck without my input, and the lawyers stressed the same points:

  • The company must not get, or appear to get, any special treatment because of you working there. For example, don’t prioritize bugs they find.
  • Don’t contribute to anything related to the project internally. Not even if it’s work related. Not even if it’s not. Not even on your own time.
  • If anyone assigns you a related internal task/bug, reject it and tell them they’ll have to submit a FOSS bug report.

And after discovering late in the interview process that Apple has a blanket ban on all programming related hobby projects:

  • Ask any potential new employer about their side project policy early on

On the name "ShellCheck"

I just thought it was a descriptive name with a cute pun. I had no idea that a portion of the population would consistently read "SpellCheck" no matter how many times they saw it. Sorry for the confusion!

What’s new in ShellCheck v0.7.0?

ShellCheck v0.7.0 has just been released. In addition to the usual “bug fixes and improvements”, there is a set of new features:


A few select warnings now come with auto-fixes. In the most straight-forward case, ShellCheck shows you what it thinks the line ought to be:

In foo line 2:
echo "File size: $(stat -c %s $1)"
                              ^-- SC2086: Double quote to prevent globbing and word splitting.

Did you mean:
echo "File size: $(stat -c %s "$1")"

To actually apply the fixes, you can use ShellCheck’s new diff output format, which outputs standard Unified Diffs that can be piped into tools like git apply and patch:

$ shellcheck -f diff foo
--- a/foo
+++ b/foo
@@ -1,2 +1,2 @@
-echo "File size: $(stat -c %s $1)"
+echo "File size: $(stat -c %s "$1")"

For example, to apply only SC2086 fixes to all .sh file in a project:

$ shellcheck --include=SC2086 -f diff **/*.sh | git apply

Optional Checks

ShellCheck now includes a small handful of checks that are off by default. These are intended for subjective issues that a project may choose to enforce:

$ cat foo
# shellcheck enable=require-variable-braces
echo "Hello $name"

$ shellcheck foo
In foo line 4:
echo "Hello $name"
            ^---^ SC2250: Prefer putting braces around variable references even when not strictly required.

Did you mean:
echo "Hello ${name}"

For a list of such checks, run shellcheck --list-optional

source paths

ShellCheck now allows you to specify a list of search locations for sourced scripts using a # shellcheck source-path=/my/dir directive or --source-path flag.

This is useful in several cases:

  • If all the projects’ sourced files are relative to the same directory, you can now specify this directory once instead of having to add source directives everywhere.
  • The special name SCRIPTDIR can be specified in a path to refer to the location of the script being checked, allowing ShellCheck to more conveniently discover included files from the same directory. This also works for any path relative to the script’s directory, such as SCRIPTDIR/../include/
  • Absolute paths are also grounded in the source path, so by specifying source-path=/mnt/chroot, shellcheck will look for . /bin/funcs.sh in /mnt/chroot/bin/funcs.sh. This is useful when targeting a specific system, such as an embedded one.

RC files

Rather than adding directives in each file, you can now set most of the options above in a .shellcheckrc file in the project’s root directory (or your home directory). This allows you to easily apply the same options to all scripts on a per-project/directory basis.

Bats and shflags support

ShellCheck no longer needs any preprocessing to check Bats scripts:

$ cat test.bats
#!/usr/bin/env bats

@test "addition using bc" {
  result="$(echo 2+2 | bc)"
  [ "$result" -eq 4 ]

$ shellcheck test.bats && echo "Success"

A bats shebang will be interpreted as “bash”, and @test statements will be correctly parsed.

ShellCheck now also recognizes DEFINE_* statements from the shflags library:

DEFINE_string 'name' 'world' 'name to say hello to' 'n'
              ^----^ SC2034: FLAGS_name appears unused. Verify use (or export if used externally).

For a more extensive list of changes, check out the ChangeLog.

Happy ShellChecking!

So what exactly is -ffunction-sections and how does it reduce binary size?

If you’d like a more up-to-date version of ShellCheck than what Raspbian provides, you can build your own on a Raspberry Pi Zero in a little over 21 hours.

Alternatively, as of last week, you can also download RPi compatible, statically linked armv6hf binaries of every new commit and stable release.

It’s statically linked — i.e. the executable has all its library dependencies built in — so you can expect it to be pretty big. However, I didn’t expect it to be 67MB:

build@d1044ff3bf67:/mnt/shellcheck# ls -l shellcheck
-rwxr-xr-x 1 build build 66658032 Jul 14 16:04 shellcheck

This is for a tool intended to run on devices with 512MiB RAM. strip helps shed a lot of that weight, and the post-stripped number is the one we’ll use from now on, but 36MB is still more than I expected, especially given that the x86_64 build is 23MB.

build@d1044ff3bf67:/mnt/shellcheck# strip --strip-all shellcheck
build@d1044ff3bf67:/mnt/shellcheck# ls -l shellcheck
-rwxr-xr-x 1 build build 35951068 Jul 14 16:22 shellcheck

So now what? Optimize for size? Here’s ghc -optlo-Os to enable LLVM opt size optimizations, including a complete three hour Qemu emulated rebuild of all dependencies:

build@31ef6588fdf1:/mnt/shellcheck# ls -l shellcheck
-rwxr-xr-x 1 build build 32051676 Jul 14 22:38 shellcheck

Welp, that’s not nearly enough.

The real problem is that we’re linking in both C and Haskell dependencies, from the JSON formatters and Regex libraries to bignum implemenations and the Haskell runtime itself. These have tons of functionality that ShellCheck doesn’t use, but which is still included as part of the package.

Fortunately, GCC and GHC allow eliminating this kind of dead code through function sections. Let’s look at how that works, and why dead code can’t just be eliminated as a matter of course:

An ELF binary contains a lot of different things, each stored in a section. It can have any number of these sections, each of which has a pile of attributes including a name:

  • .text stores executable code
  • .data stores global variable values
  • .symtab stores the symbol table
  • Ever wondered where compilers embed debug info? Sections.
  • Exception unwinding data, compiler version or build IDs? Sections.

This is how strip is able to safely and efficiently drop so much data: if a section has been deemed unnecessary, it’s simple and straight forward to drop it without affecting the rest of the executable.

Let’s have a look at some real data. Here’s a simple foo.c:

int foo() { return 42; }
int bar() { return foo(); }

We can compile it with gcc -c foo.c -o foo.o and examine the sections:

$ readelf -a foo.o
ELF Header:
  Magic:   7f 45 4c 46 01 01 01 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00
  Class:        ELF32
  Data:         2's complement, little endian
  Version:      1 (current)
  OS/ABI:       UNIX - System V
  ABI Version:  0
  Type:         REL (Relocatable file)
  Machine:      ARM

Section Headers:
  [Nr] Name       Type      Addr   Off    Size   ES Flg Lk Inf Al
  [ 0]            NULL      000000 000000 000000 00      0   0  0
  [ 1] .text      PROGBITS  000000 000034 000034 00  AX  0   0  4
  [ 2] .rel.text  REL       000000 000190 000008 08   I  8   1  4
  [ 3] .data      PROGBITS  000000 000068 000000 00  WA  0   0  1
  [ 4] .bss       NOBITS    000000 000068 000000 00  WA  0   0  1

Symbol table '.symtab' contains 11 entries:
   Num:    Value  Size Type    Bind   Vis      Ndx Name
     9: 00000000    28 FUNC    GLOBAL DEFAULT    1 foo
    10: 0000001c    24 FUNC    GLOBAL DEFAULT    1 bar

There’s tons more info not included here, and it’s an interesting read in its own right. Anyways, both our functions live in the .text segment. We can see this from the symbol table’s Ndx column which says section 1, corresponding to .text. We can also see it in the disassembly:

$ objdump -d foo.o
foo.o:     file format elf32-littlearm

Disassembly of section .text:
00000000 <foo>:
   0:   e52db004   push    {fp}
   4:   e28db000   add     fp, sp, #0
   8:   e3a0302a   mov     r3, #42 ; 0x2a
   c:   e1a00003   mov     r0, r3
  10:   e28bd000   add     sp, fp, #0
  14:   e49db004   pop     {fp}
  18:   e12fff1e   bx      lr

0000001c <bar>:
  1c:   e92d4800   push    {fp, lr}
  20:   e28db004   add     fp, sp, #4
  24:   ebfffffe   bl      0 <foo>
  28:   e1a03000   mov     r3, r0
  2c:   e1a00003   mov     r0, r3
  30:   e8bd8800   pop     {fp, pc}

Now lets say that the only library function we use is foo, and we want bar removed from the final binary. This is tricky, because you can’t just modify a .text segment by slicing things out of it. There are offsets, addresses and cross-dependencies compiled into the code, and any shifts would mean trying to patch that all up. If only it was as easy as when strip removed whole sections…

This is where gcc -ffunction-sections and ghc -split-sections come in. Let’s recompile our file with gcc -ffunction-sections foo.c -c -o foo.o:

$ readelf -a foo.o
Section Headers:
  [Nr] Name          Type      Addr  Off  Size ES Flg Lk Inf Al
  [ 0]               NULL      00000 0000 0000 00      0   0  0
  [ 1] .text         PROGBITS  00000 0034 0000 00  AX  0   0  1
  [ 2] .data         PROGBITS  00000 0034 0000 00  WA  0   0  1
  [ 3] .bss          NOBITS    00000 0034 0000 00  WA  0   0  1
  [ 4] .text.foo     PROGBITS  00000 0034 001c 00  AX  0   0  4
  [ 5] .text.bar     PROGBITS  00000 0050 001c 00  AX  0   0  4
  [ 6] .rel.text.bar REL       00000 01c0 0008 08   I 10   5  4

Symbol table '.symtab' contains 14 entries:
   Num:    Value  Size Type    Bind   Vis      Ndx Name
12: 00000000    28 FUNC    GLOBAL DEFAULT    4 foo
13: 00000000    28 FUNC    GLOBAL DEFAULT    5 bar

Look at that! Each function now has its very own section.

This means that a linker can go through and find all the sections that contain symbols we need, and drop the rest. We can enable it with the aptly named ld flag --gc-sections. You can pass that flag to ld via gcc using gcc -Wl,--gc-sections. And you can pass that whole thing to gcc via ghc using ghc -optc-Wl,--gc-sections

I enabled all of this in my builder’s .cabal/config:

  gcc-options: -Os -Wl,--gc-sections -ffunction-sections -fdata-sections
  ghc-options: -optc-Os -optlo-Os -split-sections

With this in place, the ShellCheck binary became a mere 14.5MB:

-rw-r--r-- 1 build build 14503356 Jul 15 10:01 shellcheck

That’s less than half the size we started out with. I’ve since applied the same flags to the x86_64 build, which brought it down from 23MB to 7MB. Snappier downloads and installs for all!

For anyone interested in compiling Haskell for armv6hf on x86_64, I spent weeks trying to get cross-compilation going, but in the end (and with many hacks) I was only able to cross-compile armv7. In the end I gave up and took the same approach as with the Windows build blog post: a Docker image runs the Raspbian armv6 userland in Qemu user emulation mode.

I didn’t even have to set up Qemu. There’s tooling from Resin.io for building ARM Docker containers for IoT purposes. ShellCheck (ab)uses this to run emulated GHC and cabal. Everything Just Works, if slowly.

The Dockerfile is available on GitHub as koalaman/armv6hf-builder.

ShellCheck and shadowed case branches

As of the the latest commit, ShellCheck will try to detect shadowed case branches.

Here’s an adaptation from an unnamed script on GitHub:

case $1 in
        exit 0
        die "Unknown option: $1"

The original case statement was significantly longer, so you’d be excused for not noticing the problem: -h is used for two different branches. Because of this, -h as a short option for --hub will not work.

If you run ShellCheck on this example now, you will get a pair of helpful warnings:

Line 4:
    ^-- SC2221: This pattern always overrides a later one.
Line 8:
    ^-- SC2222: This pattern never matches because of a previous pattern.

Very simple and probably somewhat useful in certain cases, right? Well, it gets slightly more interesting.

Here is another example adapted from the wild:

case $1 in
        die "Unknown option: $1"

Did you spot the same problem? ShellCheck did:

Line 4:
              ^-- SC2221: This pattern always overrides a later one.

Since an unescaped ? matches any character, it will match also match -v, so the short form of --verbose will not work.

Similarly, it recognizes two separate issues in this example:

    -*|--*) die "Invalid option: $1" ;;
    --) shift; break ;;

The end-of-option -- marker will never be recognized, and -*|--* is redundant because the first already covers the second.

These are all very simple cases, but this also works more generally. Here’s a fabricated music sorting script where the bug would be exceedingly hard to spot in a longer list of bands:

case "${filename,,}" in
  *"abba"*.mp3 ) rm "$filename" ;;
  *"black"*"sabbath"*.mp3 ) mv "$filename" "Music/Metal" ;;

So how does it work?

There are very clever ways of determining whether one regular language is a superset of another by intersecting it with the complement of the other, and checking the result for satisfiability.

ShellCheck uses none of them.

I’ve written a regex inverter before, and that level of complexity was not something I wanted to introduce.

Instead, ShellCheck’s pattern intersection and superset supports only basic DOS style wildcard patterns: ?, * and literals. It just does a simple recursive match on the two patterns.

Let’s call the patterns A and B, and we wish to check if A is a superset of B, i.e. if A matches everything that B does.

We have two arbitrary shell patterns that we want to turn into a simplified form, while ensuring we don’t simplify away any details that will cause a false positive. ShellCheck does this in two ways:

It creates A in such a way that it’s guaranteed to match a (non-strict) subset of the actual glob. This just means giving up on any pattern that uses features we don’t explicitly recognize. $(cmd)foo@(ab|c) is rejected, while *foo* is allowed.

It then creates B to guarantee that it matches a (non-strict) superset of the actual glob. This is done by replacing anything we don’t support with a *. $(cmd)foo@(ab|c) just becomes *foo*.

Now we can just match the two patterns against each other with an inefficient but simple recursive matcher. Matching two patterns is slightly trickier than matching a pattern against a string, but it’s still a first year level CS exercise.

It just involves breaking down the patterns by prefix, and matching until you reach a trivial base case:

  • superset(“”, “”) = True
  • superset(“”, cY) = False
  • superset(cX, cY) = superset(X, Y)
  • superset(*X, *Y) = superset(*X, Y)

The actual code calls the simplified patterns “PseudoGlobs”, inhabited by PGAny ?, PGMany *, and PGChar c:

pseudoGlobIsSuperSetof :: [PseudoGlob] -> [PseudoGlob] -> Bool
pseudoGlobIsSuperSetof = matchable
    matchable x@(xf:xs) y@(yf:ys) =
        case (xf, yf) of
            (PGMany, PGMany) -> matchable x ys
            (PGMany, _) -> matchable x ys || matchable xs y
            (_, PGMany) -> False
            (PGAny, _) -> matchable xs ys
            (_, PGAny) -> False
            (_, _) -> xf == yf && matchable xs ys

    matchable [] [] = True
    matchable (PGMany : rest) [] = matchable rest []
    matchable _ _ = False

That’s really all there is to it. ShellCheck just goes through each pattern, and flags the first pattern (if any) that it shadows. There’s also a pattern simplifier which rearranges c*?*?****d into c??*d to add some efficiency to obviously diseased patterns.

Future work could include supporting character sets/ranges since [yY] is at least occasionally used, but it’s rare to find any extglob to warrant full regex support.

Of course, 99% of the time, there are no duplicates. 99.9% of the time, you’d get the same result with simple string matches.

However, that 0.1% of cases where you get delightful insights like -? shadowing -v or Linux-3.1* shadowing Linux-3.12* makes it all worthwhile.