Introduction to the Command Line

Command Substitution

In the shell, you can execute one command inside another. Here's a simple example:

grep `date +%b` apache_error_log

The back-quote key (also called the backtick) is usually located at the same place as the tilde, above the Tab key (dependent on your keyboard layout).

The command within the backticks `` is executed first. The output is then plugged into the larger command. So first the shell executes:

date +%b

This is the date command with an argument beginning with a + sign to indicate a format that you want for the output. The %b format is a rather odd convention asking the date command to print just a three-letter abbreviation of the current month. For instance, if we execute this command in March, it prints:


So the three-letter abbreviation of the current month is now inserted into the surrounding grep command. In the month of March, the command is equivalent to:

grep Mar apache_error_log

It just so happens that the apache_error_log file stores log messages with dates, and the date contains the three-letter abbreviation of the month:

[Mon Mar 09 14:44:23 2009] [notice] Apache/2.0.59 (Ubuntu) PHP/5.2.6 DAV/2 configured

So what is the effect of our command? It displays all the log messages from apache_error_log that were logged during the current month. (Of course, if there are multiple years in a single log file, you could get messages from March of previous years--but this example is meant to be simple.) By embedding the date command in the grep command, we have created a command we can store and execute any time without having to specify the right month. For instance, we could store this in the .bashrc start-up file:

alias monthlog="grep `date +%b` apache_error_log"

Now we have our very own command, monthlog, to display current Apache log messages.

In Bash, you can do the same thing with a syntax many people find simpler:

grep $(date +%b) apache_error_log

Instead of backticks, insert a dollar sign and put the command between parentheses.

Command substitution is like a pipe (the | character). But command substitution is more flexible than a pipe because you can put one command anywhere you want inside another. There is one other subtle difference: a pipe allows both commands to execute at the same time. If an embedded command takes a long time, the outer command doesn't execute at all until the embedded one is done.

If the embedded command could produce output that is more than one word (such as "Mar 09") you can pass it as a single argument by enclosing the command in double quotes. The grep command in this section, for instance, requires the string to be passed as a single argument.