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Safe ways to do things in bash

Like programming in C or driving a car, contemporary shellscript languages require some knowledge and discipline to use safely, but that's not to say it can't be done.

Purpose of this guide

This guide accompanies Shellharden, the corrective syntax highlighter.

Shellharden suggests, and can apply, changes to remove brittleness in shellscripts. This is in accordance with ShellCheck and BashPitfalls – Shellharden shall not disagree with these.

The problem is that not all scripts will work with their brittleness simply removed, because that was their working principle, and must be rewritten quite differently. Thus the need for a human in the loop and a holistic methodology.

Why focus on bash?

This guide is here to show that bash can be used safely.

It is the goal and realization of this methodology that all bash scripts are possible to rewrite into wellformedness, a representation free of those idiomatic bugs that the language otherwise practically imposes. This is because the set of bad language features is finite, and each has a substitute.

Unfortunately, it is hard to defend the correct way of doing something when it isn't also the seemingly simplest. With this in mind, the python manifesto (python3 -c 'import this'), which says that there should only be one obvious way to do things, and that "explicit is better than implicit", makes a lot of sense. While that says something about the impossibility of convincing the vast number of users to adopt a safe methodology, it is nevertheless possible for those who care.

Clearly, bash is a bad choice, but other prevalent alternatives are not better:

  • POSIX shell (a language subset that many shells support) lacks arrays. → Disqualified.
    • Hereunder: dash, busybox ash
  • Fish is a relief – easy to use correctly, but (still) lacks a strict mode. → Disqualified.
  • Zsh is largely compatible with Bash. → Also qualifies.

What about non-shellscript languages?

That is in principle the wrong question. Always use the right tool for the job™. Shellscript languages are languages for running programs, and for using that as a building block. That is a domain of its own.

This is by no means a defense of shellscripting. Shellscripts keep getting written, and this is how to do it safely. However, there is one greater sin than writing something that is obviously a shellscript. When you know you have a shellscript, you know what to worry about, you can bring in the right expertise, and you have the full arsenal of shell linters. Not so much if implicitly invoking the shell with improper quoting.

The first thing to know about bash coding

If there is anything like a driver's license for safe bash coding, it must be rule zero of BashPitfalls: Always use quotes.

An unquoted variable is to be treated as an armed bomb: It explodes upon contact with whitespace and wildcards. Yes, "explode" as in splitting a string into an array. Specifically, variable expansions, like $var, and also command substitutions, like $(cmd), undergo word splitting, whereby the string is split on any of the characters in the special $IFS variable, which is whitespace by default. Furthermore, any wildcard characters (*?) in the resulting words are used to expand those words to match files on your filesystem (indirect pathname expansion). This is mostly invisible, because most of the time, the result is a 1-element array, which is indistinguishable from the original string value.

Quoting inhibits word splitting and indirect pathname expansion, both for variables and command substitutions.

Variable expansion:

  • Good: "$my_var"
  • Bad: $my_var

Command substitution:

  • Good: "$(cmd)"
  • Bad: $(cmd)

There are exceptions where quoting is not necessary, but because it never hurts to quote, and the general rule is to be scared when you see an unquoted variable, pursuing the non-obvious exceptions is, for the sake of your readers, questionable. It looks wrong, and the wrong practice is common enough to raise suspicion: Enough scripts are being written with broken handling of filenames that whitespace in filenames is often avoided…

The exceptions only matter in discussions of style – feel welcome to ignore them. For the sake of style neutrality, Shellharden does honor a few exceptions:

  • variables of invariably numeric content: $?, $$, $!, $# and array length ${#array[@]}
  • assignments: a=$b
  • the magical case command: case $var in … esac
  • the magical context between double-brackets ([[ and ]]) – this is a language of its own.

Should I use backticks?

Command substitutions also come in this form:

  • Correct: "`cmd`"
  • Bad: `cmd`

While it is possible to use this style correctly, it is harder: Backticks require escaping when nested, and examples in the wild are improperly quoted more often than not.

Shellharden rewrites these into the dollar-parenthesis form.

Should I use curly braces?

Braces are for string interpolation, i.e. usually unnecessary:

  • Bad: some_command $arg1 $arg2 $arg3
  • Bad and verbose: some_command ${arg1} ${arg2} ${arg3}
  • Good but verbose: some_command "${arg1}" "${arg2}" "${arg3}"
  • Good: some_command "$arg1" "$arg2" "$arg3"

It does not hurt to always use braces, in theory, but in your author's experience, there is a strong negative correlation between unnecessary use of braces and proper use of quotes – nearly everyone chooses the "bad and verbose" instead of "good but verbose" form!

Your author's theories:

  • Fear of the wrong thing: Instead of worrying about the real danger (missing quotes), a beginner might worry that a variable named $prefix would influence the expansion of "$prefix_postfix" – this is simply not how it works.
  • Cargo cult – writing code in testament to the wrong fear perpetuates it.
  • Braces compete with quotes under the limits of tolerable verbosity.

The decision was made to ban unnecessary use of braces: Shellharden will rewrite all these variants into the simplest good form.

Now onto string interpolation, where braces are actually useful:

  • Bad (concatenation): $var1"more string content"$var2
  • Good (concatentation): "$var1""more string content""$var2"
  • Good (interpolation): "${var1}more string content${var2}"

Concatenation and interpolation are equivalent in bash (even for arrays, which is ridiculous).

Because Shellharden is not a style formatter, it is not supposed to change correct code. This is true of the "good (concatenation)" example: As far as shellharden is concerned, this is the holy (canonically correct) form.

Shellharden currently adds and removes braces on an as-needed basis: In the bad example, var1 becomes interpolated with braces, but braces are not accepted on var2 even in the good (interpolation) case, since they are never needed at the end of a string. The latter requirement may well be lifted.

Gotcha: Numbered arguments

Unlike normal identifier variable names (in regex: [_a-zA-Z][_a-zA-Z0-9]*), numbered arguments require braces (string interpolation or not). ShellCheck says:

echo "$10"
      ^-- SC1037: Braces are required for positionals over 9, e.g. ${10}.

This was deemed too subtle to either fix or ignore: Shellharden will print a big error message and bail if it sees this.

Since braces are required above 9, Shellharden permits them on all numbered arguments.

Use arrays FTW

In order to be able to quote all variables, you must use real arrays when that's what you need, not whitespace delimited strings.

The syntax is verbose, but get over it. This bashism single-handedly disqualifies the POSIX shell for the purpose of this guide.


for f in "${files[@]}"; do
    if cmp -- "$f" other/"$f"; then
if [ "${#duplicates[@]}" -gt 0 ]; then
    rm -- "${duplicates[@]}"


files=" \
    a \
    b \
for f in $files; do
    if cmp -- "$f" other/"$f"; then
        duplicates+=" $f"
if ! [ "$duplicates" = '' ]; then
    rm -- $duplicates

Look how similar the two examples are: There is no algorithmical difference between using real arrays instead of strings as a (bad) substitute. A bonus point goes to the array syntax for not needing line continuations, making those lines possible to comment. They are not equivalent, of course, as the "bad" example uses a whitespace delimited string, which breaks down as soon as a filename contains whitespace, and risks deleting the wrong files.

Is the second example fixable? In theory, yes; in practice, no. While it is possible to represent a list in a string, even approachable if a suitable delimiter is known, it becomes hairy (escaping and unescaping the delimiter) to do 100% generically correct. Worse, getting it back into array form can not be abstracted away (try set -- a b c in a function). The final blow is that fighting such an abstraction failure of the language is pointless if you can choose a different language.

Arrays is the feature that becomes absurdly impractical to program correctly without. Here is why:

  • You need some datastructure, that can take zero or more values, for passing zero or more values around cleanly.
  • In particular, command arguments are fundamentally arrays. Hint: Shell scripting is all about commands and arguments.
  • All POSIX shells secretly support arrays anyway, in the form of the argument list "$@".

The recommendation of this guide must therefore be to not give POSIX compatibility a second thought. The POSIX shell standard is hereby declared unfit for our purposes. Likewise, sadly, for minimalistic POSIX compatible shells like Dash and Ash that don't support arrays either. As for Zsh, it supports a superset of Bash's array syntax, so it is good.

The lack of a minimalistic shell with array support is a bummer for embedded computuers, where shipping another language is cost sensitive, yet expectations for safety are high. Busybox is impressive for what you get in a small size, but as part of it, you get Ash, which is a hair puller.

Those exceptional cases where you actually intend to split the string

Splitting $string on the separator $sep into $array:

Bad (indirect pathname expansion):



while read -rd "$sep" i; do
done < <(printf '%s%s' "$string" "$sep")

This works for any separator byte (no UTF-8 or multi-character separator string) except NUL. To make it work for NUL, hardcode the literal $'\0' in place of $sep.

The reason for appending the separator to the end is that the field separator is really a field terminator (postfix, not infix). The distinction matters to the notion of an empty field at the end. Skip this if your input is already field terminated.

Alternatively, for Bash 4:

readarray -td "$sep" array < <(printf '%s%s' "$string" "$sep")

The same notes apply to readarray (hardcoding of NUL, already field terminated input):

readarray -td $'\0' array < <(find -print0)

Readarray gets a small minus point for only working with ASCII separators (still no UTF-8).

If the separator consists of multiple bytes, it is also possible to do this correctly by string processing (such as by parameter substitution).

An alternative with 3 corner cases

The otherwise evil IFS variable has a legitimate use in the read command, where it can be used as another way to separate fields without invoking indirect pathname expansion. IFS is brought into significance by requesting either multiple variables or using the array option to read. By disabling the delimiter -d '', we read all the way to the end. Because read returns nonzero when it encounters the end, it must be guarded against errexit (|| true) if that is enabled.

Split to separate variables:

IFS="$sep" read -rd '' a b rest < <(printf '%s%s' "$string" "$sep") || true

Split to an array:

IFS="$sep" read -rd '' -a array < <(printf '%s%s' "$string" "$sep") || true

The 3 corner cases are tab, newline and space – when IFS is set to one of these as above, read drops empty fields! Because this is often useful though, this method makes the bottom of the recommendation list instead of disqualification.

Corollary: Use while loops to iterate strings and command output

Shellharden won't let you get away with this:

for i in $(seq 1 10); do
    printf '%s\n' "$i"

The intuitive fix – piping into the loop – is not always cool, because the pipe operator's right operand becomes a subshell. Not that it matters for this silly example, but it would surprise many to find that this loop can't manipulate outside variables:

seq 1 10 | while read -r i; do
    printf '%s\n' "$i"

To avoid future surprises, the bulk of the code should typically not be the subshell. This is all right:

while read -r i; do
    printf '%s\n' "$i"
done < <(seq 1 10)

How to begin a bash script

Something like this:

#!/usr/bin/env bash
if test "$BASH" = "" || "$BASH" -uc "a=();true \"\${a[@]}\"" 2>/dev/null; then
    # Bash 4.4, Zsh
    set -euo pipefail
    # Bash 4.3 and older chokes on empty arrays with set -u.
    set -eo pipefail
shopt -s nullglob globstar

require(){ hash "$@" || exit 127; }
require …
require …
require …

This includes:

  • The hashbang:
    • Portability consideration: The absolute path to env is likely more portable than the absolute path to bash. Case in point: NixOS. POSIX mandates the existence of env, but bash is not a posix thing.
    • Safety consideration: No language flavor options like -euo pipefail here! It is not actually possible when using the env redirection, but even if your hashbang begins with #!/bin/bash, it is not the right place for options that influence the meaning of the script, because it can be overridden, which would make it possible to run your script the wrong way. However, options that don't influence the meaning of the script, such as set -x would be a bonus to make overridable (if used).
  • What we need from Bash's unofficial strict mode, with set -u behind a feature check. We don't need all of Bash's strict mode because being shellcheck/shellharden compliant means quoting everything, which is a level beyond strict mode. Furthermore, set -u must not be used in Bash 4.3 and earlier. Because that option, in those versions, treats empty arrays as unset, which makes arrays unusable for the purposes described herein. With arrays being the second most imporant advice in this guide (after quoting), and the sole reason we're sacrificing POSIX compatibility, that's of course unacceptable: If using set -u at all, use Bash 4.4 or another sane shell like Zsh. This is easier said than done if there is a possibility that someone might run your script with an obsolete version of Bash. Fortunately, what works with set -u will also work without (unlike set -e). Thus why putting it behind a feature check is sane at all. Beware of the presupposition that testing and development happens with a Bash 4.4 compatible shell (so the set -u aspect of the script gets tested). If this concerns you, your other options are to give up compatibility (by failing if the feature check fails) or to give up set -u.
  • shopt -s nullglob is what makes for f in *.txt work correctly when *.txt matches zero files. The default behavior (aka. passglob) – pass the pattern as-is if it happens to match nothing – is dangerous for several reasons. As for globstar, that enables recursive globbing. Globbing is easier to use correctly than find. So use it.
  • Assert that command dependencies are installed. Declaring your dependencies has many benefits, but until this becomes statically verifiable, concentrate on uncommon commands here. Your motivation should be to prevent long running scripts from failing right at the end, as well as preventing misbehavior such as make -j"$(nproc)" becoming a fork bomb. Benefits of using hash for this purpose are its low overhead and that it gives you an error message in the failure case. What it doesn't check is indirect dependencies and compatibility level, but at that point, we want package management.

But not:

set -f
shopt -s failglob
  • Setting the internal field separator to the empty string disables word splitting. Sounds like the holy grail. Sadly, this is no complete replacement for quoting variables and command substitutions, and given that you are going to use quotes, this gives you nothing. The reason you must still use quotes is that otherwise, empty strings become empty arrays (as in test $x = ""), and indirect pathname expansion is still active. Furthermore, messing with this variable also messes with commands like read that use it, breaking constructs like cat /etc/fstab | while read -r dev mnt fs opt dump pass; do printf '%s\n' "$fs"; done'.
  • Disabling wildcard expansion: Not just the notorious indirect one, but also the unproblematic direct one, that I'm saying you should want to use. So this is a hard sell. And this too should be completely unnecessary for a script that is shellcheck/shellharden conformant.
  • As an alternative to nullglob, failglob fails if there are zero matches. While this makes sense for most commands, for example rm -- *.txt (because most commands that take file arguments don't expect to be called with zero of them anyway), obviously, failglob can only be used when you are able to assume that zero matches won't happen. That just means you mostly won't be putting wildcards in command arguments unless you can assume the same. But what can always be done, is to use nullglob and let the pattern expand to zero arguments in a construct that can take zero arguments, such as a for loop or array assignment (txt_files=(*.txt)).

How to end a bash script

Goal: The script's exit status should convey its overall success or failure.

Reality: The script's exit status is that of the last command executed.

There is a wrong way to end a bash script: Letting a command used as a condition be the last command executed, so that the script "fails" iff the last condition is false. While that might happen to be correct for a script, it is a way to encode the exit status that looks accidental and is easily broken by adding or removing code to the end.

The rightness criterion here is that the last statement follows the "Errexit basics" below. When in doubt, end the script with an explicit exit status:

exit 0

How to use errexit

Aka set -e.

Errexit basics

Background: If a command that is not used as a condition returns nonzero, the interpreter exits at that point.

Failure is trivial to suppress:

command || true

Don't skimp on if-statements. You can't use && as a shorthand if-statement without always using || as an else-branch. Otherwise, the script terminates if the condition is false.


command && …

Good (contrived):

command && … || true

Good (contrived):

! command || …

Good (idiomatic):

if command; then

To capture a command's output while using it as a condition, use an assignment as the condition (but see below on not using local on assignments):

if output="$(command)"; then

If at all using the exit status variable $? with errexit, it is of course no substitute for the direct check for command success (otherwise, your script won't live to see this variable whenever it is nonzero). Corollary: The failure case is the only place it makes sense to expand the exit status variable $? (because success only has one exit status, which we are checking). A second pitfall is that if we negate the command as part of the check, the exit status will be that of the negated command – a boolean with precisely the useful information removed.


if test $? -ne 0; then
    echo Command returned $?


if ! command; then
    echo Command returned $?


if command; then
    echo Command returned $?


command || echo Command returned $?

Program-level deferred cleanup

In case errexit does its thing, use this to set up any necessary cleanup to happen at exit.

tmpfile="$(mktemp -t myprogram-XXXXXX)"
cleanup() {
    rm -f "$tmpfile"
trap cleanup EXIT

Gotcha: Errexit is ignored in command arguments

Here is a nice underhanded fork bomb that I learnt the hard way – my build script worked fine on various developer machines, but brought my company's buildserver to its knees:

set -e # Fail if nproc is not installed
make -j"$(nproc)"

Correct (command substitution in assignment):

set -e # Fail if nproc is not installed
make -j"$jobs"

Caution: Builtins like local and export are also commands, so this is still wrong:

set -e # Fail if nproc is not installed
local jobs="$(nproc)"
make -j"$jobs"

ShellCheck warns only about special commands like local in this case.

To use local, separate the declaration from the assignment:

set -e # Fail if nproc is not installed
local jobs
make -j"$jobs"

Gotcha: Errexit is ignored depending on caller context

Sometimes, POSIX is cruel. Errexit is ignored in functions, group commands and even subshells if the caller is checking its success. These examples all print Unreachable and Great success, despite all sanity.


    set -e
    echo Unreachable
) && echo Great success

Group command:

    set -e
    echo Unreachable
} && echo Great success


f() {
    set -e
    echo Unreachable
f && echo Great success

This makes bash with errexit practically incomposable – it is possible to wrap your errexit functions so that they still work, but the effort it saves (over explicit error handling) becomes questionable. Consider splitting into completely standalone scripts instead.

How to write conditions

Should I use double brackets?

What for? It does not matter.

Issue: test, [ and [[ are largely interchangeable.

If you are following this guide, the usual arguments don't apply:

  • Inside double brackets [[ ]], unquoted variables and command substitutions are safe (from word splitting and indirect pathname expansion). That's a partial solution to a problem we don't have – following this guide implies not doing that anywhere to begin with. If you are, you aren't after shellhardening your scripts.
  • The usual counterargument is POSIX compatibility. We sacrificed that for arrays.

Other concerns:

—LOL, is /bin/test an external command?

Let's get that myth out of the way. When in doubt, ask the type command:

> type test
test is a shell builtin
> type [
[ is a shell builtin
> type [[
[[ is a shell keyword

—What if I have n00b contributors?

This argument goes both ways: [[ has a more forgiving syntax because it is syntax, not a command. Quoting is required everywhere else. The fewer exceptions, the lesser confusion. If you want to be pedagogical, use the test command – it is honest about being a command, not syntax.

—What if [[ has a feature I need?

Chances are that you don't know the substitute.

  • Pattern matching ([[ $path == *.png || $path == *.gif ]]): This is what case is for.
  • Logical operators: The usual suspects && and || work just fine – outside commands – and can be grouped with group commands: if { true || false; } && true; then echo 1; else echo 0; fi.
  • Checking if a variable exists ([[ -v varname ]]): Yes, this is possibly a killer argument, but consider the programming style of always setting variables, so you don't need to check if they exist.

How to check if a variable exists

A correct way to do this is not a feature of idiomatic POSIX/Bash scripting. Consider avoiding the problem when possible by always setting variables, so you don't need to check if they exist.

You can get a long way by giving variables default values. This works even in busybox:

: "${var:=defaultvalue}"

# Or more generally

But if you must know, the correct way to check if a variable exists came with Bash 4.2 (also verified for zsh 5.6.2):

[[ -v var ]]

If using this and there is any chance someone might try to run your script with an earlier Bash version, remember to fail early. The feature test approach would be to test, in the beginning of the script, for a variable that we know exists, and terminate if the result is wrong. In this case, we get a syntax error in earlier versions, and termination for free, so it suffices to add this to the beginning section:

[[ -v PWD ]]

Lastly, don't ever use constructs like [ -n $var ] or [ -z $var ]. They are fundamentally string comparisons against the empty string, only less readable. However, what matters in this section, is their functional critique:

  • A string comparison can't distinguish an unset variable from an empty one. Let alone distinguish the ways it can be empty: Environment variables are just strings, so they may be empty strings, but normal shell variables are really arrays – they can be empty arrays or arrays of empty strings (what you think of as the empty string is indistinguishable from a one-element array).
  • Expanding a potentially unset variable obviously precludes the use of set -u.

Commands with better alternatives

echo → printf

As with any command, there must be a way to control its option parsing to prevent it from interpreting data as options. The standard way to signify the end of options is with a double-dash -- argument.

Significance of the double-dash -- argument, explained in error messages:

> shellharden --hlep
--hlep: No such option
> shellharden -- --hlep
--hlep: No such file or directory

As such, the GNU version of echo (both the bash builtin and command echo) is fatally flawed. Unlike the POSIX version, it takes options, yet it offers no way to suppress further option parsing. (Specifically, it interprets any number of leading arguments as options until the first argument that is not an option.)

The result is that echo is not generally possible to use correctly. (It is safe as long as its first non-option character is provably not a dash – we can not just print anything unpredictable like a variable or command substitution; we must first print some literal character, that is not the dash, and then the unpredictable data!)

In contrast, printf is always possible to use correctly (not saying it is easier) and can do a superset of echo (including its bashisms, just without bashisms).


echo "$var"
echo -n "$var"
echo -en "$var\r"

echo "$a" "$b"
echo "${array[@]}"


printf '%s\n' "$var"
printf '%s' "$var"
printf '%s\r' "$var"

printf '%s %s\n' "$a" "$b"
printf '%s\n' "${array[*]}"

At this point, it gets tempting to redefine echo to something sane, except that overloading existing functionality is generally not a robust and reassuring practice – it breaks unnoticeably. For verifiability's sake, better leave echo forever broken, and call yours something else:

println() {
    printf '%s\n' "$*"

How to avoid invoking the shell with improper quoting

When invoking a command from other programming languages, the wrong thing to do is often the easiest: implicitly invoking the shell. If that shell command is static, fine – either it works, or it doesn't. But if your program is doing any kind of string processing to assemble that command, realize that you are generating a shellscript! Rarely what you want, and tedious to do correctly:

  • quote each argument
  • escape relevant characters in the arguments

No matter which programming language you are doing this from, there are at least 3 ways to construct the command correctly. In order of preferece:

Plan A: Avoid the shell

If it's just a command with arguments (i.e. no shell features like piping or redirection), choose the array representation.

  • Bad (python3): subprocess.check_call('rm -rf ' + path)
  • Good (python3): subprocess.check_call(['rm', '-rf', path])

Bad (C++):

std::string cmd = "rm -rf ";
cmd += path;

Good (C/POSIX), minus error handling:

char* const args[] = {"rm", "-rf", path, NULL};
pid_t child;
posix_spawnp(&child, args[0], NULL, NULL, args, NULL);
int status;
waitpid(child, &status, 0);

Plan B: Static shellscript

If the shell is needed, let arguments be arguments. You might think this was cumbersome – writing a special-purpose shellscript to its own file and invoking that – until you have seen this trick:

  • Bad (python3): subprocess.check_call('docker exec {} bash -ec "printf %s {} > {}"'.format(instance, content, path))
  • Good (python3): subprocess.check_call(['docker', 'exec', instance, 'bash', '-ec', 'printf %s "$0" > "$1"', content, path])

Can you spot the shellscript?

That's right, the printf command with the redirection. Note the correctly quoted numbered arguments. Embedding a static shellscript is fine.

The examples run in Docker because they wouldn't be as useful otherwise, but Docker is also a fine example of a command that runs other commands based on arguments. This is unlike Ssh, as we will see.

Last option: String processing

If it has to be a string (e.g. because it has to run over ssh), there is no way around it. We must quote each argument and escape whatever characters are necessary to escape within those quotes. The simplest is to go for single quotes, since these have the simplest escaping rules – only one: ''\''.

A very typical filename, in single quotes:

echo 'Don'\''t stop (12" dub mix).mp3'

Now, how to use this trick to run commands safely over ssh? It's impossible! Well, here is an "often correct" solution:

  • Often correct (python3): subprocess.check_call(['ssh', 'user@host', "sha1sum '{}'".format(path.replace("'", "'\\''"))])

The reason we have to concatenate all the args to a string in the first place, is so that Ssh won't do it the wrong way for us: If you try to give multiple arguments to ssh, it will treacherously space-concatenate the arguments without quoting.

The reason this is not generally possible is that the correct solution depends on user preference at the other end, namely the remote shell, which can be anything. It can be your mother, in principle. Assuming that the remote shell is bash or another POSIX compatible shell, the "often correct" will in fact be correct, but fish is incompatible on this point.

How to be Fish compatible

This is only necessary if you are forced to interoperate with a user's favourite shell, such as when implementing ssh-copy-id.

The issue with supporting Fish is that the subset of common syntax with POSIX/Bash is mostly useless. The general approach is therefore to duplicate the code – obviously against any safety recommendation.

But if you must, so be it:

test '\'

echo "This is POSIX!"

test '

echo "This is fish!"

test \'
You can’t perform that action at this time.