BASH shell scripting tip: Set default values for variable

last updated in Categories Howto, Linux, Shell scripting, Tips, UNIX

A shell variable may be assigned to by a statement using following syntax:


If value is not given, the variable is assigned the null string. In shell program it is quite useful to provide default value for variables. For example consider script:
rsync -avz -e ‘ssh ‘ user@myserver:$RSRC $LOCAL

This script can be run as follows:
$ ./ /var/www .
$ ./ /home/vivek /home/vivek

It will sync remote /home/vivek directory with local /home/vivek directory. But if you need to supply default values for a variable you can write as follows:

: ${RSRC:="/var/www"}
: ${LOCAL:="/disk2/backup/remote/hot"}
rsync -avz -e 'ssh ' user@myserver:$RSRC $LOCAL

: ${RSRC:=”/var/www”} ==> this means if the variable RSRC is not already set, set the variable to /var/www. You can also write same statement with following code:

if [ -z "$RSRC" ]

You can also execute a command and set the value to returned value (output). For example if the variable NOW is not already set, execute command date and set the variable to the todays date using date +”%m-%d-%Y”:

: ${NOW:=$(date +"%m-%d-%Y")}


Posted by: Vivek Gite

The author is the creator of nixCraft and a seasoned sysadmin, DevOps engineer, and a trainer for the Linux operating system/Unix shell scripting. Get the latest tutorials on SysAdmin, Linux/Unix and open source topics via RSS/XML feed or weekly email newsletter.

4 comment

  1. Thanks for the explanation… I’ve been trying to work with some shell scripts which are a bit more advanced then what i’m used to and this helped a lot. I was wondering if you also knew what ${VAR:+xxx} syntax and/or the ${VAR:-xxx} is for?

    I’m seeing this in a script which uses
    export ${NO_EXPORT:+-n} CONFIG_SECTION=”$name”

    is this just a method of applying an conditional flag to a variable inline (like an assert statement)? I’m not sure as if that were true they could just as simply do
    [ -n “$NO_EXPORT” ] && CONFIG_SECTION=”$name”

  2. You can even write it neater by using “:-” like in


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