Mandar Pande Mandar Pande - 6 months ago 59
Bash Question

What is the use case of noop [:] in bash?

I searched for noop in bash (:), but was not able to find any good information. What is the exact purpose or use case of this operator?

I tried following and it's working like this for me:

[mandy@root]$ a=11
[mandy@root]$ b=20
[mandy@root]$ c=30
[mandy@root]$ echo $a; : echo $b ; echo $c
10
30


Please let me know, any use case of this operator in real time or any place where it is mandatory to use it.

Answer

It's there more for historical reasons. The colon builtin : is exactly equivalent to true. It's traditional to use true when the return value is important, for example in an infinite loop:

while true; do
  echo 'Going on forever'
done

It's traditional to use : when the shell syntax requires a command but you have nothing to do.

while keep_waiting; do
  : # busy-wait
done

The : builtin dates all the way back to the Thompson shell, it was present in Unix v6. : was a label indicator for the Thompson shell's goto statement. The label could be any text, so : doubled up as a comment indicator (if there is no goto comment, then : comment is effectively a comment). The Bourne shell didn't have goto but kept :.

A common idiom that uses : is : ${var=VALUE}, which sets var to VALUE if it was unset and does nothing if var was already set. This construct only exists in the form of a variable substitution, and this variable substitution needs to be part of a command somehow: a no-op command serves nicely.

See also What purpose does the colon builtin serve?.