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Csh Programming Considered Harmful


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Archive-name: unix-faq/shell/csh-whynot
Version: $Id: csh-faq,v 1.7 95/09/28 12:52:17 tchrist Exp Locker: tchrist $

See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge
The following periodic article answers in excruciating detail
the frequently asked question "Why shouldn't I program in csh?".
It is available for anon FTP from perl.com in /pub/perl/versus/csh.whynot.gz

	       *** CSH PROGRAMMING CONSIDERED HARMFUL ***

    Resolved: The csh is a tool utterly inadequate for programming, 
	      and its use for such purposes should be strictly banned!

I am continually shocked and dismayed to see people write test cases,
install scripts, and other random hackery using the csh.  Lack of
proficiency in the Bourne shell has been known to cause errors in /etc/rc
and .cronrc files, which is a problem, because you *must* write these files
in that language.

The csh is seductive because the conditionals are more C-like, so the path
of least resistance is chosen and a csh script is written.  Sadly, this is
a lost cause, and the programmer seldom even realizes it, even when they
find that many simple things they wish to do range from cumbersome to
impossible in the csh.


1. FILE DESCRIPTORS

The most common problem encountered in csh programming is that
you can't do file-descriptor manipulation.  All you are able to 
do is redirect stdin, or stdout, or dup stderr into stdout. 
Bourne-compatible shells offer you an abundance of more exotic
possibilities.    

1a. Writing Files

In the Bourne shell, you can open or dup arbitrary file descriptors.
For example, 

    exec 2>errs.out

means that from then on, stderr goes into errs file.

Or what if you just want to throw away stderr and leave stdout
alone?    Pretty simple operation, eh?

    cmd 2>/dev/null

Works in the Bourne shell.  In the csh, you can only make a pitiful 
attempt like this:

    (cmd > /dev/tty) >& /dev/null

But who said that stdout was my tty?  So it's wrong.  This simple
operation *CANNOT BE DONE* in the csh.


Along these same lines, you can't direct error messages in csh scripts
out stderr as is considered proper.  In the Bourne shell, you might say:

	echo "$0: cannot find $file" 1>&2

but in the csh, you can't redirect stdout out stderr, so you end
up doing something silly like this:

	sh -c 'echo "$0: cannot find $file" 1>&2'

1b. Reading Files

In the csh, all you've got is $<, which reads a line from your tty.  What
if you've redirected stdin?  Tough noogies, you still get your tty, which 
you really can't redirect.  Now, the read statement 
in the Bourne shell allows you to read from stdin, which catches
redirection.  It also means that you can do things like this:

    exec 3<file1
    exec 4<file2

Now you can read from fd 3 and get lines from file1, or from file2 through
fd 4.   In modern, Bourne-like shells, this suffices: 

    read some_var 0<&3
    read another_var 0<&4

Although in older ones where read only goes from 0, you trick it:

    exec 5<&0  # save old stdin
    exec 0<&3; read some_var
    exec 0<&4; read another_var
    exec 0<&5  # restore it


1c. Closing FDs

In the Bourne shell, you can close file descriptors you don't
want open, like 2>&-, which isn't the same as redirecting it
to /dev/null.

1d. More Elaborate Combinations

Maybe you want to pipe stderr to a command and leave stdout alone.
Not too hard an idea, right?  You can't do this in the csh as I
mentioned in 1a.  In a Bourne shell, you can do things like this:

    exec 3>&1; grep yyy xxx 2>&1 1>&3 3>&- | sed s/file/foobar/ 1>&2 3>&-
    grep: xxx: No such foobar or directory

Normal output would be unaffected.  The closes there were in case
something really cared about all its FDs.  We send stderr to sed,
and then put it back out 2.

Consider the pipeline:

    A | B | C

You want to know the status of C, well, that's easy: it's in $?, or
$status in csh.  But if you want it from A, you're out of luck -- if
you're in the csh, that is.  In the Bourne shell, you can get it, although
doing so is a bit tricky.  Here's something I had to do where I ran dd's
stderr into a grep -v pipe to get rid of the records in/out noise, but had
to return the dd's exit status, not the grep's:

    device=/dev/rmt8
    dd_noise='^[0-9]+\+[0-9]+ records (in|out)$'
    exec 3>&1
    status=`((dd if=$device ibs=64k 2>&1 1>&3 3>&- 4>&-; echo $? >&4) |
		egrep -v "$dd_noise" 1>&2 3>&- 4>&-) 4>&1`
    exit $status;


The csh has also been known to close all open file descriptors besides
the ones it knows about, making it unsuitable for applications that 
intend to inherit open file descriptors.


2. COMMAND ORTHOGONALITY

2a. Built-ins

The csh is a horrid botch with its built-ins.  You can't put them
together in many reasonable ways.   Even simple little things like this:	

	    % time | echo

which while nonsensical, shouldn't give me this message:

	    Reset tty pgrp from 9341 to 26678

Others are more fun:

	    % sleep 1 | while
	    while: Too few arguments.
	    [5] 9402
	    % jobs
	    [5]     9402 Done                 sleep |


Some can even hang your shell.  Try typing ^Z while you're sourcing 
something, or redirecting a source command.  Just make sure you have
another window handy.  Or try 

    % history | more

on some systems.

Aliases are not evaluated everywhere you would like them do be:

    % alias lu 'ls -u'
    % lu
    HISTORY  News     bin      fortran  lib      lyrics   misc     tex
    Mail     TEX      dehnung  hpview   logs     mbox     netlib
    % repeat 3 lu
    lu: Command not found.
    lu: Command not found.
    lu: Command not found.

    % time lu
    lu: Command not found.


2b. Flow control

You can't mix flow-control and commands, like this:
    
    who | while read line; do
	echo "gotta $line"
    done


You can't combine multiline constructs in a csh using semicolons.
There's no easy way to do this

    alias cmd 'if (foo) then bar; else snark; endif'


You can't perform redirections with if statements that are
evaluated solely for their exit status:

    if ( { grep vt100 /etc/termcap > /dev/null } ) echo ok

And even pipes don't work:

    if ( { grep vt100 /etc/termcap | sed 's/$/###' } ) echo ok

But these work just fine in the Bourne shell:

    if grep vt100 /etc/termcap > /dev/null ; then echo ok; fi   

    if grep vt100 /etc/termcap | sed 's/$/###/' ; then echo ok; fi


Consider the following reasonable construct:

  if ( { command1 | command2 } ) then
      ...
  endif

The output of command1 won't go into the input of command2.  You will get
the output of both commands on standard output.  No error is raised.  In
the Bourne shell or its clones, you would say 

    if command1 | command2 ; then
	...
    fi


2c. Stupid parsing bugs

Certain reasonable things just don't work, like this:

    % kill -1 `cat foo`
    `cat foo`: Ambiguous.

But this is ok:

    % /bin/kill -1 `cat foo`

If you have a stopped job:

    [2]     Stopped              rlogin globhost

You should be able to kill it with 

    % kill %?glob
    kill: No match

but

    % fg %?glob

works.

White space can matter:

    if(expr)

may fail on some versions of csh, while

    if (expr)

works!  Your vendor may have attempted to fix this bug, but odds are good
that their csh still won't be able to handle

    if(0) then
      if(1) then
          echo A: got here
      else
          echo B: got here
      endif
      echo We should never execute this statement
    endif



3. SIGNALS

In the csh, all you can do with signals is trap SIGINT.  In the Bourne
shell, you can trap any signal, or the end-of-program exit.    For example,
to blow away a tempfile on any of a variety of signals:

    $ trap 'rm -f /usr/adm/tmp/i$$ ;
	    echo "ERROR: abnormal exit";
	    exit' 1 2 3 15

    $ trap 'rm tmp.$$' 0   # on program exit



4. QUOTING

You can't quote things reasonably in the csh:

    set foo = "Bill asked, \"How's tricks?\""

doesn't work.  This makes it really hard to construct strings with
mixed quotes in them.  In the Bourne shell, this works just fine. 
In fact, so does this:

     cd /mnt; /usr/ucb/finger -m -s `ls \`u\``

Dollar signs cannot be escaped in double quotes in the csh.  Ug.

    set foo = "this is a \$dollar quoted and this is $HOME not quoted" 
    dollar: Undefined variable.

You have to use backslashes for newlines, and it's just darn hard to
get them into strings sometimes.

    set foo = "this \
    and that";
    echo $foo
    this  and that
    echo "$foo"
    Unmatched ".  

Say what?  You don't have these problems in the Bourne shell, where it's
just fine to write things like this:

    echo 	'This is 
	     some text that contains
	     several newlines.'


As distributed, quoting history references is a challenge.  Consider:

    % mail adec23!alberta!pixel.Convex.COM!tchrist
    alberta!pixel.Convex.COM!tchri: Event not found.


5. VARIABLE SYNTAX

There's this big difference between global (environment) and local
(shell) variables.  In csh, you use a totally different syntax 
to set one from the other.  

In the Bourne shell, this 
    VAR=foo cmds args
 is the same as
    (export VAR; VAR=foo; cmd args)
or csh's
    (setenv VAR;  cmd args)
 
You can't use :t, :h, etc on envariables.  Watch:
	echo Try testing with $SHELL:t

It's really nice to be able to say
    
    ${PAGER-more}
or
    FOO=${BAR:-${BAZ}}

to be able to run the user's PAGER if set, and more otherwise.
You can't do this in the csh.  It takes more verbiage.

You can't get the process number of the last background command from the
csh, something you might like to do if you're starting up several jobs in
the background.  In the Bourne shell, the pid of the last command put in
the background is available in $!.

The csh is also flaky about what it does when it imports an 
environment variable into a local shell variable, as it does
with HOME, USER, PATH, and TERM.  Consider this:

    % setenv TERM '`/bin/ls -l / > /dev/tty`'
    % csh -f

And watch the fun!


6. EXPRESSION EVALUATION

Consider this statement in the csh:


    if ($?MANPAGER) setenv PAGER $MANPAGER


Despite your attempts to only set PAGER when you want
to, the csh aborts:

    MANPAGER: Undefined variable.

That's because it parses the whole line anyway AND EVALUATES IT!
You have to write this:

    if ($?MANPAGER) then
	setenv PAGER $MANPAGER
    endif

That's the same problem you have here:

    if ($?X && $X == 'foo') echo ok
    X: Undefined variable

This forces you to write a couple nested if statements.  This is highly
undesirable because it renders short-circuit booleans useless in
situations like these.  If the csh were the really C-like, you would
expect to be able to safely employ this kind of logic.  Consider the
common C construct:

    if (p && p->member) 

Undefined variables are not fatal errors in the Bourne shell, so 
this issue does not arise there.

While the csh does have built-in expression handling, it's not
what you might think.  In fact, it's space sensitive.  This is an
error

   @ a = 4/2

but this is ok

   @ a = 4 / 2


The ad hoc parsing csh employs fouls you up in other places 
as well.  Consider:

    % alias foo 'echo hi' ; foo
    foo: Command not found.
    % foo
    hi



7. ERROR HANDLING

Wouldn't it be nice to know you had an error in your script before
you ran it?   That's what the -n flag is for: just check the syntax.
This is especially good to make sure seldom taken segments of code
code are correct.  Alas, the csh implementation of this doesn't work.
Consider this statement:

    exit (i)

Of course, they really meant

    exit (1)

or just

    exit 1

Either shell will complain about this.  But if you hide this in an if
clause, like so:

    #!/bin/csh -fn
    if (1) then
	exit (i)
    endif

The csh tells you there's nothing wrong with this script.  The equivalent
construct in the Bourne shell, on the other hand, tells you this:


    #!/bin/sh -n
    if (1) then
	exit (i)
    endif

    /tmp/x: syntax error at line 3: `(' unexpected



RANDOM BUGS

Here's one:

    fg %?string
    ^Z
    kill  %?string
    No match.

Huh? Here's another

    !%s%x%s

Coredump, or garbage.

If you have an alias with backquotes, and use that in backquotes in 
another one, you get a coredump.

Try this:
    % repeat 3 echo "/vmu*"
    /vmu*
    /vmunix
    /vmunix
What???


Here's another one:

    % mkdir tst
    % cd tst
    % touch '[foo]bar'
    % foreach var ( * )
    > echo "File named $var"
    > end
    foreach: No match.


8. SUMMARY


While some vendors have fixed some of the csh's bugs (the tcsh also does
much better here), many have added new ones.  Most of its problems can
never be solved because they're not actually bugs per se, but rather the
direct consequences of braindead design decisions.  It's inherently flawed.

Do yourself a favor, and if you *have* to write a shell script, do it in the 
Bourne shell.  It's on every UNIX system out there.  However, behavior 
can vary.

There are other possibilities.

The Korn shell is the preferred programming shell by many sh addicts,
but it still suffers from inherent problems in the Bourne shell's design,
such as parsing and evaluation horrors.  The Korn shell or its
public-domain clones and supersets (like bash) aren't quite so ubiquitous
as sh, so it probably wouldn't be wise to write a sharchive in them that
you post to the net.  When 1003.2 becomes a real standard that companies
are forced to adhere to, then we'll be in much better shape.  Until
then, we'll be stuck with bug-incompatible versions of the sh lying about.

The Plan 9 shell, rc, is much cleaner in its parsing and evaluation; it is
not widely available, so you'd be significantly sacrificing portability.
No vendor is shipping it yet.

If you don't have to use a shell, but just want an interpreted language,
many other free possibilities present themselves, like Perl, REXX, TCL,
Scheme, or Python.  Of these, Perl is probably the most widely available
on UNIX (and many other) systems and certainly comes with the most
extensive UNIX interface.  Increasing numbers vendors ship Perl with 
their standard systems.  (See the comp.lang.perl FAQ for a list.)

If you have a problem that would ordinarily use sed or awk or sh, but it
exceeds their capabilities or must run a little faster, and you don't want
to write the silly thing in C, then Perl may be for you.  You can get
at networking functions, binary data, and most of the C library. There
are also translators to turn your sed and awk scripts into Perl scripts,
as well as a symbolic debugger.  Tchrist's personal rule of thumb is
that if it's the size that fits in a Makefile, it gets written in the
Bourne shell, but anything bigger gets written in Perl.

See the comp.lang.{perl,rexx,tcl} newsgroups for details about these
languages (including FAQs), or David Muir Sharnoff's comparison of 
freely available languages and tools in comp.lang.misc and news.answers.

NOTE: Doug Hamilton <hamilton@bix.com> has a program that he sells for
profit for little toy non-UNIX systems.  He calls it 'csh' or the 
'hamilton csh', but it's not a csh as it's neither bug nor feature
compatible with the real csh.  Actually, he's fixed a great deal, but
in doing so, has created a totally different shell.
-- 
Tom Christiansen      Perl Consultant, Gamer, Hiker      tchrist@mox.perl.com
"Espousing the eponymous /cgi-bin/perl.exe?FMH.pl execution model is like 
reading a suicide note -- three days too late."
	    --Tom Christiansen <tchrist@mox.perl.com>

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Last Update March 27 2014 @ 02:12 PM