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Unix Power Tools
eval: When You Need Another Chance

by Mike Loukides

Most of the time, the shell evaluates the command line "in the right order." But what about when it doesn't? Here's a situation that the shell can't handle. It's admittedly contrived, but not too different from what you might find in a shell program:

% set b=\$a
% set a=foo
% echo $b

When we use the variable $b, we'd like to get the variable $a, read it, and use its value. But that doesn't happen. Variable substitution happens once, and it isn't recursive. The value of $b is $a, and that's it. You don't go any further.

But there's a loophole. The eval command says, in essence, "Give me another chance. Re-evaluate this line and execute it." Here's what happens if we stick eval before the echo:

% eval echo $b

The shell converts $b into $a; then eval runs through the command-line evaluation process again, converting echo $a into echo foo - which is what we wanted in the first place!

Here's a more realistic example; you see code like this fairly often in Bourne shell scripts:

command='grep $grepopts $searchstring $file'
for opt
   case "$opt" in
      file) output=' > $ofile' ;;
      read) output=' | more'   ;;
      sort) postproc=' | sort $sortopts';;
eval $command $postproc $output

Do you see what's happening? We're constructing a command that will look something like:

grep $grepopts $searchstring $file | sort $sortopts > $ofile

But the entire command is "hidden" in shell variables, including the I/O redirectors and various options. If the eval isn't there, this command will blow up in all sorts of bizarre ways. You'll see messages like | not found, because variable expansion occurs after output redirection. The "nested" variables (like $ofile, which is used inside of $output) won't be expanded either, so you'll also see $ofile not found. Putting an eval in front of the command forces the shell to process the line again, guaranteeing that the variables will be expanded properly and that I/O redirection will take place.

eval is incredibly useful if you have shell variables that include other shell variables, shell variables that include aliases, shell variables that include I/O redirectors, or all sorts of perversities. It's commonly used within shell scripts to "evaluate" commands that are built during execution.

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