Meaning of “[: too many arguments” error from if [] (square brackets)

If your $VARIABLE is a string containing spaces or other special characters, and single square brackets are used (which is a shortcut for the test command), then the string may be split out into multiple words. Each of these is treated as a separate argument.

So that one variable is split out into many arguments:

# returns "hello world"

if [ $VARIABLE == 0 ]; then
  # fails as if you wrote:
  # if [ hello world == 0 ]

The same will be true for any function call that puts down a string containing spaces or other special characters.

Easy fix

Wrap the variable output in double quotes, forcing it to stay as one string (therefore one argument). For example,

if [ "$VARIABLE" == 0 ]; then
  # some action

Simple as that. But skip to “Also beware…” below if you also can’t guarantee your variable won’t be an empty string, or a string that contains nothing but whitespace.

Or, an alternate fix is to use double square brackets (which is a shortcut for the new test command).

This exists only in bash (and apparently korn and zsh) however, and so may not be compatible with default shells called by /bin/sh etc.

This means on some systems, it might work from the console but not when called elsewhere, like from cron, depending on how everything is configured.

It would look like this:

if [[ $VARIABLE == 0 ]]; then
  # some action

If your command contains double square brackets like this and you get errors in logs but it works from the console, try swapping out the [[ for an alternative suggested here, or, ensure that whatever runs your script uses a shell that supports [[ aka new test.

Also beware of the [: unary operator expected error

If you’re seeing the “too many arguments” error, chances are you’re getting a string from a function with unpredictable output. If it’s also possible to get an empty string (or all whitespace string), this would be treated as zero arguments even with the above “quick fix”, and would fail with [: unary operator expected

It’s the same ‘gotcha’ if you’re used to other languages – you don’t expect the contents of a variable to be effectively printed into the code like this before it is evaluated.

Here’s an example that prevents both the [: too many arguments and the [: unary operator expected errors: replacing the output with a default value if it is empty (in this example, 0), with double quotes wrapped around the whole thing:

if [ "${VARIABLE:-0}" == 0 ]; then
  # some action

(here, the action will happen if $VARIABLE is 0, or empty. Naturally, you should change the 0 (the default value) to a different default value if different behaviour is wanted)

Final note: Since [ is a shortcut for test, all the above is also true for the error test: too many arguments (and also test: unary operator expected)

Leave a Comment