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27.7. Wildcards Inside Aliases

Here's another example in which command-line parsing is important. Consider this shell alias for counting the number of words in all files:

wc Section 16.6

% alias words "wc -w *" csh, tcsh
$ alias words="wc -w *" ksh, bash

Right away, we can see one effect of command-line parsing. The shell sees the quotation marks and knows not to expand wildcards inside them. Therefore, words is aliased to wc -w *; the * isn't evaluated when you create the alias. (If wildcards were processed before quotes, this wouldn't work.)

Now, think about what happens when you execute the alias. You type:

% words

The shell starts working through its steps and eventually performs alias substitution. When this happens, it converts your command into:

wc -w *

Now, watch carefully. The shell continues working through the process of interpretation (redirection, variable substitution, command substitution) and eventually gets to filename expansion. At this point, the shell sees the * on the command line, expands it, and substitutes the files in the current directory. Seems simple enough. But think: you didn't type this *; the shell put it there when it expanded the wildcard. What would have happened if the shell expanded wildcards before substituting aliases? The * would never have been expanded; by the time the shell put it on the command line, the wildcard expansion stage would be over, and you'd just count the words in a file named * (which probably doesn't exist).

To me, the amazing thing is that all this works -- and works well! The workings of the command line are intricate and complex, but the shell almost always does what you want -- and without a lot of thought.

-- ML

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