Bash Aliases, Functions and Commands

August 10, 2017

The first thing you type on a command-line is either an alias, a function or a command. If you haven’t written it yourself, it might not be obvious what exactly you’re calling.

# defining an alias
$ alias x1="echo hello world"

# defining a function
$ x2() { echo hello world; }    # ; is important, see below

# defining a command
$ cat > /usr/local/bin/x3 <<END
#!/bin/bash
echo hello world
END
$ chmod +x /usr/local/bin/x3

If you’re curious about ; in the function definition, read One-liner Bash Functions.

They all do the same thing, but you can’t tell what they are:

$ x1
hello world

$ x2
hello world

$ x3
hello world

How can you tell? Use type -a:

$ type -a x1
x1 is aliased to 'echo hello world'

$ type -a x2
x2 is a function
x2 ()
{
  echo hello world
}

$ type -a x3
x3 is /usr/local/bin/x3

So what?

It becomes important if you chain them. Worst case: an alias for a function that calls a command … all with the same name:

$ alias x="echo from the alias; x"

$ x() {
  echo "from the function"
  command x     # To prevent recursion. There's also a 'builtin' override.
}

$ cat > /usr/local/bin/x <<END
#!/bin/bash
echo from the command
echo hello world
END
$ chmod +x /usr/local/bin/x

# calling x...
$ x
from the alias
from the function
from the command
hello world

# what am I calling?
$ type -a x
x is aliased to 'echo from the alias; x'
x is a function
x ()
{
  echo "from the function";
  command x
}
x is /usr/local/bin/x

The order returned by type -a is the evaluation order:

Why would you do that?

The ls command is often aliased. (… is ls a command or builtin? type -a ls).

Or you might do fancy things with cd.

The point is that you can and it’s sometimes useful.

When to use which?

It’s complicated. Some guidelines:

aliases

For trivial things, when arguments (if any) come at the end.

functions

For more complicated things:

commands

For everything else:

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