The C Shell tutorial

What is a shell?

A shell is a program which provides a user interface. With a shell, users can type in commands and run programs on a Unix system. Basically, the main function a shell performs is to read in from the terminal what one types, run the commands, and show the output of the commands.

What's so good about C Shell?

The C shell was written by Bill Joy at the University of California at Berkeley. His main intent for writing the C shell was to create a shell with C language-like syntax.

What can one do with C Shell?

The main use of the C shell is as an interactive shell, but one can write programs using the C shell. These programs are called shell scripts.

Features of C Shell

Some of the features of the C shell are listed here:

Features of the shell environment

The C shell provides programming features listed below:

Files for the C Shell environment customization

The C shell has three separate files which are used for customizing its environment. These three files are .cshrc, .login, and .logout. Because these files begin with a period (.) they do not usually appear when one types the ls command. In order to see all files beginning with periods, the -a option is used with the ls command.

The .cshrc file contains commands, variable definitions and aliases used any time the C shell is run. When one logs in, the C shell starts by reading the .cshrc file, and sets up any variables and aliases.

The C shell reads the .login file after it has read the .cshrc file. This file is read once only for login shells. This file should be used to set up terminal settings, for example, backspace, suspend, and interrupt characters.

The .logout file contains commands that are run when the user logs out of the system.

Sample .cshrc file

# Sample .cshrc file
setenv EXINIT 'set smd sw=4 wm=2'
set history=50
set savehist=50
set ignoreeof noclobber
if ($?prompt) then
  set prompt='[\!]% '
  alias f finger -R
  alias lo logout

Sample .login file
# Sample .login file
stty erase ^H intr ^C susp ^Z
echo "Welcome to Wiliki\!"
frm -s n

Sample .logout file
# Sample .logout file
echo -n "Logged out of Wiliki "

Special characters in C Shell

Some characters are special to the shell, and in order to enter them, one has to precede it with a backslash (\). Some are listed here with their meaning to the shell.

History substitution.
< >
Output redirection.
Matches any string of zero or more characters.
Matches any single character.
[ ]
Matches any set of characters contained in brackets.
{ }
Matches any comma-separated list of words.
Used to separate commands.
Also used to separate commands, but puts them in the background.
Quote the following character.
Obtains the value of the variable.
Take text enclosed within quotes literally.
Take text enclosed within quotes as a command, and replace with output.
Take text enclosed within quotes literally, after substituting any variables.


Variables in C shell are defined using the internal set command. C shell supports both regular and array variables. Some examples are given below:
set var1=a3 #sets var1's value to a3.
set var2=(a b c)
# sets the array variable var2 to a b, and c.

Using variables

Variables can be used in C shell by typing a dollar sign ($) before the variable name. If the variable is an array, the subscript can be specified using brackets, and the number of elements can be obtained using the form $#var2.

The existence of variables can be checked using the form $?variable. If the variable exists, the expression evaluates to a one (true), otherwise, it evaluates to a zero (false). Simple integer calculations can be performed by C shell, using C language-type operators. To assign a calculated value, the @ command is used as follows:

@ var = $a + $x * $z

Built-in shell variables

Certain variables control the behavior of the C shell, and some of these don't require a value. (I.e., can be set simply by using set command by itself without any value.) The unset command can be used to unset any undesirable variables.

Special variable used in shell scripts to hold the value of arguments.
Contains the number of minutes the shell can be idle before it automatically logs out.
Sets how many lines of history (previous commands) to remember.
Prevents logging out with a control-D.
Prevents overwriting of files when using redirection.
Contains a list of directories to be searched when running programs or shell scripts.
Sets the prompt string.
Contains the current terminal type.


If the history variable is set to a numerical value, that many commands typed previous would be remembered in a history list. Commands from the history are numbered from the first command being 1. To see the history, the history command is used.

Commands from the history can be recalled using the exclamation point. For example, !! repeats the previous command, !25 re-types command number 25 from the history, and !-2 re-types the second line previous to the current line.

Individual words from these command lines can also be retrieved using this history. For example, !25:$ returns the last argument (word) from command 25, !!:* returns all the arguments (all words but the first one) from the last command, and !-2:0 returns the command (the first word) of the second line previous.


A shorthand can be assigned to a command or sequence of commands which are frequently used. By assigning an alias with the alias command, one can essentially create their own commands, and even "overwrite" existing commands. For example:
alias cc cc -Aa -D_HPUX_SOURCE
This alias definition will substitute the cc with the ANSI compiler option on an HP System (such as Wiliki) whenever cc is typed. To undefine an alias, the unalias command is used.

If the filenames used behind an alias must come before text being substituted, history substitution can be used, as follows:

alias manl 'man \!* | less -p'
This form of the command places the arguments placed after the manl alias between the man command and the | (pipe).

Input/Output Redirection

The input and output of commands can be sent to or gotten from files using redirection. Some examples are shown below:
date > datefile
The output of the date command is saved into the contents of the file, datefile.
a.out < inputfile
The program, a.out receives its input from the input file, inputfile.
sort gradefile >> datafile
The sort command returns its output and appends it to the file, datafile.

A special form of redirection is used in shell scripts.

calculate << END_OF_FILE
In this form, the input is taken from the current file (usually the shell script file) until the string following the "<<" is found.

If the special variable, noclobber is set, if any redirection operation will overwrite an existing file, an error message is given and the redirection will fail. In order to force an overwrite of an existing file using redirection, append an exclamation point (!) after the redirection command. For example for the command:

date >! datefile
The file datefile will be overwritten regardless of its existence.

Adding an ampersand (&) to the end of an output redirection command will combine both the standard error and the standard output and place the output into the specified file.


The output of one command can be sent to the input of another command. This is called piping. The commands which are to be piped together are separated by the pipe character. For example:
ls -l | sort -k 5n
This command takes the output of the ls -l command and puts the output of it into the sort command.

By appending an ampersand (&) after the pipe character, one can combine the standard error and standard output and send it to the standard input of the program receiving the piped output.

Job control

The C shell handles job control, which allows the user to run certain programs in the background, and recall them to the foreground when necessary. In order to place a running process into the background, the suspend character must be set by the stty command shown earlier. Processes may be started in the background by following the command with an ampersand (&).

When a job is placed in the background, information for the job is shown similar to the example given below:

[1] 15934
This specifies that the process has been placed in the background, and is job 1. In order to recall jobs placed in the background, the fg command is used, while the bg command places a recently stopped process into the background. The jobs command gives a list of all processes under control of the current shell. Also, typing a percent sign (%) with the job number brings that particular job to the foreground.

Control structures

The C shell has control structures similar to the C programming language. These are foreach, if, switch and while. These are usually used in shell scripts.

There are two forms of the if statement. The first one has a simple command after the expression. This simple command cannot be an alias, nor can it use statements that use the backquote (`). The second form of the if command must have the word, then following the expression. Several if statements can be chained together, through the use of the else statement. This statement must have a corresponding endif statement.

if (expression) simple command

if (expression) then

The switch statement can replace several if ... then statements. For the string given in the switch statement's argument, commands following the case statement with the matching pattern are executed until the endsw statement. These patterns may contain ? and * to match groups of characters or specific characters.

switch (string)
  case pattern1:
  case pattern2:

The while statement will enter the loop only if the expression evaluates to true (or non-zero). Once within the loop, the commands within it will continue to execute until the expression evaluates to false (zero).

while (expression)

The foreach statement takes an array variable and places the contents of each array element into the loop variable for each iteration.

foreach variable (array variable or list)

The break statement breaks out of the current loop.


The continue command returns to the top of the current loop after testing the condition for the loop.


The shift command without arguments will shift the variable, argv down by one element. In other words, argv[2] becomes argv[1] and so forth, with argv[1] being discarded. With an array variable argument, the shift command performs the same operation on the variable specified.


shift variable

Conditional expressions

The expressions used in the while and if commands are similar to C language expressions, with these exceptions:

If the right hand side matches a pattern, (i.e., similar to filename matching, with asterisks and question marks.) the condition is true.
If the right hand side doesn't match a pattern, the condition is true.
-d $var
True if the file is a directory.
-e $var
True if the file exists.
-f $var
True if the file is a file. (I.e., not a directory)
-o $var
True if the file is owned by the user.
-r $var
True if the user has read access.
-w $var
True if the user has write access.
-x $var
True if the user has execute access.
-z $var
True if the file is zero-length.

Command line shortcuts

Here are a few keys which may be pressed to perform certain functions.

The escape key preceded by a partial command or filename will attempt to complete the filename. If there are more than one filename matching, the common letters are completed, and the C shell beeps.
When typed after a partial filename, C shell gives a list of all matching filenames or commands.
Erases over the previous word.

Shell scripting

Shell scripts are programs written in C shell. They are plain text files which can be edited and created by any text editor. There are a few guidelines to follow, however.
  1. Create a file using any text editor. The first line must begin with the string #!/bin/csh.
  2. Give yourself execute permission with the chmod u+x filename command.
  3. You can run the shell script by simply typing filename as if it were a regular command.
The shell script file can contain any commands which can be typed in, as well as the control structures described above.

Shell script arguments

When you write a shell script, a special array variable argv is created with the arguments entered. For example, if the shell script tester is created, and is run by typing it with the arguments as shown, tester one two jump, the array variable argv will contain "one", "two", and "jump" in its three elements.

This page written by (Ben Yoshino)

Monday, March 7, 1994