Bash: Why is a multi-line output saved as one line in a variable?

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Published on March 26th 2018 - Listed in Linux Shell Bash Coding

Let's start off with the response to this question (Why is a multi-line output saved as one line in a variable?): It's not!

As I'm currently improving the monitoring plugin check_couchdb_replication, I came across a little problem.

I wanted to check the number of lines of a curl output. By simply using the curl command directly, I got 29 lines in return:

$ curl -q -s localhost:5984/_scheduler/docs/_replicator -u admin:secret  | wc -l

But when I saved the command's output in a variable, the whole output seems to have merged into one line:

$ output=$(curl http://localhost:5984/_scheduler/docs/_replicator -u admin:secret)
$ echo $output | wc -l

I came across an article on StackOverflow where the solution was presented. Which by the way is surprisingly easy:

$ echo "$output" | wc -l

By simply putting the variable into double-quotes, the correct number of lines is shown again. But why is that? In the same article linked above, the explanation from Jonathan Leffler is really good:

the difference is that (1) the double-quoted version of the variable (echo "$VARIABLE") preserves internal spacing of the value exactly as it is represented in the variable — newlines, tabs, multiple blanks and all — whereas (2) the unquoted version (echo $VARIABLE) replaces each sequence of one or more blanks, tabs and newlines with a single space. Thus (1) preserves the shape of the input variable, whereas (2) creates a potentially very long single line of output

Quite crazy that after more than 10 years of bashing I only came across this today.

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Comments (newest first)

Tomica from wrote on Jan 29th, 2021:

Wow, that really is easy :)

Sebastian from Fiji wrote on Nov 23rd, 2020:

Thanks you!!!!

Anders from wrote on Sep 24th, 2020:

And by sharing this little info, you reached top google hit on the subject. Leffler explained it very well.

Marcelo from United States wrote on Jan 15th, 2020:


hshhhhh from wrote on Sep 4th, 2019:

oh man, thank you.

I hate bash so much because it should be renamed to "WBSH" - "Weird Behaviou SHell"