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About bash : What-is-a-hyphen-beside-a-shell-variable

Question Detail

I saw in some of our scripts that there is a hyphen attached to a shell variable. For example:

if [ -z ${X-} ]

What does this hyphen symbol beside the variable do here.
I cannot find any documentation online for this.

Question Answer

It’s all explained in the Shell Parameter Expansion section of the manual:


If parameter is unset or null, the expansion of word is substituted. Otherwise, the value of parameter is substituted.

Just before this there is:

Omitting the colon results in a test only for a parameter that is unset.



expands to:

  • The expansion of $X if X is set
  • stuff if X is unset.

Try it:

$ unset X
$ echo "${X-stuff}"
$ X=
$ echo "${X-stuff}"

$ X=hello
$ echo "${X-stuff}"

Now your expansion is


so you guess that it expands to the expansion of $X if X is set, and to the null string if X is unset.

Why would you want to do this? to me it seems that this is a workaround the set -u:

$ set -u
$ unset X
$ echo "$X"
bash: X: unbound variable
$ echo "${X-}"


Finally, your test

if [ -z "${X-}" ]

(note the quotes, they are mandatory) tests whether X is nil (regardless of X being set or not, even if set -u is used).

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