How to test if a variable is defined at all in Bash prior to version 4.2 with the nounset shell option?

For Bash versions prior to “GNU bash, Version 4.2” are there any equivalent alternatives for the -v option of the test command? For example:

shopt -os nounset
test -v foobar && echo foo || echo bar
# Output: bar
test -v foobar && echo foo || echo bar
# Output: foo
Asked By: Tim Friske


To sum up with Gilles’ answer I made up my following rules:

  1. Use [[ -v foobar ]] for variables in Bash version >= 4.2.
  2. Use declare -p foobar &>/dev/null for array variables in Bash version < 4.2.
  3. Use (( ${foo[0]+1} )) or (( ${bar[foo]+1} )) for subscripts of indexed (-a) and keyed (-A) arrays (declare), respectively. Options 1 and 2 don’t work here.
Answered By: Tim Friske

Portable to all POSIX shells:

if [ -n "${foobar+1}" ]; then
  echo "foobar is defined"
  echo "foobar is not defined"

Make that ${foobar:+1} if you want to treat foobar the same way whether it is empty or not defined. You can also use ${foobar-} to get an empty string when foobar is undefined and the value of foobar otherwise (or put any other default value after the -).

In ksh, if foobar is declared but not defined, as in typeset -a foobar, then ${foobar+1} expands to the empty string.

Zsh doesn’t have variables that are declared but not set: typeset -a foobar creates an empty array.

In bash, arrays behave in a different and surprising way. ${a+1} only expands to 1 if a is a non-empty array, e.g.

typeset -a a; echo ${a+1}    # prints nothing
e=(); echo ${e+1}            # prints nothing!
f=(''); echo ${f+1}          # prints 1

The same principle applies to associative arrays: array variables are treated as defined if they have a non-empty set of indices.

A different, bash-specific way of testing whether a variable of any type has been defined is to check whether it’s listed in ${!PREFIX*}. This reports empty arrays as defined, unlike ${foobar+1}, but reports declared-but-unassigned variables (unset foobar; typeset -a foobar) as undefined.

case " ${!foobar*} " in
  *" foobar "*) echo "foobar is defined";;
  *) echo "foobar is not defined";;

This is equivalent to testing the return value of typeset -p foobar or declare -p foobar, except that typeset -p foobar fails on declared-but-unassigned variables.

In bash, like in ksh, set -o nounset; typeset -a foobar; echo $foobar triggers an error in the attempt to expand the undefined variable foobar. Unlike in ksh, set -o nounset; foobar=(); echo $foobar (or echo "${foobar[@]}") also triggers an error.

Note that in all situations described here, ${foobar+1} expands to the empty string if and only if $foobar would cause an error under set -o nounset.

I use the same technique for all variables in bash, and it works, e.g.:

[ ${foobar} ] && echo "foobar is set" || echo "foobar is unset"


foobar is unset


foobar=( "val" "val2" )
[ ${foobar} ] && echo "foobar is set" || echo "foobar is unset"


foobar is set
Answered By: Stein Inge Morisbak
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