Chapter 5: Substitutions

This chapter will appeal above all to people who are excited by the fact that

  print ${array[(r)${(l.${#${(O@)array//?/X}[1]}..?.)}]}
prints out the longest element of the array $array. For the overwhelming majority that forms the rest of the population, however, there should be plenty that is useful before we reach that stage. Anyway, it should be immediately apparent why there is no obfuscated zsh code competition.

For those who don't do a lot of function writing and spend most of the time at the shell prompt, the most useful section of this chapter is probably that on filename generation (i.e. globbing) at the end of the chapter. This will teach you how to avoid wasting your time with find and the like when you want to select files for a command.

5.1: Quoting

I've been using quotes of some sort throughout this guide, but I've never gone into the detail. It's about time I did, since using quotes is an important part of controlling the effects of the shell's various substitutions. Here are the basic quoting types.

5.1.1: Backslashes

The main point to make about backslashes is that they are really trivial. You can quote any character whatsoever from the shell with a backslash, even if it didn't mean anything unquoted; so if the worst comes to the worst, you can take any old string at all, whatever it has in it --- random collections of quotes, backslashes, unprintable characters --- quote every single character with a backslash, and the shell will treat it as a plain string:

  print \T\h\i\s\ \i\s\ \*\p\o\i\n\t\l\e\s\s\*\ \ 
      \-\ \b\u\t\ \v\a\l\i\d\!
Remember, too that, this means you need an extra layer of quotation to pass a `\n', or whatever, down to print.

However, zsh has an easier way of making sure everything is quoted with a backslash when that's needed. It's a special form of parameter substitution, just one of many tricks you can do by supplying flags in parentheses:

  % read string
  This is a *string* with various `special' characters
  % print -r -- ${(q)string}
  This\ is\ a\ \*string\*\ with\ various\ \`special\'\ characters
The read builtin didn't do anything to what you typed, so $string contains just those characters. The -r flag to print told it to print out what came after it in raw fashion, and here's the special part: ${(q)string} tells the shell to output the parameter with backslashes where needed to prevent special characters being interpreted. All parameter flags are specific to zsh; no other shell has them.

The flag is not very useful there, because zsh usually (remember the GLOB_SUBST option?) doesn't do anything special to characters from substitutions anyway. Where it is extremely useful is if you are going to re-evaluate the text in the substitution but still want it treated as a plain string. So after the above,

  % eval print -r -- ${(q)string}
  This is a *string* with various `special' characters
and you get back what you started with, because at the eval of the command line the backslashes put in by the (q) flag meant that the value was treated as a plain string.

You can strip off quotes in parameters, too; the flag (Q) does this. It doesn't care whether backslashes or single or double quotes are used, it treats them all the way the shell's parser would. You only need this when the parameter has somehow acquired quotes in its value. One way this can happen is if you try reading a file containing shell commands, and for this there's another trick: the (z) flag splits a line into an array in the same way as if the line had been read in and was, say, being assigned to an array. Here's an example:

  % cat file
  print 'a quoted string' and\ another\ argument
  % read -r line <file
  % for word in ${(z)line}; do
  for> print -r "quoted:    $word"
  for> print -r "unquoted:  ${(Q)word}"
  for> done
  quoted:    print
  unquoted:  print
  quoted:    'a quoted string'
  unquoted:  a quoted string
  quoted:    and\ another\ argument
  unquoted:  and another argument
You will notice that the (z) doesn't remove any of the quotes from the words read in, but the (Q) flag does. Note the -r flags to both read and print: the first prevents the backslashes being absorbed by read, and the second prevents them being absorbed by print. I'm afraid backslashes can be a bit of a pain in the neck.

5.1.2: Single quotes

The only thing you can't quote with single quotes is another single quote. However, there's an option RC_QUOTES, where two single quotes inside a single-quoted string are turned into one. Apparently `RC' refers to the shell rc which appeared in plan9; it seems to be one of those programmes that some people get fanatically worked up about while the rest of us can't quite work out why. Zsh users may sympathise. (This was corrected by Oliver Kiddle and Bart Schaefer after I guessed incorrectly that RC stood for recursive, although you're welcome to think of it that way anyway. It doesn't really work for RC_EXPAND_PARAM, however, which is definitely from the rc shell, and if you look at the source code you will find a variable called `plan9' which is tested to see if that option is in effect.)

You might remember something like this from BASIC, although in that case with double quotes --- in zsh, it works only with single quotes, for some reason. So,

  print -r 'A ''quoted'' string'
would usually give you the output `A quoted string', but with the option set it prints `A 'quoted' string'. The -r option to print doesn't do anything here, it's just to show I'm not hiding anything. This is usually a useful and harmless option to have set, since there's no other good reason for having two quotes together within quotes.

The standard way of quoting single quotes is to end the quote, insert a backslashed single quote, and restart quotes again:

  print -r 'A '\''quoted'\'' string'
which is unaffected by the option setting, since the quotes immediately after the backslashes are always treated as an ordinary printable character. What you can't ever do is use backslashes as a way of quoting characters inside single quotes; they are just treated as ordinary characters there.

You can make parameter flags produce strings quoted with single quotes instead of backslashes by doubling the `q': `${(qq)param}' instead of `${(q)param}'. The main use for this is that the result is shorter if you know there are a lot of special characters in the string, and it's also a bit more easy to read for humans rather than machines, but usually it gains nothing over the other form. It can tell whether you have RC_QUOTES set and uses that to make the string even shorter, so be careful if you might use the resulting string somewhere where the option isn't set.

5.1.3: POSIX quotes

There's a relative of single quotes which uses the syntax $' to introduce a quoted string and ' to end it; I refer to them as `POSIX quotes' because they appear in the POSIX standard and I don't know what else to call them; `string quotes' is one possibility, but sounds a bit vague (what else would you quote?) The difference from single quotes is that they understand the same backslash sequences as the print builtin. Hence you can have the convenience of using `\n' for newline, `\e' for escape, `\xFF' for an arbitrary character in hexadecimal, and so on, for any command:

  % cat <<<$'Line\tone\nLine\ttwo'
  Line    one
  Line    two
Remember the `here string' notation `<<<', which supplies standard input for the command. Hence the output shows exactly how the quoted string is being interpreted. It is the same as
  % print 'Line\tone\n\Line\ttwo'
  Line    one
  Line    two
but there the interpretation is done inside print, which isn't always convenient. POSIX quotes are currently rather underused.

This is as good a point as any to mention that the shell is completely `eight-bit clean', which means you can have any of the 256 possible characters anywhere in your string. For example, $'foo\000bar' has an embedded ASCII NUL in it (that's not a misprint --- officially, ASCII non-printing characters have two- or three-letter abbreviations). Usually this terminates a string, but the shell works around this when you are using it internally; when you try and pass it as an argument to an external programme, however, all bets are off. Almost certainly the first NUL in that case will cause the programme to think the string is finished, because no information about the length of arguments is passed down and there's nothing the shell can do about it. Hence, for example:

  % echo $'foo\000bar'
  % /bin/echo $'foo\000bar'
The shell's echo knows about the shell's 8-bit conventions, and prints out the NUL, which the terminal doesn't show, then the remainder of the string. The external version of echo didn't know any better than to stop when it reached the NUL.

There are actually uses for embedded NULs: some versions of find and xargs, for example, will put or accept NULs instead of newlines between their bits of input and output (as distinct from command line arguments), which is much safer if there's a chance the input or output can contain a live newline. Using $'\000' allows the shell to fit in very comfortably with these. If you want to try this, the corresponding options are -print0 for find (print with a NUL terminator instead of newline) and -0 for xargs (read input assuming a NUL terminator).

In older versions of the shell, characters with the top bit set, such as those from non-English character sets found in ISO 8859 fonts, could cause problems, since the shell also uses such characters internally to represent its own special characters, but recent versions of the shell (from about 3.0) side-step this problem in the same way as for NULs. Any remaining problems --- it's quite tricky to handle this completely consistently --- are bugs and should be reported.

You can force parameters to be quoted with POSIX quotes by the somewhat absurd expedient of making the q in the quote flag appear a total of four times. I can't think why you would ever want to do that, except that it will turn newlines into `\n' and hence the result will fit on a single (maybe rather long) line. Plus you get the replacement of funny characters with escape sequences.

5.1.4: Double quotes

Double quotes allow some, but not all, forms of substitution inside. More specifically, they allow parameter expansion, command substitution and arithmetic substitution, but not any of the others: process substitution doesn't happen, braces and initial tildes and equals signs are not expanded and patterns are not special. Here's a table; each expression on the left is some command line argument, and the results show what is substituted if it appears outside quotes, or in double quotes.

  Expression      Outside quotes  In double quotes
  =(echo hi mum)  /tmp/zshTiqpL     =(echo hi mum)
  $ZSH_VERSION    4.0.1             4.0.1
  $(echo hi mum)  hi mum            hi mum
  $((6**2 + 6))   42                42
  {a,b}cd         acd bcd           {a,b}cd
  ~/foo           /home/pws/foo     ~/foo
  .zl*            .zlogin .zlogout  .zl*
That `/tmp/zshTiqpL' could be any temporary filename, and indeed several of the other substitutions will be different in your case.

You might already have guessed that `${(qqq)string}' forces $string to use double quotes to quote its special characters. As with the other forms, this is all properly handled --- the shell knows just which characters need quoting inside double quotes, and which don't.

Word-splitting in double quotes

Where the substitutions are allowed, the (almost) invariable side effect of double quotes is that word-splitting is suppressed. You can see this using `print -l', which prints one argument per line:

  % array=(one two)
  % print -l $(echo foo bar) $array
  % print -l "$(echo foo bar) $array"
  foo bar one two
The reason this is `almost' invariable is that parameter substitution allows you to specify that normal word-splitting will occur. There are two ways of doing this; both use the symbol `@'. You probably remember this from the parameter `$@' which has just that effect when it appears in double quotes: the arguments to the script or function are split into words like a normal array, except that empty arguments are not removed. I covered this at some length in chapter 3.

This is extended for other parameters in the following way:

  % array=(one two three)
  % print -l "${array[@]}"
and more generally for all forms of substitution using another flag, (@):
  % print -l "${(@)array}"

Digression on subscripts

The version with flags is perhaps less clear than the other, but it can appear in lots of different places. For example, here is how you pick a slice of an array in zsh:

  % print -l ${array[2,-1]}
where negative numbers count from the end of the array. The numbers in square brackets are referred to as subscripts. This can get the (@) treatment, too:
  % print -l "${(@)array[2,-1]}"

Although it's probably not obvious, you can use the other notation in this case:

  % print -l "${array[@][2,-1]}"
The shell will actually handle arbitrary numbers of subscripts in parameter substitutions, not just one; each applies to the result of the previous one:
  % print -l "${array[@][2,-1][1]}"
What you have to watch out for is that that last subscript selected a single word. You can continue to apply subscripts, but they will apply only on the characters in that word, not on array elements:
  % print -l "${array[@][2,1][1][2,-1]}"

We've now strayed severely off topic: the subscripts will of course work quite independently from whether the word is being split or appears in double quotes. Despite the joining of words that occurs in double quotes, subscripts of arrays still select array elements. This is a consequence of the order in which the rules of parameter expansion apply. There is a long, involved section on this in the zshexpn manual entry (look for the heading `Rules' there or in the `Parameter Expansion' node of the corresponding Info or HTML file).

Word-splitting of quoted command substitutions

Zsh has the useful feature that you can force the shell to apply the rules of parameter expansion to the result of a command substitution. To see where that might be useful, consider the case of the special `command substitution' (although it's handled entirely in the shell, not by running an external command) which puts the contents of a file on the command line:

  % args() { print $#; }    # report number of arguments
  % cat file
  Words on line one
  Words on line two
  % args $(<file)
  % args "$(<file)"
The unquoted substitution split the file into individual words; the quoted substitution didn't split it at all. These are the standard shell rules.

It's very common, however, that you want one line per argument, not splitting on spaces within the line. This is where parameter expansion can come in. There is a flag (f) which says `split the result of the expansion, one word per line'. Here's how to use it in this case:

  % args "${(f)$(<file)}"
Where you would usually put the name of a parameter, you put the command substitution instead, and the shell operates on the result of that (note that it does not treat the result as the name of a parameter, but as a value --- this is discussed in more detail below). The double quotes were necessary because otherwise the file would already have been split into individual words by the time the parameter substitution came to look at the result. You can easily verify that the two arguments are the individual lines of the file. I don't remember what the `f' stands for, but we were already using up flag codes quite fast when it came along; Bart Schaefer believes it stands for `fold', which might at least help you remember it.

5.1.5: Backquotes

The main thing to say about backquotes is that you should use the other form of command substitution instead. There are two good reasons.

First, the other form can be nested:

  % print $(print $(print a word))
  a word
Obviously that's a silly example, but the main point is that the only time parentheses should occur unquoted in the shell is in pairs (the patterns in case statements are an exception, but pairs of parentheses around patterns are valid, too, and I have used that form in this guide). Thus you can be confident that any piece of well-formatted shell code can appear inside the command substitution.

This is clearly not true with `...`, even though the basic effect is the same. Any unquoted ` which happens to appear in a chunk of code within the backquotes will be treated as the end of the quotes.

The second reason, which is closely related, is that it can be quite difficult to decide how many levels of quotes are required inside a backquoted expression. Consider:

  % print "`echo \"hello\"`"
  % print "$(echo \"hello\")"
It's hard to explain quite what the difference here is without waving my hands, which prevents me from typing, but the essential point is really the same one about nesting: you can't do it with backquotes, because the start and end symbols are the same, but you can do it with parentheses. So in the second case there is no doubt that the embedded command line, `echo \"hello\"', is to be treated exactly as if that had appeared outside the command substitution; whereas in the first place, the quotes within quotes had to be, um, quoted.

As a consequence, in

  % print "$(echo "hello")"
you need to be careful: at first glance, the pairs of double quotes surround `$(echo ' and `)', but they don't, they are nested by virtue of the substitution. You see the same thing with parameter substitution:
  % unset foo
  % print "${foo:-"a string"}"
  a string

A third, less good, reason for using the form with parentheses is that your more sophisticated friends will laugh at you otherwise. Peer pressure is so important in this complex world.

That's all I have to say about command substitution, since I already said a lot about it when I discussed the basic syntax in chapter 3.

5.2: Modifiers and what they modify

Modifiers were introduced in chapter 2 when I talked about `bang history', since that's where they came from. In zsh, however, they can be used in a couple of other places. They have the same form in each case: a colon, followed by a letter which is the code for what the modifier does, possibly (in the case of substitutions) followed by some other string. So, to jog your memory, unless you have NO_BANG_HIST set:

  % print ~/file
  % print !-1:t
where `:t' takes the tail (non-directory part) of the filename.

The second use is in parameters. This follows on very naturally. Note that neither this nor any of the later uses of modifiers rely on the NO_BANG_HIST option; that's purely for history.

  % param=~/file
  % print ${param:t}
Normally you can miss out the braces in the parameter substitution, but I tend to use them with modifiers for the sake of clarity. The fact that the same parts of the shell are used for modifiers wherever they come from has certain consequences:
  % print foo
  % ^foo^bar
  % param='this sentence contains a foo.'
  % print ${param:&}
  this sentence contains a bar.
The ampersand repeats the last substitution, which is the same for parameter modifiers as for history modifiers. I find parameter modifiers even more useful than history ones; extracting the head or tail of a path is a very common operation on parameters.

Modifiers are also smart enough to handle arrays in a useful fashion. Note this is not true of sets of arguments in history expansions; `:t' will only extract one tail in that case, which may not be quite what you're expecting:

  % print a sentence with a /real/live/bogus/path in it.
  % print !!:t
  path in it.
However, arrays are handled the way you might hope:
  % array=(~/.zshenv ~/.zshrc ~/.zlogout)
  % print ${array:t}
  .zshenv .zshrc .zlogout

The same logic is applied with substitutions. This means that the first match in every element of the array is replaced:

  % array=('a bar of chocolate' 'a bar of barflies' 
  array> 'a barrier of barns')
  % print ${array:s/bar/car/}
  a car of chocolate a car of barflies a carrier of barns
unless, of course, you do a global replacement:
  % print ${array:gs/bar/car/}
  a car of chocolate a car of carflies a carrier of carns
Note, however, that parameter substitution has its own much more powerful equivalent, which does pattern matching, partial replacement of modified parts of the original string, and so on. We'll come to this all in good time.

The final use of modifiers is in filename generation, i.e. globbing. Since this usually works by having special characters on the command line, and modifiers just consist of ordinary characters, the syntax is a little different:

  % print *.c
  parser.c lexer.c input.c output.c
  % print *.c(:r)
  parser lexer input output
so you need parentheses around them. This is a special case of `glob qualifiers' which you'll meet below; you can mix them, but the modifiers must appear at the end. For example,
  % print -l ~/stuff/*
  % print ~/stuff/*(.:r:t)
  onefile twofile
The globbing qualifier `.' specifies that files must be regular, i.e. not directories nor some form of special file. The `:r' removes the suffix from the result, and the `:t' takes away the directory part. Consequently, filename modifiers will be turned off if you set the option NO_BARE_GLOB_QUAL.

Two final points to note about modifiers with filenames. First, it is the only form of globbing where the result is no longer a filename; it is always performed right at the end, after all normal filename generation. Presumably, in the examples above, the word which was inserted into the command line doesn't actually correspond to a real file any more.

Second, although it does work if the word on the command line isn't a pattern but an ordinary word with a modifier tacked on, it doesn't work if that pattern, before modification, doesn't correspond to a real file. So `foo.c(:r)' will only strip off the suffix if foo.c is there in the current directory. This is perfectly logical given that the attempt to match a file kicks the globbing system, including modifiers, into action. If this is a problem for you, there are ways round; for example, insert the right value by hand in a simple case like this, or more realistically store the value in a parameter and apply the modifier to that.

5.3: Process Substitution

I don't have much new to say on process substitution, but I do have an example of where I find it useful. If you use the pager `less' you may know it has the facility to preprocess the files you look at, for example uncompressing files temporarily via the environment variable $LESSOPEN (and maybe $LESSCLOSE). Zsh can very easily and, to my thoroughly unbiased way of looking, more conveniently do the same thing. Here's a subset of my zsh function front-end to less --- or indeed any pager, which is given here by the standard environment variable $PAGER with the default less. You can hard-wire any file-displaying command at that point if you prefer.

  integer i=1
  local args arg

  for arg in $*; do
    case $arg in
      (*.bz2) args[$i]="=(bunzip2 -c ${(q)arg})"
      # this assumes your zcat is the one installed with gzip:
      (*.(gz|Z)) args[$i]="=(zcat ${(q)arg})"
      (*) args=${(q)arg}
    (( i++ ))

  eval command ${PAGER:-less} $args
The main pieces of interest is how elements of the array $args were replaced. The reason each argument was given an extra layer of quotes via (q) is the eval at the end; $args is turned into an array of literal characters first, which hence need quoting to protect special characters. Without that, filenames with spaces or asterisks or whatever wouldn't be shown properly.

The reason the eval is there is so that the process substitutions are evaluated on the command line when the pager is run, and not before. They are assigned back to elements of $args in quotes, so don't get evaluated at that point. The effect will be to turn:

  less file.gz file.txt
  less =(zcat file.gz) file.txt
The `command' at the end of the function is there just in case the function has the same name as the pager (i.e. `less' in this example); it forces the external command to be called rather than the function. The process substitution is ideal in this context; it provides less with the name of a file to which the decompressed contents of file.gz have been sent, and it deletes the file after the command exits. Furthermore, the substitution happens in such a way that you can still specify multiple files on the command line as you usually can with less. The only problem is that the filename that appears in the `less' prompt is meaningless.

In case you haven't come across it, bzip2 is a programme very similar to gzip, and it is used almost identically, but it provides better compression.

There's an infelicity in output process substitutions, just as there is with multios.

  echo hello > >(sed s/hello/goodbye)
The shell spawns the sed process to handle the output from the command line --- and then forgets about it. It does not wait for it (at least, not until after it exits, when it will use the wait system call to tidy up). So it is dangerous to rely on the result of the process being available in the next command. If you try it interactively, in fact, you may well find that the next prompt is printed before the output from sed shows up on the terminal. This can probably be considered a bug, but it is quite difficult to fix.

5.4: Parameter substitution

You can probably see from the above that parameter substitutions are at the heart of much of the power available to transform zsh command lines. What's more, we haven't covered even a significant fraction of what's on offer.

5.4.1: Using arrays

The array syntax in zsh is quite powerful (surprised?); just don't expect it to be as efficient as, say, perl. Like other features of zsh, it exists to make users' lives easier, not to make your computer run blindingly fast.

I've covered, somewhat sporadically, how to set arrays, and how to extract bits of them --- the following illustrates this:

  % array=(one two three four)
  % print ${array}
  one two three four
  % print ${array[3]}
  % print ${array[2,-1]}
  two three four
Remember you need `typeset' or equivalent if you want the array to be local to a function. The neat way is `typeset -a', which creates an empty array, but as long as you assign to the array before trying to use it any old typeset will do.

You can use the array index and array slice notations for assigning to arrays, in other words on the left-hand side of an `=':

  % array=(what kind of fool am i)
  % array[2]=species
  % print $array
  what species of fool am i
  % array[2]=(a piece)
  % print $array
  what a piece of fool am i
  % array[-3,-1]=(work is a man)
  % print $array
  what a piece of work is a man
So you can replace a single element of an array by a single element, or by an array slice; likewise you can replace a slice in one go by a slice of a different length --- only the bits you explicitly tell it to replace are changed, the rest is left intact and maybe shifted along to make way. This is similar to perl's `splice' command, only for once maybe a bit more memorable. Note that you shouldn't supply any braces on the left hand side. The appearance of the expression in an assignment is enough to trigger the special behaviour of subscripts, even if KSH_ARRAYS is in effect --- though you need to subtract one from your subscripts in that case.

You can remove bits in the middle, too, but note you should use an empty array:

  % array=(one two three four)
  % print $#array
  % array[2]=
  % print $#array
  % array[2]=()
  % print $#array
The first assignment set element 2 to the empty string, it didn't remove it. The second replaced the array element with an array of length zero, which did remove it.

Just as parameter substitutions have flags for special purposes, so do subscripts. You can force them to search through arrays, matching on the values. You can return the value matched ((r)everse subscripting):

  % array=(se vuol ballare signor contino)
  % print ${array[(r)s*]}
  % print ${array[(R)s*]}
The (r) flag takes a pattern and substitutes the first element of the array matched, while the (R) flag does the same but starting from the end of the array. If nothing matched, you get the empty string; as usual with parameters, this will be omitted if it's the only thing in an unquoted argument. Using our args function to count the arguments passed to a command again:
  % array=(some words)
  % args() { print $#; }
  % args ${array[(r)s*]}
  % args ${array[(r)X*]}
  % args "${array[(r)X*]}"
where in the last case the empty string was quoted, and passed down as a single, empty argument.

You can also return the index matched; (i) to start matching from the beginning, and (I) to start from the end.

  % array=(se vuol venire nella mia scuola)
  % print ${array[(i)v*]}
  % print ${array[(I)v*]}
matching `vuol' the first time and `venire' the second. What happens if they don't match may be a little unexpected, but is reasonably logical: you get the next index along. In other words, failing to match at the end gives you the length of the array plus one, and failing to match at the beginning gives you zero, so:
  array=(three egregious words)
  for pat in '*e*e*' '*a*a*'; do
    if [[ ${array[(i)$pat]} -le ${#array} ]]; then
      print "Pattern $pat matched in array: ${array[(r)$pat]}."
      print "Pattern $pat failed to match in array"
  Pattern *e*e* matched in array: three.
  Pattern *a*a* failed to match in array
If you adapt that chunk of code, you'll see you get the indices 1 and 4 returned. Note that the characters in $pat were treated as a pattern even though putting $pat on the command line would normally just produce the characters themselves. Subscripts are special in that way; trying to keep the syntax under control at this point is a little hairy. There is a more detailed description of this in the manual in the section `Subscript Parsing' of the zshparam manual page or the `Array Parameters' info node; to quote the characters in pat, you would actually have to supply the command line strings '\*e\*e\*' and '\*a\*a\*'. Just go round mumbling `extra layer of pattern expansion' and everyone will think you know what you're talking about (it works for me, fitfully).

There is currently no way of extracting a complete set of matches from an ordinary array with subscript flags. We'll see other ways of doing that below, however.

5.4.2: Using associative arrays

Look back at chapter 3 if you've forgotten about associative arrays. These take subscripts, like ordinary arrays do, but here the subscripts are arbitrary strings (or keys) associated with the value stored in the element of the array. Remember, you need to use `typeset -A' to create one, or one of typeset's relatives with the same option. This means that if you created it inside a function it will be limited to the local scope, so if you want to create a global associative array you will need to give the -g flag as well. This is particularly common with associative arrays, which are often used to store global information such as configuration details.

Retrieving information from associative arrays can get you into some of the problems already hinted at in the use of subscript flags with arrays. However, since normal subscripting doesn't make patterns active, there is a way round here: make the subscript into another parameter:

  % typeset -A assoc
  % assoc=(key value Shlüssel Wert clavis valor)
  % subscript='key'
  % print ${assoc[$subscript]}
I used fairly boring keys here, but they can be any string of characters:
  % assoc=(']' right\ square\ bracket '*' asterisk '@' at\ sign)
  % subscript=']'
  % print ${assoc[$subscript]}
  right square bracket
and that is harder to get the other way. Nonetheless, if you define your own keys you will often use simple words, and in that case they can happily appear directly in the square brackets.

I introduced two parameter flags, (k) and (v) in chapter 3:

  % print ${(k)assoc}
  * ] @
prints out keys, while
  % print ${(kv)assoc}
  * asterisk ] right square bracket @ at sign
and the remaining two possibilities do the same thing:
  % print ${(v)assoc}
  asterisk right square bracket at sign
  % print ${assoc}
  asterisk right square bracket at sign
You now know these are part of a much larger family of tricks to apply to substitutions. There's nothing to stop you combining flags:
  % print -r ${(qkv)assoc}
  \* asterisk \] right\ square\ bracket @ at\ sign
which helps see the wordbreaks. Don't forget the `print -l' trick for separating out different words, and hence elements of arrays and associative arrays:
  % print -l ${(kv)assoc}
  right square bracket
  at sign
which is quite a lot clearer. As always, this will fail if you engage in un-zsh activities with SH_WORD_SPLIT, but judicious use of @, whether as a flag or a subscript, and double quotes, will always work:
  % print -l "${(@kv)assoc}"
  right square bracket
  at sign
regardless of the option setting.

Apart from the subscripts, the second major difference between associative and ordinary arrays is that the former don't have any order defined. This will be entirely familiar if you have used Perl; the principle here is identical. However, zsh has no notion at all, even as a convenience, of slices of associative arrays. You can assign individual elements or whole associative arrays --- remembering that in the second case the right hand side must consist of key/value pairs --- but you can't assign subgroups. Any attempt to use the slice notation with commas will be met by a stern error message.

What zsh does have, however, is extra subscript flags for you to match and retrieve one or more elements. If instead of an ordinary subscript you use a subscript preceded by the flag (i), the shell will search for a matching key (not value) with the pattern given and return that. This is deliberately the same as searching an ordinary array to get its key (which in that case is just a number, the index), but note this time it doesn't match on the value, it really does match, as well as return, the key:

  % typeset -A assoc
  % assoc=(fred third\ man finnbar slip roger gully trevor long\ off)
  % print ${assoc[(i)f*]}
You can still use the parameter flags (k) and (v) to tell the shell which part of the key and/or value to return:
  % print ${(kv)assoc[(i)f*]}
  fred third man
Note the division of labour. The subscript flag tells the shell what to match against, while the parameter flags tell it which bit of the matched element(s) you actually want to see.

Because of the essentially random ordering of associative arrays, you couldn't tell here whether fred or finnbar would be chosen. However, you can use the capital form (I) to tell the shell to retrieve all matches. This time, let's see the values of the elements for which the keys were matched:

  % print -l ${(v)assoc[(I)f*]}
  third man
and here we also got the position occupied by finnbar. The same rules about patterns apply as with (r) in ordinary arrays --- a subscript is treated as a pattern even if it came from a parameter substitution itself.

You probably aren't surprised to hear that the subscript flags (r) and (R) try to match the values of the associative array rather than its keys. These, too, print out the actual part matched, here the value, unless you use the parameter flags.

  % print ${assoc[(r)*i*]}
  third man
  % print ${(k)assoc[(R)*i*]}
  fred finnbar

There's one more pair of subscript flags of particular relevance to associative arrays, (k) and (K). These work a bit like a case statement: the subscripts are treated as strings, and the keys of the associative arrays as patterns, instead of the other way around. With (k), the value of the first key which matches the subscript is substituted; with (K), the values of all matching keys are substituted

  % typeset -A assoc
  % assoc=('[0-9]' digit '[a-zA-Z]' letter '[^0-9a-zA-Z]' neither)
  % print ${assoc[(k)0]}
  % print ${assoc[(k)_]}
In case you're still confused, the `0' in the first subscript was taken as a string and all the keys in $assoc were treated as patterns in turn, a little like
  case 0 in
    ([0-9]) print digit
    ([a-zA-Z]) print letter
    ([^0-9a-zA-Z]) print neither
One important way in which this is not like the selection in a case statement is that you can't rely on the order of the comparison, so you can't rely on more general patterns being matched after more specific ones. You just have to use keys which are sufficiently explicit to match just the strings you want to match and no others. That's why we picked the pattern `[^0-9a-zA-Z]' instead of just `*' as we would probably have used in the case statement.

I said storing information about configuration was a common use of associative arrays, but the shell has a more powerful way of doing that: styles, which will figure prominently in the discussion of programmable completion in the next chapter. The major advantage of styles over associative arrays is that they can be made context-sensitive; you can easily make the same style return the same value globally, or make it have a default but with a different value in one particular context, or give it a whole load of different values in different places. Each shell application can decide what is meant by a `context'; you are not tied to the same scheme as the completion system uses, or anything like it. Use of hierarchical contexts in the manner of the completion system does mean that it is easy to create sets of styles for different modules which don't clash.

Here, finally, is a comparison of some of the uses of associative arrays in perl and zsh.

      perl                          zsh
  %hash = qw(key value);         typeset -A hash; hash=(key value)
  $hash{key}                     ${hash[key]}
  keys %hash                     ${(k)hash}
  values %hash                   ${(v)hash}
  %hash2 = %hash;                typeset -A hash2; hash2=("${(@kv)hash}")
  unset %hash;                   unset hash
  if (exists $hash{key}) {       if (( ${+hash[key]} )); then
    ...                            ...
  }                              fi

One final reminder: if you are creating associative arrays inside a function which need to last beyond the end of the function, you should create them with `typeset -gA' which puts them into the surrounding scope. The `-g' flag is of course useful with all types of parameter, but the associative array is the only type that doesn't automatically spring into existence when you assign to it in the right context; hence the flag is particularly worthy of note here.

5.4.3: Substituted substitutions, top- and tailing, etc.

There are many transformations which you can do on the result of a parameter substitution. The most powerful involve the use of patterns. For this, the more you know about patterns, the better, so I will reserve explanation of some of the whackiest until after I have gone into more detail on patterns. In particular, it's useful if you know how to tell the shell to mark subexpressions which it has matched for future extraction. However, you can do some very useful things with just the basic patterns common to all shells.

Standard forms: lengths

I'll separate out zsh-specific forms, and start off with some which appear in all shells derived from the Bourne shell. A more compact (read: terse) list is given in the manual, as always.

A few simple forms don't use patterns. First, the substitution ${#param} outputs the length of $param. In zsh, you don't need the braces here, though in most other shells with this feature you do. Note that ${#} on its own is the number of parameters in the command line argument array, which is why explicit use of braces is clearer.

$# works differently on scalar values and array values; in the former case, it gives the length in characters, and in the latter case the length in elements. Note that I said `values', not `parameters' --- you have to work out whether the substitution is giving you a scalar or an array:

  % print ${#path}
  % print ${#path[1]}
The first result shows I have 8 directories in my path, the latter that the first directory (actually `/home/pws/bin') has 13 characters. You should bear this in mind with nested substitutions, as discussed below, which can also return either an array or a scalar.

Earlier versions of zsh always returned a character count if the expression was in double quotes, or anywhere the shell evalauted the expression as a single word, but that doesn't happen any more; it depends only on the type of the value. However, you can force the shell to count characters by using the (c) flag, and to count words (even in scalars, which it will split if necessary) by using (w):

  % print ${#PATH}
  % print ${(c)#path}
  % foo="three scalar words"
  % print ${(w)#foo}
Comparing the first two, you will see that character count with arrays includes the space used for separating (equal to the number of colons separating the elements in $PATH). There's a relative of (w) called (W), which treats multiple word separators as having zero-length words in between:
  % foo="three  well-spaced  word"
  % print ${(w)#foo}
  % print ${(W)#foo}
giving two extra words over (w), which treats the groups of spaces in the same way as one. Being parameter flags, these modifications of the syntax are specific to zsh.

Note that if you use lengths in an arithmetic context (inside ((...)) or $((...))), you must include the leading `$', which you don't need for substituting the parameters themselves. That's because `#foo' means something different here --- the number in the ASCII character set (or whatever extension of it you are using if it is an extended character set) of the first character in $foo.

Standard forms: conditional substitutions

The next group of substitutions is a whole series where the parameter is followed by an option colon and then `-', `=', `+' or `?'. The colon has the same effect in each case: without a colon, the shell tests whether the parameter is set before performing the operation, while with the colon it tests whether the parameter has non-zero length.

The simplest is `${param:-value}'. If $param has non-zero length (without the colon, if it is set at all), use its value, else use the value supplied. Suppose $foo wasn't set at the start of the following (however unlikely that may seem):

  % print ${foo-bar}
  % foo=''
  % print ${foo-bar}
  % print ${foo:-bar}
  % foo='please no anything but bar'
  % print ${foo:-bar}
  please no anything but bar
It's more usual to use the form with the colon. One reason for that is that in functions you will often create the parameter with a typeset before using it, in which case it always exists, initially with zero length, so that the other form would never use the default value. I'll use the colon for describing the other three types.

`${param:=value}' is similar to the previous type. but in this case the shell will not only substitute value into the line, it will assign it to param if (and only if) it does so. This leads to the following common idiom in scripts and functions:

  : ${MYPARAM:=default}  ${OTHERPARAM:=otherdefault}
If the user has already set $MYPARAM, nothing happens, otherwise it will be set to `default', and similarly for ${OTHERPARAM}. The `:' command does nothing but return true after the command line has been processed.

`${param:+value}' is the opposite of `:-', logically enough: the value is substituted if the parameter doesn't have zero length. In this case, value will often be another parameter substitution:

  print ${value:+"the value of value is $value"}
prints the string only if $#value is greater than zero. Note that what can appear after the `+' is pretty much any single word the shell can parse; all the usual single-word substitutions (so globbing is excluded) will be applied to it, and quotes will work just the same as usual. This applies to the values after `:-' and `:=', too. One other commonly seen trick might be worth mentioning:
  print ${1+"$@"}
substitutes all the positional parameters as they were passed if the first one was set (here you don't want the colon). This was necessary in some old shells because "$@" on its own gave you a single empty argument instead of no arguments when no arguments were passed. This workaround isn't necessary in zsh, nor in most modern Bourne-derived shells. There's a bug in zsh's handling, however; see the section on function parameters in chapter 3.

The final type isn't that often used (meaning I never have): ${param?message} tests if param is set (no colon), and if it isn't, prints the message and exits the shell. An interactive shell won't exit, but it will return you immediately to the prompt, skipping anything else stored up for execution. It's a rudimentary safety feature, a little bit like `assert' in C programmes; most shell programmers seem to cover the case of missing parameter settings by more verbose tests. It's quite neat in short shell functions for interactive use:

  mless() { mtype ${@:?missing filename} | $PAGER }

Standard forms: pattern removal

Most of the more sophisticated Bourne-like shells define two pairs of pattern operators, which I shall call `top and tail' operators. One pair (using `#' and `##') removes a given pattern from the head of the string, returning the rest, while the other pair (using `%' and `%%') removes a pattern from the tail of the string. In each case, the form with one symbol removes the shortest matching pattern, while the one with two symbols removes the longest matching pattern. Two typical uses are:

  % print $HOME
  % print ${HOME##*/}
  % print ${HOME%/*}
which here have the same effect of ${HOME:t} and and ${HOME:h}, and in zsh you would be more likely to use the latter. However, as you can see the pattern forms are much more general. Note the difference from:
  % print ${HOME#*/}
  % print ${HOME%%/*}

where the shortest match of `*/' at the head was just the first slash, since `*' can match an empty string, while the longest match of `/*' at the tail was the entire string, right back to the first slash. Although these are standard forms, remember that the full power of zsh patterns is available.

How do you remember which operator does what? The fact that the longer form does the longer match is probably easy. Remembering that `#' removes at the head and `%' at the tail is harder. Try to think of `hash' and `head' (if you call it a `pound sign', when it's nothing of the sort since a pound since looks like `£', you will get no sympathy from me), and `percent' and `posterior'. It never worked for me, but maybe I just don't have the mental discipline. Oliver Kiddle points out that `#' is further to the left (head) on a standard US keyboard. On my UK keyboard, `#' is right next to the return key, unfortunately, although here the confusion with `pound sign' will jog your memory.

The most important thing to remember is: this notation is not our fault. Sorry, anyway. By the way, notice there's no funny business with colons in the case of the pattern operators. (Well --- except for the zsh variant noted below.)

Zsh-specific parameter substitutions

Now for some enhancements that zsh has for using the forms of parameter substitution I've just given as well as some similar but different ones.

One simple enhancement is that in addition to `${param=value}' and `${param:=value}', zsh has `${param::=value}' which performs an unconditional assignment as well as sticking the value on the command line. It's not really any different from using a normal assignment, then a normal parameter substitution, except that zsh users like densely packed code.

All the assignment types are affected by the parameter flags `A' and `AA' which tell the shell to perform array and associative array assignment (in the second case, you need pairs of key/value elements as usual). You need to be a little bit careful with array elements and word splitting, however:

  % print -l ${(A)foo::=one two three four}
  one two three four
  % print ${#foo}
That made $foo an array all right, but treated the argument as a scalar value and assigned it to the first element. There's a way round this:
  % print -l ${(A)=foo::=one two three four}
  % print ${#foo}
Here, the `=' before the parameter name has a completely different effect from the others: it turns on word-splitting, just as if the option SH_WORD_SPLIT is in effect. You may remember I went into this in appalling detail in the section `Function parameters' in chapter 3.

You should be careful, however, as more sophisticated attempts at putting arrays inside parameter values can easily lead you astray. It's usually much easier to use the `array=(...)' or `set -A ...' notations.

One extremely useful zsh enhancement is the notation `${+foo}' which returns 1 if $foo is set and 0 if it isn't. You can use this in arithmetic expressions. This is a much more flexible way of dealing with possibly unset parameters than the more standard `${foo?goodbye}' notation, and consequently is better used by zsh programmers. The notation `plus foo' for `foo is set' should be fairly memorable, too. A more standard way of doing this (noted by David Korn) is `0${foo+1}', giving 0 if $foo is not set and 01 if it is.

Parameter flags and pattern substitutions

Zsh increases the usefulness of the `top and tail' operators with some of its parameter flags. Usually these show you what's left after the removal of some matched portion. However, with the flag (M) the shell will instead show you the matched portion itself. The flag (R) is the opposite and shows the rest: that's not all that useful in the normal case, since you get that by default. It only starts being useful when you combine it with other flags.

Next, zsh allows you to match on substrings, not just on the head or tail. You can do this by giving the flag (S) with either of the `#' or `%' pattern-matching forms. The difference here is whether the shell starts searching for a matching substring at the start or end of the full string. Let's take

  foo='where I was huge lizards walked here and there'
and see what we get matching on `h*e':
  % print -l ${(S)foo#h*e} ${(S)foo##h*e} ${(S)foo%h*e} ${(S)foo%%h*e}
  wre I was huge lizards walked here and there
  where I was huge lizards walked here and tre
  where I was huge lizards walked here and t
There are some odd discrepancies at first sight, but here's what happens. In the first case, `#' the shell looks forward until it finds a match for `h*e', and takes the shortest, which is the `he' in the first word. With `##', the match succeeds at the same point, but the longest match extends to the `e' right at the end of the string. With the other two forms, the shell starts scanning backwards from the end, and stops as soon as it reaches a starting point which has a match. For both `%' and `%%' this is the last `h', but the former matches `he' and the latter matches `here'.

You can extend this by using the (I) flag to specify a numeric index. The index needs to be delimited, conventionally, although not necessarily, by colons. The shell will then scan forward or backward, depending on the form used, until it has found the (I)'th match. Note that it only ever counts a single match from each position, either the longest or the shortest, so the (I)'th match starts from the (I)'th position which has any match. Here's what happens when we remove all the matches for `#' using the example above.

  % for (( i = 1; i <= 5; i++ )); do
  for> print ${(SI:$i:)foo#h*e}
  for> done
  wre I was huge lizards walked here and there
  where I was  lizards walked here and there
  where I was huge lizards walked re and there
  where I was huge lizards walked here and tre
  where I was huge lizards walked here and there
Each time we match and remove one of the possible `h*e' sets where there is no `e' in the middle, moving from left to right. The last time there was nothing left to match and the complete string was returned. Note that the index we used was itself a parameter.

It's obvious what happens with `##': it will find matches at all the same points, but they will all extend to the `e' at the end of the string. It's probably less obvious what happens with `%%' and `%', but if you try it you will find they produce just the same set of matches as `##' and `#', respectively, but with the indices in the reverse order (4 for 1, 3 for 2, etc.).

You can use the `M' flag to leave the matched portion rather than the rest of the string, if you like. There are three other flags which let you get the indices associated with the match instead of the string: (B) for the beginning, using the usual zsh convention where the first character is 1, (E) for the character after the end, and (N) for the length, simply B-E. You can even have more than one of these; the value substituted is a string with the given values with spaces between, always in the order beginning, end, length.

There is a sort of opposite to the `(S)' flag, which instead of matching substrings will only match the whole string; to do this, put a colon before the `#'. Hence:

  % print ${foo:#w*g}
  where I was huge lizards walked here and there
  % print ${foo:#w*e}

The first one didn't match, because the `g' is not at the end; the second one did, because there is an `e' at the end.

Pattern replacement

The most powerful of the parameter pattern-matching forms has been borrowed from bash and ksh93; it doesn't occur in traditional Bourne shells. Here, you use a pair of `/'s to indicate a pattern to be replaced, and its replacement. Lets use the lizards again:

  % print ${foo/h*e/urgh}
A bit incomprehensible: that's because like most pattern matchers it takes the longest match unless told otherwise. In this case the (S) flag has been pressed into service to mean not a substring (that's automatic) but the shortest match:
  % print ${(S)foo/h*e/urgh}
  wurghre I was huge lizards walked here and there
That only replace the first match. This is where `//' comes in; it replaces every match:
  % print ${(S)foo//h*e/urgh}
  wurghre I was urgh lizards walked urghre and turghre
(No doubt you're starting to feel like a typical anachronistic Hollywood cave-dweller already.) Note the syntax: it's a little bit like substitution in sed or perl, but there's no slash at the end, and with `//' only the first slash is doubled. It's a bit confusing that with the other pattern expressions the single and double forms mean the shortest and longest match, while here it's the flag (S) that makes the difference.

The index flag (I) is useful here, too. In the case of `/', it tells the shell which single match to substitute, and in the case of `//' it tells the shell at which match to start: all matches starting from that are replaced.

Overlapping matches are never replaced by `//'; once it has put the new text in for a match, that section is not considered further and the text just to its right is examined for matches. This is probably familiar from other substitution schemes.

You may well be thinking `wouldn't it be good to be able to use the matched text, or some part of it, in the replacment text?' This is what you can do in sed with `\1' or `\&' and in perl with `$1' and `$&'. It turns out this is possible with zsh, due to part of the more sophisticated pattern matching features. I'll talk about this when we come on to patterns, since it's not really part of parameter substitution, although it's designed to work well with that.

5.4.4: Flags for options: splitting and joining

There are three types of flag that don't look like flags, for historical reasons; you've already seen them in chapter 3. The first is the one that turns on the SH_WORD_SPLIT option, ${=foo}. Note that you can mix this with flags that do look like flags, in parentheses, in which case the `=' must come after the closing parenthesis. You can force the option to be turned off for a single substitution by doubling the symbol: `${==foo}'. However, you wouldn't do that unless the option was already set, in which case you are probably trying to be compatible with some other shell, and wouldn't want to use that form.

More control over splitting and joining is possible with three of the more standard type of flags, (s), (j) and (z). These do splitting on a given string, joining with a given string, and splitting just the way the shell does it, respectively. In the first two cases, you need to specify the string in the same way as you specified the index for the (I) flag. So, for example, here's how to turn $PATH into an ordinary array without using $path:

  % print -l ${(s.:.)PATH}
Any character can follow the (s) or (j); the string argument lasts until the matching character, here `.'. If the character is one of the bracket-like characters including `<', the `matching' character is the corresponding right bracket, e.g. `${(s<:>)PATH}' and `${(s(:))PATH}' are both valid. This applies to all flags that need arguments, including (I).

Although the split or join string isn't a pattern, it doesn't have to be a single character:

  % foo=(array of words)
  % print ${(j.**.)foo}

The (z) flag doesn't take an argument. As it handles splitting on the full shell definition of a word, it goes naturally with quoted expressions, and I discussed above its use with the (Q) flag for extracting words from a line with the quotes removed.

It's possible for the same parameter expression to have both splitting and joining applied to it. This always occurs in the same order, regardless of how you specify the flags: joining first, then splitting. This is described in the (rather hairy) complete set of rules in the manual entry for parameter substitution. There are one or two occasions where this can be a bit surprising. One is when you have SH_WORD_SPLIT set and try to join a string:

  % setopt shwordsplit    
  % foo=('another array' of 'words with spaces')
  % print -l ${(j.:.)foo}
You might not have noticed if you didn't use the `-l option to print, but the spaces still caused word-spliting even though you asked for the array to be joined with colons. To avoid this, either don't use SH_WORD_SPLIT (my personal preference), or use quotes:
  % print -l "${(j.:.)foo}"
  another array:of:words with spaces
The elements of an array would normally be joined by spaces in this case, but the character specified by the (j) flag takes precedence. In just the same way, if SH_WORD_SPLIT is in effect, any splitting string given by (s) is used instead of the normal set of characters, which are any characters that occur in the string $IFS, by default space, tab, newline and NUL.

Specifying a split for a particular parameter substitution not only sets the string to split on, but also ensures the split will take place even if the expression is quoted:

  % array=('element one' 'element two' 'element three')
  % print -l "${=array}"
To be clear about what's happening here: the quotes force the elements to be joined with spaces, giving a single string, which is then split on the original spaces as well as the one used to join the elements of the array.

I will talk shortly about nested parameter substitution; you should also note that splitting and joining will if necessary take place at all levels of a nested substitution, not just the outermost one:

  % foo="three blind words"
  % print ${#${(z)foo}}
This prints the length of the innermost expression; because of the zplit, that has produced a three-element array.

5.4.5: Flags for options: GLOB_SUBST and RC_EXPAND_PARAM

The other two flags that don't use parentheses affect options for single substitutions, too. The second is the `~' flag that turns on GLOB_SUBST, making the result of a parameter substitution eligible for pattern matching. As the notation is supposed to indicate, it also makes filename expansion possible, so

  % foo='~'
  % print ${~foo}
It's that first `~' which is giving the home directory; the one in the parameter expansion simply allows that to happen. If you have GLOB_SUBST set, you can use `${~~foo}' to turn it off for one substitution.

There's one other of these option flags: `^' forces on RC_EXPAND_PARAM for the current substitution, and `^^' forces it off. In chapter 3, I showed how parameters expanded with this option on fitted in with brace expansions.

5.4.6: Yet more parameter flags

Here are a few other parameter flags; I'm repeating some of these. A very useful one is `t' to tell you the type of a parameter. This came up in chapter 3 as well. It's most common use is to test the basic type of the parameter before trying to use it:

  if [[ ${(t)myparam} != *assoc* ]]; then
    # $myparam is not an associative array.  Do something about it.

Another very useful type is for left or right padding of a string, to a specified length, and optionally with a specified fill string to use instead of space; you can even specify a one-off string to go right next to the string in question.

  for (( i = 1; i <= 10; i++ )); do
   print ${(l:10::X::Y:)goo} ${(r:10::X::Y:)goo}
prints out the rather pretty:
  XXXXYabcde abcdeYXXXX
  XXXYabcdef abcdefYXXX
  XXYabcdefg abcdefgYXX
  XYabcdefgh abcdefghYX
  Yabcdefghi abcdefghiY
  abcdefghij abcdefghij
Note that those colons (which can be other characters, as I explained for the (s) and (j) flags) always occur in pairs before and after the argument, so that with three arguments, the colons in between are doubled. You can miss out the `:Y:' part and the `:X:' part and see what happens. The fill strings don't need to be single characters; if they don't fit an exact number of times into the filler space, the last repetition will be truncated on the end furthest from the parameter argument being inserted.

Two parameters tell the shell that you want something special done with the value of the parameter substitution. The (P) flag forces the value to be treated as a parameter name, so that you get the effect of a double substitution:

  % final=string
  % intermediate=final
  % print ${(P)intermediate}
This is a bit as if $intermediate were what in ksh is called a `nameref', a parameter that is marked as a reference to another parameter. Zsh may eventually have those, too; there are places where they are a good deal more convenient than the `(P)' flag.

A more powerful flag is (e), which forces the value to be rescanned for all forms of single-word substitution. For example,

  % foo='$(print $ZSH_VERSION)'
  % print ${(e)foo}
made the value of $foo be re-examined, at which point the command substitution was found and executed.

The remaining flags are a few simple special formatting tricks: order array elements in normal lexical (character) order with (o), order in reverse order with (O), do the same case-independently with (oi) or (Oi) respectively, expand prompt `%'-escapes with (%) (easy to remember), expand backslash escapes as print does with p, force all characters to uppercase with (U) or lowercase with (L), capitalise the first character of the string or each array element with (C), show up special characters as escape sequences with (V). That should be enough to be getting on with.

5.4.7: A couple of parameter substitution tricks

I can't resist describing a couple of extras.

Zsh can do so much on parameter expressions that sometimes it's useful even without a parameter! For example, here's how to get the length of a fixed string without needing to put it into a parameter:

  % print ${#:-abcdefghijklm}
If the parameter whose name you haven't given has a zero length (it does, because there isn't one), use the string after the `:-' instead, and take it's length. Note you need the colon, else you are asking the shell to test whether a parameter is set, and it becomes rather upset when it realises there isn't one to test. Other shells are unlikely to tolerate any such syntactic outrages at all; the # in that case is likely to be treated as $#, the number of shell arguments. But zsh knows that's not going to have zero length, and assumes you know what you're doing with the extra part; this is useful, but technically a violation of the rules.

Sometimes you don't need anything more than the flags. The most useful case is making the `fill' flags generate repeated words, with the effect of perl's `x' operator (for those not familiar with perl, the expression `"string" x 3' produces the string `stringstringstring'. Here, you need to remember that the fill width you specify is the total width, not the number of repetitions, so you need to multiply it by the length of the string:

  % print ${(l.18..string.)}

5.4.8: Nested parameter substitutions

Zsh has a system for multiple nested parameter substitutions. Whereas in most shells or other scripting languages you would do something like:

  % p=/directory/file.ext
  % p2=${p##*/}            # remove longest match of */ from head
  % print $p2
  % print ${p%.*}          # remove shortest match of .* from tail
in zsh you can do this in one substitution:
  % p=/directory/file.ext
  % print ${${p##*/}%.*}
saving the temporary parameter in the middle. (Again, you are more likely to use ${p:t:r} in this particular case.) Where this becomes a major advantage is with arrays: if $p is an array, all the substitutions are applied to every element of the array:
  % p=(/dir1/file1.ext1 /dir2/file2.ext2)
  % print ${${p##*/}%.*}
  file1 file2
This can result in some considerable reductions in the code for processing arrays. It's a way of getting round the fact that an ordinary command line interface like zsh, designed originally for direct interaction with the user, doesn't have all the sophistication of a non-interactive language like perl, whose `map' function would probably be the neatest way of doing the same thing:
   # Perl code.
   @p = qw(/dir1/file1.ext1 /dir2/file2.ext2);
   @q = map { m%^(?:.*/)(.*?)(?:\.[^.]*|)$%; } @p;
   print "@q\n";'
or numerous possible variants. In a shell, there's no way of putting functions like that into the command line without complicating the basic `command, arguments' syntax; so we resort to trickery with substitutions. Note, however, that this degree of brevity makes for a certain lack of readability even in Perl. Furthermore, zsh is so optimised for common cases that
  print ${p:t:r}
will work for both arrays and scalars: the :t takes only the tail of the filename, stripping the directories, and the :r removes the suffix. These two operators could have slightly unexpected effects in versions of zsh before 4.0.1, removing `suffixes' which contained directory paths, for example (though this is what the pattern forms taken separately do, too).

Note one feature of the nested substitution: you might have expected the `${...}' inside the other one to do a full parameter substitution, so that the outer one would act on the value of that --- that's what you'd get if the substitution was on its own, after all. However, that's not what happens: the `${...}' inside is simply a syntactic trick to say `here come more operations on the parameter'. This means that

  bar='this doesn'\''t get substituted'
  print ${${foo}}
simply prints `bar', not the value of $bar. This is the same case we had before but without any of the extra `##' and `%' bits. The reason is historical: when the extremely useful nested substitution feature was added, it was much simpler to have the leading `$' indicate to the shell that it should call the substitution function again than find another syntax. You can make the value be re-interpreted as another parameter substitution, using the (P) substitution flag described above. Just remember that ${${foo}} and ${(P)foo} are different.

5.5: That substitution again

Finally, here is a brief explanation of how to read the expression at the top of the chapter. This is for advanced students only (nutcases, if you ask me). You can find all the bits in the manual, if you try hard enough, even the ones I didn't get around to explaining above. As an example, let's suppose the array contains

  array=(long longer longest short brief)
and see what
  print ${array[(r)${(l.${#${(O@)array//?/X}[1]}..?.)}]}

  1. Always start from the inside. The innermost expression here is
    Not much clearer? Start from the inside again: there's the parameter we're operating on, whose name is array. Before that there are two flags in parenthesis: (O) says sort the result in descending alphabetic order, (@) treat the result as an array, which is necessary because this inner substitution occurs where a scalar value (actually, an arithmetic expression) would usually occur, and we need to take an array element. After the array name, `//?/X' is a global substitution: take the pattern `?' (any character) wherever it occurs, and replace it with the string `X'. The result of this is an array like $array, but with all the elements turned into strings consisting of `X's in place of the original characters, and with the longest first, because that's how reverse alphabetic order works for strings with the same character. So
        long longer longest short brief
    would have become

  2. Next, we have `${#result[1]}' wrapped around that. That means that we take the first element of the array we arrived at above (the `[1]': that's why we had to make sure it was treated as an array), and then take the length of that (the `#'). We will end up in this case with 7, the length of the first (and longest element). We're finally getting somewhere.

  3. The next step is the `${(l.result..?.)}'. Our previous result appears as an argument to the `(l)' flag of the substitution. That's a rather special case of nested substitution: at this point, the shell expects an arithmetical expression, giving the minimum length of a string to be filled on the left. The previous substitution was evaluated because arithmetic expressions undergo parameter substitution. So it is the result of that, 7, which appears here, giving the more manageable
    The expression for the `(l)' flag in full says `fill the result of this parameter substitution to a minimum width of 7 using the fill character `?'. What is the substitution we are filling? It's empty: zsh is smart enough to assume you know what you're doing when you don't give a parameter name, and just puts in an empty string instead. So the empty string is filled out to length 7 with question marks, giving `???????'.

  4. Now we have `${array[(r)???????]}'. It may not be obvious (congratulations if the rest is), but the question marks are active as a pattern. Subscripts are treated specially in this respect. The subscript flag `(r)' means `reverse match', not reverse as in backwards, but as in the opposite way round: search the array itself for a matching value, rather than taking this as an index. The only thing that will match this is a string of length 7. Bingo! that must be the element `longest' in this case. If there were other elements of the same length, you would only get the first of that length; I haven't thought of a way of getting all the elements of that length substituted by a single expression without turning $array into an associative array, so if you have, you should feel smug.

After I wrote this, Sven Wischnowsky (who is responsible for a large fraction of the similar hieroglyphics in the completion functions) pointed out that a similar way of achieving this is:

  print ${(M)array:#${~${(O@)array//?/?}[1]}}
which does indeed show all the elements of the maximum length. A brief summary of how this works is that the innermost expression produces an array of `?' corresponding to the elements, longest first in the way we did above, turning the `?' into pattern match characters. The next expansion picks the longest. Finally, the outermost expansion goes through $array to find elements which match the complete string of `?' and selects out those that do match.

If you are wondering about how to do that in perl in a single expression, probably sorting on length is the easiest:

  # Perl code
  @array = qw(long longer longest short brief);
  @array = sort { length $b <=> length $a } @array;
and taking out the first element or first few elements of @array. However, in a highly-optimized scripting language you would almost certainly do it some other way: for example, avoid sorting and just remember the longest element:
  # Perl code
  $elt = '';
  $l = 0;
  foreach (@array) {
    $newl = length $_;
    $elt = $_, $l = $newl  if $l > $newl;
  print $elt, "\n";
You can do just the same thing in zsh easily enough in this case;
  local val elt
  integer l newl
  for val in $array; do
    if (( newl > l )); then
      (( l = newl ))
  print $elt
so this probably isn't a particularly good use for nested substitution, even though it illustrates its power.

If you enjoyed that expression, there are many more like it in the completion function suite for you to goggle at.

5.6: Arithmetic Expansion

Performing mathematics within the shell was first described in chapter 3 where I showed how to create numeric parameters with variants of `typeset', and said a little about arithmetic substitution.

In addition to the math library, loadable with `zmodload zsh/mathfunc', zsh has essentially all the operators you expect from C and other languages derived from it. In other words, things like

  (( foo = bar ? 3 : 1, ++brr ))
are accepted. The comma operator works just as in C; all the arguments are evaluated, in this case `foo = bar ? 3 : 1' assigns 3 or 1 to $foo depending whether or not bar is non-zero, and then $brr is incremented by 1. The return status is determined by the final expression, so if $brr is zero after increment the return status is one, else it is zero (integers may be negative).

One extra operator has been borrowed from FORTRAN, or maybe Perl, the exponentiation operator, `**'. This can take either integers or floating point numbers, though a negative exponent will cause a floating point number to be returned, so `$(( 2 ** -1 ))' gives you 0.5, not rounded down to zero. This is why the standard library function pow is missing from zsh/mathfunc --- it's already there in that other form. Pure integer exponentiation, however, is done by repeated multiplication --- up to arbitrary sizes, so instead of `2 ** 100', you should use `1 << 100', and for powers of any other integer where you don't need an exact result, you should use floating point numbers. For this purpose, the zsh/mathfunc library makes `casts' available; `float(num)' forces the expression num to interpreted as a floating point number, whatever it would otherwise have given, although the trick of adding `0.0' to a number works as well. Note that, although this works like a cast in C, the syntax is that of an ordinary function call. Likewise, `int(num)' causes the number to be interpreted as an integer --- rounding towards zero; you can use floor and ceil to round down or up, and rint to round to the nearest integer, although these three actually produce floating point numbers. They are standard C library functions.

For completeness, the assignment form of exponentiation `**=' also works. I can't remember ever using it.

The range of integers depends on how zsh was configured on your machine. The primary goal is to make sure integers are large enough to represent indexes into files; on some systems where the hardware usually deals with 32-bit integers, file sizes may be given by 64-bit integers, and zsh will try to use 64-bit integers as well. However, zsh will test for large integers even if no large file support is available; usually it just requires that your compiler has some easy to recognise way of defining 64-bit integers, such as `long long' which may be handled by gcc even if it isn't by the native compiler. You can easily test; if your zsh supports 64-bit integers, the largest available integer is:

  % print $(( 0x7FFFFFFFFFFFFFFF ))
and if you try adding something positive to that, you will get a negative result due to two's complement arithmetic. This should be large enough to count most things.

The range of floating point numbers is always that of a C `double', which is usually also 64 bits, and internally the number is highly likely to be in the IEEE standard form, which also affects the precision and range you can get, though that's system specific, too. On most systems, the math library functions handle doubles rather than single precision floats, so this is the natural choice. The cast function is called `float' because, unlike C, the representation of a floating point number is chosen for you, so the generic name is used.

5.6.1: Entering and outputting bases

I'll say a word or two about bases. I already said you could enter a number with any small base in a form like `2#101010' or `16#ffff', and that the latter could also be `0xffff' as in C. You can't, however, enter octal numbers just by using a leading `0', which you might expect from C. Here's an example of why not. Let's set:

  % foo=${(%):-%D}
  % print $foo
The first line is another of those bogus parameter substitutions where we gave it a literal string and a blank parameter. We also gave it the flag `(%)', which forces prompt escapes to be expanded, and in prompts `(%D)' is the date as yy-mm-dd. Let's write a short program to find out what the date after $foo is. We have the luxury of 99 years to worry about the century wrapping, so we'll ignore it (and the Gregorian calendar).
  mlens=(31 28 31 30 31 30 31 31 30 31 30 31)
  date=(${(s.-.)foo})    #  splits to array (01 08 23)
  typeset -Z 2 incr
  if (( ${date[3]} < ${mlens[${date[2]}]} )); then
    # just increment day
    (( incr = ${date[3]} + 1 ))
    # go to first of next month
    if (( ${date[2]} < 12 )); then
      (( incr = ${date[2]} + 1 ))
      # happy new year
      (( incr = ${date[3]} + 1 ))
  print ${date[1]}-${date[2]}-${date[3]}
This will print `01-08-07'. Before I get to the point, various other explanations. We forced $foo to be split on any `-' in it, giving a three-part array. The next trick was `typeset -Z 2 incr', which tells the shell that $incr is to be at least two characters, filled with leading zeroes. That's how we got the `07' at the end, instead of just `7'. There's another way of doing this: replace
  typeset -Z 2 incr
  (( incr = ${date[2]} + 1 ))
  date[2]=${(l.2..0.)$(( ${date[2]} + 1 ))}
This uses the (l) parameter flag to fill up to two characters with a zero (the default is a space, so we need to specify the `0' this time), using the fact that parameter operations can have a nested $-substution. This second form is less standard, however.

Now, finally, the point. In that `$(( ${date[2]} + 1 ))', the `${date[2]}' is simply the scalar `08' --- the result of splitting an arbitrary string into an array. Suppose we used leading zeroes to signify octal numbers. We would get something like:

  % print $(( ${date[2]} + 1 ))
  zsh: bad math expression: operator expected at `8 + 1 '
because the expression in the substitution becomes `08 + 1' and an 8 can't appear in an octal number. So we would have to strip off any otherwise harmless leading zeroes. Parsing dates, or indeed strings with leading zeroes as padding, is a fairly common thing for a shell to do, and octal arithmetic isn't. So by default leading zeroes don't have that effect.

However, there is an option you can set, OCTAL_ZEROES; this is required for compatibility with the POSIX standard. That's how I got the error message in the previous paragraph, in fact.

Floating point numbers are never octal, always decimal:

  % setopt octalzeroes
  % print $(( 077 ))
  % print $(( 077.43 ))

The other option to do with bases is C_BASES, which makes hexadecimal (and, if you have OCTAL_ZEROES set, octal) numbers appear in the form that you would use as input to a C (or, once again, Perl) program.

How do you persuade the shell to print out numbers in a particular base anyway? There are two ways. The first is to associate a base with a parameter, which you do with an argument after the `-i' option to typeset:

  % typeset -i 16 hexnum=32
  % print $hexnum
This is the standard way. By the way, there's a slight catch with bases, taken over from ksh: if you don't specify a base, the first assignment will do the job for you.
  % integer anynum
  % (( anynum = 16#20 ))
  % print $anynum
Only constants with explicit bases in an expression produce this effect; the first time `anynum' comes into contact with a `base#num', or a hexadecimal or (where applicable) octal expression in the standard C form, it will acquire a default output base. So you need to use `typeset -i 10' if you don't like that.

Often, however, you just want to print out an expression in, say, hexadecimal. Zsh has a shorthand for this, which is only in recent versions (and not in other shells). Preceding an expression by `[#base]' causes the default output base to be set to base with the the usual prefix showing the base, and `[##base]' will do the same but without the prefix, i.e. `$(( [##16]255 ))' is simply `FF'. This has no effect on assignments to a parameter, not even on the parameter's default output base, but it will affect the result of a direct substitution using $((...)).

5.6.2: Parameter typing

Just as creating a parameter with an ordinary assignment makes it a scalar, so creating it in an arithmetic substitution makes it either an integer or a floating point parameter, according to the value assigned. This is likely to be a floating point number if there was a floating point number in the expression on the right hand side, and an integer otherwise. However, there are reasons why a floating point number on the right may not have this effect --- use of int, for example, since it produces an integer.

However, relying on implicit typing in this fashion is bad. One of the reasons is explained in the manual entry, and I can't do better than use that example (since I wrote it):

  for (( f = 0; f < 1; f += 0.1 )); do
    print $f
If you try this, and $f does not already exist, you will see an endless stream of zeroes. What's happening is that the original assignment creates $f as an integer to store the integer 0 in. After printing this, $f is incremented by adding 0.1 to it. But once created, $f remains an integer, so the resulting 0.1 is cast back to an integer, and the resulting zero is stored back in $f. The result is that $f is never incremented.

You could turn the first 0 into 0.0, but a better way is to declare `float f' before the loop. In a function, this also ensures $f is local to the function.

If you use a scalar to store an integer or floating point, everything will work. You don't have the problem just described, since although $f contains what looks like an integer to start with, it has no numeric type associated with it, and when you store 0.1 into $f, it will happily overwrite the string `0'. It's a bit more inefficient to use scalars, but actually not that much. You can't specify an output base or precision, and in versions of zsh up to 4.0.x, there is a problem when the parameter already has a string in it which doesn't make sense as a numeric expression:

  % foo='/file/name'
  % (( foo = 3 ))
  zsh: bad math expression: operand expected at `/file/name'
The unexpected error comes because `/file/name/' is evaluated even though the shell is about to overwrite the contents of $foo. Versions of the shell from 4.1.1 have a fix for this, and the integer assignment works as expected.

You need to be careful with scalars that might contain an empty string. If you declare `integer i', it will immediately contain the value 0, but if you declare `typeset s', the scalar $s will just contain the empty string. You get away with this if you use the parameter without a `$' in front:

  % typeset s
  % print $(( 3 * s ))
because the math code tries to retrieve $s, and when it fails puts a 0 there. However, if you explicitly use $s, the math code gets confused:
  % print $(( 3 * $s ))
  zsh: bad math expression: operand expected at `'
because `$s' evaluates to an empty string before the arithmetic evaluation proper, which spoils the syntax. There's one common case where you need to do that, and that's with positional parameters:
  % fn() { print "Twice $1 is $(( 2 * $1 ))"; }
  % fn 3
  Twice 3 is 6
  % fn
  fn: bad math expression: operand expected at `'
Obviously turning the `$1' into `1' means something completely different. You can guard against this with default values:
  % fn() { print "Twice ${1:=0} is $(( 2 * $1 ))"; }
  % fn
  Twice 0 is 0
This assigns a default value for $0 if one was not set. Since parameter expansion is performed in one go from left to right, the second reference to $1 will pick up that value.

Note that you need to do this even if it doesn't look like the number will be needed:

  % fn() { print $(( ${1:-0} ? $1 : 3 )); }
  % fn
  fn: bad math expression: operand expected at `: 3 '
The expression before the `?' evaluates to zero if $1 is not present, and you expect the expression after the colon to be used in that case. But actually it's too late by then; the arithmetic expression parser has received `0 ? : 3', which doesn't make sense to it, hence the error. So you need to put in `${1:-0}' for the second $1, too --- or ${1:-32}, or any other number, since it won't be evaluated if $1 is empty, it just needs to be parsed.

You should note that just as you can put numbers into scalar parameters without needing any special handling, you can also do all the usual string-related tricks on numeric parameters, since there is automatic conversion in the other direction, too:

  % float foo
  % zmodload -i zsh/mathfunc
  % (( foo = 4 * atan(1.0) ))
  % print $foo
  % print ${foo%%.*}${foo##*.[0-9]##}
The argument -i to zmodload tells it not to complain if the math library is already loaded. This gives us access to atan. Remember, `float' declares a parameter whose output includes an exponent --- you can actually convert it to a fixed point format on the fly using `typeset -F foo', which retains the value but alters the output type. The substitution uses some EXTENDED_GLOB chicanery: the final `[0-9]##' matches one or more occurrences of any decimal digit. So the head of the string value of $foo up to the last digit after the decimal point is removed, and the remainder appended to whatever appears before the decimal point.

Starting from 4.1.1, a calculator function called zcalc is bundled with the shell. You type a standard arithmetic expression and the shell evaluates the formula and prints it out. Lines already entered are prefixed by a number, and you can use the positional parameter corresponding to that number to retrieve that result for use in a new formula. The function uses vared to read the formulae, so the full shell editing mechanism is available. It will also read in zsh/mathfunc if that is present.

5.7: Brace Expansion and Arrays

Brace expansion, which you met in chapter 3, appears in all csh derivatives, in some versions of ksh, and in bash, so is fairly standard. However, there are some features and aspects of it which are only found in zsh, which I'll describe here.

A complication occurs when arrays are involved. Normally, unquoted arrays are put into a command line as if there is a break between arguments when there is a new element, so

  % array=(three separate words)
  % print -l before${array}after
unless the RC_EXPAND_PARAM option is set, which combines the before and after parts with each element, so you get:
  % print -l before${^array}after
--- the `^' character turns on the option just for that expansion, as `=' does with SH_WORD_SPLIT. If you think of the character as a correction to a proof, meaning `insert a new word between the others here', it might help you remember (this was suggested by Bart Schaefer).

These two ways of expanding arrays interact differently with braces; the more useful version here is when the RC_EXPAND_PARAM option is on. Here the array acts as sort of additional nesting:

  % array=(two three)
  % print X{one,${^array}}Y
  XoneY XtwoY XoneY XthreeY
with the XoneY tacked on each time, but because of the braces it appears as a separate word, so there are four altogether.

If RC_EXPAND_PARAM is not set, you get something at first sight slightly odd:

  % array=(two three)
  % print X{one,$array}Y
  X{one,two three}Y
What has happened here is that the $array has produced two words; the first has `X{one,' tacked in front of the array's `two', while the second likewise has `}Y' on the end of the array's `three'. So by the time the shell comes to think about brace expansion, the braces are in different words and don't do anything useful.

There's no obvious simple way of forcing the $array to be embedded in the braces at the same level, instead of like an additional set of braces. There are more complicated ways, of course.

  % array=(two three)
  % print X${^=:-one $array}Y
  XoneY XtwoY XthreeY
Yuk. We gave parameter substitution a string of words, the array with one stuck in front, and told it to split them on spaces (this will split on any extra spaces in elements of $array, unfortunately), while setting RC_EXPAND_PARAM. The parameter flags are `^='; the `:-' is the usual `insert the following if the substitution has zero length' operator. It's probably better just to create your own temporary array and apply RX_EXPAND_PARAM to that. By the way, if you had RC_EXPAND_PARAM set already, the last result would have been different becuase the embedded $array would have been expanded together with the `one ' in front of it.

Braces allow numeric expressions; this works a little like in Perl:

  % print {1..10}a
  1a 2a 3a 4a 5a 6a 7a 8a 9a 10a
and you can ask the numbers to be padded with zeroes:
  % print {01..10}b
  01b 02b 03b 04b 05b 06b 07b 08b 09b 10b
or have them in descending order:
  % print {10..1}c
  10c 9c 8c 7c 6c 5c 4c 3c 2c 1c
Nesting this within other braces works in the expected way, but you can't have any extra braces inside: the syntax is fixed to number, two dots, number, and the numbers must be positive.

There's also an option BRACE_CCL which, if the braces aren't in either of the above forms, expands single letters and ranges of letters:

  % setopt braceccl
  % print 1{abw-z}2
  1a2 1b2 1w2 1x2 1y2 1z2

An important point to be made about braces is that they are not part of filename generation; they have nothing to do with pattern matching at all. The shell blindly generates all the arguments you specify. If you want to generate only some arguments, depending on what files are matched, you should use the alternative-match syntax. Compare:

  % ls
  % print file(1|2)
  % print file{1,2}
  file1 file2
The first matches any of `file1' or `file2' it happens to find in the directory (regardless of other files). The second doesn't look at files in the directory at all; it simply expands the braces according to the rules given above.

This point is particularly worthy of note if you have come from a C-shell world, or use the CSH_NULL_GLOB option:

  csh% echo file{1,2}
  file1 file2
  csh% echo f*{1,2}
(`csh%' is the prompt, to remind you if you're skipping through without reading the text), where the difference occurs because in the first case there was no pattern, so brace expansion was done on ordinary words, while in the second case the `*' made pattern expansion happen. In zsh, the sequence would be: `f*{1,2}' becomes `f*1 f*2'; the first becomes file1 and the second fails to match. With CSH_NULL_GLOB set, the failed match is simply removed; there is no error because one pattern has succeeded in matching. This is presumably the logic usually followed by the C shell. If you stick with `file(1|2)' and `f*(1|2)' --- in this case you can simplify them to `file[12]' and `f*[12]', but that's not true if you have more than one character in either branch --- you are protected from this difference.

5.8: Filename Expansion

Filename expansions consists of just `~/...', `~user/...', `~namedir/...' and `=prog', where the `~' and `=' must be the first character of a word, and the option EQUALS must be set (it is by default) for the `=' to be special. I told you about all this in chapter 3.

There's really only one thing to add, and that's the behaviour of the MAGIC_EQUAL_SUBST option. Assignments after typeset and similar statements are handled as follows

  % typeset foo=~pws
  % print $foo
  % typeset PATH=$PATH:~pws/bin
  % print ${path[-1]}
It may not be obvious why this is not obvious. The point is that `typeset' is an ordinary command which happens to be a shell builtin; the arguments of ordinary commands are not assignments. However, a special case is made here for typeset and its friends so that this works, even though, as I've said repeatedly, array assignments can't be done after typeset. The parameter $PATH isn't handled differently from any other --- any colon in an assignment to any variable is special in the way shown.

It's often useful to have this feature with commands of your own. There is an option, MAGIC_EQUAL_SUBST, which spots the forms `...=~...' and `...=...:~...' for any command at all and expands ~-expressions. Commands where this is particularly useful include make and the GNU configure command used for setting up the compilation of a software package from scratch.

A related new option appeared in version 4.0.2 when it became clear there was an annoying difference between zsh and other shells such as ksh and bash. Consider:

  export FOO=`echo hello there`
In ksh and bash, this exports $foo with the value `hello there'. In zsh, however, an unquoted backquote expression forces wordsplitting, so the line becomes
  export FOO=hello there
and exports $FOO with the value `hello', and $there with any value it happens to have already or none if it didn't exist. This is actually perfectly logical according to the rules, but you can set the option KSH_TYPESET to have the other interpretation.

Normally, KSH_TYPESET applies only after parameter declaration builtins, and then only in the values of an assignment. However, in combination with MAGIC_EQUAL_SUBST, you will get the same behaviour with any command argument that looks like an assignment --- actually, anything following an `=' which wasn't at the start of the word, so `"hello mother, => I'm home "$(echo right now)' qualifies.

It seems that bash behaves as if both KSH_TYPESET and MAGIC_EQUAL_SUBST are always in effect.

5.9: Filename Generation and Pattern Matching

The final topic is perhaps the biggest, even richer than parameter expansion. I'm finally going to explain the wonderful world of zsh pattern matching. In addition to patterns as such, you will learn such things as how to find all files in all subdirectories, searching recursively, which have a given name, case insensitive, are at least 50 KB large, no more than a week old and owned by the root user, and allowing up to a single error in the spelling of the name. In fact, the required expression looks like this:

which might appear, at first sight, a mite impenetrable. We'll work up to it gradually.

To repeat: filename generation is just the same as globbing, only longer. I use the terms interchangeably.

5.9.1: Comparing patterns and regular expressions

It can be confusing that there are two rather different sorts of pattern around, those used for matching files on a command line as in zsh and other shells, and those used for matching text inside files as in grep, sed, emacs, perl and many other utilities, each of which, typically, has a slightly different form for patterns (called in this case `regular expressions', because UNIX was designed by computer scientists). There are even some utilities like TCL which provide both forms.

Zsh deals exclusively with the shell form, which I've been calling by its colloquial name, `globbing', and consequently I won't talk about regular expressions in any detail. Here are the two classic differences to note. First, in a shell, `*' on its own matches any set of characters, while in a regular expression it always refers to the previous pattern, and says that that can be repeated any number of times. Second, in a shell `.' is an ordinary (and much used) character, while in a regular expression it means `any character', which is specified by `?' in the shell. Put this together, and what a shell calls `*' is given by `.*' in a regular expression. `*' in the latter case is called a `Kleene closure': it's those computer scientists again. In zsh, art rather than science tends to be in evidence.

In fact, zsh does have many of the features available in regular expressions, as well as some which aren't. Remember that anywhere in zsh where you need a pattern, it's of the same form, whether it's matching files on the command line or a string in a case statement. There are a few features which only fit well into one or another use of patterns; for example the feature that selects files by examining their type, owner, age, etc. (the final parenthesis in the expression I showed above) are no use in matching against a string.

5.9.2: Standard features

There is one thing to note about the simple pattern matching features `*' and `?', which is that when matching file names (not in other places patterns are used, however) they never match a leading `.'. This is a convention in UNIX-like systems to hide certain files which are not interesting to most users. You may have got the impression that files begining with `.' are somehow special, but that's not so; only the files `.' (the current directory) and `..' (the parent directory, or the current directory in /) are special to the system. Other files beginning with `.' only appear special because of a conspiracy between the shell (the rule I've just given) and the command ls, which, when it lists a directory, doesn't show files beginning `.' unless you give the `-a' option. Otherwise `.'-files are perfectly normal files.

You can suppress the special rule for an initial `.' by setting the option GLOB_DOTS, in which case `*' will match every single file and directory except for `.' and `..'.

In addition to `*' and `?', which are so basic that even DOS had them (though I never quite worked out exactly what it was doing with them a lot of the time), the pattern consisting of a set of characters in square brackets appears in all shells. This feature happens to be pretty much the same as in regular expressions. `[abc]' matches any one of those three characters; `[a-z]' matches any character between a and z, inclusive; `[^a-z]' matches any single character except those 26 --- but notice it still matches a single character.

A recent common enhancement to character ranges features in zsh, which is to specify types of characters instead of listing them; I'm just repeating the manual entry here, which you should consult for more detail. The special syntax is like `[:spec:]', where the square brackets there are in addition to the ones specifying the range. If you are familiar with the `ctype' macros use in C programmes, you will probably recognise the things that spec can be: alnum, alpha, blank, cntrl, digit, graph, lower, print, punct, space, upper, xdigit. The similarity to C macros isn't just for show: the shell really does call the macro (or function) `isalpha' to test for [:alpha:]ness, and so on. On most modern systems which support internationalization this means the shell can tell you whether a character is, say, an alphabetic letter in the character set in use on your machine. By the way, zsh doesn't use international character set support for sorting matches --- this turned out to produce too many unexpected effects.

So `[^[:digit:]]' matches any single character other than a decimal digit. Standards say you should use `!' instead of `^' to signify negation, but most people I know don't; also, this can clash with history substitution. However, it is accepted by zsh anywhere where history substitution doesn't get its hands on the `!' first (which includes all scripts and autoloaded functions).

5.9.3: Extensions usually available

Now we reach the bits specific to zsh. I've divided these into two parts, since some require the option `EXTENDED_GLOB' to be set --- those which are most likely to clash with other uses of the characters in question.

Numeric ranges

One possibility that is always available is the syntax for numeric ranges in the form `<num1-num2>'. You can omit either num1, which defaults to zero, or num2, which defaults to infinity, or both, in which case any set of digits will be matched. Note that this really does mean infinity, despite the finite range of integers; missing out num2 is treated as a special case and the shell will simply advance over any number of digits. (In very old versions of zsh you had to use `<>' to get that effect, but that has been removed and `<>' is now a redirection operator, as in other shells; `<->' is what you need for any set of digits.)

I repeat another warning from the manual: this test

  [[ 342 = <1-30>* ]]
succeeds, even though the number isn't in the range 1 to 30. That's because `<1-30>' matches `3' and `*' matches 42. There's no use moaning, it's a consequence of the usual rule for patterns of all types in shells or utilities: pattern operators are tried independently, and each `uses up' the longest piece of the string it is matching without causing the rest of the match to fail. We would have to break this simple and well-tried rule to stop numeric ranges matching if there is another digit left. You can test for that yourself, of course:
  [[ 342 = <1-30>(|[^[:digit:]]*) ]]
fails. I wrote it so that it would match any number between 1 and 30, either not followed by anything, or followed by something which doesn't start with a digit; I will explain what the parentheses and the vertical bar are doing in the next section. By the way, leading zeroes are correctly handled (and never force octal interpretation); so `00000003NaN' would successfully match the pattern.

The numbers in the range are always positive integers; you need extra pattern trickery to match floating point. Here's one attempt, which uses EXTENDED_GLOB operators, so come back and look when you've read the rest of this section if it doesn't make sense now:

  isfloat() {
    setopt localoptions extendedglob
    if [[ $1 = ([-+]|)([0-9]##.[0-9]#|[0-9]#.[0-9]##)\ 
([eE]([-+]|)[0-9]##|) ]]; then
      print -r -- "$1 is a floating point number"
      print -r -- "$1 is not a floating point number"
I've split it over two lines to fit. The first parenthesis matches an optional minus or plus sign --- careful with `-' in square brackets, since if it occurs in the middle it's taken as a range, and if you want it to match itself, it has to be at the start or end. The second parenthesis contains an alternative because `.' isn't a floating point number (at least, not in my book, and not in zsh's, either), but both `0.' and `.0' are properly formed numbers. So we need at least one digit, either before or after the decimal point; the `##' means `at least one occurrence of the previous expression', while the `#' means `zero or more occurrences of the previous expression'. The expresion on the next line matches an exponent; here you need at least one digit, too. So `3.14159E+00' is successfully matched, and indeed you'll find that zsh's arithmetic operations handle it properly.

The range operator is the only special zsh operator that you can't turn off with an option. This is usually not a problem, but in principle a string like `<3-10>' is ambiguous, since in another shell it would be read as `<3-10 >', meaning `take input from file 3-10, and send output to the file formed by whatever comes after the expression'. It's very unlikely you will run across this in practice, however, since shell code writers nearly alwys put a space after the end of a file name for redirection if something else follows on the command line, and that's enough to differentiate it from a range operator.


Parentheses are quite natural in zsh if you've used extended regular expressions. They are usually available, and only turned off if you set the `SH_GLOB' option to ensure compatibility with shells that don't have it. The key part of the expression is the vertical bar, which specifies an alternative. It can occur as many times as necessary; `(a|b|c|d|e|f|g|h|i|j|k|l|m)' is a rather idiosyncratic way of writing `[a-m]'. If you don't include the vertical bar (we'll see reasons for not doing so later), and you are generating filenames, you should be careful that the expression doesn't occur at the end of the pattern, else it would be taken as a `glob qualifier', as described below. The rather unsightly hack of putting `(|)' (match the empty string or the empty string --- guess what this matches?) right at the end will get around that problem.

The vertical bar usually needs to be inside parentheses so that the shell doesn't take it as a pipe, but in some contexts where this won't happen, such as a case statement label, you can omit any parentheses that would completely surround the pattern. So in

  case $foo in
    (bar|rod|pipe) print "foo represents a piece of metal"
    (*) print "Are you trying to be different?"
the surrounding parentheses are the required syntax for case, rather than pattern parentheses --- the same syntax works in other shells. Then `bar|rod' is an ordinary zsh expression matching either bar or rod, in a context where the `|' can't be mistaken for a pipe. In fact, this whole example works with ksh --- but there the use of `|' is a special case, while in zsh it fits in with the standard pattern rules.

Indeed, ksh has slightly different ways of specifying patterns: to make the use of parentheses less ambiguous, it requires a character before the left parenthesis. The corresponding form for a simple alternative is `@(this|that)'. The `@' can also be a `?', for zero or one occurrences of what's in the parentheses; `*' for any number of repetitions, for example `thisthisthatthis'; or `!' for anything except what's in the parentheses. Zsh allows this syntax if you set the option KSH_GLOB. Note that this is independent of the option SH_GLOB; if you set KSH_GLOB but not SH_GLOB, you can actually use both forms for pattern matching, with the ksh form taking precedence in the case of ambiguities. This is probably to be avoided. In ksh emulation, both options are set; this is the only sensible reason I know of for using these options at all. I'll show some comparisons in the next section.

An important thing to note is that when you are matching files, you can't put directory separators inside parentheses:

  # Doesn't work!
  print (foo/bar|bar/foo)/file.c
doesn't work. The reason is that it's simply too difficult to write; pattern matching would be bound in a highly intricate way with searching the directory hierarchy, with the end of a group sending you back up to try another bit of the pattern on a directory you'd already visited. It's probably not impossible, but the pattern code maintainer (me) isn't all that enthusiastic about it.

5.9.4: Extensions requiring EXTENDED_GLOB

Setting EXTENDED_GLOB makes three new types of operator available: those which excluded a particular pattern from matching; those which specify that a pattern may occur a repeated number of times; and a set of `globbing flags', a little bit like parameter flags which I'll describe in a later section since they are really the icing on the cake.

Negative matches or exclusions

The simpler of the two exclusions uses `^' to introduce a pattern which must not be matched. So a trivial example (I will assume for much of the rest of the chapter that the option EXTENDED_GLOB is set) is:

  [[ foo = ^foo ]]
  [[ bar = ^foo ]]
The first test fails, the second succeeds. It's important to realise that that the pattern demands nothing else whatever about the relevant part of the test string other than it doesn't match the pattern that follows: it doesn't say what length the matched string should have, for example. So
  [[ foo = *^foo ]]
actually does match: * swallows up the whole string, and the remaining empty string successfully fails to be `foo'. Remember the mantra: each part of the pattern matches the longest possible substring that causes the remainder of the pattern not to fail (unless, of course, failure is unavoidable).

Note that the ^ applies to the whole pattern to its right, either to the end of the string, or to the end of the nearest enclosing parenthesis. Here's a couple more examples:

  [[ foo = ^foo* ]]
Overall, this fails to match: the pattern `foo*' always matches the string on the left, so negating means it always fails.
  [[ foo = (^foo)* ]]
This is similar to the last example but one. The expression in the parenthesis first matches against foo; this causes the overall match to fail because of the ^, so it backs up one character and tries again. Now `fo' is successfully matched by ^foo and the remaining `o' is matched by the *, so the overall match succeeds. When you know about backreferences, you will be able to confirm that, indeed, the expression in parentheses matches `fo'. This is a quite subtle point: it's easy to imagine that `^foo' says `match any three letter string except the one I've given you', but actually there is no requirement that it match three letters, or indeed any.

In filename generation, the ^ has a lower precedence than a slash:

  % print /*/tmp
  /data/tmp /home/tmp /usr/tmp /var/tmp
  % print /^usr/tmp
  /data/tmp /home/tmp /var/tmp
successfully caused the first level of directories to match anything but `usr'. A typical use of this with files is `^*.o' to match everything in a directory except files which end with `.o'.

Note one point mentioned in the FAQ --- probably indicating the reason that `^' is only available with EXTENDED_GLOB switched on. Some commands use an initial `^' to indicate a control character; in fact, zsh's bindkey builtin does this:

  bindkey '^z' backward-delete-word
which attaches the given function to the keystroke Ctrl-z. You must remember to quote that keystroke expression, otherwise it would expand to a list of all files in the current directory not called `z', very likely all of them.

There's another reason this isn't available by default: in some versions of the Bourne shell, `^' was used for pipes since `|' was missing on some keyboards.

The other exclusion operator is closely related. `pat1~pat2' means `anything that matches pat1 as long as it doesn't also match pat2'. If pat1 is *, you have the same effect as `^' --- in fact, that's pretty much how `^' is currently implemented.

There's one significant difference between `*~pat' and `^pat': the ~ has a lower precedence than `/' when matching against filenames. What's more, the pattern on the right of the ~ is not treated as a filename at all; it's simply matched against any filename found on the left, to see if it should be rejected. This sounds like black magic, but it's actually quite useful, particularly in combination with the recursive globbing syntax:

   print **/*~*/CVS(/)
matches any subdirectory of the current directory to any depth, except for directories called CVS --- the `*' on the right of the `~' will match any character including `/'. The final `(/)' is a glob qualifier indicating that only directories are to be allowed to match --- note that it's a positive assertion, despite being after the `~'. Glob qualifiers do not feel the effect of preceding exclusion operators.

Note that in that example, any subdirectory of a directory called CVS would have matched successfully; you can see from the pattern that the expression after the `~' wouldn't weed it out. Slightly less obviously, the `**/*' matches files in the current directory, while the `*/CVS' never matches a `CVS' in the current directory, so that could appear. If you want to, you can fix that up like this:

   print **/*~(*/|)CVS(/*|)(/)
again relying on the fact that `/'s are not special after the `~'. This will ruthlessly weed out any path with a directory component called CVS. An easier, but less instructive, way is
   print ./**/*~*/CVS(/)

You can restrict the range of the tilde operator by putting it in parentheses, so `/(*~usr)/tmp' is equivalent to `/^usr/tmp'.

A `~' at the beginning is never treated as excluding what follows; as you already know, it has other uses. Also, a `~' at the end of a pattern isn't special either; this is lucky, because Emacs produces backup files by adding a `~' to the end of the file name. You may have problems if you use Emacs's facility for numbered backup files, however, since then there is a `~' in the middle of the file name, which will need to be quoted when used in the shell.

Closures or repeated matches

The extended globbing symbols `#' and `##', when they occur in a pattern, are equivalent to `*' and `+' in extended regular expressions: `#' allows the previous pattern to match any number of times, including zero, while with `##' it must match at least once. Note that this pattern does not extend beyond two hashes --- there is no special symbol `###', which is not recognised as a pattern at all.

The `previous pattern' is the smallest possible item which could be considered a complete pattern. Very often it is something in parentheses, but it could be a group in square or angle brackets, or a single ordinary character. Note particularly that in

  # fails
  [[ foofoo = foo# ]]
the test fails, because the `#' only refers to the final `o', not the entire string. What you need is
  # succeeds
  [[ foofoo = (foo)# ]]

It might worry you that `#' also introduces comments. Since a well-formatted pattern never has `#' at the start, however, this isn't a problem unless you expect comments to start in the middle of a word. It turns out that doesn't even happen in other shells --- `#' must be at the start of a line, or be unquoted and have space in front of it, to be recognised as introducing a comment. So in fact there is no clash at all here. There is, of course, a clash if you expect `.#foo.c.1.131' (probably a file produced by the version control system CVS while attempting to resolve a conflict) to be a plain string, hence the dependence on the EXTENDED_GLOB option.

That's probably all you need to know; the `#' operators are generally much easier to understand than the exclusion operators. Just in case you are confused, I might as well point out that repeating a pattern is not the same as repeating a string, so

  [[ onetwothreetwoone = (one|two|three)## ]]
successfully matches; the string is different for each repetition of the pattern, but that doesn't matter.

We now have enough information to construct a list of correspondences between zsh's normal pattern operators and the ksh ones, available with KSH_GLOB. Be careful with `!(...)'; it seems to have a slightly different behaviour to the zsh near-equivalent. The following table is lifted directly from the zsh FAQ.

      ksh              zsh         Meaning
     ------           ------       ---------
     !(foo)            ^foo        Anything but foo.
                or   foo1~foo2     Anything matching foo1 but foo2.
@(foo1|foo2|...)  (foo1|foo2|...)  One of foo1 or foo2 or ...
     ?(foo)           (foo|)       Zero or one occurrences of foo.
     *(foo)           (foo)#       Zero or more occurrences of foo.
     +(foo)           (foo)##      One or more occurrences of foo.
In both languages, the vertical bar for alternatives can appear inside any set of parentheses. Beware of the precedences of ^foo and `foo1~foo2'; surround them with parentheses, too, if necessary.

5.9.5: Recursive globbing

One of the most used special features of zsh, and one I've already used a couple of times in this section, is recursive globbing, the ability to match any directory in an arbitrarily deep (or, as we say in English, tall) tree of directories. There are two forms: `**/' matches a set of directories to any depth, including the top directory, what you get by replacing `**/' by `./, i.e. **/foo can match foo in the current directory, but also bar/foo, bar/bar/bar/foo, bar/bar/bar/poor/little/lambs/foo nad so on. `***/' does the same, but follows symbolic links; this can land you in infinite loops if the link points higher up in the same directory hierarchy --- an odd thing to do, but it can happen.

The `**/' or `***/' can't appear in parentheses; there's no way of specifying them as alternatives. As already noticed, however, the precedence of the exclusion operator `~' provides a useful way of removing matches you don't want. Remember, too, the recursion operators don't need to be at the start of the pattern:

  print ~/**/*.txt
prints the name of all the files under your home directory ending with `.txt'. Don't expect it to be particularly fast; it's not as well optimised as the standard UNIX command find, although it is a whole lot more convenient. The traditional way of searching a file which may be anywhere in a directory tree is along the lines of:
  find ~/src -name '*.c' -print | xargs grep pattern
which is horrendously cumbersome. What's happening is that find outputs a newline-separated list of all the files it finds, and xargs assembles these as additional arguments to the command `grep pattern'. It simplifies in zsh to the much more natural
  grep pattern ~/src/**/*.c
In fact, strictly speaking you probably ought to use
  find ~/src -name '*.c' -print0 | xargs -0 grep pattern
for the other form --- this passes null-terminated strings around, which is safer since any character other than a NUL or a slash can occur in a filename. But of course you don't need that now.

Do remember that this includes the current directory in the search, so in that last example `foo.c' in the directory where you typed the command would be searched. This isn't completely obvious because of the `/' in the pattern, which erroneously seems to suggest at least one directory.

It's a little known fact that this is a special case of a more general syntax, `(pat/)#'. This syntax isn't perfect, either; it's the only time where a `/' can usefully occur in parentheses. The pattern pat is matched against each directory; if it succeeds, pat is matched against each of the subdirectories, and so on, again to arbitrary depth. As this uses the character `#', it requires the EXTENDED_GLOB option, which the more common syntax doesn't, since no-one would write two *'s in a row for any other reason.

You should consider the `/)' to be in effect a single pattern token; for example in

  % print (F*|B*/)#*.txt
both `F*' and `B*' are possible directory names, not just the `B*' next to the slash. The difference between `#' and `##' is respected here --- with the former, zero occurrences of the pattern may be matched (i.e. `*.txt'), while with the latter, at least one level of subdirectories is required. Thus `(*/)##*.txt' is equivalent to `*/**/*.txt', except that the first `*' in the second pattern will match a symbolic link to a directory; there's no way of forcing the other syntax to follow symbolic links.

Fairly obviously, this syntax is only useful with files. Other uses of patterns treat slashes as ordinary characters and `**' or `***' the same as a single `*'. It's not an error to use multiple `*'s, though, just pointless.

5.9.6: Glob qualifiers

Another very widely used zsh enhancement is the ability to select types of file by using `glob qualifiers', a group of (rather terse) flags in parentheses at the end of the pattern. Like recursive globbing, this feature only applies for filename generation in the command line (including an array assignment), not for other uses of patterns.

This feature requires the BARE_GLOB_QUAL option to be turned on, which it usually is; the name implies that one day there may be another, perhaps more ksh-like, way of doing the same thing with a more indicative syntax than just a pair of parentheses.

File types

The simplest glob qualifiers are similar to what the completion system appends at the end of file names when the LIST_TYPES option is on; these are in turn similar to the indications used by `ls -F'. So

  % print *(.)
  file1 file2 cmd1 cmd2
  % print *(/)
  dir1 dir2
  % print *(*)
  cmd1 cmd2
  % print *(@)
  symlink1 symlink2
where I've invented unlikely filenames with obvious types. file1 and file2 were supposed to be just any old file; (.) picks up those but also executable files. Sockets (=), named pipes (p), and device files (%) including block (%b) and character (%c) special files are the other types of file you can detect.

Associated with type, you can also specify the number of hard links to a file: (l2) specifies exactly 2 links, (l+3) more than 3 links, (l-5) fewer than 5.

File permissions

Actually, the (*) qualifier really applies to the file's permissions, not it's type, although it does require the file to be an executable non-special file, not a directory nor anything wackier. More basic qualifiers which apply just to the permissions of the files are (r), (w) and (x) for files readable, writeable and executable by the owner; (R), (W) and (X) correspond to those for world permissions, while (A), (I) and (E) do the job for group permissions --- sorry, the Latin alphabet doesn't have middle case. You can speciy permissions more exactly with `(f)' for file permissions: the expression after this can take various forms, but the easiest is probably a delimited string, where the delimiters work just like the arguments for parameter flags and the arguments, separated by commas, work just like symbolic arguments to chmod; the example from the manual,

  print *(f:gu+w,o-rx:)
picks out files (of any type) which are writeable by the owner (`user') and group, and neither readable nor executable by anyone else (`other').

File ownership

You can match on the other three mode bits, setuid ((s)), setgid ((S)) and sticky ((t)), but I'm not going to go into what those are if you don't know; your system's manual page for chmod may (or may not) explain.

Next, you can pick out files by owner; (U) and (G) say that you or your group, respectively, owns the file --- really the effective user or group ID, which is usually who you are logged in as, but this may be altered by tricks such as a programme running setuid or setgid (the things I'm not going to explain). More generally, u0 says that the file is owned by root and (u501) says it is owned by user ID 501; you can use names if you delimiit them, so (u:pws:) says that the owner must be user pws; similarly for groups with (g).

File times

You can also pick files by modification ((m)) or access ((a)) time, either before ((-)), at, or after ((+)) a specific time, which may be measured in days (the default), months ((M)), weeks ((w)), hours ((h)), minutes ((m)) or seconds ((s)). These must appear in the order m or a, optional unit, optional plus or minus, number. Hence:

  print *(m1)
Files that were modified one day ago --- i.e. less than 48 but more than 24 hours ago.
  print *(aw-1)
Files accessed within the last week, i.e. less than 7 days ago.

In addition to (m) and ((a)), there is also (c), which is sometimes said to refer to file creation, but it is actually something a bit less useful, namely inode change. The inode is the structure on disk where UNIX-like filing systems record the information about the location and nature of the file. Information here can change when some aspect of the file information, such as permissions, changes.

File size

The qualifier (L) refers to the file size (`L' is actually for length), by default in bytes, but it can be in kilobytes (k), megabytes (m), or 512-byte blocks (p, unfortunately). Plus and minus can be used in the same way as for times, so

  print *(Lk3)
gives files 3k large, i.e. larger than 2k but smaller than 4k, while
  print *(Lm+1)
gives files larger than a megabyte.

Note that file size applies to directories, too, although it's not very useful. The size of directories is related to the number of slots for files currently available inside the directory (at the highest level, i.e. not counting children of children and deeper). This changes automatically if necessary to make more space available.

File matching properties

There are a few qualifiers which affect option settings just for the match in question: (N) turns on NULL_GLOB, so that the pattern simply disappears from the command line if it fails to match; (D) turns on GLOB_DOTS, to match even files beginning with a `.', as described above; (M) or (T) turn on MARK_DIRS or LIST_TYPES, so that the result has an extra character showing the type of a directory only (in the first case) or of any special file (in the second); and (n) turns on NUMERIC_GLOB_SORT, so that numbers in the filename are sorted arithmetically --- so 10 comes after 1A, because the 1 and 10 are compared before the next character is looked at.

Other than being local to the pattern qualified, there is no difference in effect from setting the option itself.

Combining qualifiers

One of the reasons that some qualifiers have slightly obscure syntax is that you can chain any number of them together, which requires that the file has all of the given properties. In other words `*(UWLk-10)' are files owned by you, world writeable and less than 10k in size.

You can negate a set of qualifiers by putting `^' in front of those, so `*(ULk-10^W)' would specify the corresponding files which were not world writeable. The `^' applies until the end of the flags, but you can put in another one to toggle back to assertion instead of negation.

Also, you can specify alternatives; `*(ULk-10,W)' are files which either are owned by you and are less than 10k, or are world writeable --- note that the `and' has higher precedence than the `or'.

You can also toggle whether the assertions or negations made by qualifiers apply to symbolic links, or the files found by following symbolic links. The default is the former --- otherwise the (@) qualifier wouldn't work on its own. By preceding qualifiers with -, they will follow symbolic links. So *(-/) matches all directories, including those reached by a symbolic link (or more than one symbolic link, up to the limit allowed by your system). As with `^', you can toggle this off again with another one `-'. To repeat what I said in chapter 3, you can't distinguish between the other sort of links, hard links, and a real file entry, because a hard link just supplies an alternative but equivalent name for a file.

There's a nice trick to find broken symlinks: the pattern `**/*(-@)'. This is supposed to follow symlinks; but that `@' tells it to match only on symlinks! There is only one case where this can succeed, namely where the symlink is broken. (This was pointed out to me by Oliver Kiddle.)

Sorting and indexing qualifiers

Normally the result of filename generation is sorted by alphabetic order of filename. The globbing flags (o) and (O) allow you to sort in normal or reverse order of other things: n is for names, so (on) gives the default behaviour while (On) is reverse order; L, l, m, a and c refer to the same thing as the normal flags with those letters, i.e. file size, number of links, and modification, access and inode change times. Finally, d refers to subdirectory depth; this is useful with recursive globbing to show a file tree ordered depth-first (subdirectory contents appear before files in any given directory) or depth-last.

Note that time ordering produces the most recent first as the standard ordering ((om), etc.), and oldest first as the reverse ordering (OM), etc.). With size, smallest first is the normal ordering.

You can combine ordering criteria, with the most important coming first; each criterion must be preceded by o or O to distinguish it from an ordinary globbing flag. Obviously, n serves as a complete discriminator, since no two different files can have the same name, so this must appear on its own or last. But it's a good idea, when doing depth-first ordering, to use odon, so that files at a particular depth appear in alphabetical order of names. Try

  print **/*(odon)
to see the effect, preferably somewhere above a fairly shallow directory tree or it will take a long time.

There's an extra trick you can play with ordered files, which is to extract a subset of them by indexing. This works just like arrays, with individual elements and slices.

  print *([1])
This selects a single file, the first in alphabetic order since we haven't changed the default ordering.
  print *(om[1,5])
This selects the five most recently modified files (or all files, if there are five or fewer). Negative indices are understood, too:
  print *(om[1,-2])
selects all files but the oldest, assuming there are at least two.

Finally, a reminder that you can stick modifiers after qualifiers, or indeed in parentheses without any qualifiers:

  print **/*(On:t)
sorts files in subdirectories into reverse order of name, but then strips off the directory part of that name. Modifiers are applied right at the end, after all file selection tasks.

Evaluating code as a test

The most complicated effect is produced by the (e) qualifer. which is followed by a string delimited in the now-familiar way by either matching brackets of any of the four sorts or a pair of any other characters. The string is evaluated as shell code; another layer of quotes is stripped off, to make it easier to quote the code from immediate expansion. The expression is evaulated separately for each match found by the other parts of the pattern, with the parameter $REPLY set to the filename found.

There are two ways to use (e). First, you can simply rely on the return code. So:

  print *(e:'[[ -d $REPLY ]]':)
  print *(/)

are equivalent. Note that quotes around the expression, which are necessary in addition to the delimiters (here `:') for expressions with special characters or whitespace. In particular, $REPLY would have been evaluated too early --- before file generation took place --- if it hadn't been quoted.

Secondly, the function can alter the value of $REPLY to alter the name of the file. What's more, the expression can set $reply (which overrides the use of $REPLY) to an array of files to be inserted into the command line; it may be any size from zero items upward.

Here's the example in the manual:

  print *(e:'reply=(${REPLY}{1,2})':)
Note the string is delimited by colons and quoted. This takes each file in the current directory, and for each returns a match which has two entires, the filename with `1' appended and the filename with `2' appended.

For anything more complicated than this, you should write a shell function to use $REPLY and set that or $reply. Then you can replace the whole expression in quotes with that name.

5.9.7: Globbing flags: alter the behaviour of matches

Another EXTENDED_GLOB features is `globbing flags'. These are a bit like the flags that can appear in perl regular expressions; instead of making an assertion about the type of the resulting match, like glob qualifiers do, they affect the way the match is performed. Thus they are available for all uses of pattern matching --- though some flags are not particularly useful with filename generation.

The syntax is borrowed from perl, although it's not the same: it looks like `(#X)', where X is a letter, possibily followed by an argument (currently only a number and only if the letter is `a'). Perl actually uses `?' instead of `#'; what these have in common is that they can't appear as a valid pattern characters just after an open parenthesis, since they apply to the pattern before. Zsh doesn't have the rather technical flags that perl does (lookahead assertions and so on); not surprisingly, its features are based around the shortcuts often required by shell users.

Mixed-case matches

The simplest sort of globbing flag will serve as an example. You can make a pattern, or a portion of a pattern, match case-insensitively with the flag (#i):

  [[ FOO = foo ]]
  [[ FOO = (#i)foo ]]
Assuming you have EXTENDED_GLOB set so that the `#' is an active pattern character, the first match fails while the second succeeds. I mentioned portions of a pattern. You can put the flags at any point in the pattern, and they last to the end either of the pattern or any enclosing set of parentheses, so in
  [[ FOO = f(#i)oo ]]
  [[ FOO = F(#i)oo ]]
once more the first match fails and the second succeeds. Alternatively, you can put them in parentheses to limit their scope:
  [[ FOO = ((#i)fo)o ]]
  [[ FOO = ((#i)fo)O ]]
gives a failure then a success again. Note that you need extra parentheses; the ones around the flag just delimit that, and have no grouping effect. This is different from Perl.

There are two flags which work in exactly the same way: (#l) says that only lowercase letters in the pattern match case-insensitively; uppercase letters in the pattern only match uppercase letters in the test string. This is a little like Emacs' behaviour when searching case insensitvely with the case-fold-search option variable set; if you type an uppercase character, it will look only for an uppercase character. However, Emacs has the additional feature that from that point on the whole string becomes case-sensitive; zsh doesn't do that, the flag applies strictly character by character.

The third flag is (#I), which turns case-insensitive matching off from that point on. You won't often need this, and you can get the same effect with grouping --- unless you are applying the case-insensitive flag to multiple directories, since groups can't span more than one directory. So

  print (#i)/a*/b*/(#I)c*
is equivalent to
  print /[aA]*/[bB]*/c*

Note that case-insensitive searching only applies to characters not in a special pattern of some sort. In particular, ranges are not automatically made case-insensitive; instead of `(#i)[ab]*', you must use `[abAB]*'. This may be unexpected, but it's consistent with how other flags, notably approximation, work.

You should be careful with matching multiple directories case-insensitively. First,

  print (#i)~/.Z*
doesn't work. This is due to the order of expansions: filename expansion of the tilde happens before pattern matching is ever attempted, and the `~' isn't at the start where filename expansion needs to find it. It's interpreted as an empty string which doesn't match `/.Z*', case-insensitively --- in other words, it will match any empty string.

Hence you should put `(#i)' and any other globbing flags after the first slash --- unless, for some reason, you really want the expression to match `/Home/PWS/' etc. as well as `/home/pws'.


  print (#i)$HOME/.Z*
does work --- prints all files beginning `.Z' or `.z' in your home directory --- but is inefficient. Assume $HOME expands to my home directory, /home/pws. Then you are telling the shell it can match in the directories `/Home/PWS/', `/HOME/pWs' and so on. There's no quick way of doing this --- the shell has to look at every single entry first in `/' and then in `/home' (assuming that's the only match at that level) to check for matches. In summary, it's a good idea to use the fact that the flag doesn't have to be at the beginning, and write this as:
  print ~/(#i).Z*
Of course,
  print ~/.[zZ]*
would be easier and more standard in this oversimplified example.

On Cygwin, a UNIX-like layer running on top of, uh, a well known graphical user interface claiming to be an operating system, filenames are usually case insensitive anyway. Unfortunately, while Cygwin itself is wise to this fact, zsh isn't, so it will do all that extra searching when you give it the (#i) flag with an otherwise explicit string.

A piece of good news, however, is that matching of uppercase and lowercase characters will handle non-ASCII character sets, provided your system handles locales, (or to use the standard hieroglyphics, `i18n' --- count the letters between `i' and `n' in `internationalization', which may not even be a word anyway, and wince). In that case you or your system administrator or the shell environment supplied by your operating system vendor needs to set $LC_ALL or $LC_CTYPE to the appropriate locale -- C for the default, en for English, uk for Ukrainian (which I remember because it's confusing in the United Kingdom), and so on.


The feature labelled as `backreferences' in the manual isn't really that at all, which is my fault. Many regular expression matchers allow you to refer back to bits already matched. For example, in Perl the regular expression `([A-Z]{3})$1' says `match three uppercase characters followed by the same three characters again. The `$1' is a backreference.

Zsh has a similar feature, but in fact you can't use it while matching a single pattern; it just makes the characters matched by parentheses available after a successful complete match. In this, it's a bit more like Emacs's match-beginning and match-end functions.

You have to turn it on for each pattern with the globbing flag `(#b)'. The reason for this is that it makes matches involving parentheses a bit slower, and most of the time you use parentheses just for ordinary filename generation where this feature isn't useful. Like most of the other globbing flags, it can have a local effect: only parentheses after the flag produce backreferences, and the effect is local to enclosing parentheses (which don't feel the effect themselves). You can also turn it off with `(#B)'.

What happens when a pattern with active parentheses matches is that the elements of the array $match, $mbegin and $mend are set to reflect each active parenthesis in turn --- names inspired by the corresponding Emacs feature. The string matching the first pair of parentheses is stored in the first element of $match, its start position in the string is stored in the first element of $mbegin, and its end position in the string $mend. The same happens for later matched parentheses. The parentheses around any globbing flags do not count.

$mbegin and $mend use the indexing convention currently in effect, i.e. zero offset if KSH_ARRAYS is set, unit offset otherwise. This means that if the string matched against is stored in the parameter $teststring, then it will always be true that ${match[1]} is the same string as ${teststring[${mbegin[1]},${mend[1]}]}. and so on. (I'm assuming, as usual, that KSH_ARRAYS isn't set.) Unfortunately, this is different from the way the E parameter flag works --- that substitutes the character after the end of the matched substring. Sorry! It's my fault for not following that older convention; I thought the string subscripting convention was more relevant.

An obvious use for this is to match directory and non-directory parts of a filename:

  local match mbegin mend
  if [[ /a/file/name = (#b)(*)/([^/]##) ]]; then
    print -l ${match[1]} ${match[2]}
prints `/a/file' and `name'. The second parenthesis matches a slash followed by any number of characters, but at least one, which are not slashes, while the first matches anything --- remember slashes aren't special in a pattern match of this form. Note that if this appears in a function, it is a good idea to make the three parameters local. You don't have to clear them, or even make them arrays. If the match fails, they won't be touched.

There's a slightly simpler way of getting information about the match: the flag (#m) puts the matched string, the start index, and the index for the whole match into the scalars $MATCH, $MBEGIN and $MEND. It may not be all that obvious why this is useful. Surely the whole pattern always matches the whole string? Actually, you've already seen cases where this isn't true for parameter substitutions:

  local MATCH MBEGIN MEND string
  : ${(S)string##(#m)([A-Z]##)}
You'll find this sets $MATCH to LO, $MBEGIN to 2 and $MEND to 3. In the parameter expansion, the (S) is for matching substrings, so that the `##' match isn't anchored to the start of $string. The pattern is (#m)([A-Z]##), which means: turn on full-match backreferencing and match any number of capital letters, but at least one. This matches LO. Then the match parameters let you see where in the test parameter the match occurred.

There's nothing to stop you using both these types of backreferences at once, and you can specify multiple globbing flags in the short form `(#bm)'. This will work with any combination of flags, except that some such as `(#bB)' are obviously silly.

Because ordinary globbing produces a list of files, rather than just one, this feature isn't very useful and is turned off. However, it is possible to use backreferences in global substitutions and substitutions on arrays; here are both at once:

  % array=(mananan then in gone June)
  % print ${array//(#m)?n/${(C)MATCH[1]}n}
  mAnAnAn thEn In gOne JUne
The substitution occurs separately on each element of the array, and at each match in each element $MATCH gets set to what was matched. We use this to capitalize every character that is followed by a lowercase `n'. This will work with the (#b) form, too. The perl equivalent of this is:
  % perl -pe 's/.n/\u$&/g' <<<$array
  mAnAnAn thEn In gOne JUne
(People sometimes say Perl has a difficult syntax to understand; I hope I'm convincing you how naive that view is when you have zsh.)

Now I can convince you of one point I made about excluded matches above:

  % [[ foo = (#b)(^foo)* ]]  && print $match
As claimed, the process of making the longest possible match, then backtracking from the end until the whole thing is successful, leads to the `(^foo)' matching `fo'.

Approximate matching

To my knowledge, zsh is the first command line interpreter to make use of approximate matching. This is very useful because it provides the shell with an easy way of correcting what you've typed. First, some basics about what I mean by `approximate matching'.

There are four ways you can make a mistake in typing. You can leave out a letter which should be there; you can insert a letter which shouldn't; you can type one letter instead of another; and you can transpose two letters. The last one involves two different characters, so some systems for making approximate matches count it as two different errors; but it's a particularly common one when typing, and quite useful to be able to handle as a single error. I know people who even have `mkae' aliased to `make'.

You can tell zsh how many errors you are willing to allow in a pattern match by using, for example (#a1), which says only a single error allowed. The rules for the flag are almost identical to those for case-insensitive matching, in particular for scoping and the way approximate matching is handled for a filename expansion with more than one directory. The number of errors is global; if the shell manages to match a directory in a path with an error, one fewer error is allowed for the rest of the path. You can specify as many errors as you like; the practical limit is that with too many allowed errors the pattern will match far too many strings. The shell doesn't have a particularly nifty way of handling approximate matching (unlike, for example, the program agrep), but you are unlikely to encounter problems if the number of matches stays in a useful range.

The fact that the error count applies to the whole of a filename path is a bit of a headache, actually, because we have to make sure the shell matches each directory with the minimum number of errors. With a single pattern, the shell doesn't care as long as it doesn't use up all the errors it has, while with multiple directories if it uses up the errors early on, it may fail to match something it should match. But you don't have to worry about that; this explanation is just to elicit sympathy.

So the pattern (#a1)README will match README, READ.ME, READ_ME, LEADME, REDME, READEM, and so on. It will not match _README_, ReadMe, READ or AAREADME. However, you can combine it with case-insensitivity, for which the short form (#ia1)README is allowed, and then it will match ReadMe, Read.Me, read_me, and so on. You can consider filenames with multiple directories as single strings for this purpose --- with one exception, that `foo/bar' and `fo/obar' are two errors apart, not one. Because the errors are counted separately in each directory, you can't transpose the `/' with another character. This restriction doesn't apply in other forms of pattern matching where / is not a special character.

Another common feature with case-insensitive matching is that only the literal parts of the string are handled. So if you have `[0-9]' in a pattern, that character must match a decimal digit even if approximation is active. This is often useful to impose a particular form at key points. The main difficulty, as with the `/' in a directory, is that transposing with another character is not allowed, either. In other words, `(#a1)ab[0-9]' will fail to match `a1b'; it will match with two errors, by removing the `b' before the digit and inserting it after.

As an example of what you can do with this feature, here is a simple function to correct misspelled filenames.

  emulate -LR zsh
  setopt extendedglob

  local file trylist
  integer approx max_approx=6


  if [[ -e $file ]]; then
    # no correction necessary
    print $file

  for (( approx = 1; approx <= max_approx; approx++ )); do
    trylist=( (#a$approx)"$file"(N) )
    (( $#trylist )) && break
  (( $#trylist )) || return 1

  print $trylist
The function tries to match a file with the minimum possible number of errors, but in any case no more than 6. As soon as it finds a match, it will print it out and exit. It's still possible there is more than one match with that many errors, however, and in this case the complete list is printed. The function doesn't handle `~' in the filename.

It does illustrate the fact that you can specify the number of approximations as a parameter. This is purely a consequence of the fact that filename generation happens right at the end of the expansion sequence, after the parameters have already been substituted away. The numbers and the letter in the globbing flag aren't special characters, unlike the parentheses and the `#'; if you wanted those to be special when substituted from a parameter, you would need to set the KSH_GLOB flag, possibly by using the `~' parameter flag.

A more complicated version of that function is included with the shell distribution in the file Completion/Base/Widget/_correct_filename. This is designed to be used either on its own, or as part of the completion system.

Indeed, the completion system described in the next chapter is where you are most likely to come across approximate matching, buried inside approximate completion and correction --- in the first case, you tell the shell to complete what you have typed, trying to correct mistakes, and in the second case, you tell the shell that you have finished typing but possibly made some mistakes which it should correct. If you already have the new completion system loaded, you can use ^Xc to correct a word on the command line; this is context-sensitive, so more sophisticated than the function I showed.


The last two globbing flags are probably the least used. They are there really for completeness. They are (#s), to match only at the start of a string, and (#e), to match only at the end. Unlike the other flags they are purely local, just making a statement about the point where they occur in the pattern.

They correspond to the much more commonly used `^' and `$' in regular expressions. The difference is that shell patterns nearly always match a complete string, so telling the pattern that a certain point is the start or end isn't usually very useful. There are two occasions when it is. The first is when the start or end is to be matched as an alternative to something else. For example,

  [[ $file = *((#s)|/)dirpart((#e)|/)* ]]
succeeds if dirpart is a complete path segment of $file --- with a slash or nothing at all before and after it. Remember, once again, that slashes aren't special in pattern matches unless they're performing filename generation. The effect of these two flags isn't altered at all by their being inside another set of parentheses.

The second time these are useful is in parameter matches where the pattern is not guaranteed to match a complete string. If you use (#s) or (#e), it will force that point to be the start or end despite the operator in use. So ${param##pattern(#e)} will remove pattern from $param only if it matches the entire string: the ## must match at the head, while the (#e) must match at the end.

You can get the effect with ${param:#pattern}, and further more this is rather faster. The :# operator has some global knowledge about how to match; it knows that since pattern will match as far as it can along the test string, it only needs to try the match once. However, since `##' just needs to match at the head of the string, it will backtrack along the pattern, trying to match pattern(#e), entirely heedless of the fact that the pattern itself specifically won't match if it doesn't extend to the end. So it's more efficient to use the special parameter operators whenever they're available.

5.9.8: The function zmv

The shell is supplied with a function zmv, which may have been installed into the default $fpath, or can be found in the source tree in the directory Functions/Misc. This provides a way of renaming, copying and linking files based on patterns. The idea is that you give two arguments, a pattern to match, and a string which uses that pattern. The pattern to match has backreferences turned on; these are stored in the positional parameters to make them easy to refer to. The function tries to be safe: any file whose name is not changed is simply ignored, and usually overwriting an existing file is an error, too. However, it doesn't make sure that there is a one to one mapping from source to target files; it doesn't know if the target file is supposed to be a directory (though it could be smarter about that).

In the examples, I will use the option -n, which forces zmv to print out what it will do without actually doing it. This is a good thing to try first if you are unsure.

Here's a simple example.

  % ls
  % zmv -n '(*)' '${(U)1}'
  mv -- foo FOO
The pattern matches anything in the current directory, excluding files beginning with a `.' (the function starts with an `emulate', so GLOB_DOTS is forced to be off). The complete string is stored as the first backreference, which is in turn put into $1. Then the second argument is used and $1 in uppercase is substituted.

Essentials of the function

The basic code in zmv is very simple. It boils down to more or less the following.

  setopt nobareglobqual extendedglob
  local files pattern result f1 f2 match mbegin mend

  for f1 in ${~pattern}; do
    [[ $f1 = (#b)${~pattern} ]] || continue
    set -- $match
    mv -- $f1 $f2
Here's what's going on. We store the arguments as $pattern and $result. We then expand the pattern to a list of files --- remember that ${~pattern} makes the characters in $pattern active for the purposes of globbing. For each file we find, we match against the pattern again, but this time with backreferences turned on, so that parentheses are expanded into the array $match. If, for some reason, the pattern match failed this time, we just skip the file. Then we store $match in the positional parameters; the `--' for set and for mv is in case $match[1] begins with a `-'.

Then we evaluate the result, assuming that it will refer to the positional parameters. In our example, $result contains argument `${(U)1}' and if we matched `foo', then $1 contains foo. The effect of `${(e)result}' is to perform an extra substitution on the ${(U)1}, so $f2 will be set to FOO. Finally, we use the mv command to do the actual renaming. The effect of the -n option isn't shown, but it's essentially to put a `print' in front of the mv command line.

Notice I set nobareglobqual, turning off the use of glob qualifiers. That's necessary because of all those parentheses; otherwise, `(*)' would have been interpreted as a qualifier. There is an option, -Q, which will turn qualifiers back on, if you need them. That's still not quite ideal, since the second pattern match, the one where we actually use the backreferences, isn't filename generation, just a test against a string, so doesn't handle glob qualifers. So in that case the code needs to strip qualifiers off. It does this by a fairly simple pattern match which will work in simple cases, though you can confuse it if you try hard enough, particularly if you have extra parentheses in the glob qualifier.

Note also the use of `${(e)result}' to force substitution of parameters when $result is evaluated. This way of doing it safely ignores other metacharacters which may be around: all $-expansions, plus backquote expansion, are performed, but otherwise $result is left alone.

More complicated examples

zmv has some special handling for recursive globbing, but only with the patterns **/ and ***/. If you put either of these in parentheses in the pattern, they will be spotted and used in the normal way. Hence,

  % ls test
  % zmv -n '(**/)lonely' '$1solitary'
  mv -- test/lonely test/solitary
Note that, as with other uses of `**/', the slash is part of the recursive match, so you don't need another one. You don't need to separate $1 from solitary either, since positional parameters are a special case, but you could use `${1}solitary' for the look of it. Like glob qualifiers, recursive matches are handled by some magic in the function; in ordinary globbing you can't put these two forms inside parentheses.

For the lazy, the option -w (which means `with wildcards') will tell zmv to decide for itself where all the patterns are and automatically add parentheses. The two examples so far become

  zmv -nw '*' '${(U)1}'
  zmv -nw '***/lonely' '$1solitary'
with exactly the same effects.

Another way of getting useful effects is to use the `${1//foo/bar}' substitution in the second argument. This gives you a general way of substitution bits in filenames. Often, you can then get away with having `(*)' as the first argument:

  zmv '(*)' '${1//(#m)[aeiou]/${(U)MATCH}}'
capitalises all the vowels in all filenames in the current directory. You may be familiar with a perl script called rename which does tricks like this (though there's another, less powerful, programme of the same name which simply replaces strings).

The effect of zmv

In addition to renaming, zmv can be made to copy or link files. If you call it zcp or zln instead of zmv, it will have those effects, and in the case of zln you can use the option -s to create symbolic links, just as with ln. Beware the slightly confusing behaviour of symbolic links containing relative directories, however.

Alternatively, you can force the behavour of zmv, zcp and zln just by giving the options -M, -C or -L to the function, whatever it is called. Or you can use `-p prog' to execute prog instead of mv, cp or ln; prog should be able to be run as `prog -- oldname newname', whatever it does.

The option -i works a bit like the same option to the basic programmes which zmv usually calls, prompting you before any action --- in this case, not just overwriting, but any action at all. Likewise, -f tells zmv to force overwriting of files, which it will usually refuse to do because of the potential dangers. Although many versions of mv etc. take this option, some don't, so it's not passed down; instead there's a generic way of passing down options to the programmes executed, using -o followed by a string. For example,

  % ls
  % zmv -np frud -o'-a -b' '(*)' '${(U)1}'
  frud -a -b -- foo FOO