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While trying to search for a simple pattern "hello" in a file, all the following forms of grep work:

  • grep hello file1
  • grep 'hello' file1
  • grep "hello" file1

Is there a specific case where one of the above forms work but others do not. Does it make any difference if I use one in place of another?

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2 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

This is actually dependent on your shell. Quotes (either kind) are primarily meant to deal with whitespace. For instance, the following:

grep hello world file1

will look for the word "hello" in files called "world" and "file1", while

grep "hello world" file1

will look for "hello world" in file1.

The choice between single or double quotes is only important if the search string contains variables or other items that you expect to be evaluated. With single quotes, the string is taken literally and no expansion takes place. With double quotes, variables are expanded. For example (with a Bourne-derived shell such as Bash or ZSH):

grep '$VAR' file1
grep "$VAR" file1

The first grep will look for the literal string "$VAR1" in file1. The second will expand the "$VAR" variable and look for the string "serverfault" in file1.

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The key thing to note is that in the original question, grep is actually receiving the exact same arguments every time. –  MikeyB Aug 5 '11 at 17:09
Be careful there. $ is end-of-line in a regular expression, so $VAR1 should never actually match anything. It happens to work on GNU grep, but I still wouldn't count on that behavior. You'd need \$VAR1 to safely match the literal string. (And you'd need extra backslashes if that's in double quotes.) –  Steven Pritchard Aug 5 '11 at 17:36
Nice catch, thanks. –  James Sneeringer Aug 5 '11 at 18:29
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James is correct, but to add some more data, I think that the best way to think about it is as arguments to the command: do you intend "hello" and "world" to be two arguments or "hello world" to be one argument.

Also, doublequotes allow interpretation of more than just variables. Exactly what depends on your shell, but check into history expansion, brace expansion, and filename expansion.

It's also important to note that there are some instances where you need to use both types of quotes in a single argument. Remember that (by default) arguments are delimited by whitespace, so if you don't leave any space, you're still specifying the same argument.

Most shells' singlequote mechanism doesn't allow for any special characters, which means that any instance of another singlequote, even if it appears to be escaped, ends the quote. It is therefore impossible to pass a string with a singlequote inside a singlequoted string, and you have to use doublequotes. This can be a pain when you want to pass an argument that contains singlequotes and something that would be interpreted, but you don't want to be. For example, if you wanted to pass the literal string "`'$VAR' is a variable", you have to do it this way:

"'"'$VAR'"' is a variable"

That's actually a concatenation of three quote-escaped strings:

"' is a variable"

or, with the quotes removed:

' is a variable

Actually, with most shells, you could also do it this way:

"'\$VAR' is a variable"

where the backslash ("\") tells the shell to accept the following character literally and not do any expansion on it.

But there are some instances where you end up having to do it the multi-string-concatenation way, not that I can actually come up with an example right now.

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