On BASH that has no &!, and old tricks suddenly rediscovered


TL;DR: don’t want to spoil the fun, so please check Summary at the end.

A friend of mine just posted a recipe describing how to avoid long Emacs startup delays using Emacs daemon. Being kind of a portability advocate, I pointed out to him that &! works only in ZSH and thus should not be used in a seemingly shell-agnostic post.

“It’s specific to ZSH and won’t work in BASH”, I said.

“Yet it does. I checked”, was his answer.

So I checked too: I opened a terminal window, fired up BASH (had to do it manually because I’m ZSH user myself) and ran the first GUI application that came to my mind:

% bash                 # percent prompt indicates ZSH
$ easytag &!           # dollar sign prompt means BASH

That gave me some output, which I ignored. A moment later, EasyTag appeared on the screen. I then quitted BASH by pressing Ctrl-D, and was really surprised when EasyTag didn’t die. It didn’t even die when I closed the window, which surprised me even further.

“That’s not right”, I thought. “Wait, was was that output I ignored?..”

So yeah, in BASH, &! prints this:

[1] 15878

Looks familiar, isn’t it? That’s because it is familiar:

$ easytag &
[1] 15926

Can it be so that BASH ignores trailing exclamation mark? Let’s write a command list and see what happens:

$ echo a & echo b
[1] 16010
$ echo a &! echo b
[2] 16012
[1]   Done                    echo a

Seems logical to take one more step:

$ echo a & ! echo b
[3] 16033
[2]   Done                    echo a

So indeed, BASH parses ampersand and exclamation mark as two separate operators. It’s obvious what ampersand does, but what about !? Intuition suggests that it should have something to do with negation, but there’s no variable to negate here. Or is there?

$ true ; echo $?
$ false ; echo $?

That’s right: each command returns an integer called an exit code, and we can negate it with exclamation mark.

$ ! true ; echo $?
$ ! false ; echo $?

As you probably figured out already, $? variable holds exit code of the last executed command.

So picture just got clearer: ampersand sends a process into background, while exclamation mark negates exit code of the following command. Except that in the original line, there was no following command. So what does that ! operator negate, then?

$ echo $?
$ !
$ echo $?
$ !
$ echo $?

Without argument, negation returns positive integer, indicating false. Logic suggests that empty command should return 0:

% bash -c '' ; echo $?


So we effectively established that in out case exclamation mark does nothing and can be safely ignored. But why, then, EasyTag won’t die when we exit the shell that started it?

This one is simple: it’s because I’m ZSH user :)

When I fire up a terminal, an instance of ZSH starts up automatically. I then run bash inside of it. That means that ZSH forks and runs bash in the child process, waiting for it to finish. I then run easytag inside of BASH, which again means forking and waiting. As I use & at the end of the command, EasyTag is being put into foreground, returning control to me and thus enabling me to exit shell — which I do.

At this point, a lot of interesting things happen. First, as I close bash, its children (only one in this case, i.e. EasyTag) are being left orphans. init, the first process, adopts them. That means that EasyTag is no longer tied to bash instance from which it originated. There’s no connection to ZSH either, so I can exit it too — EasyTag would keep running right until init kills it (probably upon shutdown) or user quits it.

As for bash instance that I quit, its exit code is collected by ZSH.

This pattern is called double forking and was described in Stevens’ “Advanced Programming in the UNIX Environment” long time ago. It is used to spawn processes that should run independently of their parents — exactly what disown does.

And that is the solution to the whole mystery of the test where BASH that has no &! somehow disowns commands when &! is used.


Both BASH and ZSH have a nice builtin called disown. It enables user to detach process from the shell in a way much similar to that of nohup. ZSH has a nice sugar for it: you can put &! at the end of the command, and it would be detached. BASH doesn’t have such sugar, but in my tests the same &! worked nonetheless. It confused me at first, but after a little investigation it turned out to be a two-faced problem.

First of all, BASH parses &! not as a single operator but as a two separate ones. & puts a job into background, while ! negates exit code of the next command. When there’s no argument to negation operator, it simply returns 1 (false). If one doesn’t care about exit codes, &! is equivalent to simple &.

Second, I tested this while running bash inside ZSH, as the latter is my default shell. By chance, that led me to performing an old systems programming trick known as a “double fork” (first described in W. Richard Stevens’ “Advanced Programming in the UNIX Environment”). That means that I effectively disowned by hand.

So with a little effort, I yet again ensure that I’m sane, machines are fine and world hasn’t gone crazy. Till next time, then!

Update (04.05.2013): rewrite a few sentences.

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