getopts is a built-in Unix shell command for parsing command-line arguments. It is designed to process command line arguments that follow the POSIX Utility Syntax Guidelines, based on the C interface of getopt.

Developer(s)Various open-source and commercial developers
Initial release1986; 34 years ago (1986)
Operating systemUnix, Unix-like, IBM i

The predecessor to getopts was the external program getopt by Unix System Laboratories.


The original getopt had several problems: it could not handle whitespace or shell metacharacters in arguments, and there was no ability to disable the output of error messages.[1]

getopts was first introduced in 1986 in the Bourne shell shipped with Unix SVR3. It uses the shell's own variables to track the position of current and argument positions, OPTIND and OPTARG, and returns the option name in a shell variable.[2] Earlier versions of the Bourne shell did not have getopts.

In 1995, getopts was included in the Single UNIX Specification version 1 / X/Open Portability Guidelines Issue 4.[3] As a result, getopts is now available in shells including the Bourne shell, Korn shell, Almquist shell, Bash and Zsh.[4]

The getopts command has also been ported to the IBM i operating system.[5]

The modern usage of getopt was partially revived mainly due to an enhanced implementation in util-linux. This version, based on the BSD getopt, not only fixed the two complaints around the old getopt, but also introduced the capability for parsing GNU-style long options and optional arguments for options, features that getopts lacks.[6] The various BSD distributions, however, stuck to the old implementation.[1]


The usage synopsis of getopt and getopts is similar to its C sibling:

getopt optstring [parameters]
getopts optstring varname [parameters]
  • The optstring part has the same format as the C sibling.
  • The parameters part simply accepts whatever one wants getopt to parse. A common value is all the parameters, "$@" in POSIX shell.
    • This value exists in getopts but is rarely used, since it can just access the shell's parameters. It is useful with resetting the parser, however.
  • The varname part of getopts names a shell variable to store the option parsed into.

The way one uses the commands however varies a lot:

  • getopt simply returns a flat string containing whitespace-separated tokens representing the "normalized" argument. One then uses a while-loop to parse it naively.[1]
  • getopts is meant to be repeatedly called like the C getopt. When it hits the end of arguments, it returns 1 (shell false).[3]


In various getoptsEdit

In spring 2004 (Solaris 10 beta development), the libc implementation for getopt() was enhanced to support long options. As a result, this new feature was also available in the built-in command getopts of the Bourne Shell. This is triggered by parenthesized suffixes in the optstring specifying legal options.[7]

Korn shell and Zsh both have an extension for long arguments. The former is defined as in Solaris,[8] while the latter is implemented via a separate zparseopts command.[9]

Korn shell additionally implement optstring extensions for options beginning with + instead of -.[8]

In Linux getoptEdit

An alternative to getopts is the Linux enhanced version of getopt, the external command line program.

The Linux enhanced version of getopt has the extra safety of getopts plus more advanced features. It supports long option names (e.g. --help) and the options do not have to appear before all the operands (e.g. command operand1 operand2 -a operand3 -b is permitted by the Linux enhanced version of getopt but does not work with getopts). It also supports escaping metacharacters for shells (like tcsh and POSIX sh) and optional arguments.[6]


POSIX getopts Solaris getopts Unix/BSD getopt Linux getopt
Splits options for easy parsing Yes Yes Yes Yes
Allows suppressing error messages Yes Yes No Yes
Safe with whitespace and metacharacters Yes Yes No Yes
Allows operands to be mixed with options No Yes No Yes
Supports long options No Yes No Yes
Optional arguments Error handling Error handling No Yes


Suppose we are building a Wikipedia downloader in bash that takes three options and zero extra arguments:

wpdown -a article name -l [language] -v

When possible, we allow the following long arguments:

-a   --article
-l   --language, --lang
-v   --verbose

For clarity, no help text is included, and we assume there is a program that downloads any webpage. In addition, all programs are of the form:



if ((VERBOSE > 2)); then
  printf '%s\n' 'Non-option arguments:'
  printf '%q ' "${remaining[@]]}"

if ((VERBOSE > 1)); then
  printf 'Downloading %s:%s\n' "$LANG" "$ARTICLE"

if [[ ! $ARTICLE ]]; then
  printf '%s\n' "No articles!">&2
  exit 1

save_webpage "https://${LANG}${ARTICLE}"

Using old getoptEdit

The old getopt does not support optional arguments:

# parse everything; if it fails we bail
args=`getopt 'a:l:v' $*` || exit
# now we have the sanitized args... replace the original with it
set -- $args

while true; do
    case $1 in
      (-v)   ((VERBOSE++));  shift;;
      (-a)   ARTICLE=$2; shift 2;;
      (-l)   LANG=$2; shift 2;;
      (--)   shift; break;;
      (*)    exit 1;;           # error


This script will also break with any article title with a space or a shell metacharacter (like ? or *) in it.

Using getoptsEdit

Getopts give the script the look and feel of the C interface, although in POSIX optional arguments are still absent:

while getopts ':a:l:v' opt; do
    case $opt in
      (v)   ((VERBOSE++));;
      (a)   ARTICLE=$OPTARG;;
      (l)   LANG=$OPTARG;;
      (:)   # "optional arguments" (missing option-argument handling)
            case $OPTARG in
              (a) exit 1;; # error, according to our syntax
              (l) :;;      # acceptable but does nothing

shift "$OPTIND"
# remaining is "$@"

Since we are no longer operating on shell options directly, we no longer need to shift them. However, a slicing operating is required to get the remaining arguments now.

Using Linux getoptEdit

Linux getopt escapes its output and an "eval" command is needed to have the shell interpret it. The rest is unchanged:

# We use "$@" instead of $* to preserve argument-boundary information
ARGS=$(getopt -o 'a:l::v' --long 'article:,language::,lang::,verbose' -- "$@") || exit
eval "set -- $ARGS"

while true; do
    case $1 in
            ((VERBOSE++)); shift;;
            ARTICLE=$2; shift 2;;
            # handle optional: getopt normalizes it into an empty string
            if [ -n "$2" ]; then
              LANG=$2; shift;
      (--)  shift; break;;
      (*)   exit 1;;           # error


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c getopt(1) – FreeBSD General Commands Manual
  2. ^ Mascheck, Sven. "The Traditional Bourne Shell Family". Retrieved 2010-12-01.
  3. ^ a b "getopts". The Open Group (POSIX 2018).
  4. ^
  5. ^ IBM. "IBM System i Version 7.2 Programming Qshell" (PDF). Retrieved 2020-09-05.
  6. ^ a b getopt(1) – Linux General Commands Manual
  7. ^ "getopt(3)". Oracle Solaris 11.2 Information Library.
  8. ^ a b "ksh getopts -- parse options from shell script command line".
  9. ^ zshmodules(1) – Linux General Commands Manual

External linksEdit