A Bash quirk on `time’ and thoughts of a programmer on its semantics

18 Dec

Here’s a short puzzler for GNU/Linux command line nerds:

Why, indeed? To clarify things a little bit: time is a reserved keyword in Bash and unless you explicitly call the /usr/bin/time program, Bash will execute its internal timing command (see,, and Well, at least that was what I thought until I encountered the example above some time ago, when I was trying to accomplish something on the command line.

Apparently, if the time is not the first token on the command line then the built-in timing function of Bash is not executed. So if you want to change the collation as well as use the built-in timing function you have to do the following:

Another question that comes to mind: Does changing LC_COLLATE lead to some special execution environment? Does it change how Bash interprets its reserved keywords and built-ins? Well, to examine another example, take this: help is also a Bash built-in, but if you go and create a dummy /usr/bin/help and then try to run (e.g. in your home directory) LC_ALL=C help alias, you are going to see that Bash executes the built-in help and does not try to run the program in /usr/bin/*.

It seems like the time built-in has a very special situation and this creates a quirk in Bash semantics. This is not somehing that will bite you regularly, but if you thing Bash as a programming language and the command line as its REPL (Read-Eval-Print-Loop) environment (such as the REPLs for Lisp, Ruby, Python, Scala, etc.), then such inconsistencies in the semantics of a programming environment can be pretty surprising and sometimes even annoying.

*: Thanks to Debian developer Recai Oktaş for this example test.

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Posted by on December 18, 2011 in Linux, Programlama, sysadmin


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