"unary operator expected" error in Bash if condition – Dev

The best answers to the question “"unary operator expected" error in Bash if condition” in the category Dev.


This script is getting an error:

elif [ $operation = "man" ]; then
    if [ $aug1 = "add" ]; then         # <- Line 75
    echo "Man Page for: add"
    echo ""
    echo "Syntax: add [number 1] [number 2]"
    echo ""
    echo "Description:"
    echo "Add two different numbers together."
    echo ""
    echo "Info:"
    echo "Added in v1.0"
    echo ""
elif [ -z $aug1 ]; then
    echo "Please specify a command to read the man page."
    echo "There is no manual page for that command."

I get this error:

calc_1.2: line 75: [: =: unary operator expected


It took me a while to find this, but note that if you have a spacing error, you will also get the same error:

[: =: unary operator expected


if [ "$APP_ENV" = "staging" ]


if ["$APP_ENV" = "staging" ]

As always, setting -x debug variable helps to find these:

set -x


If you know you’re always going to use Bash, it’s much easier to always use the double bracket conditional compound command [[ ... ]], instead of the POSIX-compatible single bracket version [ ... ]. Inside a [[ ... ]] compound, word-splitting and pathname expansion are not applied to words, so you can rely on

if [[ $aug1 == "and" ]];

to compare the value of $aug1 with the string and.

If you use [ ... ], you always need to remember to double quote variables like this:

if [ "$aug1" = "and" ];

If you don’t quote the variable expansion and the variable is undefined or empty, it vanishes from the scene of the crime, leaving only

if [ = "and" ];

which is not a valid syntax. (It would also fail with a different error message if $aug1 included white space or shell metacharacters.)

The modern [[ operator has lots of other nice features, including regular expression matching.


This error can also occur reading numerical input that could possibly be blank (to accept a default option).

The solution is to structure the if statement with multiple conditions & test for an empty variable first.

For example:

# sanitise input
var=$(echo $ans | tr -cd "[:digit:]")

if [ -z "$var" ] || [ "$var" -lt 1 ]; then

I had to solve this unary operator expected issue in remove_old_pkgs() of the helper script abk for Arch Sign Modules.

See also 6.4 Bash Conditional Expressions


Try assigning a value to $aug1 before use it in if[] statements; the error message will disappear afterwards.