What Is IFS in Shell Scripting?


Heather Bennett

Shell scripting is a powerful tool that allows users to automate tasks and perform complex operations on a command-line interface. One of the essential concepts in shell scripting is the use of conditional statements, which helps in controlling the flow of execution based on certain conditions. The “if” statement is a fundamental construct used for conditional branching in shell scripts.

What Is IFS?

In shell scripting, IFS stands for Internal Field Separator. It is a special variable used to split strings into fields or words. By default, the IFS value is set to whitespace characters (space, tab, and newline), which means that any string assigned to a variable will be split into multiple fields based on these separators.

Why Use IFS?

IFS is particularly useful when dealing with input data that needs to be processed in segments or individual parts. By changing the value of IFS, you can control how string splitting occurs and extract specific portions of data from a larger input string.

How to Set IFS?

You can set the value of IFS using the assignment operator (=). For example:


This sets the value of IFS as a colon (:) character. Now, when you assign a string to a variable and try to access its individual words later, the string will be split at each colon occurrence.


read -ra fruits <<< "$str"

for fruit in "${fruits[@]}"
  echo "$fruit"

This script sets IFS as ":" and assigns "apple:banana:cherry" to the variable 'str'. The 'read' command with '-ra' option splits the string into an array based on the IFS value. Finally, a 'for' loop is used to iterate over each element of the 'fruits' array and print them.



Changing IFS Temporarily

Sometimes, you may want to change the value of IFS temporarily within a specific block of code without affecting its original value. You can achieve this by enclosing the code within parentheses and setting the new value of IFS as shown below:

IFS=":" (IFS="-"; echo "New IFS inside parentheses: $IFS") echo "Original IFS outside parentheses: $IFS"
New IFS inside parentheses: -
Original IFS outside parentheses: :

Note: The change in IFS value inside the parentheses does not affect its value outside.


The Internal Field Separator (IFS) is a crucial concept in shell scripting that allows for efficient string splitting. By understanding how to manipulate and use IFS effectively, you can enhance your shell scripts' capabilities and handle data processing tasks more efficiently.

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