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Please take a look at the following code,

touch snapshot.file-1

$ [ -a $snap-1 ] && echo yes 

What does the test -a command tests for here?

I tried info coreutils 'test invocation' and searched for -a, but didn't find it in the file characteristic tests section, but rather in the connectives for test section.

Is such test -a command an undocumented one?


  • Before jump to any conclusion, please make sure you can duplicate the about result first.
  • My system is Ubuntu 13.10 and my man test says GNU coreutils 8.20 October 2012 TEST(1).
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up vote 2 down vote accepted

I am not sure why the info page doesn't have it, but running help test in bash gives the answer:

    File operators:

  -a FILE        True if file exists.

So it is simply an "existence" test, no other permissions/attributes checked.

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Perfect! Thanks. Strange, man test doesn't have that either. only help test does. Does that mean it is a bash specific file existence testing? – xpt Jun 17 '14 at 3:57
@xpt It would seem like that is the case, but for me /bin/test -a file worked also...So why it isn't in the manpage I have NO idea. – BenjiWiebe Jun 17 '14 at 12:13

If you're running test or [ in bash, it's actually probably the built-in version, and not the coreutils version in /usr/bin:

$ type test
test is a shell builtin
$ type [
[ is a shell builtin

That said, it does appear that the coreutils version implements both -a and -e, with exactly the same behavior. Maybe -a is not reflected in the manpage because it's not standard, so maybe it was added later and that person neglected to update the manpage accordingly. But I can't say I know the history behind why it was added (or even what the a is supposed to be short for).

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-a is the AND operator for combining conditions, so the following shows yes if both directories exist:

[ -e /root -a -e /usr ] && echo yes

The use of it with a single condition that defaults to an existance test seems like retained old behavior but I can't find it in old man pages.

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If you look at the coreutils source, the a and e cases share the same code in the function that handles unary operators, so I don't think it's an accidental thing. – jjlin Jun 17 '14 at 17:33

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