How to use printf command in Bash

Aug 17, 2023#bash

In Bash, the printf command is used to format and print text to the terminal. It works similarly to the printf function in other programming languages. Here’s the basic syntax:


Here, FORMAT_STRING specifies the format of the output, and ARGUMENTS are the values you want to insert into the format string. The format string can include placeholders that start with a % character, followed by a conversion specifier that defines how the argument should be formatted.

Here’s an example, the %s and %d placeholders are replaced by the values of the name and age variables, respectively:


printf "Hello, my name is %s and I am %d years old.\n" "$name" $age

# Output:
# Hello, my name is Alice and I am 30 years old.

You can also format numbers with specific precision and alignment. Here’s an example to output the value with two decimal places:


printf "Formatted value: %.2f\n" $value

# Output:
# Formatted value: 123.46

Remember to provide the appropriate number of arguments after the format string. If you don’t provide enough arguments, you’ll get unexpected results or errors.

Overall, the printf command in Bash provides powerful text formatting capabilities that allow you to create well-structured and neatly presented output.

Conversion specifications

In Bash’s printf command, the format string can include conversion specifications that have various optional components to control the formatting of the output. The format of a conversion specification is generally as follows:


Let’s break down each of these components:

  1. Flags ([flags]) are optional characters that modify the behavior of the conversion. Some commonly used flags are:
  • -: Left-align the output within the specified width.
  • +: Show a plus sign for positive numbers (e.g., +42).
  • 0: Pad the output with zeros instead of spaces.
  • (space): Insert a space before positive numbers (overrides the + flag).
  1. Width ([width]) specifies the minimum number of characters that the converted value should occupy. If the converted value is shorter than the specified width, padding characters (usually spaces) are added to reach the minimum width. If the converted value is longer, it won’t be truncated.

  2. Precision ([.precision]) specifies the number of decimal places to show for floating-point numbers or the maximum number of characters to display for strings. For integers, precision doesn’t have any effect. If you’re using %s for strings, a precision value of n means that only the first n characters of the string will be displayed.

  3. Specifier (specifier): indicates the type of value you’re formatting. It is a mandatory part of the conversion specification and determines how the corresponding argument should be formatted. Common specifiers include:

  • %s: String.
  • %d or %i: Integer.
  • %f: Floating-point number.
  • %c: Character.
  • %x and %X: Hexadecimal.
  • %o: Octal.
  • %u: Unsigned integer.

Putting it all together, here’s an example of a conversion specification with all the components:

printf "Result: %+10.2f\n" 42.9876

In this example:

  • Result: is the literal text that will be printed.
  • %+: The + flag indicates that a plus sign should be shown for positive numbers.
  • 10: The width specifies that the entire output, including padding and the converted value, should occupy at least 10 characters.
  • .2: The precision specifies that for floating-point numbers, two decimal places should be shown.
  • f: The f specifier indicates that the argument to be formatted is a floating-point number.

The output might look like:

Result:    +42.99

Remember that you can mix and match these components to achieve the desired formatting for your output. Different specifiers might have slightly different behavior with flags, width, and precision, so it’s always a good idea to experiment and consult the documentation for precise formatting.

Backslash-escaped characters

In Bash and many other programming languages, backslash-escaped characters are special sequences of characters that represent certain control characters, non-printable characters, or other special characters.

When you use these sequences in strings, they are interpreted and replaced with the corresponding character or behavior. Here are some common backslash-escaped characters and their meanings:

Character Meaning Example
\\ Backslash printf "Hello \\ world\n"
\" Double Quote printf "She said, \\\"Hi!\"\n"
\n Newline printf "Line 1\nLine 2\n"
\t Tab printf "Column 1\tColumn 2\n"
\r Carriage Return printf "Overwrite text\rNew text\n"
\b Backspace printf "Hello\bWorld\n"
\a Alert (Bell) printf "Alert:\aBeep!\n"
\v Vertical Tab printf "Line 1\vLine 2\n"
\0 Null printf "Null: A\0B\n"
\xHH Hexadecimal Escape printf "Hex: \x41\x42\n"

Difference between printf and echo

Both printf and echo can be used for printing text in Bash.

The printf command offers more control over formatting and is particularly useful when you need to format output with precision or include variables in a formatted manner.

The echo command is used to display a line of text or a string on the terminal. It’s a simple command that takes the provided arguments and prints them to the standard output. It doesn’t offer much formatting control. However, for basic text output and simple variable substitution, echo is often sufficient.

Both echo and printf can interpret escape sequences (like \n, \t, etc.), but the behavior might vary depending on the shell and options used.

printf provides more consistent results when dealing with complex or dynamic outputs, especially when combining text and variable values.



echo "Hello, world!"  # Simple text output
echo "Value is $value"  # Variable substitution

printf "Hello, %s!\n" "world"  # Formatted output with a string
printf "Value is %d\n" "$value"  # Formatted output with an integer

# Output:
# Hello, world!
# Value is 42
# Hello, world!
# Value is 42

Complex examples using printf

These examples showcase the power and flexibility of the printf command in Bash for various scenarios, including formatting, data manipulation, and creating visually appealing outputs. By experimenting with different format specifiers and options, you can achieve a wide range of output styles tailored to your needs.


# Formatted Table Header
printf "%-15s %-10s %-8s\n" "Name" "Age" "Score"
printf "%-15s %-10s %-8s\n" "Alice" 25 92.5
printf "%-15s %-10s %-8s\n" "Bob" 30 85.3
printf "%-15s %-10s %-8s\n" "Charlie" 22 78.9

# Decimal to Binary Conversion
printf "Decimal: %d\nBinary: %08b\n" "$decimal" "$decimal"

# Formatted Date
current_date=$(date +"%Y-%m-%d")
printf "Today's date: %s\n" "$current_date"

# Colorful Output (using ANSI escape codes)
printf "\e[31mRed text\e[0m\n"
printf "\e[32mGreen text\e[0m\n"
printf "\e[33mYellow text\e[0m\n"

# Formatted Error Message
error_message="File not found"
printf "\e[1;31mError:\e[0m %s\n" "$error_message"

# Progress Bar Simulation
for ((i = 0; i <= 50; i++)); do
  printf "[%-${i}s] %d%%\r" "#" $((i * 2))
  sleep 0.1
printf "\n"

# String Truncation
long_string="This is a very long string that needs to be truncated."
truncated_string=$(printf "%.${max_length}s" "$long_string")
printf "Truncated: %s...\n" "$truncated_string"

# Padding Numbers
for ((i = 1; i <= 10; i++)); do
  printf "Number: %02d\n" "$i"