In the shell, what does " 2>&1 " mean?


Question

In a Unix shell, if I want to combine stderr and stdout into the stdout stream for further manipulation, I can append the following on the end of my command:

2>&1

So, if I want to use head on the output from g++, I can do something like this:

g++ lots_of_errors 2>&1 | head

so I can see only the first few errors.

I always have trouble remembering this, and I constantly have to go look it up, and it is mainly because I don't fully understand the syntax of this particular trick.

Can someone break this up and explain character by character what 2>&1 means?

1
2061
5/9/2018 6:51:50 PM

Accepted Answer

File descriptor 1 is the standard output (stdout).
File descriptor 2 is the standard error (stderr).

Here is one way to remember this construct (although it is not entirely accurate): at first, 2>1 may look like a good way to redirect stderr to stdout. However, it will actually be interpreted as "redirect stderr to a file named 1". & indicates that what follows is a file descriptor and not a filename. So the construct becomes: 2>&1.

2288
5/9/2018 8:18:47 PM

echo test > afile.txt

redirects stdout to afile.txt. This is the same as doing

echo test 1> afile.txt

To redirect stderr, you do:

echo test 2> afile.txt

>& is the syntax to redirect a stream to another file descriptor - 0 is stdin, 1 is stdout, and 2 is stderr.

You can redirect stdout to stderr by doing:

echo test 1>&2 # or echo test >&2

Or vice versa:

echo test 2>&1

So, in short... 2> redirects stderr to an (unspecified) file, appending &1 redirects stderr to stdout.


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