Sorting an Array in Bash

You don’t really need all that much code:

IFS=$'\n' sorted=($(sort <<<"${array[*]}"))
unset IFS

Supports whitespace in elements (as long as it’s not a newline), and works in Bash 3.x.


$ array=("a c" b f "3 5")
$ IFS=$'\n' sorted=($(sort <<<"${array[*]}"))
$ printf "[%s]\n" "${sorted[@]}"
[3 5]
[a c]

Note: @sorontar has pointed out that care is required if elements contain wildcards such as * or ?:

The sorted=($(…)) part is using the “split and glob” operator. You should turn glob off: set -f or set -o noglob or shopt -op noglob or an element of the array like * will be expanded to a list of files.
What’s happening:

The result is a culmination six things that happen in this order:

unset IFS

First, the IFS=$’\n’

This is an important part of our operation that affects the outcome of 2 and 5 in the following way:


“${array[*]}” expands to every element delimited by the first character of IFS
sorted=() creates elements by splitting on every character of IFS
IFS=$’\n’ sets things up so that elements are expanded using a new line as the delimiter, and then later created in a way that each line becomes an element. (i.e. Splitting on a new line.)

Delimiting by a new line is important because that’s how sort operates (sorting per line). Splitting by only a new line is not-as-important, but is needed preserve elements that contain spaces or tabs.

The default value of IFS is a space, a tab, followed by a new line, and would be unfit for our operation.

Next, the sort <<<"${array[*]}" part <<<, called here strings, takes the expansion of "${array[*]}", as explained above, and feeds it into the standard input of sort. With our example, sort is fed this following string: a c b f 3 5 Since sort sorts, it produces: 3 5 a c b f Next, the sorted=($(...)) part The $(...) part, called command substitution, causes its content (sort <<<"${array[*]}) to run as a normal command, while taking the resulting standard output as the literal that goes where ever $(...) was. In our example, this produces something similar to simply writing: sorted=(3 5 a c b f ) sorted then becomes an array that's created by splitting this literal on every new line. Finally, the unset IFS This resets the value of IFS to the default value, and is just good practice. It's to ensure we don't cause trouble with anything that relies on IFS later in our script. (Otherwise we'd need to remember that we've switched things around--something that might be impractical for complex scripts.)