How do I use round brackets in an 'if' condition

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I'm creating a bash script and somewhere inside I have this code:

if [ $# -eq 2 -a (! -r "$2" -o ! -f "$2") ]; then
echo "rvf: bestand \""$2"\" bestaat niet of is onleesbaar" 1>&2
exit 2

When i try to run this inside the script I get this error:

Syntax Error (bash -n):
rvf: line 14: syntax error in conditional expression
rvf: line 14: syntax error near `-a'
rvf: line 14: `if [[ $# -eq 2 -a (! -r "$2" -o ! -f "$2") ]]; then'

How does '()' work inside Bash scripts?

[[ doens't support -a, and it is considered obsolete and non portable for [. The correct solution using [ would be

if [ "$#" -eq 2 ] && { [ ! -r "$2" ] || [ ! -f "$2" ]; }; then

Grouping is done with { ... } rather than ( ... ) to avoid creating an unnecessary subshell.

Using [[ is simplifies to

if [[ "$#" -eq 2 && ( ! -r "$2" || ! -f "$2" ) ]]; then

Parentheses can be used for grouping inside [[; as a compound command, it uses separate parsing and evaluation rules, compared to an ordinary command like [ (which is just an alias for test, not syntax of any kind).

In either case, De Morgan's laws lets you refactor this to something a little simpler:

if [ "$#" -eq 2 ] && ! { [ -r "$2" ] && [ -f "$2" ] }; then

if [[ "$#" -eq 2 && ! ( -r "$2" && -f "$2" ) ]]; then

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Restructure your logic. "Not A or Not B" is just a more complicated way to say "not (A and B)".

In bash, try

if [[ "$#" == 2 ]] && ! [[ -r "$2" && -f "$2" ]]; then


if [[ "$#" == 2 && -r "$2" && -f "$2" ]]
then : all good code
else : nope code

Even better,

if [[ "$#" == 2 ]]            # correct args
then if [[ -r "$2" ]]         # is readable
     then if [[ if -f "$2" ]] # is a file
          then echo "all good"
               : do all good stuff
          else echo "'$2' not a file"
               : do not a file stuff
     else echo "'$2' not readable"
          : do not readable stuff
else echo "Invalid number of args"
     : do wrong args stuff

Clear error logging is worth breaking the pieces out.

Even better, imho -

if [[ "$#" != 2 ]]
then : wrong args stuff
if [[ ! -r "$2" ]]
then : unreadable stuff
if [[ ! -f "$2" ]] 
then : do not a file stuff

: do all good stuff

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  • Are you using [ like your posted code or [[ like in your error message?
  • BTW, note that neither [ or [[ is "if syntax"; they're independent commands, which can be used without if being involved (and if can be used without either of them; if somecommand; then ... will check whether somecommand returned a zero or nonzero exit status, whatever that command may be).
  • As an additional aside, $2 should be in quotes to prevent its value from being subject to word-splitting and glob-expansion -- so you should just have echo "...$2..." instead of echo "..."$2"..."; if you want to prevent any characters directly concatenated on the right-hand side from being parsed as part of an attempted variable name, then echo "...${2}..." instead.
  • (Quoting $# also prevents problems with insane IFS values containing numeric characters when using [ rather than [[, so it's not a bad practice regardless).
  • True; I'll just drop the comment and imply that it is necessary :)