I tried searching for similar problems, but can't find one that makes sense for my code. I just started about 2 weeks ago, so that may just be an inability to understand migrating answers for one case to another.

I have a code to look up all directories in a file and search each file for a word input, then eventually put any of the files with non-blank outputs into a file.

I've been using the grep line:

g=$(grep -ni "$word" $myfile)

if [ ! -z $g ]; then

echo "the file inside is: $myfile"


I can put the complete code up, but this is the error:

/home/anthony/myscripts/wordturbo3.sh: line 22: [: 17:chemistry: binary operator expected

(for the word=chemistry, program=wordturbo3.sh)

This error only populates after I use the grep command with the ! -z qualifiers. The answer key I have writes it a little differently: it uses an if-else command (if -z, else) instead of (! -z) for just an if portion (no else). This seems to require that my if condition, -z, have an output in order to function (such as echo "this file is empty").

However, I am looking through many more files than the example and would like to not have to echo "this file is empty" hundreds of times just so that I can accomplish the "else" portion of the command. Therefore, I was simply trying to circumvent this need by using (! -z) for just the if portion.

It accomplishes what I want, but it first spits out 17 or so lines of the "binary operator expected."

Is there a simple workaround to this?

Thank you in advance for the advice.

edit: oh, and I found a suggestion online to use -n instead of -z for indicate "contains information" rather than "empty" but this didn't seem to work. The program didn't work when I replaced (! -z) with (-n).


Probably the issue is that your grep returns multiple matches, and the unquoted $g inside [ ! -z $g ] is undergoing word splitting.

Ex. given

$ cat myfile


$ g=$(grep -ni foo myfile)
$ echo $g
1:foo 3:Foo


$ [ ! -z $g ]
bash: [: 1:foo: binary operator expected

The error message is because -z is a unary operator i.e. it expects a single argument; since you have given two arguments to [ ... ] it expects you to have used a binary operator (like -eq).

If you quote the variable expansion i.e. "$g", all the matches returned by grep will be treated as a single argument, so the -z unary test will work:

$ [ ! -z "$g" ] && echo "non empty"
non empty

However you don't need any of this - instead, just check the exit status of grep itself:

$ if grep -qi foo myfile; then echo "foo is in myfile"; fi
foo is in myfile
  • Yes, you are right. It was the quoted "$g" that caused the error. I'm trying to understand your final line- what is -q? Is that "not empty"? – izardle Apr 17 '20 at 15:19
  • @izardle the -q tells grep to "be quiet" - it doesn't output anything, but its exit status will be TRUE (zero) if a match was found and FALSE (non zero) otherwise. It's also more efficient as it will exit on the first match. See man grep. – steeldriver Apr 17 '20 at 15:47

I figured it out. I needed to change:

if [ ! -z $g ]; then


if [ ! -z "$g" ]; then

However, I don't quite understand why yet. I'll keep looking on the web, but if anyone has any thoughts, I'd appreciate it.

Thank you!

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