22 April 2007

Windows Cmd Variables and For-loop Command

Strange Syntax for Variable Definition

My quickie script to export Oracle tables defined the for command variable using two percent symbols, %%i, instead of the expected %i% in Windows command shell. Even more strange is that only one % is required when the for command is written interactively in the command shell.

Cmd Variables

To demonstrate and understand how variables are defined in cmd, try the following script in a batch file (i.e. save the commands in a file and run it) and interactively (i.e. type in each command). Note that homedrive is an pre-defined environment variable while i is not defined.

echo %homedrive
echo %i
echo %homedrive%
echo %i%
echo %%homedrive%
echo %%i%
echo %%homedrive%%
echo %%i%%

Here's the results of using a batch script:

> echo homedrive
homedrive
> echo i
i
> echo C:
C:
> echo
ECHO is on.
> echo %homedrive
%homedrive
> echo %i
%i
> echo %homedrive%
%homedrive%
> echo %i%
%i%

Here's what happens when you enter these commands one at a time:

> echo %homedrive
%homedrive
> echo %i
%i
> echo %homedrive%
C:
> echo %i%
%i%
> echo %%homedrive%
%C:
> echo %%i%
%%i%
> echo %%homedrive%%
%C:%
> echo %%i%%
%%i%%

When cmd reads a script in batch mode, it always consumes the leading % for each string as it looks for variables or has to escape a % (see %%i). If a variable is found, that string is always replaced, even if it is not defined (see echo %i%).

On the other hand, when cmd processes a command interactively, it only consumes the %'s in a string when that string is delimited by % (compare echo %homedrive and echo %homedrive%) and if that string maps to a variable name (compare echo %homedrive% and echo %i%). Also, % by itself is treated as a literal "%".

For Command

Back to the for command from the start of this article. In a batch script, a variable, %i, for the for command has to be entered as %%i so that cmd will replace %% with just %. In interactive mode, you only need %i because cmd does not regard this string as a variable. So here's the batch script version of a for command …

for %%i in (a, b, c) do echo %%i

… while here's the interactive version of a for command …

for %i in (a, b, c) do echo %i

The for command defines a variable only if a string starts with %. If you use %i%, then cmd replaces it with a value if i is defined (as expected) and you may encounter some other unexpected error depending on the value of i. However, if i is not defined, for command exits with this message:

%i% was unexpected at this time.

Another unexpected limitation of the for command is that a variable can be only one character long. If you try a variable name that is two or more characters long, you will get this …

for %xy in (a, b, c) do echo %xy
%xy was unexpected at this time.