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5.3.1 Choosing the Shell

The program used as the shell is taken from the variable SHELL. If this variable is not set in your makefile, the program /bin/sh is used as the shell.

Unlike most variables, the variable SHELL is never set from the environment. This is because the SHELL environment variable is used to specify your personal choice of shell program for interactive use. It would be very bad for personal choices like this to affect the functioning of makefiles. See Variables from the Environment.

Furthermore, when you do set SHELL in your makefile that value is not exported in the environment to commands that make invokes. Instead, the value inherited from the user's environment, if any, is exported. You can override this behavior by explicitly exporting SHELL (see Communicating Variables to a Sub-make), forcing it to be passed in the environment to commands.

However, on MS-DOS and MS-Windows the value of SHELL in the environment is used, since on those systems most users do not set this variable, and therefore it is most likely set specifically to be used by make. On MS-DOS, if the setting of SHELL is not suitable for make, you can set the variable MAKESHELL to the shell that make should use; if set it will be used as the shell instead of the value of SHELL.

Choosing a Shell in DOS and Windows

Choosing a shell in MS-DOS and MS-Windows is much more complex than on other systems.

On MS-DOS, if SHELL is not set, the value of the variable COMSPEC (which is always set) is used instead.

The processing of lines that set the variable SHELL in Makefiles is different on MS-DOS. The stock shell,, is ridiculously limited in its functionality and many users of make tend to install a replacement shell. Therefore, on MS-DOS, make examines the value of SHELL, and changes its behavior based on whether it points to a Unix-style or DOS-style shell. This allows reasonable functionality even if SHELL points to

If SHELL points to a Unix-style shell, make on MS-DOS additionally checks whether that shell can indeed be found; if not, it ignores the line that sets SHELL. In MS-DOS, GNU make searches for the shell in the following places:

  1. In the precise place pointed to by the value of SHELL. For example, if the makefile specifies ‘SHELL = /bin/sh’, make will look in the directory /bin on the current drive.
  2. In the current directory.
  3. In each of the directories in the PATH variable, in order.

In every directory it examines, make will first look for the specific file (sh in the example above). If this is not found, it will also look in that directory for that file with one of the known extensions which identify executable files. For example .exe, .com, .bat, .btm, .sh, and some others.

If any of these attempts is successful, the value of SHELL will be set to the full pathname of the shell as found. However, if none of these is found, the value of SHELL will not be changed, and thus the line that sets it will be effectively ignored. This is so make will only support features specific to a Unix-style shell if such a shell is actually installed on the system where make runs.

Note that this extended search for the shell is limited to the cases where SHELL is set from the Makefile; if it is set in the environment or command line, you are expected to set it to the full pathname of the shell, exactly as things are on Unix.

The effect of the above DOS-specific processing is that a Makefile that contains ‘SHELL = /bin/sh’ (as many Unix makefiles do), will work on MS-DOS unaltered if you have e.g. sh.exe installed in some directory along your PATH.