Karan Sharma

Ramblings on tech, cycling, and finance

08 Aug 22

Don't use which

which is a non-standard/non-POSIX compliant program. I faced many issues getting which to work in a chroot environment (Nomad).

So basically, which is a simple shell script program to find out the dependency by searching the $PATH (which is what makes it less deterministic). It's also somehow symlinked 3 levels deep in Debian:

$ ls -laht /usr/bin/which
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 23 Apr 26 22:25 /usr/bin/which -> /etc/alternatives/which
$ ls -laht /etc/alternatives/which
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 26 Apr 26 22:25 /etc/alternatives/which -> /usr/bin/which.debianutils

Now, notice this:

$ which ls
ls: aliased to ls --color=tty

$ /usr/bin/which.debianutils ls

Both are the same programs. However, why is the output different? This is because which is apparently a shell built-in zsh, that is why:

# zsh
which which
which: shell built-in command

# bash
which which

The inconsistency happens because zsh treats which as a shell built-in when it's apparently not one.

This article has some more details on why which is bad and how the Debian team is slowly deprecating it from being a part of debianutils anymore.

When I invoked which from inside a Nomad chroot, it complained that I didn't have /bin/sh (because I was using a custom chroot mount). I started looking hard for alternatives because this silly utility already wasted too much of my time.

What to use

Use command -v. It's a shell built-in, so it avoids a dependency on an external binary (unlike which).

Usage example:

if ! command -v aws > /dev/null; then
        echo "Can't find 'aws' executable. Aborted."
        exit 1


I found the following posts while digging which and its alternatives.