If you are a busy person, then the last thing you need is to be bothered with a huge amount of ‘useless’ notifications, so how do you quieten things down? Today’s SuperUser Q&A post has some great answers to help a reader quieten down the amount of output.

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader Xster wants to know how to run a command in the background with no output unless there is an error:

How do you suppress a command’s output, but show it if the command’s exit codes an error?

How do you get a command to run in the background with no output unless there is an error?

The Answer

SuperUser contributors Bob and Maximillian Laumeister have the answer for us. First up, Bob:

Unfortunately, the assumption that stderr is only used for error output is not always correct. Rather, stderr is often used for any and all interactive output and diagnostics (i.e. output intended for the user to read in an interactive prompt).(1) wget and dd are well-known examples.

Some commands will provide a flag (i.e. -quiet or -silent) to suppress non-error output. Read their man pages to see if one exists.

Another convention that holds more often is the exit code, a program returns an exit code when it exits. Typically(2), an exit code of 0 indicates success, and any other exit code indicates an error.

With bash, you can get the exit code of the last command from the $? variable. In fish, use the $status variable. You can pipe stderr to a temporary file and only print it if an error occurs. For example (fish):

You can also use some shortcuts if you are not chaining commands:


You can also pipe stdout to the same buffer by using 2>&1 >/tmp/outputbuffer.

(Note: I do not actually know fish, so I am adapting the concept to what I can find in its documentation. The syntax might be slightly wrong. Also, you can use mktemp to generate a unique temporary file. Run it and record the file name in a variable.)

If you need to run the whole thing in the background of a shell that you are also using interactively at the same time, then you are better off writing a script to handle the output-hiding and running that script in the background with the standard techniques (fish). Heck, you can put something like the following function in ~/.config/fish/config.fish:

Call with run-silent somecommand & (where the trailing & causes it to run in the background)

Note that this will swallow the original exit code, and will dump both stdout and stderr in the event of a failure. You can customise it as necessary.

(1) There is no guarantee that error output will not appear on stdout, some programs will dump all output there!

(2) Unfortunately, this is still not always the case. The exit code is completely controlled by the program and some will indicate some success conditions with non-zero exits. Again, check the manual.

Followed by the answer from Maximillian Laumeister:

Unix utilities send general messages to stdout, and error messages to stderr, so if we only want to see error messages, then it will be sufficient to suppress stdout so that only stderr gets output to the console.

The way to do this (in both bash and fish) is to append >/dev/null to the command. This pipes stdout into nothingness, but stderr (with your error messages) still comes through to the console.

So for instance:

The command echo 1 >/dev/null prints nothing, because the normal stdout output is suppressed, and nothing was written to stderr.

The command man doesnotexist >/dev/null prints an error message, because man writes its error message to stderr.

Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

Akemi Iwaya
Akemi Iwaya has been part of the How-To Geek/LifeSavvy Media team since 2009. She has previously written under the pen name "Asian Angel" and was a Lifehacker intern before joining How-To Geek/LifeSavvy Media. She has been quoted as an authoritative source by ZDNet Worldwide.
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