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Mastering Standard Error Redirection in Linux: A Deep Dive

Standard streams—namely Standard Input (stdin), Standard Output (stdout), and Standard Error (stderr)—are a fundamental concept in Linux, Unix, and Unix-like operating systems. While stdin and stdout are often discussed, stderr tends to be overlooked. However, understanding how to manipulate stderr is crucial for troubleshooting and automating tasks efficiently. This article will focus on stderr redirection in Linux, detailing what it is, how to use it, and why it's vital for proficient Linux use.

What is Standard Error (stderr)?

In Linux and Unix-like operating systems, stderr is a standard stream that captures error messages from commands and applications. By default, this stream outputs data directly to the terminal, allowing users to diagnose issues or failures. For example, when you try to read a non-existent file, the message you get ("No such file or directory") is sent to stderr.

Basic Redirection of stderr to a File

The most straightforward way to redirect stderr is to use the 2> operator. In this case, '2' represents the file descriptor for stderr.

ls /nonexistent 2> error_log.txt

In this example, attempting to list a directory that doesn't exist will produce an error. The 2> operator directs this error message into a file called error_log.txt.

Redirecting stderr Does Not Mean Redirecting stdout

It's crucial to understand that redirecting stderr does not affect stdout. These are independent streams. For example:

ls /home > output.txt 2> error_log.txt

In this example, ls will list the contents of the /home directory, with stdout being saved to output.txt and any error messages saved to error_log.txt.

Redirecting Both stdout and stderr

If you want to redirect both stdout and stderr to the same file, you can use the &> operator.

ls /nonexistent &> all_output.txt

This command will direct both stdout and stderr to a file called all_output.txt.

Appending stderr to an Existing File

Similar to stdout, you can append the stderr to an existing file using the 2>> operator.

ls /nonexistent 2>> existing_error_log.txt

Redirecting stderr to stdout

Sometimes you may want to combine stderr and stdout. You can accomplish this using the 2>&1 syntax.

ls /nonexistent > all_output.txt 2>&1

Here, the 2>&1 directs stderr (file descriptor 2) to stdout (file descriptor 1). The combined output then gets saved to all_output.txt.

Is Redirection Permanent?

Redirection in the context of a single command or a script is temporary. It lasts only for the duration of that command's execution. However, you can set permanent redirection by embedding redirection commands into system or user-level scripts that run automatically.


Understanding stderr redirection in Linux is crucial for anyone who wants to harness the true power of the Linux command line. While stderr is often neglected in basic tutorials, it's a powerful tool for debugging and logging in real-world applications and scripts. By learning how to effectively redirect and manipulate stderr, you can improve both your problem-solving capabilities and scripting prowess.

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