BC(1) FreeBSD General Commands Manual BC(1)


bcarbitrary-precision arithmetic language and calculator


bc [ -chlv][ -e expression][ file ...]


bc is an interactive processor for a language which resembles C but provides unlimited precision arithmetic. It takes input from any expressions on the command line and any files given, then reads the standard input.

Options available:

bc is actually a preprocessor for dc(1), which it invokes automatically, unless the -c (compile only) option is present. In this case the generated dc(1) instructions are sent to the standard output, instead of being interpreted by a running dc(1) process.
-e expression, - -expression expression
Evaluate expression. If multiple -e options are specified, they are processed in the order given, separated by newlines.
-h, - -help
Prints usage information.
-l, - -mathlib
Allow specification of an arbitrary precision math library. The definitions in the library are available to command line expressions.
-v, - -version
Prints version information.

The syntax for bc programs is as follows: ‘L’ means letter a-z;‘E’ means expression;‘S’ means statement. As a non-portable extension, it is possible to use long names in addition to single letter names. A long name is a sequence starting with a lowercase letter followed by any number of lowercase letters and digits. The underscore character (‘_’) counts as a letter.


are enclosed in /* and */ 
are enclosed in # and the next newline

The newline is not part of the line comment, which in itself is a non-portable extension.


simple variables: L 
array elements: L [ E ] 
The words `ibase', `obase', and `scale' 
The word `last' or a single dot

Other operands

arbitrarily long numbers with optional sign and decimal point 
( E ) 
sqrt ( E ) 
length ( E ) number of significant decimal digits 
scale ( E ) number of digits right of decimal point 
L ( E , ... , E )

The sequence ‘\<newline><whitespace>’ is ignored within numbers.


The following arithmetic and logical operators can be used. The semantics of the operators is the same as in the C language. They are listed in order of decreasing precedence. Operators in the same group have the same precedence.

Operator Associativity Description
++ -- none increment, decrement
- none unary minus
^ right power
* / % left multiply, divide, modulus
+ - left plus, minus
= += -= *= /= %= ^= right assignment
== <= >= != < > none relational
! none boolean not
&& left boolean and
|| left boolean or

Note the following:

  • The relational operators may appear in any expression. The IEEE Std 1003.1-2008 (“POSIX.1”) standard only allows them in the conditional expression of an ‘if’, ‘while’ or ‘for’ statement.
  • The relational operators have a lower precedence than the assignment operators. This has the consequence that the expression a = b < c is interpreted as (a = b) < c, which is probably not what the programmer intended.
  • In contrast with the C language, the relational operators all have the same precedence, and are non-associative. The expression a < b < c will produce a syntax error.
  • The boolean operators (!, && and ||) are non-portable extensions.
  • The boolean not (!) operator has much lower precedence than the same operator in the C language. This has the consequence that the expression !a < b is interpreted as !(a < b). Prudent programmers use parentheses when writing expressions involving boolean operators.


{ S ; ... ; S } 
if ( E ) S 
if ( E ) S else S 
while ( E ) S 
for ( E ; E ; E ) S 
null statement 
a string of characters, enclosed in double quotes 
print E ,..., E

A string may contain any character, except double quote. The if statement with an else branch is a non-portable extension. All three E's in a for statement may be empty. This is a non-portable extension. The continue and print statements are also non-portable extensions.

The print statement takes a list of comma-separated expressions. Each expression in the list is evaluated and the computed value is printed and assigned to the variable `last'. No trailing newline is printed. The expression may also be a string enclosed in double quotes. Within these strings the following escape sequences may be used: ‘\a’ for bell (alert), ‘\b’ for backspace, ‘\f’ for formfeed, ‘\n’ for newline, ‘\r’ for carriage return, ‘\t’ for tab, ‘\q’ for double quote and ‘\\’ for backslash. Any other character following a backslash will be ignored. Strings will not be assigned to `last'.

Function definitions

define L ( L ,..., L ) { 
 auto L, ... , L 
 S; ... S 
 return ( E ) 

As a non-portable extension, the opening brace of the define statement may appear on the next line. The return statement may also appear in the following forms:

return () 
return E

The first two are equivalent to the statement “return 0”. The last form is a non-portable extension. Not specifying a return statement is equivalent to writing “return (0)”.

Functions available in the math library, which is loaded by specifying the -l flag on the command line

Bessel function

All function arguments are passed by value.

The value of a statement that is an expression is printed unless the main operator is an assignment. The value printed is assigned to the special variable `last'. This is a non-portable extension. A single dot may be used as a synonym for `last'. Either semicolons or newlines may separate statements. Assignment to scale influences the number of digits to be retained on arithmetic operations in the manner of dc(1). Assignments to ibase or obase set the input and output number radix respectively.

The same letter may be used as an array, a function, and a simple variable simultaneously. All variables are global to the program. `Auto' variables are pushed down during function calls. When using arrays as function arguments or defining them as automatic variables, empty square brackets must follow the array name.

For example

scale = 20 
define e(x){ 
 auto a, b, c, i, s 
 a = 1 
 b = 1 
 s = 1 
 for(i=1; 1==1; i++){ 
  a = a*x 
  b = b*i 
  c = a/b 
  if(c == 0) return(s) 
  s = s+c 

defines a function to compute an approximate value of the exponential function and

for(i=1; i<=10; i++) e(i)

prints approximate values of the exponential function of the first ten integers.

$ bc -l -e 'scale = 500; 2 * a(2^10000)' -e quit

prints an approximation of pi.


bc supports interactive command line editing, via the editline(3) library. It is enabled by default if input is from a tty. Previous lines can be recalled and edited with the arrow keys, and other GNU Emacs-style editing keys may be used as well.

The editline(3) library is configured with a .editrc file - refer to editrc(5) for more information.


math library, read when the -l option is specified on the command line.


The -q and - -quiet options are no-ops for compatibility with some other implementations of bc and their use is discouraged.




The bc utility is compliant with the IEEE Std 1003.1-2008 (“POSIX.1”) specification.

The flags [ -ce], as well as the parts noted above, are extensions to that specification.


The bc command first appeared in Version 6 AT&T UNIX. A complete rewrite of the bc command first appeared in OpenBSD 3.5.


The original version of the bc command was written by Robert Morris and Lorinda Cherry. The current version of the bc utility was written by Otto Moerbeek.


Quit’ is interpreted when read, not when executed.

Some non-portable extensions, as found in the GNU version of the bc utility are not implemented (yet).

April 16, 2014 FreeBSD