Windows PowerShell’s Syntax

Introduction to PowerShell’s Syntax

The fact that you almost don’t need this page is a testament to the intuitive nature of PowerShell.  Yet for those who wish to save time fumbling with the PowerShell syntax, it may pay to have a refresher of these rules of scripting grammar.

Windows PowerShell Syntax Topics


Comma and Semi-colon

For many years a bad attitude to syntax hindered me.  My breakthrough was realizing that punctuation marks are there to aid the readers’ understanding; my mistake was thinking syntax rules were designed by my English teacher as a way of finding new ways to tell me off.

With PowerShell’s syntax the comma is frequently used to separate items on a list.  Whereas the semi-colon is used to split separate ideas.  Let us study this example:

# Eventlog example script to illustrate PowerShell's syntax.
$Log = Get-EventLog -List
ForEach ($Item in $Log) {
"{0,-30} {1,-20} {2,13}" -f `
$Item.Log, $Item.OverflowAction, $Item.MaximumKilobytes

Note 1: Each $Item is separated by a comma.  No sign of the semi-colon, yet.

Note 2: The comma is also used to separate items in an array {0,-30}

Suppose we want to count the number of eventlogs.  Let us introduce a variable $i

$Log = Get-EventLog -List
ForEach ($Item in $Log) {
"{0,-30} {1,-20} {2,13}" -f `
$Item.Log, $Item.OverflowAction, $Item.MaximumKilobytes; $i++
"There are $i eventlogs"

Note 3: The counter variable, $i++ is new element, which is not connected to the list; time for a semi-colon before the counter variable.

= Equals and -Not equal (!)

The equals sign (=) behaves just as expected.  As usual, ‘=’ tests for equivalence, my main use for equals sign is to sets a variable to =  a certain value.  The equals sign has a counterpart ! (Exclamation mark) meaning, ‘not equal’.  You may also employ -Not instead of !  I just include these two basic operators, ‘=’ and ! for completeness.

PowerShell -eq

PowerShell has a family of conditional operators

  • -eq meaning equals
  •  -ne in the negative, not equal to…
       Note: there is no -neq operator; just use the two letters -ne.
  • -gt and also -ge (greater than or equal)
  • -lt and also -le (less than or equal)

Here is how you would use the most famous member -eq

Get-Service | Where-Object {$_.Status -eq "Running"}

Note 4: Don't be tempted to use the "=" sign here, that would be a big mistake.

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Case Insensitive

PowerShell is fundamentally case insensitive.  Every object and every cmdlet is case insensitive.  Set-Location performs exactly the same action as set-location.  However, where your data has case sensitive values, there are PowerShell operators to deal with ‘case’.  For example, -gt means greater than, -Match means contains a particular string value. 

However, you can force these and similar operators to be case sensitive by prefixing hem with a ‘C’.  -CMatch, or -CGt mean that the comparison will be case sensitive.

See the rest of PowerShell's conditional operators »

+ Plus as a Concatenator

When I wanted to join text and numbers, I spent time looking for PowerShell’s concatenator.  Silly me, all I need is the simple + plus sign.  Where other languages use + for adding numbers, PowerShell uses ' + ' for joining strings, or even for combining text with numbers:

#PowerShell + concatenator
$Total = 180
"My total is " + $Total

# Result:
My total is 180

Hyphen -Dash -Minus

Some people call this symbol (-) minus, others a refer to this sign as a dash, I mostly call it a hyphen.  Let me be clear, this character maps to ASCII 45, to see the character, hold down ALT key, type 45 on numeric keypad, now let go of ALT key.

PowerShell uses this – symbol for two purposes.  Firstly, to join Verb-Noun pairs, for example Out-File guy.txt.  Secondly, this minus sign is also used for parameters, modifiers, or filters such as -List; as in Get-Eventlog -List.  The trap I fall into is to put a space between the minus and the modifier.  get  -Eventlog is clearly wrong, because there is a space between get and -. The correct format is, Get-Eventlog, with no space.

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Pipeline, the Pipe Symbol | (Sometimes looks like ¦)

The ability to pipe the output of one command, so that it becomes the input of the second command is PowerShell’s signature tune.  Thus it is important to be clear about this | symbol.

When typed in notepad, the pipeline symbol looks like this: | but when typed in the Microsoft Shell it looks like ¦.  On my keyboard the key I am using this symbol is next to the z, however I have seen keyboards where the pipeline key is next to numeric 1 on the top row.  Once you find, then type the key, you get a pipe symbol (|).

To be crystal clear this pipeline symbol corresponds to ASCII 124.  N.B this not ASCI 0166.  Test by holding down the Alt key and typing the number (124 or 0166) on the numeric pad, then letting go of the Alt key.

In PowerShell syntax the pipeline symbol (|) has three roles. 

  1. Think of the pipeline as a method for joining two commands. 
    Get-Eventlog system | Format-List
    You could even have two pipelines in one statement.
  2. PowerShell deploys Pipeline to introduce a ‘Where’ clause.
    Get-Eventlog security |where {$_.Eventid -eq "540"}
  3. Pipeline is similar to ‘more’ in DOS  
    Get-Eventlog system | more …
    See more about $_.

The Significance of PowerShell's Different Brackets ( { [] } )

If I had to choose one element of PowerShell's syntax to master it would be the bracket.  I love the logic of an 'If' statement; however, to get the command to work you have to understand If (parenthesis for condition) {curly brackets for payload}.

At first PowerShell's brackets surprised me.  Each type has a specific role, the wrong bracket will cause an otherwise sound command, to fail miserably.  The message is clear, you have to understand your brackets.  Let us see how each of these (), {} or [] has a different purpose.

1) () Parenthesis or Curved brackets are used for required options in the foreach loop

# PowerShell syntax – types of bracket
$disk= WmiObject Win32_LogicalDisk
"Drive Letter Size GB "
Foreach ($drive in $disk ) {"Drive = " + $drive.Name}

2) {} Braces or ‘curly’ brackets are required for block expressions within a command, for instance, the ‘where’ or ‘Where-Object’ command.

Example: Get-Service | Where-Object {$_.status -eq "stopped" }


3) [] Square brackets are used for optional elements, for example, to filter services beginning with ‘s’:

Example: Get-Service [s]*

I have also found square brackets are needed for math functions such as [int]value

Example: [int]TotalProcessorTime

4) >  and >> work as with DOS and cmd, they output the results of your commands not to screen, but to a text file.  The double chevron >> appends, the single > will overwrite any existing data in the file.

Conclusion, the type of bracket really matters, therefore always double check before you select {} () or [].  See more about PowerShell’s brackets.

Double and Single Quotes

As with brackets, the type of quotation mark is highly significant in PowerShell syntax.  Here is an example to illustrate the differences between single quotes and double quotes in PowerShell

$Bill = 57
$Tax = 7
$Total = $Bill + $Tax

"My total is $Total"

Using the double quotes illustrates PowerShell’s intelligence, it realizes that $Total is variable holding the value 64, thus the output is:
My total is 64

However, if we substitute single quotes: ‘My total is $Total’, we get a different, literal answer: My total is $Total.  PowerShell assumed that for a reason best known to us, we did not want it to use the math representation.

See more about PowerShell's quotation marks »

Achieve Word-wrap with Backtick` Backtick key in PowerShell

While word-wrap is neither essential, nor strictly speaking a syntactic element, it makes scripts easier to read.  The problem with most scripting languages, including PowerShell, is that an end-of-line means end of command. 

A new line, means a new command.

Thus we need a special symbol to control word-wrap.  PowerShell employs the backtick `.  I have seen this same character referred to as a grave.  A sure way of typing this key is to hold down the Alt key.  Now type 0096 on the numeric pad, let go of the Alt key.

See the rest of PowerShell's backtick ` »

PowerShell’s Switch Command

In VBScript one of my favourite techniques was Select Case, here in PowerShell the equivalent technique is called ‘Switch’.  Here is an example.   Guess the outcome?

$Choice = 2
switch ($Choice)
1 {"First Choice"}
2 {"Second Choice"}
3 {"Third Choice"}

The answer is determined by the value of $Choice, in this instance 2, therefore the result would be 2 "Second Choice"

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PowerShell’s Operators


Definition of PowerShell Syntax

# # The hash key is for comments
+ Add
* Multiply 
/ Divide
% Modulus (Some call it Modulo) – Means remainder 17 % 5 = 2 Remainder
= equal
-Not logical not equal
! logical not equal
-band binary and
-bor binary or 
-bnot binary not
-replace Replace (e.g.  "abcde" -replace "b","B") (case insensitive)
-ireplace Case-Insensitive replace (e.g.  "abcde" -ireplace "B","3")
-creplace Case-sensitive replace (e.g.  "abcde" -creplace "B","3")
-And AND (e.g. ($a -ge 5 -AND $a -le 15) )
-or OR  (e.g. ($a -eq "A" -OR $a -eq "B") )
-Is IS type (e.g. $a -Is [int] )
-Isnot IS not type (e.g. $a -Isnot [int] )
-as convert to type (e.g. 1 -as [string] treats 1 as a string )
.. Range operator (e.g.  foreach ($i in 1..10) {$i }  )
& call operator (e.g. $a = "Get-ChildItem" &$a executes Get-ChildItem)
. (dot followed by space) call operator (e.g. $a = "Get-ChildItem" . $a executes Get-ChildItem in the current scope)
. .Period or .full stop for an objects properties
-F Format operator (e.g. foreach ($p in Get-Process) { "{0,-15} has {1,6} handles" -F  $p.processname,$p.Handlecount } )

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PowerShell’s Conditional or Comparison Operators


Definition of PowerShell Syntax

-lt Less than
-le Less than or equal to
-gt Greater than
-ge Greater than or equal to
-eq Equal to
-ne Not Equal to
-Contains Determine elements in a group.
Contains always returns Boolean $True or $False.
-Notcontains Determine excluded elements in a group
This always returns Boolean $True or $False.
-Like Like – uses wildcards for pattern matching
-Notlike Not Like – uses wildcards for pattern matching
-Match Match – uses regular expressions for pattern matching
-Notmatch Not Match – uses regular expressions for pattern matching
-band Bitwise AND
-bor Bitwise OR
-Is Is of Type
-Isnot Is not of Type
  Other PowerShell Operators
if(condition) If condition (See more on PowerShell’s If)
ElseIf(condition) ElseIf
else(condition) Else
> Redirect, for example, output to text file
Example   .\cmdlet > stuff.txt
>> Same as Redirect except it appends to an existing file

Review of PowerShell Math »

Summary of Windows PowerShell Syntax

Every language must have its grammar rules.  However, with PowerShell syntax the rules for brackets, quotation marks and commas, all seem logical, straightforward and above all, consistent.

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See more PowerShell examples for syntax constructions

PowerShell Tutorials   • Syntax   • Pipeline   • Quotes   • Remove-Item   • ItemProperty

Select-String  • -replace string   • Group-Object   • Sort-Object   • PowerShell Splatting

Windows PowerShell cmdlets   • Windows PowerShell  • New-Item  • PowerShell New Object

Please email me if you have a better example script. Also please report any factual mistakes, grammatical errors or broken links, I will be happy to correct the fault.