Short description

Describes how PowerShell parses commands.

Long description

When you enter a command at the command prompt, PowerShell breaks the command text into a series of segments called tokens and then determines how to interpret each token.

For example, if you type:

Write-Host book

PowerShell breaks the command into two tokens, Write-Host and book, and interprets each token independently using one of two major parsing modes: expression mode and argument mode.


As PowerShell parses command input it tries to resolve the command names to cmdlets or native executables. If a command name does not have an exact match, PowerShell prepends Get- to the command as a default verb. For example, PowerShell parses Process as Get-Process. It's not recommended to use this feature for the following reasons:

  • It's inefficient. This causes PowerShell to search multiple times.
  • External programs with the same name are resolved first, so you may not execute intended cmdlet.
  • Get-Help and Get-Command don't recognize verb-less names.

Expression mode

Expression mode is intended for combining expressions, required for value manipulation in a scripting language. Expressions are representations of values in PowerShell syntax, and can be simple or composite, for example:

Literal expressions are direct representations of their values:


Variable expressions carry the value of the variable they reference:


Operators combine other expressions for evaluation:

-not $Quiet
3 + 7
$input.Length -gt 1
  • Character string literals must be contained in quotation marks.
  • Numbers are treated as numerical values rather than as a series of characters (unless escaped).
  • Operators, including unary operators like - and -not and binary operators like + and -gt, are interpreted as operators and apply their respective operations on their arguments (operands).
  • Attribute and conversion expressions are parsed as expressions and applied to subordinate expressions, e.g. [int] '7'.
  • Variable references are evaluated to their values but splatting (i.e. pasting prefilled parameter sets) is forbidden and causes a parser error.
  • Anything else will be treated as a command to be invoked.

Argument mode

When parsing, PowerShell first looks to interpret input as an expression. But when a command invocation is encountered, parsing continues in argument mode. If you have arguments that contain spaces, such as paths, then you must enclose those argument values in quotes.

Argument mode is designed for parsing arguments and parameters for commands in a shell environment. All input is treated as an expandable string unless it uses one of the following syntaxes:

  • Dollar sign ($) followed by a variable name begins a variable reference, otherwise it is interpreted as part of the expandable string. The variable reference can include member access or indexing.

    • Additional characters following simple variable references, such as $HOME, are considered part of the same argument. Enclose the variable name in braces ({}) to separate it from subsequent characters. For example, ${HOME}.
    • When the variable reference include member access, the first of any additional characters is considered the start of a new argument. For example $HOME.Length-more results in two arguments: the value of $HOME.Length and string literal -more.
  • Quotation marks (' and ") begin strings

  • Braces ({}) begin a new script blocks

  • Commas (,) introduce lists passed as arrays, except when the command to be called is a native application, in which case they are interpreted as part of the expandable string. Initial, consecutive or trailing commas are not supported.

  • Parentheses (()) begin a new expression

  • Subexpression operator ($()) begins an embedded expression

  • Initial at sign (@) begins expression syntaxes such as splatting (@args), arrays (@(1,2,3)), and hash table literals (@{a=1;b=2}).

  • (), $(), and @() at the start of a token create a new parsing context that can contain expressions or nested commands.

    • When followed by additional characters, the first additional character is considered the start of a new, separate argument.
    • When preceded by an unquoted literal $() works like an expandable string, () starts a new argument that is an expression, and @() is taken as literal @ with () starting a new argument that is an expression.
  • Everything else is treated as an expandable string, except metacharacters that still need escaping.

    • The argument-mode metacharacters (characters with special syntactic meaning) are: <space> ' " ` , ; ( ) { } | & < > @ #. Of these, < > @ # are only special at the start of a token.
  • The stop-parsing token (--%) changes the interpretation of all remaining arguments. For more information, see the stop-parsing token section below.


The following table provides several examples of tokens processed in expression mode and argument mode and the evaluation of those tokens. For these examples, the value of the variable $a is 4.

Example Mode Result
2 Expression 2 (integer)
`2 Expression "2" (command)
Write-Output 2 Expression 2 (integer)
2+2 Expression 4 (integer)
Write-Output 2+2 Argument "2+2" (string)
Write-Output(2+2) Expression 4 (integer)
$a Expression 4 (integer)
Write-Output $a Expression 4 (integer)
$a+2 Expression 6 (integer)
Write-Output $a+2 Argument "4+2" (string)
$- Argument "$-" (command)
Write-Output $- Argument "$-" (string)
a$a Expression "a$a" (command)
Write-Output a$a Argument "a4" (string)
a'$a' Expression "a$a" (command)
Write-Output a'$a' Argument "a$a" (string)
a"$a" Expression "a$a" (command)
Write-Output a"$a" Argument "a4" (string)
a$(2) Expression "a$(2)" (command)
Write-Output a$(2) Argument "a2" (string)

Every token can be interpreted as some kind of object type, such as Boolean or String. PowerShell attempts to determine the object type from the expression. The object type depends on the type of parameter a command expects and on whether PowerShell knows how to convert the argument to the correct type. The following table shows several examples of the types assigned to values returned by the expressions.

Example Mode Result
Write-Output !1 argument "!1" (string)
Write-Output (!1) expression False (Boolean)
Write-Output (2) expression 2 (integer)
Set-Variable AB A,B argument 'A','B' (array)
CMD /CECHO A,B argument 'A,B' (string)
CMD /CECHO $AB expression 'A B' (array)
CMD /CECHO :$AB argument ':A B' (string)

Passing arguments to native commands

When running native commands from PowerShell, the arguments are first parsed by PowerShell. The parsed arguments are then joined into a single string with each parameter separated by a space.

For example, the following command calls the icacls.exe program.

icacls X:\VMS /grant Dom\HVAdmin:(CI)(OI)F

To run this command in PowerShell 2.0, you must use escape characters to prevent PowerShell from misinterpreting the parentheses.

icacls X:\VMS /grant Dom\HVAdmin:`(CI`)`(OI`)F

The stop-parsing token

Beginning in PowerShell 3.0, you can use the stop-parsing token (--%) to stop PowerShell from interpreting input asPowerShell commands or expressions.


The stop-parsing token is only intended for use on Windows platforms.

When calling a native command, place the stop-parsing token before the program arguments. This technique is much easier than using escape characters to prevent misinterpretation.

When it encounters a stop-parsing token, PowerShell treats the remaining characters in the line as a literal. The only interpretation it performs is to substitute values for environment variables that use standard Windows notation, such as %USERPROFILE%.

icacls X:\VMS --% /grant Dom\HVAdmin:(CI)(OI)F

PowerShell sends the following command string to the icacls.exe program:

X:\VMS /grant Dom\HVAdmin:(CI)(OI)F

The stop-parsing token is effective only until the next newline or pipeline character. You cannot use a continuation character (`) to extend its effect or use a command delimiter (;) to terminate its effect.

Other than %variable% environment-variable references, you cannot embed any other dynamic elements in the command. Escaping a % character as %%, the way you can do inside batch files, is not supported. %<name>% tokens are invariably expanded. If <name> does not refer to a defined environment variable the token is passed through as-is.

You cannot use stream redirection (like >file.txt) because they are passed verbatim as arguments to the target command.

Passing arguments that contain quote characters

Some native commands expect arguments that contain quote characters. Normally, PowerShell's command line parsing removes the quote character you provided. The parsed arguments are then joined into a single string with each parameter separated by a space. This string is then assigned to the Arguments property of a ProcessStartInfo object. Quotes within the string must be escaped using extra quotes or backslash (\) characters.


The backslash (\) character is not recognized as an escape character by PowerShell. It is the escape character used by the underlying API for ProcessStartInfo.Arguments.

For more information about the escape requirements, see the documentation for ProcessStartInfo.Arguments.

The following examples using the TestExe.exe tool. This tool is used by the Pester tests in the PowerShell source repo. The goal of these examples is to pass the directory path "C:\Program Files (x86)\Microsoft\" to a native command so that it received the path as a quoted string.

The echoargs parameter of TestExe displays the values received as arguments to the executable. You can use this tool to verify that you have properly escaped the characters in your arguments.

TestExe -echoargs """""${env:ProgramFiles(x86)}\Microsoft\\"""""
TestExe -echoargs """""C:\Program Files (x86)\Microsoft\\"""""
TestExe -echoargs "\""C:\Program Files (x86)\Microsoft\\"""
TestExe -echoargs --% "\"C:\Program Files (x86)\Microsoft\\"
TestExe -echoargs --% """C:\Program Files (x86)\Microsoft\\""
TestExe -echoargs --% """%ProgramFiles(x86)%\Microsoft\\""

The output is the same for all examples:

Arg 0 is <"C:\Program Files (x86)\Microsoft\">

You can build TestExe from the source code. See TestExe.

See also