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'echo -e' works because of built-in functionality of echo. In general, if you want to insert tab in bash, you can force a literal tab by typing Ctrl-V TAB or the equivalent Ctrl-V Ctrl-I; this also works for other special characters.
This works, but is unreliable in scripts and copy-and-paste snippets, so I recommend the ultimate way using bash's escape character variables. They are described (poorly) in the manual; to get the tab you'd do $'\t'. Caution: unfortunately this doesn't work within the double-quoted strings, so if you need tabs and spaces, you have to do things like "a b"$'\t'
Last edited by przemek.klosowski; 06-16-2011 at 09:41 AM.