Text streams and filters

Manipulating text at the command line using GNU textutils


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This content is part # of # in the series: Learn Linux, 101

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This content is part of the series:Learn Linux, 101

Stay tuned for additional content in this series.


This tutorial gives you an introduction to filters, which you can use to build complex pipelines to manipulate text using the filters. You learn how to display text, sort it, count words and lines, and translate characters, among other tasks. You also learn how to use the stream editor sed.

In this tutorial, you learn about the following topics:

  • Sending text files and output streams through text utility filters to modify the output
  • Using standard UNIX® commands found in the GNU textutils package
  • Using the editor sed to script complex changes to text files

This tutorial helps you prepare for Objective 103.2 in Topic 103 of the Linux Server Professional (LPIC-1) exam 101. The objective has a weight of 3.


To get the most from the tutorials in this series, you should have a basic knowledge of Linux and a working Linux system on which you can practice the commands covered in this tutorial. Sometimes different versions of a program format output differently, so your results might not always look exactly like the listings and figures shown here.

Text filtering

Text filtering is the process of taking an input stream of text and performing some conversion on the text before sending it to an output stream. Although either the input or the output can come from a file, in the Linux and UNIX environments, filtering is most often done by constructing a pipeline of commands where the output from one command is piped or redirected to be used as input to the next. Pipes and redirection are covered more fully in the tutorial on streams, pipes, and redirects (which you can find in the series roadmap), but for now, let's look at pipes and basic output redirection using the | and > operators.

Unless otherwise noted, the examples in this tutorial use Ubuntu 14.04.2 LTS, with a 3.16 kernel. Your results on other systems might differ.


A stream is nothing more than a sequence of bytes that can be read or written using library functions that hide the details of an underlying device from the application. The same program can read from or write to a terminal, file, or network socket in a device-independent way using streams. Modern programming environments and shells use three standard I/O streams:

  • stdin is the standard input stream, which provides input to commands.
  • stdout is the standard output stream, which displays output from commands.
  • stderr is the standard error stream, which displays error output from commands.

Piping with |

Input can come from parameters you supply to commands, and output can be displayed on your terminal. Many text processing commands (filters) can take input either from the standard input stream or from a file. To use the output of a command, command1, as input to a filter, command2, you connect the commands using the pipe operator (|). Listing 1 shows how to pipe the output of echo to sort a small list of words.

Listing 1. Piping output from echo to input of sort
ian@Z61t-u14:~$ echo -e "apple\npear\nbanana"|sort

Either command can have options or arguments. You can also use | to redirect the output of the second command in the pipeline to a third command, and so on. Constructing long pipelines of commands that each have limited capability is a common Linux and UNIX way of accomplishing tasks. You also sometimes see a hyphen (-) used in place of a filename as an argument to a command, meaning the input should come from stdin rather than a file.

Output redirection with >

While it is nice to be able to create a pipeline of several commands and see the output on your terminal, there are times when you want to save the output in a file. You do this with the output redirection operator (>).

For the rest of this section, we use some small files, so let's create a directory called lpi103-2 and then cd into that directory. We then use > to redirect the output of the echo command into a file called text1. This is all shown in Listing 2. Notice that the output does not display on the terminal because it has been redirected to the file.

Listing 2. Redirecting output from a command to a file
ian@Z61t-u14:~$ mkdir lpi103-2
ian@Z61t-u14:~$ cd lpi103-2
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ echo -e "1 apple\n2 pear\n3 banana" > text1

Now that we have a couple of basic tools for pipelining and redirection, let's look at some of the common UNIX and Linux text processing commands and filters. This section shows you some of the basic capabilities; check the appropriate man pages to find out more about these commands.

Cat, od, and split

Now that you have created the text1 file, you might want to check what is in it. Use the cat (short for concatenate) command to display the contents of a file on stdout. Listing 3 verifies the contents of the file created in Listing 2.

Listing 3. Displaying file contents with cat
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ cat text1
1 apple
2 pear
3 banana

The cat command takes input from stdin if you do not specify a filename (or if you specify - as the filename). Let's use this along with output redirection to create another text file as shown in Listing 4.

Listing 4. Creating a text file with cat
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ cat >text2
9       plum
3       banana
10      apple

In Listing 4, cat keeps reading from stdin until the end of the file. Use the Ctrl-d key (hold Ctrl and press d) combination to signal end of file. This is the same key combination to exit from the bash shell. Use the tab key to line up the fruit names in a column.

Remember that cat was short for concatenate? You can use cat to concatenate several files together for display. Listing 5 shows the two files that we have just created.

Listing 5. Concatenating two files with cat
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ cat text*
1 apple
2 pear
3 banana
9	plum
3	banana
10	apple

When you display these two text files using cat, you notice alignment differences. To learn what causes this, you need to look at the control characters that are in the file. These are acted on in text display output rather than having some representation of the control character itself displayed, so we need to dump the file in a format that allows you to find and interpret these special characters. The GNU text utilities include an od (or Octal Dump) command for this purpose.

There are several options for od, such as the -A option to control the radix of the file offsets and -t to control the form of the displayed file contents. The radix can be specified as o, (octal, the default), d (decimal), x (hexadecimal), or n (no offsets displayed). You can display output as octal, hex, decimal, floating point, ASCII with backslash escapes, or named characters (for example, nl for newline or ht for horizontal tab). Listing 6 shows some of the formats available for dumping the text2 example file.

Listing 6. Dumping files with od
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ od text2
0000000 004471 066160 066565 031412 061011 067141 067141 005141
0000020 030061 060411 070160 062554 000012
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ od -A d -t c text2
0000000   9  \t   p   l   u   m  \n   3  \t   b   a   n   a   n   a  \n
0000016   1   0  \t   a   p   p   l   e  \n
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ od -A n -t a text2
   9  ht   p   l   u   m  nl   3  ht   b   a   n   a   n   a  nl
   1   0  ht   a   p   p   l   e  nl


  • The -A option of cat provides an alternate way of seeing where your tabs and line endings are. See the man page for more information.
  • If you see spaces instead of tabs in your own text2 file, refer to Expand, unexpand, and tr, later in this tutorial to see how to switch between tabs and spaces in a file.
  • If you have a mainframe background, you might be interested in the hexdump utility, which is part of a different utility set. It's not covered here, so check the man pages.

Our sample files are very small, but sometimes you have large files that you need to split into smaller pieces. For example, you might want to break a large file into CD-sized chunks so you can write it to a CD for sending through the mail to someone who could create a DVD for you. The split command does this in such a way that the cat command can be used to re-create the file easily. By default, the files resulting from the split command have a prefix in their name of 'x' followed by a suffix of 'aa', 'ab', 'ac', ..., 'ba', 'bb', and so on. Options permit you to change these defaults. You can also control the size of the output files and whether the resulting files contain whole lines or just byte counts.

Listing 7 illustrates splitting our two text files with different prefixes for the output files. We split text1 into files containing at most two lines, and text2 into files containing at most 18 bytes. We then use cat to display some of the pieces individually as well as to display a complete file using globbing, which is covered in the tutorial on basic file and directory management.

Listing 7. Splitting and recombining with split and cat
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ split -l 2 text1
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ split -b 17 text2 y
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ cat yaa
9	plum
3	banana
1ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ cat yab
0	apple
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ cat y* x*
9	plum
3	banana
10	apple
1 apple
2 pear
3 banana

Note that the split file named yaa did not finish with a newline character, so our prompt was offset after we used cat to display it.

Wc, head, and tail

Cat displays the whole file. That's fine for small files like our examples, but suppose you have a large file. Well, first you might want to use the wc (Word Count) command to see how big the file is. The wc command displays the number of lines, words, and bytes in a file. You can also find the number of bytes by using ls -l. Listing 8 shows the long format directory listing for our two text files, as well as the output from wc.

Listing 8. Using wc with text files
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ ls -l text*
-rw-rw-r-- 1 ian ian 24 Jun  8 13:26 text1
-rw-rw-r-- 1 ian ian 25 Jun  8 13:36 text2
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ wc text*
 3  6 24 text1
 3  6 25 text2
 6 12 49 total

Options allow you to control the output from wc or to display other information such as maximum line length. See the man page for details.

Two commands allow you to display either the first part (head) or last part (tail) of a file. These commands are the head and tail commands. They can be used as filters, or they can take a filename as an argument. By default, they display the first (or last) 10 lines of the file or stream. Listing 9 uses the dmesg command to display bootup messages, in conjunction with wc, tail, and head to discover that there are 791 messages, then to display the last 10 of these, and finally to display the six messages starting 15 from the end.

Listing 9. Using wc, head, and tail to display boot messages
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ dmesg|wc
   1100    9541   74856
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ dmesg | tail
[ 8334.796068] wlan0: direct probe to 00:02:6f:ff:39:0c (try 2/3)
[ 8335.000081] wlan0: direct probe to 00:02:6f:ff:39:0c (try 3/3)
[ 8335.204065] wlan0: authentication with 00:02:6f:ff:39:0c timed out
[ 8351.649200] wlan0: authenticate with 6c:b0:ce:fb:43:02
[ 8351.658626] wlan0: send auth to 6c:b0:ce:fb:43:02 (try 1/3)
[ 8351.661222] wlan0: authenticated
[ 8351.664069] wlan0: associate with 6c:b0:ce:fb:43:02 (try 1/3)
[ 8351.678348] wlan0: RX AssocResp from 6c:b0:ce:fb:43:02 (capab=0x431 status=0 aid=3)
[ 8351.678479] wlan0: associated
[12050.026812] perf interrupt took too long (2502 > 2500), lowering kernel.perf_event_max_sample_ra
te to 50000
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ dmesg | tail -n15 | head -n 6
[ 8324.132080] wlan0: direct probe to 6c:b0:ce:fb:43:02 (try 2/3)
[ 8324.336072] wlan0: direct probe to 6c:b0:ce:fb:43:02 (try 3/3)
[ 8324.540069] wlan0: authentication with 6c:b0:ce:fb:43:02 timed out
[ 8334.589068] wlan0: authenticate with 00:02:6f:ff:39:0c
[ 8334.594323] wlan0: direct probe to 00:02:6f:ff:39:0c (try 1/3)
[ 8334.796068] wlan0: direct probe to 00:02:6f:ff:39:0c (try 2/3)

Another common use of tail is to follow a file that uses the -f option, usually with a line count of 1. You might use this when you have a background process that is generating output in a file and you want to check in and see how it is doing. In this mode, tail runs until you cancel it (using Ctrl-c), displaying lines as they are written to the file.

Expand, unexpand, and tr

When we created our text1 and text2 files, we created text2 with tab characters. Sometimes, you might want to swap tabs for spaces or vice versa. The expand and unexpand commands do this. With the -t option for both commands, you can set the tab stops. A single value sets repeated tabs at that interval. Listing 10expand and unexpand that unaligns the text in text2.

Listing 10. Using expand and unexpand
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ expand -t 1 text2
9 plum
3 banana
10 apple
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ expand -t8 text2|unexpand -a -t2|expand -t3
9           plum
3           banana
10       apple
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ cat text1 |tr ' ' '\t'|cat - text2
1	apple
2	pear
3	banana
9	plum
3	banana
10	apple

Unfortunately, you cannot use unexpand to replace the spaces in text1 with tabs, as unexpand requires at least two spaces to convert to tabs. However, you can use the tr command, which translates characters in one set (set1) to corresponding characters in another set (set2). Listing 11 shows how to use tr to translate spaces to tabs. Because tr is purely a filter, you generate input for it using the cat command. This example also illustrates the use of - to signify standard input to cat, so we can concatenate the output of tr and the text2 file.

Listing 11. Using tr
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ cat text1 |tr ' ' '\t'|cat - text2
1	apple
2	pear
3	banana
9	plum
3	banana
10	apple

If you are not sure what is happening in the last two examples, try using od to terminate each stage of the pipeline in turn; for example:
cat text1 |tr ' ' '\t' | od -tc

Pr, nl, and fmt

The pr command is used to format files for printing. The default header includes the filename and file creation date and time, along with a page number and two lines of blank footer. When output is created from multiple files or the standard input stream, the current date and time are used instead of the filename and creation date. You can print files side-by-side in columns and control many aspects of formatting through options. As usual, refer to the man page for details.

The nl command numbers lines, which can be convenient when printing files. You can also number lines with the -n option of the cat command. Listing 12 shows how to print our text file, and then how to number text2 and print it side-by-side with text1.

Listing 12. Numbering and formatting for print
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ pr text1 | head

2015-06-08 13:26                      text1                       Page 1

1 apple
2 pear
3 banana

ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ nl text2 | pr -m - text1 | head

2015-06-08 16:10                                                  Page 1

     1	9	plum			    1 apple
     2	3	banana			    2 pear
     3	10	apple			    3 banana

Another useful command for formatting text is the fmt command, which formats text so it fits within margins. You can join several short lines as well as split long ones. In Listing 13, we create text3 with a single long line of text using variants of the !#:* history feature to save typing our sentence four times. We also create text4 with one word per line. Then we use cat to display them unformatted including a displayed '$' character to show line endings. Finally, we use fmt to format them to a maximum width of 60 characters. Again, consult the man page for details on additional options.

Listing 13. Formatting to a maximum line length
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ echo "This is a sentence. " !#:* !#:1->text3
echo "This is a sentence. " "This is a sentence. " "This is a sentence. ">text3
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ echo -e "This\nis\nanother\nsentence.">text4
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ cat -et text3 text4
This is a sentence.  This is a sentence.  This is a sentence. $
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ fmt -w 60 text3 text4
This is a sentence.  This is a sentence.  This is a
This is another sentence.

Sort and uniq

The sort command sorts the input using the collating sequence for the locale (LC_COLLATE) of the system. The sort command can also merge already sorted files and check whether a file is sorted or not.

Listing 14 illustrates using the sort command to sort our two text files after translating blanks to tabs in text1. Because the sort order is by character, you might be surprised at the results. Fortunately, the sort command can sort by numeric values or by character values. You can specify this choice for the whole record or for each field. Unless you specify a different field separator, fields are delimited by blanks or tabs. The second example in Listing 14 shows sorting the first field numerically and the second by collating sequence (alphabetically). It also illustrates the use of the -u option to eliminate any duplicate lines and keep only lines that are unique.

Listing 14. Character and numeric sorting
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ cat text1 | tr ' ' '\t' | sort - text2
10	apple
1	apple
2	pear
3	banana
3	banana
9	plum
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ cat text1|tr ' ' '\t'|sort -u -k1n -k2 - text2
1	apple
2	pear
3	banana
9	plum
10	apple

Notice that we still have two lines containing the fruit "apple" because the uniqueness test is performed on all of the two sort keys, k1n and k2 in our case. Think about how to modify or add steps to the above pipeline to eliminate the second occurrence of 'apple'.

Another command called uniq gives us another way of controlling the elimination of duplicate lines. The uniq command normally operates on sorted files and removes consecutive identical lines from any file, whether sorted or not. The uniq command can also ignore some fields. Listing 15 sorts our two text files using the second field (fruit name) and then eliminates lines that are identical, starting at the second field (that is, we skip the first field when testing with uniq).

Listing 15. Using uniq
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ cat text1|tr ' ' '\t'|sort -k2 - text2|uniq -f1
10	apple
3	banana
2	pear
9	plum

Our sort was by collating sequence, so uniq gives us the "10 apple" line instead of the "1 apple". Try adding a numeric sort on key field 1 to see how to change this.

Cut, paste, and join

Now let's look at three more commands that deal with fields in textual data. These commands are particularly useful for dealing with tabular data. The first is the cut command, which extracts fields from text files. The default field delimiter is the tab character. Listing 16 uses cut to separate the two columns of text2 and then uses a space as an output delimiter, which is an exotic way of converting the tab in each line to a space.

Listing 16. Using cut
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ cut -f1-2 --output-delimiter=' ' text2
9 plum
3 banana
10 apple

The paste command pastes lines from two or more files side-by-side, similar to the way that the pr command merges files using its -m option. Listing 17 shows the result of pasting our two text files.

Listing 17. Pasting files
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ paste text1 text2
1 apple	9	plum
2 pear	3	banana
3 banana	10	apple

These examples show simple pasting, but paste can paste data from one or more files in several other ways. Consult the man page for details.

Our final field-manipulating command is join, which joins files based on a matching field. The files should be sorted on the join field. Because text2 is not sorted in numeric order, we could sort it and then join would join the two lines that have a matching join field (the field with value 3 in this case).

Listing 18. Joining files with join fields
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ sort -n text2|join -j 1 text1 -
3 banana banana
join: -:3: is not sorted: 10	apple

So what went wrong? Remember what you learned about character and numeric sorting back in the Sort and uniq section. The join is performed on matching characters according to the locale's collating sequence. It does not work on numeric fields unless the fields are all the same length.

We used the -j 1 option to join on field 1 from each file. The field to use for the join can be specified separately for each file. You could, for example, join based on field 3 from one file and field 10 from another.

Let's also create a new file, text5, by sorting text 1 on the second field (the fruit name) and then replacing spaces with tabs. If we then sort text2 on its second field and join that with text 5 using the second field of each file as the join field, we should have two matches (apple and banana). Listing 19 illustrates this join.

Listing 19. Joining files with join fields
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ sort -k2 text1|tr ' ' '\t'>text5
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ sort -k2 text2 | join -1 2 -2 2 text5 -
apple 1 10
banana 3 3


Sed is the stream editor. Several developerWorks articles, as well as many books and book chapters, are available on sed (see Related topics). Sed is extremely powerful, and the tasks it can accomplish are limited only by your imagination. This small introduction should whet your appetite for sed, but is not intended to be complete or extensive.

As with many of the text commands we have looked at so far, sed can work as a filter or take its input from a file. Output is to the standard output stream. Sed loads lines from the input into the pattern space, applies sed editing commands to the contents of the pattern space, and then writes the pattern space to standard output. Sed might combine several lines in the pattern space, and it might write to a file, write only selected output, or not write at all.

Sed uses regular expression syntax to search for and replace text selectively in the pattern space as well as to control which lines of text should be operated on by sets of editing commands. Regular expressions are covered more fully in the tutorial on searching text files using regular expressions. A hold buffer provides temporary storage for text. The hold buffer might replace the pattern space, be added to the pattern space, or be exchanged with the pattern space. Sed has a limited set of commands, but these combined with regular expression syntax and the hold buffer make for some amazing capabilities. A set of sed commands is usually called a sed script.

Listing 20 shows three simple sed scripts. In the first one, we use the s (substitute) command to substitute an uppercase for a lowercase 'a' on each line. This example replaces only the first 'a', so in the second example, we add the 'g' (for global) flag to cause sed to change all occurrences. In the third script, we introduce the d (delete) command to delete a line. In our example, we use an address of 2 to indicate that only line 2 should be deleted. We separate commands using a semi-colon (;) and use the same global substitution that we used in the second script to replace 'a' with 'A'.

Listing 20. Beginning sed scripts
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ sed 's/a/A/' text1
1 Apple
2 peAr
3 bAnana
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ sed 's/a/A/g' text1
1 Apple
2 peAr
3 bAnAnA
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ sed '2d;$s/a/A/g' text1
1 apple
3 bAnAnA

In addition to operating on individual lines, sed can operate on a range of lines. The beginning and end of the range is separated by a comma (,) and can be specified as a line number, a regular expression, or a dollar sign ($) for the end of file. Given an address or a range of addresses, you can group several commands between curly braces, { and } to have these commands operate only on lines selected by the range. Listing 21 illustrates two ways of having our global substitution applied to only the last two lines of our file. It also illustrates the use of the -e option to add multiple commands to the script.

Listing 21. Sed addresses
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ sed -e '2,${' -e 's/a/A/g' -e '}' text1
1 apple
2 peAr
3 bAnAnA
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ sed -e '/pear/,/bana/{' -e 's/a/A/g' -e '}' text1
1 apple
2 peAr
3 bAnAnA

Sed scripts can also be stored in files. In fact, you probably want to do this for frequently used scripts. Remember earlier we used the tr command to change blanks in text1 to tabs. Let's now do that with a sed script stored in a file. We use the echo command to create the file. The results are shown in Listing 22.

Listing 22. A sed one-liner
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ echo -e "s/ /\t/g">sedtab
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ cat sedtab
s/ /	/g
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ sed -f sedtab text1
1	apple
2	pear
3	banana

There are many handy sed one-liners such as Listing 22. See Related topics for links to some.

Our final sed example uses the = command to print line numbers and then filter the resulting output through sed again to mimic the effect of the nl command to number lines. The = command in sed prints the current line number followed by a newline character, so the output contains two lines for each input line. Listing 23 uses = to print line numbers, then uses the N command to read a second input line into the pattern space, and finally removes the newline character (\n) between the two lines in the pattern space to merge the two lines into a single line.

Listing 23. Numbering lines with sed
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ sed '=' text2
9	plum
3	banana
10	apple
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ sed '=' text2|sed 'N;s/\n//'
19	plum
23	banana
310	apple

Not quite what we wanted! What we would really like is to have our numbers aligned in a column with some space before the lines from the file. In Listing 24, we enter several lines of commands (note the > secondary prompt). Study the example and refer to the explanation below.

Listing 24. Numbering lines with sed - round two
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ cat text1 text2 text1 text2>text6
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ ht=$(echo -en "\t")
ian@Z61t-u14:~/lpi103-2$ sed '=' text6|sed "N
> s/^/      /
> s/^.*\(......\)\n/\1$ht/"
     1	1 apple
     2	2 pear
     3	3 banana
     4	9	plum
     5	3	banana
     6	10	apple
     7	1 apple
     8	2 pear
     9	3 banana
    10	9	plum
    11	3	banana
    12	10	apple

Here are the steps that we took:

  1. We first used cat to create a 12-line file from two copies each of our text1 and text2 files. There's no fun in formatting numbers in columns if we don't have differing numbers of digits.
  2. The bash shell uses the tab key for command completion, so it can be handy to have a captive tab character that you can use when you want a real tab. We use the echo command to accomplish this and save the character in the shell variable 'ht'.
  3. We create a stream that contains line numbers followed by data lines as we did before and filter it through a second copy of sed.
  4. We read a second line into the pattern space.
  5. We prefix our line number at the start of the pattern space (denoted by ^) with six blanks.
  6. We then substitute all of the pattern space up to and including the first newline with the six characters immediately before the newline plus a tab character. This aligns our line numbers in the first six columns of the output line. The original line from the text6 file follows the tab character. Note that the left part of the 's' command uses '\(' and '\)' to mark the characters that we want to use in the right part. In the right part, we reference the first such marked set (and only such set in this example) as \1. Note that our command is contained between double quotation marks (") so that substitution occurs for $ht.

Version 4 of sed contains documentation in info format and includes many excellent examples. These are not included in the older version 3.02. GNU sed accepts sed --version to display the version.


When you use the man command to view manual pages, you probably notice that most manual pages contain a lot more data than fits on one screen. For this reason, the man command is also known as a manual pager because ti allows you to page through the information. The way man works is that it extracts the requested information from compressed manual files and formats it as a stream of output characters. It then uses a pager program to display the actual stream on your terminal. There are a number of pager programs available on a typical Linux system and you can configure man to use your preferred pager, if you don't like the default.

In the earlier days of UNIX systems, output to the screen was paged using the more pager. The original more program needed to read the entire input before displaying anything and it could only page forwards. These were big limitations, particularly if you were piping the output of a long running program and had to wait for it to finish before seeing output.

The less pager solves both of the major limitations of more (as the man page says "less is the opposite of more"). It displays output as soon as it becomes available and it also allows paging backward.

As you might expect, the less command has a man page, and it also has a large number of options to control its behavior. The usual default is to scroll up or down a page using the Page Up or Page Down keys. You can also enter commands. The most common search is simply / followed by a search string. Use ? instead of / to search backward. Use the h command to get a summary of available commands. Listing 25 shows the man page help summary for moving around the file. Note that there is also a section for jumping around the file (for example, jumping to the top or bottom of the file).

Listing 25. Man page help for moving in less

  e  ^E  j  ^N  CR  *  Forward  one line   (or N lines).
  y  ^Y  k  ^K  ^P  *  Backward one line   (or N lines).
  f  ^F  ^V  SPACE  *  Forward  one window (or N lines).
  b  ^B  ESC-v      *  Backward one window (or N lines).
  z                 *  Forward  one window (and set window to N).
  w                 *  Backward one window (and set window to N).
  ESC-SPACE         *  Forward  one window, but don't stop at end-of-file.
  d  ^D             *  Forward  one half-window (and set half-window to N).
  u  ^U             *  Backward one half-window (and set half-window to N).
  ESC-)  RightArrow *  Left  one half screen width (or N positions).
  ESC-(  LeftArrow  *  Right one half screen width (or N positions).
  F                    Forward forever; like "tail -f".
  r  ^R  ^L            Repaint screen.
  R                    Repaint screen, discarding buffered input.
        Default "window" is the screen height.
        Default "half-window" is half of the screen height.

Listing 26 shows the man page help summary for searching in less.

Listing 26. Man page help for searching in less

  /pattern          *  Search forward for (N-th) matching line.
  ?pattern          *  Search backward for (N-th) matching line.
  n                 *  Repeat previous search (for N-th occurrence).
  N                 *  Repeat previous search in reverse direction.
  ESC-n             *  Repeat previous search, spanning files.
  ESC-N             *  Repeat previous search, reverse dir. & spanning files.
  ESC-u                Undo (toggle) search highlighting.
  &pattern          *  Display only matching lines
        A search pattern may be preceded by one or more of:
        ^N or !  Search for NON-matching lines.
        ^E or *  Search multiple files (pass thru END OF FILE).
        ^F or @  Start search at FIRST file (for /) or last file (for ?).
        ^K       Highlight matches, but don't move (KEEP position).
        ^R       Don't use REGULAR EXPRESSIONS.

The mover and less pagers are installed by default on most Linux systems and less is the default pager for the man command. Other pagers exist, including most, which allows multiple files to be viewed in windows on the screen. As usual, you can find more information using the man or info commands. And another tutorial in this series shows you how to install packages that are not installed by default on your system.

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ArticleTitle=Learn Linux, 101: Text streams and filters