More about the command-line


Teaching: 30 min
Exercises: 1 min
  • How do I search for things?

  • How do I replace text in files?

  • How do I install my own software?

  • How do I use the scratch directories?


You can guess someone’s age by how they talk about search: young people use “Google” as a verb, while crusty old Unix programmers use “grep”. The word is a contraction of “global/regular expression/print”, a common sequence of operations in early Unix text editors. It is also the name of a very useful command-line program.

grep finds and prints lines in files that match a pattern. For our examples, we will use a file that contains three haikus taken from a 1998 competition in Salon magazine. For this set of examples we’re going to be working in the writing subdirectory:

$ cd
$ cd writing
$ cat haiku.txt
The Tao that is seen
Is not the true Tao, until
You bring fresh toner.

With searching comes loss
and the presence of absence:
"My Thesis" not found.

Yesterday it worked
Today it is not working
Software is like that.

Forever, or Five Years {.callout}

We haven’t linked to the original haikus because they don’t appear to be on Salon’s site any longer. As Jeff Rothenberg said, “Digital information lasts forever — or five years, whichever comes first.”

Let’s find lines that contain the word “not”:

$ grep not haiku.txt
Is not the true Tao, until
"My Thesis" not found
Today it is not working

Here, not is the pattern we’re searching for. It’s pretty simple: every alphanumeric character matches against itself. After the pattern comes the name or names of the files we’re searching in. The output is the three lines in the file that contain the letters “not”.

Let’s try a different pattern: “day”.

$ grep day haiku.txt
Yesterday it worked
Today it is not working

This time, two lines that include the letters “day” are outputted. However, these letters are contained within larger words. To restrict matches to lines containing the word “day” on its own, we can give grep with the -w flag. This will limit matches to word boundaries.

$ grep -w day haiku.txt

In this case, there aren’t any, so grep’s output is empty. Sometimes we don’t want to search for a single word, but a phrase. This is also easy to do with grep by putting the phrase in quotes.

$ grep -w "is not" haiku.txt
Today it is not working

We’ve now seen that you don’t have to have quotes around single words, but it is useful to use quotes when searching for multiple words. It also helps to make it easier to distinguish between the search term or phrase and the file being searched. We will use quotes in the remaining examples.

Another useful option is -n, which numbers the lines that match:

$ grep -n "it" haiku.txt
5:With searching comes loss
9:Yesterday it worked
10:Today it is not working

Here, we can see that lines 5, 9, and 10 contain the letters “it”.

We can combine options (i.e. flags) as we do with other Unix commands. For example, let’s find the lines that contain the word “the”. We can combine the option -w to find the lines that contain the word “the” and -n to number the lines that match:

$ grep -n -w "the" haiku.txt
2:Is not the true Tao, until
6:and the presence of absence:

Now we want to use the option -i to make our search case-insensitive:

$ grep -n -w -i "the" haiku.txt
1:The Tao that is seen
2:Is not the true Tao, until
6:and the presence of absence:

Now, we want to use the option -v to invert our search, i.e., we want to output the lines that do not contain the word “the”.

$ grep -n -w -v "the" haiku.txt
1:The Tao that is seen
3:You bring fresh toner.
5:With searching comes loss
7:"My Thesis" not found.
9:Yesterday it worked
10:Today it is not working
11:Software is like that.

grep has lots of other options. To find out what they are, we can type man grep. man is the Unix “manual” command: it prints a description of a command and its options, and (if you’re lucky) provides a few examples of how to use it.

To navigate through the man pages, you may use the up and down arrow keys to move line-by-line, or try the “b” and spacebar keys to skip up and down by full page. Quit the man pages by typing “q”.

$ man grep
GREP(1)                                                                                              GREP(1)

grep, egrep, fgrep - print lines matching a pattern

grep [OPTIONS] [-e PATTERN | -f FILE] [FILE...]

grep  searches the named input FILEs (or standard input if no files are named, or if a single hyphen-
minus (-) is given as file name) for lines containing a match to the given PATTERN.  By default, grep
prints the matching lines.
...        ...        ...

Generic Program Information
--help Print  a  usage  message  briefly summarizing these command-line options and the bug-reporting
address, then exit.

-V, --version
Print the version number of grep to the standard output stream.  This version number should be
included in all bug reports (see below).

Matcher Selection
-E, --extended-regexp
Interpret  PATTERN  as  an  extended regular expression (ERE, see below).  (-E is specified by

-F, --fixed-strings
Interpret PATTERN as a list of fixed strings, separated by newlines, any of  which  is  to  be
matched.  (-F is specified by POSIX.)
...        ...        ...

Wildcards {.callout}

grep’s real power doesn’t come from its options, though; it comes from the fact that patterns can include wildcards. (The technical name for these is regular expressions, which is what the “re” in “grep” stands for.) Regular expressions are both complex and powerful; if you want to do complex searches, please look at the lesson on our website. As a taster, we can find lines that have an ‘o’ in the second position like this:

$ grep -E '^.o' haiku.txt
You bring fresh toner.
Today it is not working
Software is like that.

We use the -E flag and put the pattern in quotes to prevent the shell from trying to interpret it. (If the pattern contained a *, for example, the shell would try to expand it before running grep.) The ^ in the pattern anchors the match to the start of the line. The . matches a single character (just like ? in the shell), while the o matches an actual ‘o’.

While grep finds lines in files, the find command finds files themselves. Again, it has a lot of options; to show how the simplest ones work, we’ll use the directory tree shown below.

File Tree for Find Example

Nelle’s writing directory contains one file called haiku.txt and four subdirectories: thesis (which is sadly empty), data (which contains two files one.txt and two.txt), a tools directory that contains the programs format and stats, and an empty subdirectory called old.

For our first command, let’s run find . -type d. As always, the . on its own means the current working directory, which is where we want our search to start; -type d means “things that are directories”. Sure enough, find’s output is the names of the five directories in our little tree (including .):

$ find . -type d

If we change -type d to -type f, we get a listing of all the files instead:

$ find . -type f

find automatically goes into subdirectories, their subdirectories, and so on to find everything that matches the pattern we’ve given it. If we don’t want it to, we can use -maxdepth to restrict the depth of search:

$ find . -maxdepth 1 -type f

The opposite of -maxdepth is -mindepth, which tells find to only report things that are at or below a certain depth. -mindepth 2 therefore finds all the files that are two or more levels below us:

$ find . -mindepth 2 -type f

Now let’s try matching by name:

$ find . -name *.txt

We expected it to find all the text files, but it only prints out ./haiku.txt. The problem is that the shell expands wildcard characters like * before commands run. Since *.txt in the current directory expands to haiku.txt, the command we actually ran was:

$ find . -name haiku.txt

find did what we asked; we just asked for the wrong thing.

To get what we want, let’s do what we did with grep: put *.txt in single quotes to prevent the shell from expanding the * wildcard. This way, find actually gets the pattern *.txt, not the expanded filename haiku.txt:

$ find . -name '*.txt'

Listing vs. Finding {.callout}

ls and find can be made to do similar things given the right options, but under normal circumstances, ls lists everything it can, while find searches for things with certain properties and shows them.

As we said earlier, the command line’s power lies in combining tools. We’ve seen how to do that with pipes; let’s look at another technique. As we just saw, find . -name '*.txt' gives us a list of all text files in or below the current directory. How can we combine that with wc -l to count the lines in all those files?

The simplest way is to put the find command inside $():

$ wc -l $(find . -name '*.txt')
11 ./haiku.txt
300 ./data/two.txt
70 ./data/one.txt
381 total

When the shell executes this command, the first thing it does is run whatever is inside the $(). It then replaces the $() expression with that command’s output. Since the output of find is the three filenames ./data/one.txt, ./data/two.txt, and ./haiku.txt, the shell constructs the command:

$ wc -l ./data/one.txt ./data/two.txt ./haiku.txt

which is what we wanted. This expansion is exactly what the shell does when it expands wildcards like * and ?, but lets us use any command we want as our own “wildcard”.

It’s very common to use find and grep together. The first finds files that match a pattern; the second looks for lines inside those files that match another pattern. Here, for example, we can find PDB files that contain iron atoms by looking for the string “FE” in all the .pdb files above the current directory:

$ grep "FE" $(find .. -name '*.pdb')
../data/pdb/heme.pdb:ATOM     25 FE           1      -0.924   0.535  -0.518

Binary Files {.callout}

We have focused exclusively on finding things in text files. What if your data is stored as images, in databases, or in some other format? One option would be to extend tools like grep to handle those formats. This hasn’t happened, and probably won’t, because there are too many formats to support.

The second option is to convert the data to text, or extract the text-ish bits from the data. This is probably the most common approach, since it only requires people to build one tool per data format (to extract information). On the one hand, it makes simple things easy to do. On the negative side, complex things are usually impossible. For example, it’s easy enough to write a program that will extract X and Y dimensions from image files for grep to play with, but how would you write something to find values in a spreadsheet whose cells contained formulas?

The third choice is to recognize that the shell and text processing have their limits, and to use a programming language such as Python instead. When the time comes to do this, don’t be too hard on the shell: many modern programming languages, Python included, have borrowed a lot of ideas from it, and imitation is also the sincerest form of praise.

Using grep {.challenge}

The Tao that is seen
Is not the true Tao, until
You bring fresh toner.

With searching comes loss
and the presence of absence:
"My Thesis" not found.

Yesterday it worked
Today it is not working
Software is like that.

From the above text, contained in the file haiku.txt, which command would result in the following output:

and the presence of absence:
  1. grep "of" haiku.txt
  2. grep -E "of" haiku.txt
  3. grep -w "of" haiku.txt
  4. grep -i "of" haiku.txt

Using grep to count occurrences {.challenge}

A very common use of grep is to count the number of occurrences of a certain pattern in a file.

Navigate to /data-shell/creatures. Look at the files unicorn.dat and basilisk.dat. In each of these files, count the number of occurrences of the sequence ATTA. What about sequences that only end with GT? Just like the ^ symbol refers to the beginning of the line, the $ symbol refers to the end of the line.

Key Points

  • Keypoint 1

  • Keypoint 2