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Effective awk Programming, 4th Edition by Arnold Robbins

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Chapter 1. Getting Started with awk

The basic function of awk is to search files for lines (or other units of text) that contain certain patterns. When a line matches one of the patterns, awk performs specified actions on that line. awk continues to process input lines in this way until it reaches the end of the input files.

Programs in awk are different from programs in most other languages, because awk programs are data driven (i.e., you describe the data you want to work with and then what to do when you find it). Most other languages are procedural; you have to describe, in great detail, every step the program should take. When working with procedural languages, it is usually much harder to clearly describe the data your program will process. For this reason, awk programs are often refreshingly easy to read and write.

When you run awk, you specify an awk program that tells awk what to do. The program consists of a series of rules (it may also contain function definitions, an advanced feature that we will ignore for now; see User-Defined Functions). Each rule specifies one pattern to search for and one action to perform upon finding the pattern.

Syntactically, a rule consists of a pattern followed by an action. The action is enclosed in braces to separate it from the pattern. Newlines usually separate rules. Therefore, an awk program looks like this:

pattern { action }
pattern { action }
…

How to Run awk Programs

There are several ways to run an awk program. If the program is short, it is easiest to include it in the command that runs awk, like this:

awk 'program' input-file1 input-file2

When the program is long, it is usually more convenient to put it in a file and run it with a command like this:

awk -f program-file input-file1 input-file2

This section discusses both mechanisms, along with several variations of each.

One-Shot Throwaway awk Programs

Once you are familiar with awk, you will often type in simple programs the moment you want to use them. Then you can write the program as the first argument of the awk command, like this:

awk 'program' input-file1 input-file2

where program consists of a series of patterns and actions, as described earlier.

This command format instructs the shell, or command interpreter, to start awk and use the program to process records in the input file(s). There are single quotes around program so the shell won’t interpret any awk characters as special shell characters. The quotes also cause the shell to treat all of program as a single argument for awk, and allow program to be more than one line long.

This format is also useful for running short or medium-sized awk programs from shell scripts, because it avoids the need for a separate file for the awk program. A self-contained shell script is more reliable because there are no other files to misplace.

Later in this chapter, in the section Some Simple Examples, we’ll see examples of several short, self-contained programs.

Running awk Without Input Files

You can also run awk without any input files. If you type the following command line:

awk 'program'

awk applies the program to the standard input, which usually means whatever you type on the keyboard. This continues until you indicate end-of-file by typing Ctrl-d. (On non-POSIX operating systems, the end-of-file character may be different.)

As an example, the following program prints a friendly piece of advice (from Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), to keep you from worrying about the complexities of computer programming:

$ awk 'BEGIN { print "Don\47t Panic!" }'
Don't Panic!

awk executes statements associated with BEGIN before reading any input. If there are no other statements in your program, as is the case here, awk just stops, instead of trying to read input it doesn’t know how to process. The ‘\47’ is a magic way (explained later) of getting a single quote into the program, without having to engage in ugly shell quoting tricks.

Note

If you use Bash as your shell, you should execute the command ‘set +H’ before running this program interactively, to disable the C shell-style command history, which treats ‘!’ as a special character. We recommend putting this command into your personal startup file.

This next simple awk program emulates the cat utility; it copies whatever you type on the keyboard to its standard output (why this works is explained shortly):

$ awk '{ print }'
Now is the time for all good men
Now is the time for all good men
to come to the aid of their country.
to come to the aid of their country.
Four score and seven years ago, ...
Four score and seven years ago, ...
What, me worry?
What, me worry?
Ctrl-d

Running Long Programs

Sometimes awk programs are very long. In these cases, it is more convenient to put the program into a separate file. In order to tell awk to use that file for its program, you type:

awk -f source-file input-file1 input-file2

The -f instructs the awk utility to get the awk program from the file source-file (see Command-Line Options). Any filename can be used for source-file. For example, you could put the program:

BEGIN { print "Don't Panic!" }

into the file advice. Then this command:

awk -f advice

does the same thing as this one:

awk 'BEGIN { print "Don\47t Panic!" }'

This was explained earlier (see Running awk Without Input Files). Note that you don’t usually need single quotes around the filename that you specify with -f, because most filenames don’t contain any of the shell’s special characters. Notice that in advice, the awk program did not have single quotes around it. The quotes are only needed for programs that are provided on the awk command line. (Also, placing the program in a file allows us to use a literal single quote in the program text, instead of the magic ‘\47’.)

If you want to clearly identify an awk program file as such, you can add the extension .awk to the filename. This doesn’t affect the execution of the awk program, but it does make “housekeeping” easier.

Executable awk Programs

Once you have learned awk, you may want to write self-contained awk scripts, using the ‘#!’ script mechanism. You can do this on many systems.[6] For example, you could update the file advice to look like this:

#! /bin/awk -f

BEGIN { print "Don't Panic!" }

After making this file executable (with the chmod utility), simply type ‘advice’ at the shell and the system arranges to run awk as if you had typed ‘awk -f advice’:

$ chmod +x advice
$ advice
Don't Panic!

(We assume you have the current directory in your shell’s search path variable [typically $PATH]. If not, you may need to type ‘./advice’ at the shell.)

Self-contained awk scripts are useful when you want to write a program that users can invoke without their having to know that the program is written in awk.

Comments in awk Programs

A comment is some text that is included in a program for the sake of human readers; it is not really an executable part of the program. Comments can explain what the program does and how it works. Nearly all programming languages have provisions for comments, as programs are typically hard to understand without them.

In the awk language, a comment starts with the number sign character (‘#’) and continues to the end of the line. The ‘#’ does not have to be the first character on the line. The awk language ignores the rest of a line following a number sign. For example, we could have put the following into advice:

# This program prints a nice, friendly message.  It helps
# keep novice users from being afraid of the computer.
BEGIN    { print "Don't Panic!" }

You can put comment lines into keyboard-composed throwaway awk programs, but this usually isn’t very useful; the purpose of a comment is to help you or another person understand the program when reading it at a later time.

Caution

As mentioned in One-Shot Throwaway awk Programs, you can enclose short to medium-sized programs in single quotes, in order to keep your shell scripts self-contained. When doing so, don’t put an apostrophe (i.e., a single quote) into a comment (or anywhere else in your program). The shell interprets the quote as the closing quote for the entire program. As a result, usually the shell prints a message about mismatched quotes, and if awk actually runs, it will probably print strange messages about syntax errors. For example, look at the following:

$ awk 'BEGIN { print "hello" } # let's be cute'
>

The shell sees that the first two quotes match, and that a new quoted object begins at the end of the command line. It therefore prompts with the secondary prompt, waiting for more input. With Unix awk, closing the quoted string produces this result:

$ awk '{ print "hello" } # let's be cute'
> '
error→ awk: can't open file be
error→  source line number 1

Putting a backslash before the single quote in ‘let's’ wouldn’t help, because backslashes are not special inside single quotes. The next subsection describes the shell’s quoting rules.

Shell Quoting Issues

For short to medium-length awk programs, it is most convenient to enter the program on the awk command line. This is best done by enclosing the entire program in single quotes. This is true whether you are entering the program interactively at the shell prompt, or writing it as part of a larger shell script:

awk 'program text' input-file1 input-file2

Once you are working with the shell, it is helpful to have a basic knowledge of shell quoting rules. The following rules apply only to POSIX-compliant, Bourne-style shells (such as Bash, the GNU Bourne-Again Shell). If you use the C shell, you’re on your own.

Before diving into the rules, we introduce a concept that appears throughout this book, which is that of the null, or empty, string.

The null string is character data that has no value. In other words, it is empty. It is written in awk programs like this: "". In the shell, it can be written using single or double quotes: "" or ''. Although the null string has no characters in it, it does exist. For example, consider this command:

$ echo ""

Here, the echo utility receives a single argument, even though that argument has no characters in it. In the rest of this book, we use the terms null string and empty string interchangeably. Now, on to the quoting rules:

  • Quoted items can be concatenated with nonquoted items as well as with other quoted items. The shell turns everything into one argument for the command.

  • Preceding any single character with a backslash (‘\’) quotes that character. The shell removes the backslash and passes the quoted character on to the command.

  • Single quotes protect everything between the opening and closing quotes. The shell does no interpretation of the quoted text, passing it on verbatim to the command. It is impossible to embed a single quote inside single-quoted text. Refer back to Comments in awk Programs for an example of what happens if you try.

  • Double quotes protect most things between the opening and closing quotes. The shell does at least variable and command substitution on the quoted text. Different shells may do additional kinds of processing on double-quoted text.

    Because certain characters within double-quoted text are processed by the shell, they must be escaped within the text. Of note are the characters ‘$’, ‘`’, ‘\’, and ‘"’, all of which must be preceded by a backslash within double-quoted text if they are to be passed on literally to the program. (The leading backslash is stripped first.) Thus, the example seen previously in Running awk Without Input Files:

    awk 'BEGIN { print "Don\47t Panic!" }'

    could instead be written this way:

    $ awk "BEGIN { print \"Don't Panic!\" }"
    Don't Panic!

    Note that the single quote is not special within double quotes.

  • Null strings are removed when they occur as part of a non-null command-line argument, while explicit null objects are kept. For example, to specify that the field separator FS should be set to the null string, use:

    awk -F "" 'program' files # correct

    Don’t use this:

    awk -F"" 'program' files  # wrong!

    In the second case, awk attempts to use the text of the program as the value of FS, and the first filename as the text of the program! This results in syntax errors at best, and confusing behavior at worst.

Mixing single and double quotes is difficult. You have to resort to shell quoting tricks, like this:

$ awk 'BEGIN { print "Here is a single quote <'"'"'>" }'
Here is a single quote <'>

This program consists of three concatenated quoted strings. The first and the third are single-quoted, and the second is double-quoted.

This can be “simplified” to:

$ awk 'BEGIN { print "Here is a single quote <'\''>" }'
Here is a single quote <'>

Judge for yourself which of these two is the more readable.

Another option is to use double quotes, escaping the embedded, awk-level double quotes:

$ awk "BEGIN { print \"Here is a single quote <'>\" }"
Here is a single quote <'>

This option is also painful, because double quotes, backslashes, and dollar signs are very common in more advanced awk programs.

A third option is to use the octal escape sequence equivalents (see Escape Sequences) for the single- and double-quote characters, like so:

$ awk 'BEGIN { print "Here is a single quote <\47>" }'
Here is a single quote <'>
$ awk 'BEGIN { print "Here is a double quote <\42>" }'
Here is a double quote <">

This works nicely, but you should comment clearly what the escapes mean.

A fourth option is to use command-line variable assignment, like this:

$ awk -v sq="'" 'BEGIN { print "Here is a single quote <" sq ">" }'
Here is a single quote <'>

(Here, the two string constants and the value of sq are concatenated into a single string that is printed by print.)

If you really need both single and double quotes in your awk program, it is probably best to move it into a separate file, where the shell won’t be part of the picture and you can say what you mean.

Quoting in MS-Windows batch files

Although this book generally only worries about POSIX systems and the POSIX shell, the following issue arises often enough for many users that it is worth addressing.

The “shells” on Microsoft Windows systems use the double-quote character for quoting, and make it difficult or impossible to include an escaped double-quote character in a command-line script. The following example, courtesy of Jeroen Brink, shows how to print all lines in a file surrounded by double quotes:

gawk "{ print \"\042\" $0 \"\042\" }" file

Datafiles for the Examples

Many of the examples in this book take their input from two sample datafiles. The first, mail-list, represents a list of peoples’ names together with their email addresses and information about those people. The second datafile, called inventory-shipped, contains information about monthly shipments. In both files, each line is considered to be one record.

In mail-list, each record contains the name of a person, his/her phone number, his/her email address, and a code for his/her relationship with the author of the list. The columns are aligned using spaces. An ‘A’ in the last column means that the person is an acquaintance. An ‘F’ in the last column means that the person is a friend. An ‘R’ means that the person is a relative:

Amelia       555-5553     amelia.zodiacusque@gmail.com    F
Anthony      555-3412     anthony.asserturo@hotmail.com   A
Becky        555-7685     becky.algebrarum@gmail.com      A
Bill         555-1675     bill.drowning@hotmail.com       A
Broderick    555-0542     broderick.aliquotiens@yahoo.com R
Camilla      555-2912     camilla.infusarum@skynet.be     R
Fabius       555-1234     fabius.undevicesimus@ucb.edu    F
Julie        555-6699     julie.perscrutabor@skeeve.com   F
Martin       555-6480     martin.codicibus@hotmail.com    A
Samuel       555-3430     samuel.lanceolis@shu.edu        A
Jean-Paul    555-2127     jeanpaul.campanorum@nyu.edu     R

The datafile inventory-shipped represents information about shipments during the year. Each record contains the month, the number of green crates shipped, the number of red boxes shipped, the number of orange bags shipped, and the number of blue packages shipped, respectively. There are 16 entries, covering the 12 months of last year and the first four months of the current year. An empty line separates the data for the two years:

Jan  13  25  15 115
Feb  15  32  24 226
Mar  15  24  34 228
Apr  31  52  63 420
May  16  34  29 208
Jun  31  42  75 492
Jul  24  34  67 436
Aug  15  34  47 316
Sep  13  55  37 277
Oct  29  54  68 525
Nov  20  87  82 577
Dec  17  35  61 401

Jan  21  36  64 620
Feb  26  58  80 652
Mar  24  75  70 495
Apr  21  70  74 514

The sample files are included in the gawk distribution, in the directory awklib/eg/data.

Some Simple Examples

The following command runs a simple awk program that searches the input file mail-list for the character string ‘li’ (a grouping of characters is usually called a string; the term string is based on similar usage in English, such as “a string of pearls” or “a string of cars in a train”):

awk '/li/ { print $0 }' mail-list

When lines containing ‘li’ are found, they are printed because ‘print $0’ means print the current line. (Just ‘print’ by itself means the same thing, so we could have written that instead.)

You will notice that slashes (‘/’) surround the string ‘li’ in the awk program. The slashes indicate that ‘li’ is the pattern to search for. This type of pattern is called a regular expression, which is covered in more detail later (see Chapter 3). The pattern is allowed to match parts of words. There are single quotes around the awk program so that the shell won’t interpret any of it as special shell characters.

Here is what this program prints:

$ awk '/li/ { print $0 }' mail-list
Amelia       555-5553     amelia.zodiacusque@gmail.com    F
Broderick    555-0542     broderick.aliquotiens@yahoo.com R
Julie        555-6699     julie.perscrutabor@skeeve.com   F
Samuel       555-3430     samuel.lanceolis@shu.edu        A

In an awk rule, either the pattern or the action can be omitted, but not both. If the pattern is omitted, then the action is performed for every input line. If the action is omitted, the default action is to print all lines that match the pattern.

Thus, we could leave out the action (the print statement and the braces) in the previous example and the result would be the same: awk prints all lines matching the pattern ‘li’. By comparison, omitting the print statement but retaining the braces makes an empty action that does nothing (i.e., no lines are printed).

Many practical awk programs are just a line or two long. Following is a collection of useful, short programs to get you started. Some of these programs contain constructs that haven’t been covered yet. (The description of the program will give you a good idea of what is going on, but you’ll need to read the rest of the book to become an awk expert!) Most of the examples use a datafile named data. This is just a placeholder; if you use these programs yourself, substitute your own filenames for data. For future reference, note that there is often more than one way to do things in awk. At some point, you may want to look back at these examples and see if you can come up with different ways to do the same things shown here:

  • Print every line that is longer than 80 characters:

    awk 'length($0) > 80' data

    The sole rule has a relational expression as its pattern and has no action—so it uses the default action, printing the record.

  • Print the length of the longest input line:

    awk '{ if (length($0) > max) max = length($0) }
         END { print max }' data

    The code associated with END executes after all input has been read; it’s the other side of the coin to BEGIN.

  • Print the length of the longest line in data:

    expand data | awk '{ if (x < length($0)) x = length($0) }
                       END { print "maximum line length is " x }'

    This example differs slightly from the previous one: the input is processed by the expand utility to change TABs into spaces, so the widths compared are actually the right-margin columns, as opposed to the number of input characters on each line.

  • Print every line that has at least one field:

    awk 'NF > 0' data

    This is an easy way to delete blank lines from a file (or rather, to create a new file similar to the old file but from which the blank lines have been removed).

  • Print seven random numbers from 0 to 100, inclusive:

    awk 'BEGIN { for (i = 1; i <= 7; i++)
                     print int(101 * rand()) }'
  • Print the total number of bytes used by files:

    ls -l files | awk '{ x += $5 }
                       END { print "total bytes: " x }'
  • Print the total number of kilobytes used by files:

    ls -l files | awk '{ x += $5 }
       END { print "total K-bytes:", x / 1024 }'
  • Print a sorted list of the login names of all users:

    awk -F: '{ print $1 }' /etc/passwd | sort
  • Count the lines in a file:

    awk 'END { print NR }' data
  • Print the even-numbered lines in the datafile:

    awk 'NR % 2 == 0' data

    If you used the expression ‘NR % 2 == 1’ instead, the program would print the odd-numbered lines.

An Example with Two Rules

The awk utility reads the input files one line at a time. For each line, awk tries the patterns of each rule. If several patterns match, then several actions execute in the order in which they appear in the awk program. If no patterns match, then no actions run.

After processing all the rules that match the line (and perhaps there are none), awk reads the next line. (However, see The next Statement and The nextfile Statement.) This continues until the program reaches the end of the file. For example, the following awk program contains two rules:

/12/  { print $0 }
/21/  { print $0 }

The first rule has the string ‘12’ as the pattern and ‘print $0’ as the action. The second rule has the string ‘21’ as the pattern and also has ‘print $0’ as the action. Each rule’s action is enclosed in its own pair of braces.

This program prints every line that contains the string ‘12or the string ‘21’. If a line contains both strings, it is printed twice, once by each rule.

This is what happens if we run this program on our two sample datafiles, mail-list and inventory-shipped:

$ awk '/12/ { print $0 }
>      /21/ { print $0 }' mail-list inventory-shipped
Anthony      555-3412     anthony.asserturo@hotmail.com   A
Camilla      555-2912     camilla.infusarum@skynet.be     R
Fabius       555-1234     fabius.undevicesimus@ucb.edu    F
Jean-Paul    555-2127     jeanpaul.campanorum@nyu.edu     R
Jean-Paul    555-2127     jeanpaul.campanorum@nyu.edu     R
Jan  21  36  64 620
Apr  21  70  74 514

Note how the line beginning with ‘Jean-Paul’ in mail-list was printed twice, once for each rule.

A More Complex Example

Now that we’ve mastered some simple tasks, let’s look at what typical awk programs do. This example shows how awk can be used to summarize, select, and rearrange the output of another utility. It uses features that haven’t been covered yet, so don’t worry if you don’t understand all the details:

ls -l | awk '$6 == "Nov" { sum += $5 }
             END { print sum }'

This command prints the total number of bytes in all the files in the current directory that were last modified in November (of any year). The ‘ls -l’ part of this example is a system command that gives you a listing of the files in a directory, including each file’s size and the date the file was last modified. Its output looks like this:

-rw-r--r--  1 arnold   user   1933 Nov  7 13:05 Makefile
-rw-r--r--  1 arnold   user  10809 Nov  7 13:03 awk.h
-rw-r--r--  1 arnold   user    983 Apr 13 12:14 awk.tab.h
-rw-r--r--  1 arnold   user  31869 Jun 15 12:20 awkgram.y
-rw-r--r--  1 arnold   user  22414 Nov  7 13:03 awk1.c
-rw-r--r--  1 arnold   user  37455 Nov  7 13:03 awk2.c
-rw-r--r--  1 arnold   user  27511 Dec  9 13:07 awk3.c
-rw-r--r--  1 arnold   user   7989 Nov  7 13:03 awk4.c

The first field contains read-write permissions, the second field contains the number of links to the file, and the third field identifies the file’s owner. The fourth field identifies the file’s group. The fifth field contains the file’s size in bytes. The sixth, seventh, and eighth fields contain the month, day, and time, respectively, that the file was last modified. Finally, the ninth field contains the filename.

The ‘$6 == "Nov"’ in our awk program is an expression that tests whether the sixth field of the output from ‘ls -l’ matches the string ‘Nov’. Each time a line has the string ‘Nov’ for its sixth field, awk performs the action ‘sum += $5’. This adds the fifth field (the file’s size) to the variable sum. As a result, when awk has finished reading all the input lines, sum is the total of the sizes of the files whose lines matched the pattern. (This works because awk variables are automatically initialized to zero.)

After the last line of output from ls has been processed, the END rule executes and prints the value of sum. In this example, the value of sum is 80600.

These more advanced awk techniques are covered in later sections (see Actions). Before you can move on to more advanced awk programming, you have to know how awk interprets your input and displays your output. By manipulating fields and using print statements, you can produce some very useful and impressive-looking reports.

awk Statements Versus Lines

Most often, each line in an awk program is a separate statement or separate rule, like this:

awk '/12/  { print $0 }
     /21/  { print $0 }' mail-list inventory-shipped

However, gawk ignores newlines after any of the following symbols and keywords:

,    {    ?    :    ||    &&    do    else

A newline at any other point is considered the end of the statement.[7]

If you would like to split a single statement into two lines at a point where a newline would terminate it, you can continue it by ending the first line with a backslash character (‘\’). The backslash must be the final character on the line in order to be recognized as a continuation character. A backslash is allowed anywhere in the statement, even in the middle of a string or regular expression. For example:

awk '/This regular expression is too long, so continue it\
 on the next line/ { print $1 }'

We have generally not used backslash continuation in our sample programs. gawk places no limit on the length of a line, so backslash continuation is never strictly necessary; it just makes programs more readable. For this same reason, as well as for clarity, we have kept most statements short in the programs presented throughout the book. Backslash continuation is most useful when your awk program is in a separate source file instead of entered from the command line. You should also note that many awk implementations are more particular about where you may use backslash continuation. For example, they may not allow you to split a string constant using backslash continuation. Thus, for maximum portability of your awk programs, it is best not to split your lines in the middle of a regular expression or a string.

Caution

Backslash continuation does not work as described with the C shell. It works for awk programs in files and for one-shot programs, provided you are using a POSIX-compliant shell, such as the Unix Bourne shell or Bash. But the C shell behaves differently! There you must use two backslashes in a row, followed by a newline. Note also that when using the C shell, every newline in your awk program must be escaped with a backslash. To illustrate:

% awk 'BEGIN { \
?   print \\
?       "hello, world" \
? }'
hello, world

Here, the ‘%’ and ‘?’ are the C shell’s primary and secondary prompts, analogous to the standard shell’s ‘$’ and ‘>’.

Compare the previous example to how it is done with a POSIX-compliant shell:

$ awk 'BEGIN {
>   print \
>       "hello, world"
> }'
hello, world

awk is a line-oriented language. Each rule’s action has to begin on the same line as the pattern. To have the pattern and action on separate lines, you must use backslash continuation; there is no other option.

Another thing to keep in mind is that backslash continuation and comments do not mix. As soon as awk sees the ‘#’ that starts a comment, it ignores everything on the rest of the line. For example:

$ gawk 'BEGIN { print "dont panic" # a friendly \
>                                    BEGIN rule
> }'
error→ gawk: cmd. line:2:                BEGIN rule
error→ gawk: cmd. line:2:                ^ syntax error

In this case, it looks like the backslash would continue the comment onto the next line. However, the backslash-newline combination is never even noticed because it is “hidden” inside the comment. Thus, the BEGIN is noted as a syntax error.

When awk statements within one rule are short, you might want to put more than one of them on a line. This is accomplished by separating the statements with a semicolon (‘;’). This also applies to the rules themselves. Thus, the program shown at the start of this section could also be written this way:

/12/ { print $0 } ; /21/ { print $0 }

Note

The requirement that states that rules on the same line must be separated with a semicolon was not in the original awk language; it was added for consistency with the treatment of statements within an action.

Other Features of awk

The awk language provides a number of predefined, or built-in, variables that your programs can use to get information from awk. There are other variables your program can set as well to control how awk processes your data.

In addition, awk provides a number of built-in functions for doing common computational and string-related operations. gawk provides built-in functions for working with timestamps, performing bit manipulation, for runtime string translation (internationalization), determining the type of a variable, and array sorting.

As we develop our presentation of the awk language, we will introduce most of the variables and many of the functions. They are described systematically in Predefined Variables and in Built-in Functions.

When to Use awk

Now that you’ve seen some of what awk can do, you might wonder how awk could be useful for you. By using utility programs, advanced patterns, field separators, arithmetic statements, and other selection criteria, you can produce much more complex output. The awk language is very useful for producing reports from large amounts of raw data, such as summarizing information from the output of other utility programs like ls. (See A More Complex Example.)

Programs written with awk are usually much smaller than they would be in other languages. This makes awk programs easy to compose and use. Often, awk programs can be quickly composed at your keyboard, used once, and thrown away. Because awk programs are interpreted, you can avoid the (usually lengthy) compilation part of the typical edit-compile-test-debug cycle of software development.

Complex programs have been written in awk, including a complete retargetable assembler for eight-bit microprocessors, and a microcode assembler for a special-purpose Prolog computer. The original awk’s capabilities were strained by tasks of such complexity, but modern versions are more capable.

If you find yourself writing awk scripts of more than, say, a few hundred lines, you might consider using a different programming language. The shell is good at string and pattern matching; in addition, it allows powerful use of the system utilities. Python offers a nice balance between high-level ease of programming and access to system facilities.[8]

Summary

  • Programs in awk consist of patternaction pairs.

  • An action without a pattern always runs. The default action for a pattern without one is ‘{ print $0 }’.

  • Use either ‘awk 'program' files’ or ‘awk -f program-file files’ to run awk.

  • You may use the special ‘#!’ header line to create awk programs that are directly executable.

  • Comments in awk programs start with ‘#’ and continue to the end of the same line.

  • Be aware of quoting issues when writing awk programs as part of a larger shell script (or MS-Windows batch file).

  • You may use backslash continuation to continue a source line. Lines are automatically continued after a comma, open brace, question mark, colon ‘||’, ‘&&’, do, and else.



[6] The ‘#!’ mechanism works on GNU/Linux systems, BSD-based systems, and commercial Unix systems.

[7] The ‘?’ and ‘:’ referred to here is the three-operand conditional expression described in Conditional Expressions. Splitting lines after ‘?’ and ‘:’ is a minor gawk extension; if --posix is specified (see Command-Line Options), then this extension is disabled.

[8] Other popular scripting languages include Ruby and Perl.

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