The GNU Awk User’s Guide

Next: , Up: (dir)   [Contents][Index]

General Introduction

This file documents awk, a program that you can use to select particular records in a file and perform operations upon them.

Copyright © 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996–2005, 2007, 2009–2016
Free Software Foundation, Inc.

This is Edition 4.1 of GAWK: Effective AWK Programming: A User’s Guide for GNU Awk, for the 4.1.4 (or later) version of the GNU implementation of AWK.

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with the Invariant Sections being “GNU General Public License”, with the Front-Cover Texts being “A GNU Manual”, and with the Back-Cover Texts as in (a) below. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled “GNU Free Documentation License”.

  1. The FSF’s Back-Cover Text is: “You have the freedom to copy and modify this GNU manual.”

Short Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Next: , Previous: , Up: Top   [Contents][Index]

Foreword to the Third Edition

Arnold Robbins and I are good friends. We were introduced in 1990 by circumstances—and our favorite programming language, AWK. The circumstances started a couple of years earlier. I was working at a new job and noticed an unplugged Unix computer sitting in the corner. No one knew how to use it, and neither did I. However, a couple of days later, it was running, and I was root and the one-and-only user. That day, I began the transition from statistician to Unix programmer.

On one of many trips to the library or bookstore in search of books on Unix, I found the gray AWK book, a.k.a. Alfred V. Aho, Brian W. Kernighan, and Peter J. Weinberger’s The AWK Programming Language (Addison-Wesley, 1988). awk’s simple programming paradigm—find a pattern in the input and then perform an action—often reduced complex or tedious data manipulations to a few lines of code. I was excited to try my hand at programming in AWK.

Alas, the awk on my computer was a limited version of the language described in the gray book. I discovered that my computer had “old awk” and the book described “new awk.” I learned that this was typical; the old version refused to step aside or relinquish its name. If a system had a new awk, it was invariably called nawk, and few systems had it. The best way to get a new awk was to ftp the source code for gawk from gawk was a version of new awk written by David Trueman and Arnold, and available under the GNU General Public License.

(Incidentally, it’s no longer difficult to find a new awk. gawk ships with GNU/Linux, and you can download binaries or source code for almost any system; my wife uses gawk on her VMS box.)

My Unix system started out unplugged from the wall; it certainly was not plugged into a network. So, oblivious to the existence of gawk and the Unix community in general, and desiring a new awk, I wrote my own, called mawk. Before I was finished, I knew about gawk, but it was too late to stop, so I eventually posted to a comp.sources newsgroup.

A few days after my posting, I got a friendly email from Arnold introducing himself. He suggested we share design and algorithms and attached a draft of the POSIX standard so that I could update mawk to support language extensions added after publication of The AWK Programming Language.

Frankly, if our roles had been reversed, I would not have been so open and we probably would have never met. I’m glad we did meet. He is an AWK expert’s AWK expert and a genuinely nice person. Arnold contributes significant amounts of his expertise and time to the Free Software Foundation.

This book is the gawk reference manual, but at its core it is a book about AWK programming that will appeal to a wide audience. It is a definitive reference to the AWK language as defined by the 1987 Bell Laboratories release and codified in the 1992 POSIX Utilities standard.

On the other hand, the novice AWK programmer can study a wealth of practical programs that emphasize the power of AWK’s basic idioms: data-driven control flow, pattern matching with regular expressions, and associative arrays. Those looking for something new can try out gawk’s interface to network protocols via special /inet files.

The programs in this book make clear that an AWK program is typically much smaller and faster to develop than a counterpart written in C. Consequently, there is often a payoff to prototyping an algorithm or design in AWK to get it running quickly and expose problems early. Often, the interpreted performance is adequate and the AWK prototype becomes the product.

The new pgawk (profiling gawk), produces program execution counts. I recently experimented with an algorithm that for n lines of input, exhibited ~ C n^2 performance, while theory predicted ~ C n log n behavior. A few minutes poring over the awkprof.out profile pinpointed the problem to a single line of code. pgawk is a welcome addition to my programmer’s toolbox.

Arnold has distilled over a decade of experience writing and using AWK programs, and developing gawk, into this book. If you use AWK or want to learn how, then read this book.

Michael Brennan
Author of mawk
March 2001

Next: , Previous: , Up: Top   [Contents][Index]

Foreword to the Fourth Edition

Some things don’t change. Thirteen years ago I wrote: “If you use AWK or want to learn how, then read this book.” True then, and still true today.

Learning to use a programming language is about more than mastering the syntax. One needs to acquire an understanding of how to use the features of the language to solve practical programming problems. A focus of this book is many examples that show how to use AWK.

Some things do change. Our computers are much faster and have more memory. Consequently, speed and storage inefficiencies of a high-level language matter less. Prototyping in AWK and then rewriting in C for performance reasons happens less, because more often the prototype is fast enough.

Of course, there are computing operations that are best done in C or C++. With gawk 4.1 and later, you do not have to choose between writing your program in AWK or in C/C++. You can write most of your program in AWK and the aspects that require C/C++ capabilities can be written in C/C++, and then the pieces glued together when the gawk module loads the C/C++ module as a dynamic plug-in. Dynamic Extensions, has all the details, and, as expected, many examples to help you learn the ins and outs.

I enjoy programming in AWK and had fun (re)reading this book. I think you will too.

Michael Brennan
Author of mawk
October 2014

Next: , Previous: , Up: Top   [Contents][Index]


Several kinds of tasks occur repeatedly when working with text files. You might want to extract certain lines and discard the rest. Or you may need to make changes wherever certain patterns appear, but leave the rest of the file alone. Such jobs are often easy with awk. The awk utility interprets a special-purpose programming language that makes it easy to handle simple data-reformatting jobs.

The GNU implementation of awk is called gawk; if you invoke it with the proper options or environment variables, it is fully compatible with the POSIX1 specification of the awk language and with the Unix version of awk maintained by Brian Kernighan. This means that all properly written awk programs should work with gawk. So most of the time, we don’t distinguish between gawk and other awk implementations.

Using awk you can:

In addition, gawk provides facilities that make it easy to:

This Web page teaches you about the awk language and how you can use it effectively. You should already be familiar with basic system commands, such as cat and ls,2 as well as basic shell facilities, such as input/output (I/O) redirection and pipes.

Implementations of the awk language are available for many different computing environments. This Web page, while describing the awk language in general, also describes the particular implementation of awk called gawk (which stands for “GNU awk”). gawk runs on a broad range of Unix systems, ranging from Intel-architecture PC-based computers up through large-scale systems. gawk has also been ported to Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows (all versions) and OS/2 PCs, and OpenVMS.3

Next: , Up: Preface   [Contents][Index]

History of awk and gawk

Recipe for a Programming Language
1 part egrep1 part snobol
2 parts ed3 parts C

Blend all parts well using lex and yacc. Document minimally and release.

After eight years, add another part egrep and two more parts C. Document very well and release.

The name awk comes from the initials of its designers: Alfred V. Aho, Peter J. Weinberger, and Brian W. Kernighan. The original version of awk was written in 1977 at AT&T Bell Laboratories. In 1985, a new version made the programming language more powerful, introducing user-defined functions, multiple input streams, and computed regular expressions. This new version became widely available with Unix System V Release 3.1 (1987). The version in System V Release 4 (1989) added some new features and cleaned up the behavior in some of the “dark corners” of the language. The specification for awk in the POSIX Command Language and Utilities standard further clarified the language. Both the gawk designers and the original awk designers at Bell Laboratories provided feedback for the POSIX specification.

Paul Rubin wrote gawk in 1986. Jay Fenlason completed it, with advice from Richard Stallman. John Woods contributed parts of the code as well. In 1988 and 1989, David Trueman, with help from me, thoroughly reworked gawk for compatibility with the newer awk. Circa 1994, I became the primary maintainer. Current development focuses on bug fixes, performance improvements, standards compliance, and, occasionally, new features.

In May 1997, Jürgen Kahrs felt the need for network access from awk, and with a little help from me, set about adding features to do this for gawk. At that time, he also wrote the bulk of TCP/IP Internetworking with gawk (a separate document, available as part of the gawk distribution). His code finally became part of the main gawk distribution with gawk version 3.1.

John Haque rewrote the gawk internals, in the process providing an awk-level debugger. This version became available as gawk version 4.0 in 2011.

See Contributors for a full list of those who have made important contributions to gawk.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Preface   [Contents][Index]

A Rose by Any Other Name

The awk language has evolved over the years. Full details are provided in Language History. The language described in this Web page is often referred to as “new awk.” By analogy, the original version of awk is referred to as “old awk.”

On most current systems, when you run the awk utility you get some version of new awk.4 If your system’s standard awk is the old one, you will see something like this if you try the test program:

$ awk 1 /dev/null
error→ awk: syntax error near line 1
error→ awk: bailing out near line 1

In this case, you should find a version of new awk, or just install gawk!

Throughout this Web page, whenever we refer to a language feature that should be available in any complete implementation of POSIX awk, we simply use the term awk. When referring to a feature that is specific to the GNU implementation, we use the term gawk.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Preface   [Contents][Index]

Using This Book

The term awk refers to a particular program as well as to the language you use to tell this program what to do. When we need to be careful, we call the language “the awk language,” and the program “the awk utility.” This Web page explains both how to write programs in the awk language and how to run the awk utility. The term “awk program” refers to a program written by you in the awk programming language.

Primarily, this Web page explains the features of awk as defined in the POSIX standard. It does so in the context of the gawk implementation. While doing so, it also attempts to describe important differences between gawk and other awk implementations.5 Finally, it notes any gawk features that are not in the POSIX standard for awk.

This Web page has the difficult task of being both a tutorial and a reference. If you are a novice, feel free to skip over details that seem too complex. You should also ignore the many cross-references; they are for the expert user and for the Info and HTML versions of the Web page.

There are sidebars scattered throughout the Web page. They add a more complete explanation of points that are relevant, but not likely to be of interest on first reading. All appear in the index, under the heading “sidebar.”

Most of the time, the examples use complete awk programs. Some of the more advanced sections show only the part of the awk program that illustrates the concept being described.

Although this Web page is aimed principally at people who have not been exposed to awk, there is a lot of information here that even the awk expert should find useful. In particular, the description of POSIX awk and the example programs in Library Functions, and in Sample Programs, should be of interest.

This Web page is split into several parts, as follows:

Next: , Previous: , Up: Preface   [Contents][Index]

Typographical Conventions

This Web page is written in Texinfo, the GNU documentation formatting language. A single Texinfo source file is used to produce both the printed and online versions of the documentation. Because of this, the typographical conventions are slightly different than in other books you may have read.

Examples you would type at the command line are preceded by the common shell primary and secondary prompts, ‘$’ and ‘>’. Input that you type is shown like this. Output from the command is preceded by the glyph “-|”. This typically represents the command’s standard output. Error messages and other output on the command’s standard error are preceded by the glyph “error→”. For example:

$ echo hi on stdout
-| hi on stdout
$ echo hello on stderr 1>&2
error→ hello on stderr

In the text, almost anything related to programming, such as command names, variable and function names, and string, numeric and regexp constants appear in this font. Code fragments appear in the same font and quoted, ‘like this’. Things that are replaced by the user or programmer appear in this font. Options look like this: -f. File names are indicated like this: /path/to/ourfile. Some things are emphasized like this, and if a point needs to be made strongly, it is done like this. The first occurrence of a new term is usually its definition and appears in the same font as the previous occurrence of “definition” in this sentence.

Characters that you type at the keyboard look like this. In particular, there are special characters called “control characters.” These are characters that you type by holding down both the CONTROL key and another key, at the same time. For example, a Ctrl-d is typed by first pressing and holding the CONTROL key, next pressing the d key, and finally releasing both keys.

For the sake of brevity, throughout this Web page, we refer to Brian Kernighan’s version of awk as “BWK awk.” (See Other Versions for information on his and other versions.)

Dark Corners

Dark corners are basically fractal—no matter how much you illuminate, there’s always a smaller but darker one.

Brian Kernighan

Until the POSIX standard (and GAWK: Effective AWK Programming), many features of awk were either poorly documented or not documented at all. Descriptions of such features (often called “dark corners”) are noted in this Web page with “(d.c.).” They also appear in the index under the heading “dark corner.”

But, as noted by the opening quote, any coverage of dark corners is by definition incomplete.

Extensions to the standard awk language that are supported by more than one awk implementation are marked “(c.e.),” and listed in the index under “common extensions” and “extensions, common.”

Next: , Previous: , Up: Preface   [Contents][Index]

The GNU Project and This Book

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the production and distribution of freely distributable software. It was founded by Richard M. Stallman, the author of the original Emacs editor. GNU Emacs is the most widely used version of Emacs today.

The GNU6 Project is an ongoing effort on the part of the Free Software Foundation to create a complete, freely distributable, POSIX-compliant computing environment. The FSF uses the GNU General Public License (GPL) to ensure that its software’s source code is always available to the end user. A copy of the GPL is included in this Web page for your reference (see Copying). The GPL applies to the C language source code for gawk. To find out more about the FSF and the GNU Project online, see the GNU Project’s home page. This Web page may also be read from GNU’s website.

A shell, an editor (Emacs), highly portable optimizing C, C++, and Objective-C compilers, a symbolic debugger and dozens of large and small utilities (such as gawk), have all been completed and are freely available. The GNU operating system kernel (the HURD), has been released but remains in an early stage of development.

Until the GNU operating system is more fully developed, you should consider using GNU/Linux, a freely distributable, Unix-like operating system for Intel, Power Architecture, Sun SPARC, IBM S/390, and other systems.7 Many GNU/Linux distributions are available for download from the Internet.

The Web page you are reading is actually free—at least, the information in it is free to anyone. The machine-readable source code for the Web page comes with gawk. (Take a moment to check the Free Documentation License in GNU Free Documentation License.)

The Web page itself has gone through multiple previous editions. Paul Rubin wrote the very first draft of The GAWK Manual; it was around 40 pages long. Diane Close and Richard Stallman improved it, yielding a version that was around 90 pages and barely described the original, “old” version of awk.

I started working with that version in the fall of 1988. As work on it progressed, the FSF published several preliminary versions (numbered 0.x). In 1996, edition 1.0 was released with gawk 3.0.0. The FSF published the first two editions under the title The GNU Awk User’s Guide.

This edition maintains the basic structure of the previous editions. For FSF edition 4.0, the content was thoroughly reviewed and updated. All references to gawk versions prior to 4.0 were removed. Of significant note for that edition was the addition of Debugger.

For FSF edition 4.1, the content has been reorganized into parts, and the major new additions are Arbitrary Precision Arithmetic, and Dynamic Extensions.

This Web page will undoubtedly continue to evolve. If you find an error in the Web page, please report it! See Bugs for information on submitting problem reports electronically.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Preface   [Contents][Index]

How to Contribute

As the maintainer of GNU awk, I once thought that I would be able to manage a collection of publicly available awk programs and I even solicited contributions. Making things available on the Internet helps keep the gawk distribution down to manageable size.

The initial collection of material, such as it is, is still available at In the hopes of doing something more broad, I acquired the domain.

However, I found that I could not dedicate enough time to managing contributed code: the archive did not grow and the domain went unused for several years.

Late in 2008, a volunteer took on the task of setting up an awk-related website——and did a very nice job.

If you have written an interesting awk program, or have written a gawk extension that you would like to share with the rest of the world, please see for how to contribute it to the website.

Previous: , Up: Preface   [Contents][Index]


The initial draft of The GAWK Manual had the following acknowledgments:

Many people need to be thanked for their assistance in producing this manual. Jay Fenlason contributed many ideas and sample programs. Richard Mlynarik and Robert Chassell gave helpful comments on drafts of this manual. The paper A Supplemental Document for AWK by John W. Pierce of the Chemistry Department at UC San Diego, pinpointed several issues relevant both to awk implementation and to this manual, that would otherwise have escaped us.

I would like to acknowledge Richard M. Stallman, for his vision of a better world and for his courage in founding the FSF and starting the GNU Project.

Earlier editions of this Web page had the following acknowledgements:

The following people (in alphabetical order) provided helpful comments on various versions of this book: Rick Adams, Dr. Nelson H.F. Beebe, Karl Berry, Dr. Michael Brennan, Rich Burridge, Claire Cloutier, Diane Close, Scott Deifik, Christopher (“Topher”) Eliot, Jeffrey Friedl, Dr. Darrel Hankerson, Michal Jaegermann, Dr. Richard J. LeBlanc, Michael Lijewski, Pat Rankin, Miriam Robbins, Mary Sheehan, and Chuck Toporek.

Robert J. Chassell provided much valuable advice on the use of Texinfo. He also deserves special thanks for convincing me not to title this Web page How to Gawk Politely. Karl Berry helped significantly with the TeX part of Texinfo.

I would like to thank Marshall and Elaine Hartholz of Seattle and Dr. Bert and Rita Schreiber of Detroit for large amounts of quiet vacation time in their homes, which allowed me to make significant progress on this Web page and on gawk itself.

Phil Hughes of SSC contributed in a very important way by loaning me his laptop GNU/Linux system, not once, but twice, which allowed me to do a lot of work while away from home.

David Trueman deserves special credit; he has done a yeoman job of evolving gawk so that it performs well and without bugs. Although he is no longer involved with gawk, working with him on this project was a significant pleasure.

The intrepid members of the GNITS mailing list, and most notably Ulrich Drepper, provided invaluable help and feedback for the design of the internationalization features.

Chuck Toporek, Mary Sheehan, and Claire Cloutier of O’Reilly & Associates contributed significant editorial help for this Web page for the 3.1 release of gawk.

Dr. Nelson Beebe, Andreas Buening, Dr. Manuel Collado, Antonio Colombo, Stephen Davies, Scott Deifik, Akim Demaille, Daniel Richard G., Darrel Hankerson, Michal Jaegermann, Jürgen Kahrs, Stepan Kasal, John Malmberg, Dave Pitts, Chet Ramey, Pat Rankin, Andrew Schorr, Corinna Vinschen, and Eli Zaretskii (in alphabetical order) make up the current gawk “crack portability team.” Without their hard work and help, gawk would not be nearly the robust, portable program it is today. It has been and continues to be a pleasure working with this team of fine people.

Notable code and documentation contributions were made by a number of people. See Contributors for the full list.

Thanks to Michael Brennan for the Forewords.

Thanks to Patrice Dumas for the new makeinfo program. Thanks to Karl Berry, who continues to work to keep the Texinfo markup language sane.

Robert P.J. Day, Michael Brennan, and Brian Kernighan kindly acted as reviewers for the 2015 edition of this Web page. Their feedback helped improve the final work.

I would also like to thank Brian Kernighan for his invaluable assistance during the testing and debugging of gawk, and for his ongoing help and advice in clarifying numerous points about the language. We could not have done nearly as good a job on either gawk or its documentation without his help.

Brian is in a class by himself as a programmer and technical author. I have to thank him (yet again) for his ongoing friendship and for being a role model to me for close to 30 years! Having him as a reviewer is an exciting privilege. It has also been extremely humbling...

I must thank my wonderful wife, Miriam, for her patience through the many versions of this project, for her proofreading, and for sharing me with the computer. I would like to thank my parents for their love, and for the grace with which they raised and educated me. Finally, I also must acknowledge my gratitude to G-d, for the many opportunities He has sent my way, as well as for the gifts He has given me with which to take advantage of those opportunities.

Arnold Robbins
Nof Ayalon
February 2015

Next: , Previous: , Up: Top   [Contents][Index]

Part I:
The awk Language

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). 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 }

Next: , Up: Getting Started   [Contents][Index]

1.1 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.

Next: , Up: Running gawk   [Contents][Index]

1.1.1 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 Very Simple, we’ll see examples of several short, self-contained programs.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Running gawk   [Contents][Index]

1.1.2 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. For example, on OS/2, it is Ctrl-z.)

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?

Next: , Previous: , Up: Running gawk   [Contents][Index]

1.1.3 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 Options). Any file name 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 Read Terminal). Note that you don’t usually need single quotes around the file name that you specify with -f, because most file names 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 file name. This doesn’t affect the execution of the awk program but it does make “housekeeping” easier.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Running gawk   [Contents][Index]

1.1.4 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.8 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.

Understanding ‘#!

awk is an interpreted language. This means that the awk utility reads your program and then processes your data according to the instructions in your program. (This is different from a compiled language such as C, where your program is first compiled into machine code that is executed directly by your system’s processor.) The awk utility is thus termed an interpreter. Many modern languages are interpreted.

The line beginning with ‘#!’ lists the full file name of an interpreter to run and a single optional initial command-line argument to pass to that interpreter. The operating system then runs the interpreter with the given argument and the full argument list of the executed program. The first argument in the list is the full file name of the awk program. The rest of the argument list contains either options to awk, or data files, or both. (Note that on many systems awk may be found in /usr/bin instead of in /bin.)

Some systems limit the length of the interpreter name to 32 characters. Often, this can be dealt with by using a symbolic link.

You should not put more than one argument on the ‘#!’ line after the path to awk. It does not work. The operating system treats the rest of the line as a single argument and passes it to awk. Doing this leads to confusing behavior—most likely a usage diagnostic of some sort from awk.

Finally, the value of ARGV[0] (see Built-in Variables) varies depending upon your operating system. Some systems put ‘awk’ there, some put the full pathname of awk (such as /bin/awk), and some put the name of your script (‘advice’). (d.c.) Don’t rely on the value of ARGV[0] to provide your script name.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Running gawk   [Contents][Index]

1.1.5 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, 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.

Previous: , Up: Running gawk   [Contents][Index]

1.1.6 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 Web page, 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 Web page, we use the terms null string and empty string interchangeably. Now, on to the quoting rules:

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.

Up: Quoting   [Contents][Index] Quoting in MS-Windows Batch Files

Although this Web page 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

Next: , Previous: , Up: Getting Started   [Contents][Index]

1.2 Data files for the Examples

Many of the examples in this Web page take their input from two sample data files. The first, mail-list, represents a list of peoples’ names together with their email addresses and information about those people. The second data file, 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    F
Anthony      555-3412   A
Becky        555-7685      A
Bill         555-1675       A
Broderick    555-0542 R
Camilla      555-2912     R
Fabius       555-1234    F
Julie        555-6699   F
Martin       555-6480    A
Samuel       555-3430        A
Jean-Paul    555-2127     R

The data file 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.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Getting Started   [Contents][Index]

1.3 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 Regexp). 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    F
-| Broderick    555-0542 R
-| Julie        555-6699   F
-| Samuel       555-3430        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 Web page to become an awk expert!) Most of the examples use a data file named data. This is just a placeholder; if you use these programs yourself, substitute your own file names 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:

Next: , Previous: , Up: Getting Started   [Contents][Index]

1.4 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 Next Statement and also see 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 data files, mail-list and inventory-shipped:

$ awk '/12/ { print $0 }
>      /21/ { print $0 }' mail-list inventory-shipped
-| Anthony      555-3412   A
-| Camilla      555-2912     R
-| Fabius       555-1234    F
-| Jean-Paul    555-2127     R
-| Jean-Paul    555-2127     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.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Getting Started   [Contents][Index]

1.5 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
-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 file name.

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 Action Overview). 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.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Getting Started   [Contents][Index]

1.6 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.9

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 Web page. 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.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Getting Started   [Contents][Index]

1.7 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 Built-in Variables and in Built-in.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Getting Started   [Contents][Index]

1.8 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 More Complex.)

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 (see Glossary, for more information), 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.10

Previous: , Up: Getting Started   [Contents][Index]

1.9 Summary

Next: , Previous: , Up: Top   [Contents][Index]

2 Running awk and gawk

This chapter covers how to run awk, both POSIX-standard and gawk-specific command-line options, and what awk and gawk do with nonoption arguments. It then proceeds to cover how gawk searches for source files, reading standard input along with other files, gawk’s environment variables, gawk’s exit status, using include files, and obsolete and undocumented options and/or features.

Many of the options and features described here are discussed in more detail later in the Web page; feel free to skip over things in this chapter that don’t interest you right now.

Next: , Up: Invoking Gawk   [Contents][Index]

2.1 Invoking awk

There are two ways to run awk—with an explicit program or with one or more program files. Here are templates for both of them; items enclosed in […] in these templates are optional:

awk [options] -f progfile [--] fileawk [options] [--] 'program' file

In addition to traditional one-letter POSIX-style options, gawk also supports GNU long options.

It is possible to invoke awk with an empty program:

awk '' datafile1 datafile2

Doing so makes little sense, though; awk exits silently when given an empty program. (d.c.) If --lint has been specified on the command line, gawk issues a warning that the program is empty.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Invoking Gawk   [Contents][Index]

2.2 Command-Line Options

Options begin with a dash and consist of a single character. GNU-style long options consist of two dashes and a keyword. The keyword can be abbreviated, as long as the abbreviation allows the option to be uniquely identified. If the option takes an argument, either the keyword is immediately followed by an equals sign (‘=’) and the argument’s value, or the keyword and the argument’s value are separated by whitespace. If a particular option with a value is given more than once, it is the last value that counts.

Each long option for gawk has a corresponding POSIX-style short option. The long and short options are interchangeable in all contexts. The following list describes options mandated by the POSIX standard:

-F fs
--field-separator fs

Set the FS variable to fs (see Field Separators).

-f source-file
--file source-file

Read the awk program source from source-file instead of in the first nonoption argument. This option may be given multiple times; the awk program consists of the concatenation of the contents of each specified source-file.

-v var=val
--assign var=val

Set the variable var to the value val before execution of the program begins. Such variable values are available inside the BEGIN rule (see Other Arguments).

The -v option can only set one variable, but it can be used more than once, setting another variable each time, like this: ‘awk -v foo=1 -v bar=2’.

CAUTION: Using -v to set the values of the built-in variables may lead to surprising results. awk will reset the values of those variables as it needs to, possibly ignoring any initial value you may have given.

-W gawk-opt

Provide an implementation-specific option. This is the POSIX convention for providing implementation-specific options. These options also have corresponding GNU-style long options. Note that the long options may be abbreviated, as long as the abbreviations remain unique. The full list of gawk-specific options is provided next.


Signal the end of the command-line options. The following arguments are not treated as options even if they begin with ‘-’. This interpretation of -- follows the POSIX argument parsing conventions.

This is useful if you have file names that start with ‘-’, or in shell scripts, if you have file names that will be specified by the user that could start with ‘-’. It is also useful for passing options on to the awk program; see Getopt Function.

The following list describes gawk-specific options:


Cause gawk to treat all input data as single-byte characters. In addition, all output written with print or printf is treated as single-byte characters.

Normally, gawk follows the POSIX standard and attempts to process its input data according to the current locale (see Locales). This can often involve converting multibyte characters into wide characters (internally), and can lead to problems or confusion if the input data does not contain valid multibyte characters. This option is an easy way to tell gawk, “Hands off my data!”


Specify compatibility mode, in which the GNU extensions to the awk language are disabled, so that gawk behaves just like BWK awk. See POSIX/GNU, which summarizes the extensions. Also see Compatibility Mode.


Print the short version of the General Public License and then exit.


Print a sorted list of global variables, their types, and final values to file. If no file is provided, print this list to a file named awkvars.out in the current directory. No space is allowed between the -d and file, if file is supplied.

Having a list of all global variables is a good way to look for typographical errors in your programs. You would also use this option if you have a large program with a lot of functions, and you want to be sure that your functions don’t inadvertently use global variables that you meant to be local. (This is a particularly easy mistake to make with simple variable names like i, j, etc.)


Enable debugging of awk programs (see Debugging). By default, the debugger reads commands interactively from the keyboard (standard input). The optional file argument allows you to specify a file with a list of commands for the debugger to execute noninteractively. No space is allowed between the -D and file, if file is supplied.

-e program-text
--source program-text

Provide program source code in the program-text. This option allows you to mix source code in files with source code that you enter on the command line. This is particularly useful when you have library functions that you want to use from your command-line programs (see AWKPATH Variable).

-E file
--exec file

Similar to -f, read awk program text from file. There are two differences from -f:

This option is particularly necessary for World Wide Web CGI applications that pass arguments through the URL; using this option prevents a malicious (or other) user from passing in options, assignments, or awk source code (via -e) to the CGI application.11 This option should be used with ‘#!’ scripts (see Executable Scripts), like so:

#! /usr/local/bin/gawk -E

awk program here …

Analyze the source program and generate a GNU gettext portable object template file on standard output for all string constants that have been marked for translation. See Internationalization, for information about this option.


Print a “usage” message summarizing the short- and long-style options that gawk accepts and then exit.

-i source-file
--include source-file

Read an awk source library from source-file. This option is completely equivalent to using the @include directive inside your program. It is very similar to the -f option, but there are two important differences. First, when -i is used, the program source is not loaded if it has been previously loaded, whereas with -f, gawk always loads the file. Second, because this option is intended to be used with code libraries, gawk does not recognize such files as constituting main program input. Thus, after processing an -i argument, gawk still expects to find the main source code via the -f option or on the command line.

-l ext
--load ext

Load a dynamic extension named ext. Extensions are stored as system shared libraries. This option searches for the library using the AWKLIBPATH environment variable. The correct library suffix for your platform will be supplied by default, so it need not be specified in the extension name. The extension initialization routine should be named dl_load(). An alternative is to use the @load keyword inside the program to load a shared library. This advanced feature is described in detail in Dynamic Extensions.


Warn about constructs that are dubious or nonportable to other awk implementations. No space is allowed between the -L and value, if value is supplied. Some warnings are issued when gawk first reads your program. Others are issued at runtime, as your program executes. With an optional argument of ‘fatal’, lint warnings become fatal errors. This may be drastic, but its use will certainly encourage the development of cleaner awk programs. With an optional argument of ‘invalid’, only warnings about things that are actually invalid are issued. (This is not fully implemented yet.)

Some warnings are only printed once, even if the dubious constructs they warn about occur multiple times in your awk program. Thus, when eliminating problems pointed out by --lint, you should take care to search for all occurrences of each inappropriate construct. As awk programs are usually short, doing so is not burdensome.


Select arbitrary-precision arithmetic on numbers. This option has no effect if gawk is not compiled to use the GNU MPFR and MP libraries (see Arbitrary Precision Arithmetic).


Enable automatic interpretation of octal and hexadecimal values in input data (see Nondecimal Data).

CAUTION: This option can severely break old programs. Use with care. Also note that this option may disappear in a future version of gawk.


Force the use of the locale’s decimal point character when parsing numeric input data (see Locales).


Enable pretty-printing of awk programs. By default, the output program is created in a file named awkprof.out (see Profiling). The optional file argument allows you to specify a different file name for the output. No space is allowed between the -o and file, if file is supplied.

NOTE: Due to the way gawk has evolved, with this option your program still executes. This will change in the next major release, such that gawk will only pretty-print the program and not run it.


Enable some optimizations on the internal representation of the program. At the moment, this includes just simple constant folding.


Enable profiling of awk programs (see Profiling). By default, profiles are created in a file named awkprof.out. The optional file argument allows you to specify a different file name for the profile file. No space is allowed between the -p and file, if file is supplied.

The profile contains execution counts for each statement in the program in the left margin, and function call counts for each function.


Operate in strict POSIX mode. This disables all gawk extensions (just like --traditional) and disables all extensions not allowed by POSIX. See Common Extensions for a summary of the extensions in gawk that are disabled by this option. Also, the following additional restrictions apply:

If you supply both --traditional and --posix on the command line, --posix takes precedence. gawk issues a warning if both options are supplied.


Allow interval expressions (see Regexp Operators) in regexps. This is now gawk’s default behavior. Nevertheless, this option remains (both for backward compatibility and for use in combination with --traditional).


Disable the system() function, input redirections with getline, output redirections with print and printf, and dynamic extensions. This is particularly useful when you want to run awk scripts from questionable sources and need to make sure the scripts can’t access your system (other than the specified input data file).


Warn about constructs that are not available in the original version of awk from Version 7 Unix (see V7/SVR3.1).


Print version information for this particular copy of gawk. This allows you to determine if your copy of gawk is up to date with respect to whatever the Free Software Foundation is currently distributing. It is also useful for bug reports (see Bugs).

As long as program text has been supplied, any other options are flagged as invalid with a warning message but are otherwise ignored.

In compatibility mode, as a special case, if the value of fs supplied to the -F option is ‘t’, then FS is set to the TAB character ("\t"). This is true only for --traditional and not for --posix (see Field Separators).

The -f option may be used more than once on the command line. If it is, awk reads its program source from all of the named files, as if they had been concatenated together into one big file. This is useful for creating libraries of awk functions. These functions can be written once and then retrieved from a standard place, instead of having to be included in each individual program. The -i option is similar in this regard. (As mentioned in Definition Syntax, function names must be unique.)

With standard awk, library functions can still be used, even if the program is entered at the keyboard, by specifying ‘-f /dev/tty’. After typing your program, type Ctrl-d (the end-of-file character) to terminate it. (You may also use ‘-f -’ to read program source from the standard input, but then you will not be able to also use the standard input as a source of data.)

Because it is clumsy using the standard awk mechanisms to mix source file and command-line awk programs, gawk provides the -e option. This does not require you to preempt the standard input for your source code; it allows you to easily mix command-line and library source code (see AWKPATH Variable). As with -f, the -e and -i options may also be used multiple times on the command line.

If no -f or -e option is specified, then gawk uses the first nonoption command-line argument as the text of the program source code.

If the environment variable POSIXLY_CORRECT exists, then gawk behaves in strict POSIX mode, exactly as if you had supplied --posix. Many GNU programs look for this environment variable to suppress extensions that conflict with POSIX, but gawk behaves differently: it suppresses all extensions, even those that do not conflict with POSIX, and behaves in strict POSIX mode. If --lint is supplied on the command line and gawk turns on POSIX mode because of POSIXLY_CORRECT, then it issues a warning message indicating that POSIX mode is in effect. You would typically set this variable in your shell’s startup file. For a Bourne-compatible shell (such as Bash), you would add these lines to the .profile file in your home directory:


For a C shell-compatible shell,12 you would add this line to the .login file in your home directory:


Having POSIXLY_CORRECT set is not recommended for daily use, but it is good for testing the portability of your programs to other environments.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Invoking Gawk   [Contents][Index]

2.3 Other Command-Line Arguments

Any additional arguments on the command line are normally treated as input files to be processed in the order specified. However, an argument that has the form var=value, assigns the value value to the variable var—it does not specify a file at all. (See Assignment Options.) In the following example, count=1 is a variable assignment, not a file name:

awk -f program.awk file1 count=1 file2

All the command-line arguments are made available to your awk program in the ARGV array (see Built-in Variables). Command-line options and the program text (if present) are omitted from ARGV. All other arguments, including variable assignments, are included. As each element of ARGV is processed, gawk sets ARGIND to the index in ARGV of the current element.

Changing ARGC and ARGV in your awk program lets you control how awk processes the input files; this is described in more detail in ARGC and ARGV.

The distinction between file name arguments and variable-assignment arguments is made when awk is about to open the next input file. At that point in execution, it checks the file name to see whether it is really a variable assignment; if so, awk sets the variable instead of reading a file.

Therefore, the variables actually receive the given values after all previously specified files have been read. In particular, the values of variables assigned in this fashion are not available inside a BEGIN rule (see BEGIN/END), because such rules are run before awk begins scanning the argument list.

The variable values given on the command line are processed for escape sequences (see Escape Sequences). (d.c.)

In some very early implementations of awk, when a variable assignment occurred before any file names, the assignment would happen before the BEGIN rule was executed. awk’s behavior was thus inconsistent; some command-line assignments were available inside the BEGIN rule, while others were not. Unfortunately, some applications came to depend upon this “feature.” When awk was changed to be more consistent, the -v option was added to accommodate applications that depended upon the old behavior.

The variable assignment feature is most useful for assigning to variables such as RS, OFS, and ORS, which control input and output formats, before scanning the data files. It is also useful for controlling state if multiple passes are needed over a data file. For example:

awk 'pass == 1  { pass 1 stuff }
     pass == 2  { pass 2 stuff }' pass=1 mydata pass=2 mydata

Given the variable assignment feature, the -F option for setting the value of FS is not strictly necessary. It remains for historical compatibility.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Invoking Gawk   [Contents][Index]

2.4 Naming Standard Input

Often, you may wish to read standard input together with other files. For example, you may wish to read one file, read standard input coming from a pipe, and then read another file.

The way to name the standard input, with all versions of awk, is to use a single, standalone minus sign or dash, ‘-’. For example:

some_command | awk -f myprog.awk file1 - file2

Here, awk first reads file1, then it reads the output of some_command, and finally it reads file2.

You may also use "-" to name standard input when reading files with getline (see Getline/File).

In addition, gawk allows you to specify the special file name /dev/stdin, both on the command line and with getline. Some other versions of awk also support this, but it is not standard. (Some operating systems provide a /dev/stdin file in the filesystem; however, gawk always processes this file name itself.)

Next: , Previous: , Up: Invoking Gawk   [Contents][Index]

2.5 The Environment Variables gawk Uses

A number of environment variables influence how gawk behaves.

Next: , Up: Environment Variables   [Contents][Index]

2.5.1 The AWKPATH Environment Variable

In most awk implementations, you must supply a precise pathname for each program file, unless the file is in the current directory. But with gawk, if the file name supplied to the -f or -i options does not contain a directory separator ‘/’, then gawk searches a list of directories (called the search path) one by one, looking for a file with the specified name.

The search path is a string consisting of directory names separated by colons.13 gawk gets its search path from the AWKPATH environment variable. If that variable does not exist, or if it has an empty value, gawk uses a default path (described shortly).

The search path feature is particularly helpful for building libraries of useful awk functions. The library files can be placed in a standard directory in the default path and then specified on the command line with a short file name. Otherwise, you would have to type the full file name for each file.

By using the -i or -f options, your command-line awk programs can use facilities in awk library files (see Library Functions). Path searching is not done if gawk is in compatibility mode. This is true for both --traditional and --posix. See Options.

If the source code file is not found after the initial search, the path is searched again after adding the suffix ‘.awk’ to the file name.

gawk’s path search mechanism is similar to the shell’s. (See The Bourne-Again SHell manual.) It treats a null entry in the path as indicating the current directory. (A null entry is indicated by starting or ending the path with a colon or by placing two colons next to each other [‘::’].)

NOTE: To include the current directory in the path, either place . as an entry in the path or write a null entry in the path.

Different past versions of gawk would also look explicitly in the current directory, either before or after the path search. As of version 4.1.2, this no longer happens; if you wish to look in the current directory, you must include . either as a separate entry or as a null entry in the search path.

The default value for AWKPATH is ‘.:/usr/local/share/awk’.14 Since . is included at the beginning, gawk searches first in the current directory and then in /usr/local/share/awk. In practice, this means that you will rarely need to change the value of AWKPATH.

gawk places the value of the search path that it used into ENVIRON["AWKPATH"]. This provides access to the actual search path value from within an awk program.

Although you can change ENVIRON["AWKPATH"] within your awk program, this has no effect on the running program’s behavior. This makes sense: the AWKPATH environment variable is used to find the program source files. Once your program is running, all the files have been found, and gawk no longer needs to use AWKPATH.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Environment Variables   [Contents][Index]

2.5.2 The AWKLIBPATH Environment Variable

The AWKLIBPATH environment variable is similar to the AWKPATH variable, but it is used to search for loadable extensions (stored as system shared libraries) specified with the -l option rather than for source files. If the extension is not found, the path is searched again after adding the appropriate shared library suffix for the platform. For example, on GNU/Linux systems, the suffix ‘.so’ is used. The search path specified is also used for extensions loaded via the @load keyword (see Loading Shared Libraries).

If AWKLIBPATH does not exist in the environment, or if it has an empty value, gawk uses a default path; this is typically ‘/usr/local/lib/gawk’, although it can vary depending upon how gawk was built.

gawk places the value of the search path that it used into ENVIRON["AWKLIBPATH"]. This provides access to the actual search path value from within an awk program.

Previous: , Up: Environment Variables   [Contents][Index]

2.5.3 Other Environment Variables

A number of other environment variables affect gawk’s behavior, but they are more specialized. Those in the following list are meant to be used by regular users:


Specifies the interval between connection retries, in milliseconds. On systems that do not support the usleep() system call, the value is rounded up to an integral number of seconds.


Specifies the time, in milliseconds, for gawk to wait for input before returning with an error. See Read Timeout.


Controls the number of times gawk attempts to retry a two-way TCP/IP (socket) connection before giving up. See TCP/IP Networking.


Causes gawk to switch to POSIX-compatibility mode, disabling all traditional and GNU extensions. See Options.

The environment variables in the following list are meant for use by the gawk developers for testing and tuning. They are subject to change. The variables are:


This variable only affects gawk on POSIX-compliant systems. With a value of ‘exact’, gawk uses the size of each input file as the size of the memory buffer to allocate for I/O. Otherwise, the value should be a number, and gawk uses that number as the size of the buffer to allocate. (When this variable is not set, gawk uses the smaller of the file’s size and the “default” blocksize, which is usually the filesystem’s I/O blocksize.)


If this variable exists with a value of ‘gst’, gawk switches to using the hash function from GNU Smalltalk for managing arrays. This function may be marginally faster than the standard function.


If this variable exists, gawk switches to reading source files one line at a time, instead of reading in blocks. This exists for debugging problems on filesystems on non-POSIX operating systems where I/O is performed in records, not in blocks.


If this variable exists, gawk includes the file name and line number within the gawk source code from which warning and/or fatal messages are generated. Its purpose is to help isolate the source of a message, as there are multiple places that produce the same warning or error message.


Specifies the location of compiled message object files for gawk itself. This is passed to the bindtextdomain() function when gawk starts up.


If this variable exists, gawk does not use the DFA regexp matcher for “does it match” kinds of tests. This can cause gawk to be slower. Its purpose is to help isolate differences between the two regexp matchers that gawk uses internally. (There aren’t supposed to be differences, but occasionally theory and practice don’t coordinate with each other.)


When gawk is invoked with the --pretty-print option, it will not run the program if this environment variable exists.

CAUTION: This variable will not survive into the next major release.


This specifies the amount by which gawk should grow its internal evaluation stack, when needed.


This specifies intended maximum number of items gawk will maintain on a hash chain for managing arrays indexed by integers.


This specifies intended maximum number of items gawk will maintain on a hash chain for managing arrays indexed by strings.


If this variable exists, gawk uses the mtrace() library calls from the GNU C library to help track down possible memory leaks.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Invoking Gawk   [Contents][Index]

2.6 gawk’s Exit Status

If the exit statement is used with a value (see Exit Statement), then gawk exits with the numeric value given to it.

Otherwise, if there were no problems during execution, gawk exits with the value of the C constant EXIT_SUCCESS. This is usually zero.

If an error occurs, gawk exits with the value of the C constant EXIT_FAILURE. This is usually one.

If gawk exits because of a fatal error, the exit status is two. On non-POSIX systems, this value may be mapped to EXIT_FAILURE.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Invoking Gawk   [Contents][Index]

2.7 Including Other Files into Your Program

This section describes a feature that is specific to gawk.

The @include keyword can be used to read external awk source files. This gives you the ability to split large awk source files into smaller, more manageable pieces, and also lets you reuse common awk code from various awk scripts. In other words, you can group together awk functions used to carry out specific tasks into external files. These files can be used just like function libraries, using the @include keyword in conjunction with the AWKPATH environment variable. Note that source files may also be included using the -i option.

Let’s see an example. We’ll start with two (trivial) awk scripts, namely test1 and test2. Here is the test1 script:

    print "This is script test1."

and here is test2:

@include "test1"
    print "This is script test2."

Running gawk with test2 produces the following result:

$ gawk -f test2
-| This is script test1.
-| This is script test2.

gawk runs the test2 script, which includes test1 using the @include keyword. So, to include external awk source files, you just use @include followed by the name of the file to be included, enclosed in double quotes.

NOTE: Keep in mind that this is a language construct and the file name cannot be a string variable, but rather just a literal string constant in double quotes.

The files to be included may be nested; e.g., given a third script, namely test3:

@include "test2"
    print "This is script test3."

Running gawk with the test3 script produces the following results:

$ gawk -f test3
-| This is script test1.
-| This is script test2.
-| This is script test3.

The file name can, of course, be a pathname. For example:

@include "../io_funcs"


@include "/usr/awklib/network"

are both valid. The AWKPATH environment variable can be of great value when using @include. The same rules for the use of the AWKPATH variable in command-line file searches (see AWKPATH Variable) apply to @include also.

This is very helpful in constructing gawk function libraries. If you have a large script with useful, general-purpose awk functions, you can break it down into library files and put those files in a special directory. You can then include those “libraries,” either by using the full pathnames of the files, or by setting the AWKPATH environment variable accordingly and then using @include with just the file part of the full pathname. Of course, you can keep library files in more than one directory; the more complex the working environment is, the more directories you may need to organize the files to be included.

Given the ability to specify multiple -f options, the @include mechanism is not strictly necessary. However, the @include keyword can help you in constructing self-contained gawk programs, thus reducing the need for writing complex and tedious command lines. In particular, @include is very useful for writing CGI scripts to be run from web pages.

As mentioned in AWKPATH Variable, the current directory is always searched first for source files, before searching in AWKPATH; this also applies to files named with @include.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Invoking Gawk   [Contents][Index]

2.8 Loading Dynamic Extensions into Your Program

This section describes a feature that is specific to gawk.

The @load keyword can be used to read external awk extensions (stored as system shared libraries). This allows you to link in compiled code that may offer superior performance and/or give you access to extended capabilities not supported by the awk language. The AWKLIBPATH variable is used to search for the extension. Using @load is completely equivalent to using the -l command-line option.

If the extension is not initially found in AWKLIBPATH, another search is conducted after appending the platform’s default shared library suffix to the file name. For example, on GNU/Linux systems, the suffix ‘.so’ is used:

$ gawk '@load "ordchr"; BEGIN {print chr(65)}'
-| A

This is equivalent to the following example:

$ gawk -lordchr 'BEGIN {print chr(65)}'
-| A

For command-line usage, the -l option is more convenient, but @load is useful for embedding inside an awk source file that requires access to an extension.

Dynamic Extensions, describes how to write extensions (in C or C++) that can be loaded with either @load or the -l option. It also describes the ordchr extension.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Invoking Gawk   [Contents][Index]

2.9 Obsolete Options and/or Features

This section describes features and/or command-line options from previous releases of gawk that either are not available in the current version or are still supported but deprecated (meaning that they will not be in the next release).

The process-related special files /dev/pid, /dev/ppid, /dev/pgrpid, and /dev/user were deprecated in gawk 3.1, but still worked. As of version 4.0, they are no longer interpreted specially by gawk. (Use PROCINFO instead; see Auto-set.)

Next: , Previous: , Up: Invoking Gawk   [Contents][Index]

2.10 Undocumented Options and Features

Use the Source, Luke!


This section intentionally left blank.

Previous: , Up: Invoking Gawk   [Contents][Index]

2.11 Summary

Next: , Previous: , Up: Top   [Contents][Index]

3 Regular Expressions

A regular expression, or regexp, is a way of describing a set of strings. Because regular expressions are such a fundamental part of awk programming, their format and use deserve a separate chapter.

A regular expression enclosed in slashes (‘/’) is an awk pattern that matches every input record whose text belongs to that set. The simplest regular expression is a sequence of letters, numbers, or both. Such a regexp matches any string that contains that sequence. Thus, the regexp ‘foo’ matches any string containing ‘foo’. Thus, the pattern /foo/ matches any input record containing the three adjacent characters ‘fooanywhere in the record. Other kinds of regexps let you specify more complicated classes of strings.

Initially, the examples in this chapter are simple. As we explain more about how regular expressions work, we present more complicated instances.

Next: , Up: Regexp   [Contents][Index]

3.1 How to Use Regular Expressions

A regular expression can be used as a pattern by enclosing it in slashes. Then the regular expression is tested against the entire text of each record. (Normally, it only needs to match some part of the text in order to succeed.) For example, the following prints the second field of each record where the string ‘li’ appears anywhere in the record:

$ awk '/li/ { print $2 }' mail-list
-| 555-5553
-| 555-0542
-| 555-6699
-| 555-3430

Regular expressions can also be used in matching expressions. These expressions allow you to specify the string to match against; it need not be the entire current input record. The two operators ‘~’ and ‘!~’ perform regular expression comparisons. Expressions using these operators can be used as patterns, or in if, while, for, and do statements. (See Statements.) For example, the following is true if the expression exp (taken as a string) matches regexp:

exp ~ /regexp/

This example matches, or selects, all input records with the uppercase letter ‘J’ somewhere in the first field:

$ awk '$1 ~ /J/' inventory-shipped
-| Jan  13  25  15 115
-| Jun  31  42  75 492
-| Jul  24  34  67 436
-| Jan  21  36  64 620

So does this:

awk '{ if ($1 ~ /J/) print }' inventory-shipped

This next example is true if the expression exp (taken as a character string) does not match regexp:

exp !~ /regexp/

The following example matches, or selects, all input records whose first field does not contain the uppercase letter ‘J’:

$ awk '$1 !~ /J/' inventory-shipped
-| Feb  15  32  24 226
-| Mar  15  24  34 228
-| Apr  31  52  63 420
-| May  16  34  29 208

When a regexp is enclosed in slashes, such as /foo/, we call it a regexp constant, much like 5.27 is a numeric constant and "foo" is a string constant.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Regexp   [Contents][Index]

3.2 Escape Sequences

Some characters cannot be included literally in string constants ("foo") or regexp constants (/foo/). Instead, they should be represented with escape sequences, which are character sequences beginning with a backslash (‘\’). One use of an escape sequence is to include a double-quote character in a string constant. Because a plain double quote ends the string, you must use ‘\"’ to represent an actual double-quote character as a part of the string. For example:

$ awk 'BEGIN { print "He said \"hi!\" to her." }'
-| He said "hi!" to her.

The backslash character itself is another character that cannot be included normally; you must write ‘\\’ to put one backslash in the string or regexp. Thus, the string whose contents are the two characters ‘"’ and ‘\’ must be written "\"\\".

Other escape sequences represent unprintable characters such as TAB or newline. There is nothing to stop you from entering most unprintable characters directly in a string constant or regexp constant, but they may look ugly.

The following list presents all the escape sequences used in awk and what they represent. Unless noted otherwise, all these escape sequences apply to both string constants and regexp constants:


A literal backslash, ‘\’.


The “alert” character, Ctrl-g, ASCII code 7 (BEL). (This often makes some sort of audible noise.)


Backspace, Ctrl-h, ASCII code 8 (BS).


Formfeed, Ctrl-l, ASCII code 12 (FF).


Newline, Ctrl-j, ASCII code 10 (LF).


Carriage return, Ctrl-m, ASCII code 13 (CR).


Horizontal TAB, Ctrl-i, ASCII code 9 (HT).


Vertical TAB, Ctrl-k, ASCII code 11 (VT).


The octal value nnn, where nnn stands for 1 to 3 digits between ‘0’ and ‘7’. For example, the code for the ASCII ESC (escape) character is ‘\033’.


The hexadecimal value hh, where hh stands for a sequence of hexadecimal digits (‘0’–‘9’, and either ‘A’–‘F’ or ‘a’–‘f’). Like the same construct in ISO C, the escape sequence continues until the first nonhexadecimal digit is seen. (c.e.) However, using more than two hexadecimal digits produces undefined results. (The ‘\x’ escape sequence is not allowed in POSIX awk.)

CAUTION: The next major release of gawk will change, such that a maximum of two hexadecimal digits following the ‘\x’ will be used.


A literal slash (necessary for regexp constants only). This sequence is used when you want to write a regexp constant that contains a slash (such as /.*:\/home\/[[:alnum:]]+:.*/; the ‘[[:alnum:]]’ notation is discussed in Bracket Expressions). Because the regexp is delimited by slashes, you need to escape any slash that is part of the pattern, in order to tell awk to keep processing the rest of the regexp.


A literal double quote (necessary for string constants only). This sequence is used when you want to write a string constant that contains a double quote (such as "He said \"hi!\" to her."). Because the string is delimited by double quotes, you need to escape any quote that is part of the string, in order to tell awk to keep processing the rest of the string.

In gawk, a number of additional two-character sequences that begin with a backslash have special meaning in regexps. See GNU Regexp Operators.

In a regexp, a backslash before any character that is not in the previous list and not listed in GNU Regexp Operators means that the next character should be taken literally, even if it would normally be a regexp operator. For example, /a\+b/ matches the three characters ‘a+b’.

For complete portability, do not use a backslash before any character not shown in the previous list or that is not an operator.

Backslash Before Regular Characters

If you place a backslash in a string constant before something that is not one of the characters previously listed, POSIX awk purposely leaves what happens as undefined. There are two choices:

Strip the backslash out

This is what BWK awk and gawk both do. For example, "a\qc" is the same as "aqc". (Because this is such an easy bug both to introduce and to miss, gawk warns you about it.) Consider ‘FS = "[ \t]+\|[ \t]+"’ to use vertical bars surrounded by whitespace as the field separator. There should be two backslashes in the string: ‘FS = "[ \t]+\\|[ \t]+"’.)

Leave the backslash alone

Some other awk implementations do this. In such implementations, typing "a\qc" is the same as typing "a\\qc".

To summarize:

Escape Sequences for Metacharacters

Suppose you use an octal or hexadecimal escape to represent a regexp metacharacter. (See Regexp Operators.) Does awk treat the character as a literal character or as a regexp operator?

Historically, such characters were taken literally. (d.c.) However, the POSIX standard indicates that they should be treated as real metacharacters, which is what gawk does. In compatibility mode (see Options), gawk treats the characters represented by octal and hexadecimal escape sequences literally when used in regexp constants. Thus, /a\52b/ is equivalent to /a\*b/.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Regexp   [Contents][Index]

3.3 Regular Expression Operators

You can combine regular expressions with special characters, called regular expression operators or metacharacters, to increase the power and versatility of regular expressions.

The escape sequences described earlier in Escape Sequences are valid inside a regexp. They are introduced by a ‘\’ and are recognized and converted into corresponding real characters as the very first step in processing regexps.

Here is a list of metacharacters. All characters that are not escape sequences and that are not listed here stand for themselves:


This suppresses the special meaning of a character when matching. For example, ‘\$’ matches the character ‘$’.


This matches the beginning of a string. ‘^@chapter’ matches ‘@chapter’ at the beginning of a string, for example, and can be used to identify chapter beginnings in Texinfo source files. The ‘^’ is known as an anchor, because it anchors the pattern to match only at the beginning of the string.

It is important to realize that ‘^’ does not match the beginning of a line (the point right after a ‘\n’ newline character) embedded in a string. The condition is not true in the following example:

if ("line1\nLINE 2" ~ /^L/) …

This is similar to ‘^’, but it matches only at the end of a string. For example, ‘p$’ matches a record that ends with a ‘p’. The ‘$’ is an anchor and does not match the end of a line (the point right before a ‘\n’ newline character) embedded in a string. The condition in the following example is not true:

if ("line1\nLINE 2" ~ /1$/) …
. (period)

This matches any single character, including the newline character. For example, ‘.P’ matches any single character followed by a ‘P’ in a string. Using concatenation, we can make a regular expression such as ‘U.A’, which matches any three-character sequence that begins with ‘U’ and ends with ‘A’.

In strict POSIX mode (see Options), ‘.’ does not match the NUL character, which is a character with all bits equal to zero. Otherwise, NUL is just another character. Other versions of awk may not be able to match the NUL character.


This is called a bracket expression.15 It matches any one of the characters that are enclosed in the square brackets. For example, ‘[MVX]’ matches any one of the characters ‘M’, ‘V’, or ‘X’ in a string. A full discussion of what can be inside the square brackets of a bracket expression is given in Bracket Expressions.


This is a complemented bracket expression. The first character after the ‘[must be a ‘^’. It matches any characters except those in the square brackets. For example, ‘[^awk]’ matches any character that is not an ‘a’, ‘w’, or ‘k’.


This is the alternation operator and it is used to specify alternatives. The ‘|’ has the lowest precedence of all the regular expression operators. For example, ‘^P|[aeiouy]’ matches any string that matches either ‘^P’ or ‘[aeiouy]’. This means it matches any string that starts with ‘P’ or contains (anywhere within it) a lowercase English vowel.

The alternation applies to the largest possible regexps on either side.


Parentheses are used for grouping in regular expressions, as in arithmetic. They can be used to concatenate regular expressions containing the alternation operator, ‘|’. For example, ‘@(samp|code)\{[^}]+\}’ matches both ‘@code{foo}’ and ‘@samp{bar}’. (These are Texinfo formatting control sequences. The ‘+’ is explained further on in this list.)


This symbol means that the preceding regular expression should be repeated as many times as necessary to find a match. For example, ‘ph*’ applies the ‘*’ symbol to the preceding ‘h’ and looks for matches of one ‘p’ followed by any number of ‘h’s. This also matches just ‘p’ if no ‘h’s are present.

There are two subtle points to understand about how ‘*’ works. First, the ‘*’ applies only to the single preceding regular expression component (e.g., in ‘ph*’, it applies just to the ‘h’). To cause ‘*’ to apply to a larger subexpression, use parentheses: ‘(ph)*’ matches ‘ph’, ‘phph’, ‘phphph’, and so on.

Second, ‘*’ finds as many repetitions as possible. If the text to be matched is ‘phhhhhhhhhhhhhhooey’, ‘ph*’ matches all of the ‘h’s.


This symbol is similar to ‘*’, except that the preceding expression must be matched at least once. This means that ‘wh+y’ would match ‘why’ and ‘whhy’, but not ‘wy’, whereas ‘wh*y’ would match all three.


This symbol is similar to ‘*’, except that the preceding expression can be matched either once or not at all. For example, ‘fe?d’ matches ‘fed’ and ‘fd’, but nothing else.


One or two numbers inside braces denote an interval expression. If there is one number in the braces, the preceding regexp is repeated n times. If there are two numbers separated by a comma, the preceding regexp is repeated n to m times. If there is one number followed by a comma, then the preceding regexp is repeated at least n times:


Matches ‘whhhy’, but not ‘why’ or ‘whhhhy’.


Matches ‘whhhy’, ‘whhhhy’, or ‘whhhhhy’ only.


Matches ‘whhy’, ‘whhhy’, and so on.

Interval expressions were not traditionally available in awk. They were added as part of the POSIX standard to make awk and egrep consistent with each other.

Initially, because old programs may use ‘{’ and ‘}’ in regexp constants, gawk did not match interval expressions in regexps.

However, beginning with version 4.0, gawk does match interval expressions by default. This is because compatibility with POSIX has become more important to most gawk users than compatibility with old programs.

For programs that use ‘{’ and ‘}’ in regexp constants, it is good practice to always escape them with a backslash. Then the regexp constants are valid and work the way you want them to, using any version of awk.16

Finally, when ‘{’ and ‘}’ appear in regexp constants in a way that cannot be interpreted as an interval expression (such as /q{a}/), then they stand for themselves.

In regular expressions, the ‘*’, ‘+’, and ‘?’ operators, as well as the braces ‘{’ and ‘}’, have the highest precedence, followed by concatenation, and finally by ‘|’. As in arithmetic, parentheses can change how operators are grouped.

In POSIX awk and gawk, the ‘*’, ‘+’, and ‘?’ operators stand for themselves when there is nothing in the regexp that precedes them. For example, /+/ matches a literal plus sign. However, many other versions of awk treat such a usage as a syntax error.

If gawk is in compatibility mode (see Options), interval expressions are not available in regular expressions.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Regexp   [Contents][Index]

3.4 Using Bracket Expressions

As mentioned earlier, a bracket expression matches any character among those listed between the opening and closing square brackets.

Within a bracket expression, a range expression consists of two characters separated by a hyphen. It matches any single character that sorts between the two characters, based upon the system’s native character set. For example, ‘[0-9]’ is equivalent to ‘[0123456789]’. (See Ranges and Locales for an explanation of how the POSIX standard and gawk have changed over time. This is mainly of historical interest.)

With the increasing popularity of the Unicode character standard, there is an additional wrinkle to consider. Octal and hexadecimal escape sequences inside bracket expressions are taken to represent only single-byte characters (characters whose values fit within the range 0–256). To match a range of characters where the endpoints of the range are larger than 256, enter the multibyte encodings of the characters directly.

To include one of the characters ‘\’, ‘]’, ‘-’, or ‘^’ in a bracket expression, put a ‘\’ in front of it. For example:


matches either ‘d’ or ‘]’. Additionally, if you place ‘]’ right after the opening ‘[’, the closing bracket is treated as one of the characters to be matched.

The treatment of ‘\’ in bracket expressions is compatible with other awk implementations and is also mandated by POSIX. The regular expressions in awk are a superset of the POSIX specification for Extended Regular Expressions (EREs). POSIX EREs are based on the regular expressions accepted by the traditional egrep utility.

Character classes are a feature introduced in the POSIX standard. A character class is a special notation for describing lists of characters that have a specific attribute, but the actual characters can vary from country to country and/or from character set to character set. For example, the notion of what is an alphabetic character differs between the United States and France.

A character class is only valid in a regexp inside the brackets of a bracket expression. Character classes consist of ‘[:’, a keyword denoting the class, and ‘:]’. Table 3.1 lists the character classes defined by the POSIX standard.

[:alnum:]Alphanumeric characters
[:alpha:]Alphabetic characters
[:blank:]Space and TAB characters
[:cntrl:]Control characters
[:digit:]Numeric characters
[:graph:]Characters that are both printable and visible (a space is printable but not visible, whereas an ‘a’ is both)
[:lower:]Lowercase alphabetic characters
[:print:]Printable characters (characters that are not control characters)
[:punct:]Punctuation characters (characters that are not letters, digits, control characters, or space characters)
[:space:]Space characters (such as space, TAB, and formfeed, to name a few)
[:upper:]Uppercase alphabetic characters
[:xdigit:]Characters that are hexadecimal digits

Table 3.1: POSIX character classes

For example, before the POSIX standard, you had to write /[A-Za-z0-9]/ to match alphanumeric characters. If your character set had other alphabetic characters in it, this would not match them. With the POSIX character classes, you can write /[[:alnum:]]/ to match the alphabetic and numeric characters in your character set.

Some utilities that match regular expressions provide a nonstandard ‘[:ascii:]’ character class; awk does not. However, you can simulate such a construct using ‘[\x00-\x7F]’. This matches all values numerically between zero and 127, which is the defined range of the ASCII character set. Use a complemented character list (‘[^\x00-\x7F]’) to match any single-byte characters that are not in the ASCII range.

Two additional special sequences can appear in bracket expressions. These apply to non-ASCII character sets, which can have single symbols (called collating elements) that are represented with more than one character. They can also have several characters that are equivalent for collating, or sorting, purposes. (For example, in French, a plain “e” and a grave-accented “è” are equivalent.) These sequences are:

Collating symbols

Multicharacter collating elements enclosed between ‘[.’ and ‘.]’. For example, if ‘ch’ is a collating element, then ‘[[.ch.]]’ is a regexp that matches this collating element, whereas ‘[ch]’ is a regexp that matches either ‘c’ or ‘h’.

Equivalence classes

Locale-specific names for a list of characters that are equal. The name is enclosed between ‘[=’ and ‘=]’. For example, the name ‘e’ might be used to represent all of “e,” “ê,” “è,” and “é.” In this case, ‘[[=e=]]’ is a regexp that matches any of ‘e’, ‘ê’, ‘é’, or ‘è’.

These features are very valuable in non-English-speaking locales.

CAUTION: The library functions that gawk uses for regular expression matching currently recognize only POSIX character classes; they do not recognize collating symbols or equivalence classes.

Inside a bracket expression, an opening bracket (‘[’) that does not start a character class, collating element or equivalence class is taken literally. This is also true of ‘.’ and ‘*’.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Regexp   [Contents][Index]

3.5 How Much Text Matches?

Consider the following:

echo aaaabcd | awk '{ sub(/a+/, "<A>"); print }'

This example uses the sub() function to make a change to the input record. (sub() replaces the first instance of any text matched by the first argument with the string provided as the second argument; see String Functions.) Here, the regexp /a+/ indicates “one or more ‘a’ characters,” and the replacement text is ‘<A>’.

The input contains four ‘a’ characters. awk (and POSIX) regular expressions always match the leftmost, longest sequence of input characters that can match. Thus, all four ‘a’ characters are replaced with ‘<A>’ in this example:

$ echo aaaabcd | awk '{ sub(/a+/, "<A>"); print }'
-| <A>bcd

For simple match/no-match tests, this is not so important. But when doing text matching and substitutions with the match(), sub(), gsub(), and gensub() functions, it is very important. Understanding this principle is also important for regexp-based record and field splitting (see Records, and also see Field Separators).

Next: , Previous: , Up: Regexp   [Contents][Index]

3.6 Using Dynamic Regexps

The righthand side of a ‘~’ or ‘!~’ operator need not be a regexp constant (i.e., a string of characters between slashes). It may be any expression. The expression is evaluated and converted to a string if necessary; the contents of the string are then used as the regexp. A regexp computed in this way is called a dynamic regexp or a computed regexp:

BEGIN { digits_regexp = "[[:digit:]]+" }
$0 ~ digits_regexp    { print }

This sets digits_regexp to a regexp that describes one or more digits, and tests whether the input record matches this regexp.

NOTE: When using the ‘~’ and ‘!~’ operators, be aware that there is a difference between a regexp constant enclosed in slashes and a string constant enclosed in double quotes. If you are going to use a string constant, you have to understand that the string is, in essence, scanned twice: the first time when awk reads your program, and the second time when it goes to match the string on the lefthand side of the operator with the pattern on the right. This is true of any string-valued expression (such as digits_regexp, shown in the previous example), not just string constants.

What difference does it make if the string is scanned twice? The answer has to do with escape sequences, and particularly with backslashes. To get a backslash into a regular expression inside a string, you have to type two backslashes.

For example, /\*/ is a regexp constant for a literal ‘*’. Only one backslash is needed. To do the same thing with a string, you have to type "\\*". The first backslash escapes the second one so that the string actually contains the two characters ‘\’ and ‘*’.

Given that you can use both regexp and string constants to describe regular expressions, which should you use? The answer is “regexp constants,” for several reasons:

Using \n in Bracket Expressions of Dynamic Regexps

Some older versions of awk do not allow the newline character to be used inside a bracket expression for a dynamic regexp:

$ awk '$0 ~ "[ \t\n]"'
error→ awk: newline in character class [
error→ ]...
error→  source line number 1
error→  context is
error→        $0 ~ "[ >>>  \t\n]" <<<

But a newline in a regexp constant works with no problem:

$ awk '$0 ~ /[ \t\n]/'
here is a sample line
-| here is a sample line

gawk does not have this problem, and it isn’t likely to occur often in practice, but it’s worth noting for future reference.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Regexp   [Contents][Index]

3.7 gawk-Specific Regexp Operators

GNU software that deals with regular expressions provides a number of additional regexp operators. These operators are described in this section and are specific to gawk; they are not available in other awk implementations. Most of the additional operators deal with word matching. For our purposes, a word is a sequence of one or more letters, digits, or underscores (‘_’):


Matches any whitespace character. Think of it as shorthand for ‘[[:space:]].


Matches any character that is not whitespace. Think of it as shorthand for ‘[^[:space:]].


Matches any word-constituent character—that is, it matches any letter, digit, or underscore. Think of it as shorthand for ‘[[:alnum:]_].


Matches any character that is not word-constituent. Think of it as shorthand for ‘[^[:alnum:]_].


Matches the empty string at the beginning of a word. For example, /\<away/ matches ‘away’ but not ‘stowaway’.


Matches the empty string at the end of a word. For example, /stow\>/ matches ‘stow’ but not ‘stowaway’.


Matches the empty string at either the beginning or the end of a word (i.e., the word boundary). For example, ‘\yballs?\y’ matches either ‘ball’ or ‘balls’, as a separate word.


Matches the empty string that occurs between two word-constituent characters. For example, /\Brat\B/ matches ‘crate’, but it does not match ‘dirty rat’. ‘\B’ is essentially the opposite of ‘\y’.

There are two other operators that work on buffers. In Emacs, a buffer is, naturally, an Emacs buffer. Other GNU programs, including gawk, consider the entire string to match as the buffer. The operators are:


Matches the empty string at the beginning of a buffer (string)


Matches the empty string at the end of a buffer (string)

Because ‘^’ and ‘$’ always work in terms of the beginning and end of strings, these operators don’t add any new capabilities for awk. They are provided for compatibility with other GNU software.

In other GNU software, the word-boundary operator is ‘\b’. However, that conflicts with the awk language’s definition of ‘\b’ as backspace, so gawk uses a different letter. An alternative method would have been to require two backslashes in the GNU operators, but this was deemed too confusing. The current method of using ‘\y’ for the GNU ‘\b’ appears to be the lesser of two evils.

The various command-line options (see Options) control how gawk interprets characters in regexps:

No options

In the default case, gawk provides all the facilities of POSIX regexps and the previously described GNU regexp operators. GNU regexp operators described in Regexp Operators.


Match only POSIX regexps; the GNU operators are not special (e.g., ‘\w’ matches a literal ‘w’). Interval expressions are allowed.


Match traditional Unix awk regexps. The GNU operators are not special, and interval expressions are not available. Because BWK awk supports them, the POSIX character classes (‘[[:alnum:]]’, etc.) are available. Characters described by octal and hexadecimal escape sequences are treated literally, even if they represent regexp metacharacters.


Allow interval expressions in regexps, if --traditional has been provided. Otherwise, interval expressions are available by default.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Regexp   [Contents][Index]

3.8 Case Sensitivity in Matching

Case is normally significant in regular expressions, both when matching ordinary characters (i.e., not metacharacters) and inside bracket expressions. Thus, a ‘w’ in a regular expression matches only a lowercase ‘w’ and not an uppercase ‘W’.

The simplest way to do a case-independent match is to use a bracket expression—for example, ‘[Ww]’. However, this can be cumbersome if you need to use it often, and it can make the regular expressions harder to read. There are two alternatives that you might prefer.

One way to perform a case-insensitive match at a particular point in the program is to convert the data to a single case, using the tolower() or toupper() built-in string functions (which we haven’t discussed yet; see String Functions). For example:

tolower($1) ~ /foo/  { … }

converts the first field to lowercase before matching against it. This works in any POSIX-compliant awk.

Another method, specific to gawk, is to set the variable IGNORECASE to a nonzero value (see Built-in Variables). When IGNORECASE is not zero, all regexp and string operations ignore case.

Changing the value of IGNORECASE dynamically controls the case sensitivity of the program as it runs. Case is significant by default because IGNORECASE (like most variables) is initialized to zero:

x = "aB"
if (x ~ /ab/) …   # this test will fail

if (x ~ /ab/) …   # now it will succeed

In general, you cannot use IGNORECASE to make certain rules case insensitive and other rules case sensitive, as there is no straightforward way to set IGNORECASE just for the pattern of a particular rule.17 To do this, use either bracket expressions or tolower(). However, one thing you can do with IGNORECASE only is dynamically turn case sensitivity on or off for all the rules at once.

IGNORECASE can be set on the command line or in a BEGIN rule (see Other Arguments; also see Using BEGIN/END). Setting IGNORECASE from the command line is a way to make a program case insensitive without having to edit it.

In multibyte locales, the equivalences between upper- and lowercase characters are tested based on the wide-character values of the locale’s character set. Otherwise, the characters are tested based on the ISO-8859-1 (ISO Latin-1) character set. This character set is a superset of the traditional 128 ASCII characters, which also provides a number of characters suitable for use with European languages.18

The value of IGNORECASE has no effect if gawk is in compatibility mode (see Options). Case is always significant in compatibility mode.

Previous: , Up: Regexp   [Contents][Index]

3.9 Summary

Next: , Previous: , Up: Top   [Contents][Index]

4 Reading Input Files

In the typical awk program, awk reads all input either from the standard input (by default, this is the keyboard, but often it is a pipe from another command) or from files whose names you specify on the awk command line. If you specify input files, awk reads them in order, processing all the data from one before going on to the next. The name of the current input file can be found in the predefined variable FILENAME (see Built-in Variables).

The input is read in units called records, and is processed by the rules of your program one record at a time. By default, each record is one line. Each record is automatically split into chunks called fields. This makes it more convenient for programs to work on the parts of a record.

On rare occasions, you may need to use the getline command. The getline command is valuable both because it can do explicit input from any number of files, and because the files used with it do not have to be named on the awk command line (see Getline).

Next: , Up: Reading Files   [Contents][Index]

4.1 How Input Is Split into Records

awk divides the input for your program into records and fields. It keeps track of the number of records that have been read so far from the current input file. This value is stored in a predefined variable called FNR, which is reset to zero every time a new file is started. Another predefined variable, NR, records the total number of input records read so far from all data files. It starts at zero, but is never automatically reset to zero.

Next: , Up: Records   [Contents][Index]

4.1.1 Record Splitting with Standard awk

Records are separated by a character called the record separator. By default, the record separator is the newline character. This is why records are, by default, single lines. To use a different character for the record separator, simply assign that character to the predefined variable RS.

Like any other variable, the value of RS can be changed in the awk program with the assignment operator, ‘=’ (see Assignment Ops). The new record-separator character should be enclosed in quotation marks, which indicate a string constant. Often, the right time to do this is at the beginning of execution, before any input is processed, so that the very first record is read with the proper separator. To do this, use the special BEGIN pattern (see BEGIN/END). For example:

awk 'BEGIN { RS = "u" }
     { print $0 }' mail-list

changes the value of RS to ‘u’, before reading any input. The new value is a string whose first character is the letter “u”; as a result, records are separated by the letter “u”. Then the input file is read, and the second rule in the awk program (the action with no pattern) prints each record. Because each print statement adds a newline at the end of its output, this awk program copies the input with each ‘u’ changed to a newline. Here are the results of running the program on mail-list:

$ awk 'BEGIN { RS = "u" }
>      { print $0 }' mail-list
-| Amelia       555-5553     amelia.zodiac
-| sq
-|    F
-| Anthony      555-3412     anthony.assert
-|   A
-| Becky        555-7685     becky.algebrar
-|      A
-| Bill         555-1675       A
-| Broderick    555-0542     broderick.aliq
-| R
-| Camilla      555-2912     camilla.inf
-| sar
-|     R
-| Fabi
-| s       555-1234     fabi
-| s.
-| ndevicesim
-| s@
-| cb.ed
-|     F
-| J
-| lie        555-6699     j
-| lie.perscr
-|   F
-| Martin       555-6480     martin.codicib
-|    A
-| Sam
-| el       555-3430     sam
-| el.lanceolis@sh
-| .ed
-|         A
-| Jean-Pa
-| l    555-2127     jeanpa
-| l.campanor
-| m@ny
-| .ed
-|      R

Note that the entry for the name ‘Bill’ is not split. In the original data file (see Sample Data Files), the line looks like this:

Bill         555-1675       A

It contains no ‘u’, so there is no reason to split the record, unlike the others, which each have one or more occurrences of the ‘u’. In fact, this record is treated as part of the previous record; the newline separating them in the output is the original newline in the data file, not the one added by awk when it printed the record!

Another way to change the record separator is on the command line, using the variable-assignment feature (see Other Arguments):

awk '{ print $0 }' RS="u" mail-list

This sets RS to ‘u’ before processing mail-list.

Using an alphabetic character such as ‘u’ for the record separator is highly likely to produce strange results. Using an unusual character such as ‘/’ is more likely to produce correct behavior in the majority of cases, but there are no guarantees. The moral is: Know Your Data.

When using regular characters as the record separator, there is one unusual case that occurs when gawk is being fully POSIX-compliant (see Options). Then, the following (extreme) pipeline prints a surprising ‘1’:

$ echo | gawk --posix 'BEGIN { RS = "a" } ; { print NF }'
-| 1

There is one field, consisting of a newline. The value of the built-in variable NF is the number of fields in the current record. (In the normal case, gawk treats the newline as whitespace, printing ‘0’ as the result. Most other versions of awk also act this way.)

Reaching the end of an input file terminates the current input record, even if the last character in the file is not the character in RS. (d.c.)

The empty string "" (a string without any characters) has a special meaning as the value of RS. It means that records are separated by one or more blank lines and nothing else. See Multiple Line for more details.

If you change the value of RS in the middle of an awk run, the new value is used to delimit subsequent records, but the record currently being processed, as well as records already processed, are not affected.

After the end of the record has been determined, gawk sets the variable RT to the text in the input that matched RS.

Previous: , Up: Records   [Contents][Index]

4.1.2 Record Splitting with gawk

When using gawk, the value of RS is not limited to a one-character string. It can be any regular expression (see Regexp). (c.e.) In general, each record ends at the next string that matches the regular expression; the next record starts at the end of the matching string. This general rule is actually at work in the usual case, where RS contains just a newline: a record ends at the beginning of the next matching string (the next newline in the input), and the following record starts just after the end of this string (at the first character of the following line). The newline, because it matches RS, is not part of either record.

When RS is a single character, RT contains the same single character. However, when RS is a regular expression, RT contains the actual input text that matched the regular expression.

If the input file ends without any text matching RS, gawk sets RT to the null string.

The following example illustrates both of these features. It sets RS equal to a regular expression that matches either a newline or a series of one or more uppercase letters with optional leading and/or trailing whitespace:

$ echo record 1 AAAA record 2 BBBB record 3 |
> gawk 'BEGIN { RS = "\n|( *[[:upper:]]+ *)" }
>             { print "Record =", $0,"and RT = [" RT "]" }'
-| Record = record 1 and RT = [ AAAA ]
-| Record = record 2 and RT = [ BBBB ]
-| Record = record 3 and RT = [
-| ]

The square brackets delineate the contents of RT, letting you see the leading and trailing whitespace. The final value of RT is a newline. See Simple Sed for a more useful example of RS as a regexp and RT.

If you set RS to a regular expression that allows optional trailing text, such as ‘RS = "abc(XYZ)?"’, it is possible, due to implementation constraints, that gawk may match the leading part of the regular expression, but not the trailing part, particularly if the input text that could match the trailing part is fairly long. gawk attempts to avoid this problem, but currently, there’s no guarantee that this will never happen.

NOTE: Remember that in awk, the ‘^’ and ‘$’ anchor metacharacters match the beginning and end of a string, and not the beginning and end of a line. As a result, something like ‘RS = "^[[:upper:]]"’ can only match at the beginning of a file. This is because gawk views the input file as one long string that happens to contain newline characters. It is thus best to avoid anchor metacharacters in the value of RS.

The use of RS as a regular expression and the RT variable are gawk extensions; they are not available in compatibility mode (see Options). In compatibility mode, only the first character of the value of RS determines the end of the record.

RS = "\0" Is Not Portable

There are times when you might want to treat an entire data file as a single record. The only way to make this happen is to give RS a value that you know doesn’t occur in the input file. This is hard to do in a general way, such that a program always works for arbitrary input files.

You might think that for text files, the NUL character, which consists of a character with all bits equal to zero, is a good value to use for RS in this case:

BEGIN { RS = "\0" }  # whole file becomes one record?

gawk in fact accepts this, and uses the NUL character for the record separator. This works for certain special files, such as /proc/environ on GNU/Linux systems, where the NUL character is in fact the record separator. However, this usage is not portable to most other awk implementations.

Almost all other awk implementations19 store strings internally as C-style strings. C strings use the NUL character as the string terminator. In effect, this means that ‘RS = "\0"’ is the same as ‘RS = ""’. (d.c.)

It happens that recent versions of mawk can use the NUL character as a record separator. However, this is a special case: mawk does not allow embedded NUL characters in strings. (This may change in a future version of mawk.)

See Readfile Function for an interesting way to read whole files. If you are using gawk, see Extension Sample Readfile for another option.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Reading Files   [Contents][Index]

4.2 Examining Fields

When awk reads an input record, the record is automatically parsed or separated by the awk utility into chunks called fields. By default, fields are separated by whitespace, like words in a line. Whitespace in awk means any string of one or more spaces, TABs, or newlines;20 other characters that are considered whitespace by other languages (such as formfeed, vertical tab, etc.) are not considered whitespace by awk.

The purpose of fields is to make it more convenient for you to refer to these pieces of the record. You don’t have to use them—you can operate on the whole record if you want—but fields are what make simple awk programs so powerful.

You use a dollar sign (‘$’) to refer to a field in an awk program, followed by the number of the field you want. Thus, $1 refers to the first field, $2 to the second, and so on. (Unlike in the Unix shells, the field numbers are not limited to single digits. $127 is the 127th field in the record.) For example, suppose the following is a line of input:

This seems like a pretty nice example.

Here the first field, or $1, is ‘This’, the second field, or $2, is ‘seems’, and so on. Note that the last field, $7, is ‘example.’. Because there is no space between the ‘e’ and the ‘.’, the period is considered part of the seventh field.

NF is a predefined variable whose value is the number of fields in the current record. awk automatically updates the value of NF each time it reads a record. No matter how many fields there are, the last field in a record can be represented by $NF. So, $NF is the same as $7, which is ‘example.’. If you try to reference a field beyond the last one (such as $8 when the record has only seven fields), you get the empty string. (If used in a numeric operation, you get zero.)

The use of $0, which looks like a reference to the “zeroth” field, is a special case: it represents the whole input record. Use it when you are not interested in specific fields. Here are some more examples:

$ awk '$1 ~ /li/ { print $0 }' mail-list
-| Amelia       555-5553    F
-| Julie        555-6699   F

This example prints each record in the file mail-list whose first field contains the string ‘li’.

By contrast, the following example looks for ‘li’ in the entire record and prints the first and last fields for each matching input record:

$ awk '/li/ { print $1, $NF }' mail-list
-| Amelia F
-| Broderick R
-| Julie F
-| Samuel A

Next: , Previous: , Up: Reading Files   [Contents][Index]

4.3 Nonconstant Field Numbers

A field number need not be a constant. Any expression in the awk language can be used after a ‘$’ to refer to a field. The value of the expression specifies the field number. If the value is a string, rather than a number, it is converted to a number. Consider this example:

awk '{ print $NR }'

Recall that NR is the number of records read so far: one in the first record, two in the second, and so on. So this example prints the first field of the first record, the second field of the second record, and so on. For the twentieth record, field number 20 is printed; most likely, the record has fewer than 20 fields, so this prints a blank line. Here is another example of using expressions as field numbers:

awk '{ print $(2*2) }' mail-list

awk evaluates the expression ‘(2*2)’ and uses its value as the number of the field to print. The ‘*’ represents multiplication, so the expression ‘2*2’ evaluates to four. The parentheses are used so that the multiplication is done before the ‘$’ operation; they are necessary whenever there is a binary operator21 in the field-number expression. This example, then, prints the type of relationship (the fourth field) for every line of the file mail-list. (All of the awk operators are listed, in order of decreasing precedence, in Precedence.)

If the field number you compute is zero, you get the entire record. Thus, ‘$(2-2)’ has the same value as $0. Negative field numbers are not allowed; trying to reference one usually terminates the program. (The POSIX standard does not define what happens when you reference a negative field number. gawk notices this and terminates your program. Other awk implementations may behave differently.)

As mentioned in Fields, awk stores the current record’s number of fields in the built-in variable NF (also see Built-in Variables). Thus, the expression $NF is not a special feature—it is the direct consequence of evaluating NF and using its value as a field number.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Reading Files   [Contents][Index]

4.4 Changing the Contents of a Field

The contents of a field, as seen by awk, can be changed within an awk program; this changes what awk perceives as the current input record. (The actual input is untouched; awk never modifies the input file.) Consider the following example and its output:

$ awk '{ nboxes = $3 ; $3 = $3 - 10
>        print nboxes, $3 }' inventory-shipped
-| 25 15
-| 32 22
-| 24 14

The program first saves the original value of field three in the variable nboxes. The ‘-’ sign represents subtraction, so this program reassigns field three, $3, as the original value of field three minus ten: ‘$3 - 10’. (See Arithmetic Ops.) Then it prints the original and new values for field three. (Someone in the warehouse made a consistent mistake while inventorying the red boxes.)

For this to work, the text in $3 must make sense as a number; the string of characters must be converted to a number for the computer to do arithmetic on it. The number resulting from the subtraction is converted back to a string of characters that then becomes field three. See Conversion.

When the value of a field is changed (as perceived by awk), the text of the input record is recalculated to contain the new field where the old one was. In other words, $0 changes to reflect the altered field. Thus, this program prints a copy of the input file, with 10 subtracted from the second field of each line:

$ awk '{ $2 = $2 - 10; print $0 }' inventory-shipped
-| Jan 3 25 15 115
-| Feb 5 32 24 226
-| Mar 5 24 34 228

It is also possible to assign contents to fields that are out of range. For example:

$ awk '{ $6 = ($5 + $4 + $3 + $2)
>        print $6 }' inventory-shipped
-| 168
-| 297
-| 301

We’ve just created $6, whose value is the sum of fields $2, $3, $4, and $5. The ‘+’ sign represents addition. For the file inventory-shipped, $6 represents the total number of parcels shipped for a particular month.

Creating a new field changes awk’s internal copy of the current input record, which is the value of $0. Thus, if you do ‘print $0’ after adding a field, the record printed includes the new field, with the appropriate number of field separators between it and the previously existing fields.

This recomputation affects and is affected by NF (the number of fields; see Fields). For example, the value of NF is set to the number of the highest field you create. The exact format of $0 is also affected by a feature that has not been discussed yet: the output field separator, OFS, used to separate the fields (see Output Separators).

Note, however, that merely referencing an out-of-range field does not change the value of either $0 or NF. Referencing an out-of-range field only produces an empty string. For example:

if ($(NF+1) != "")
    print "can't happen"
    print "everything is normal"

should print ‘everything is normal’, because NF+1 is certain to be out of range. (See If Statement for more information about awk’s if-else statements. See Typing and Comparison for more information about the ‘!=’ operator.)

It is important to note that making an assignment to an existing field changes the value of $0 but does not change the value of NF, even when you assign the empty string to a field. For example:

$ echo a b c d | awk '{ OFS = ":"; $2 = ""
>                       print $0; print NF }'
-| a::c:d
-| 4

The field is still there; it just has an empty value, delimited by the two colons between ‘a’ and ‘c’. This example shows what happens if you create a new field:

$ echo a b c d | awk '{ OFS = ":"; $2 = ""; $6 = "new"
>                       print $0; print NF }'
-| a::c:d::new
-| 6

The intervening field, $5, is created with an empty value (indicated by the second pair of adjacent colons), and NF is updated with the value six.

Decrementing NF throws away the values of the fields after the new value of NF and recomputes $0. (d.c.) Here is an example:

$ echo a b c d e f | awk '{ print "NF =", NF;
>                           NF = 3; print $0 }'
-| NF = 6
-| a b c

CAUTION: Some versions of awk don’t rebuild $0 when NF is decremented.

Finally, there are times when it is convenient to force awk to rebuild the entire record, using the current values of the fields and OFS. To do this, use the seemingly innocuous assignment:

$1 = $1   # force record to be reconstituted
print $0  # or whatever else with $0

This forces awk to rebuild the record. It does help to add a comment, as we’ve shown here.

There is a flip side to the relationship between $0 and the fields. Any assignment to $0 causes the record to be reparsed into fields using the current value of FS. This also applies to any built-in function that updates $0, such as sub() and gsub() (see String Functions).

Understanding $0

It is important to remember that $0 is the full record, exactly as it was read from the input. This includes any leading or trailing whitespace, and the exact whitespace (or other characters) that separates the fields.

It is a common error to try to change the field separators in a record simply by setting FS and OFS, and then expecting a plain ‘print’ or ‘print $0’ to print the modified record.

But this does not work, because nothing was done to change the record itself. Instead, you must force the record to be rebuilt, typically with a statement such as ‘$1 = $1’, as described earlier.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Reading Files   [Contents][Index]

4.5 Specifying How Fields Are Separated

The field separator, which is either a single character or a regular expression, controls the way awk splits an input record into fields. awk scans the input record for character sequences that match the separator; the fields themselves are the text between the matches.

In the examples that follow, we use the bullet symbol (•) to represent spaces in the output. If the field separator is ‘oo’, then the following line:

moo goo gai pan

is split into three fields: ‘m’, ‘•g’, and ‘•gai•pan’. Note the leading spaces in the values of the second and third fields.

The field separator is represented by the predefined variable FS. Shell programmers take note: awk does not use the name IFS that is used by the POSIX-compliant shells (such as the Unix Bourne shell, sh, or Bash).

The value of FS can be changed in the awk program with the assignment operator, ‘=’ (see Assignment Ops). Often, the right time to do this is at the beginning of execution before any input has been processed, so that the very first record is read with the proper separator. To do this, use the special BEGIN pattern (see BEGIN/END). For example, here we set the value of FS to the string ",":

awk 'BEGIN { FS = "," } ; { print $2 }'

Given the input line:

John Q. Smith, 29 Oak St., Walamazoo, MI 42139

this awk program extracts and prints the string ‘•29•Oak•St.’.

Sometimes the input data contains separator characters that don’t separate fields the way you thought they would. For instance, the person’s name in the example we just used might have a title or suffix attached, such as:

John Q. Smith, LXIX, 29 Oak St., Walamazoo, MI 42139

The same program would extract ‘•LXIX’ instead of ‘•29•Oak•St.’. If you were expecting the program to print the address, you would be surprised. The moral is to choose your data layout and separator characters carefully to prevent such problems. (If the data is not in a form that is easy to process, perhaps you can massage it first with a separate awk program.)

Next: , Up: Field Separators   [Contents][Index]

4.5.1 Whitespace Normally Separates Fields

Fields are normally separated by whitespace sequences (spaces, TABs, and newlines), not by single spaces. Two spaces in a row do not delimit an empty field. The default value of the field separator FS is a string containing a single space, " ". If awk interpreted this value in the usual way, each space character would separate fields, so two spaces in a row would make an empty field between them. The reason this does not happen is that a single space as the value of FS is a special case—it is taken to specify the default manner of delimiting fields.

If FS is any other single character, such as ",", then each occurrence of that character separates two fields. Two consecutive occurrences delimit an empty field. If the character occurs at the beginning or the end of the line, that too delimits an empty field. The space character is the only single character that does not follow these rules.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Field Separators   [Contents][Index]

4.5.2 Using Regular Expressions to Separate Fields

The previous subsection discussed the use of single characters or simple strings as the value of FS. More generally, the value of FS may be a string containing any regular expression. In this case, each match in the record for the regular expression separates fields. For example, the assignment:

FS = ", \t"

makes every area of an input line that consists of a comma followed by a space and a TAB into a field separator.

For a less trivial example of a regular expression, try using single spaces to separate fields the way single commas are used. FS can be set to "[ ]" (left bracket, space, right bracket). This regular expression matches a single space and nothing else (see Regexp).

There is an important difference between the two cases of ‘FS = " "’ (a single space) and ‘FS = "[ \t\n]+"’ (a regular expression matching one or more spaces, TABs, or newlines). For both values of FS, fields are separated by runs (multiple adjacent occurrences) of spaces, TABs, and/or newlines. However, when the value of FS is " ", awk first strips leading and trailing whitespace from the record and then decides where the fields are. For example, the following pipeline prints ‘b’:

$ echo ' a b c d ' | awk '{ print $2 }'
-| b

However, this pipeline prints ‘a’ (note the extra spaces around each letter):

$ echo ' a  b  c  d ' | awk 'BEGIN { FS = "[ \t\n]+" }
>                                  { print $2 }'
-| a

In this case, the first field is null, or empty.

The stripping of leading and trailing whitespace also comes into play whenever $0 is recomputed. For instance, study this pipeline:

$ echo '   a b c d' | awk '{ print; $2 = $2; print }'
-|    a b c d
-| a b c d

The first print statement prints the record as it was read, with leading whitespace intact. The assignment to $2 rebuilds $0 by concatenating $1 through $NF together, separated by the value of OFS (which is a space by default). Because the leading whitespace was ignored when finding $1, it is not part of the new $0. Finally, the last print statement prints the new $0.

There is an additional subtlety to be aware of when using regular expressions for field splitting. It is not well specified in the POSIX standard, or anywhere else, what ‘^’ means when splitting fields. Does the ‘^’ match only at the beginning of the entire record? Or is each field separator a new string? It turns out that different awk versions answer this question differently, and you should not rely on any specific behavior in your programs. (d.c.)

As a point of information, BWK awk allows ‘^’ to match only at the beginning of the record. gawk also works this way. For example:

$ echo 'xxAA  xxBxx  C' |
> gawk -F '(^x+)|( +)' '{ for (i = 1; i <= NF; i++)
>                             printf "-->%s<--\n", $i }'
-| --><--
-| -->AA<--
-| -->xxBxx<--
-| -->C<--

Next: , Previous: , Up: Field Separators   [Contents][Index]

4.5.3 Making Each Character a Separate Field

There are times when you may want to examine each character of a record separately. This can be done in gawk by simply assigning the null string ("") to FS. (c.e.) In this case, each individual character in the record becomes a separate field. For example:

$ echo a b | gawk 'BEGIN { FS = "" }
>                  {
>                      for (i = 1; i <= NF; i = i + 1)
>                          print "Field", i, "is", $i
>                  }'
-| Field 1 is a
-| Field 2 is
-| Field 3 is b

Traditionally, the behavior of FS equal to "" was not defined. In this case, most versions of Unix awk simply treat the entire record as only having one field. (d.c.) In compatibility mode (see Options), if FS is the null string, then gawk also behaves this way.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Field Separators   [Contents][Index]

4.5.4 Setting FS from the Command Line

FS can be set on the command line. Use the -F option to do so. For example:

awk -F, 'program' input-files

sets FS to the ‘,’ character. Notice that the option uses an uppercase ‘F’ instead of a lowercase ‘f’. The latter option (-f) specifies a file containing an awk program.

The value used for the argument to -F is processed in exactly the same way as assignments to the predefined variable FS. Any special characters in the field separator must be escaped appropriately. For example, to use a ‘\’ as the field separator on the command line, you would have to type:

# same as FS = "\\"
awk -F\\\\ '…' files …

Because ‘\’ is used for quoting in the shell, awk sees ‘-F\\’. Then awk processes the ‘\\’ for escape characters (see Escape Sequences), finally yielding a single ‘\’ to use for the field separator.

As a special case, in compatibility mode (see Options), if the argument to -F is ‘t’, then FS is set to the TAB character. If you type ‘-F\t’ at the shell, without any quotes, the ‘\’ gets deleted, so awk figures that you really want your fields to be separated with TABs and not ‘t’s. Use ‘-v FS="t"’ or ‘-F"[t]"’ on the command line if you really do want to separate your fields with ‘t’s. Use ‘-F '\t'’ when not in compatibility mode to specify that TABs separate fields.

As an example, let’s use an awk program file called edu.awk that contains the pattern /edu/ and the action ‘print $1’:

/edu/   { print $1 }

Let’s also set FS to be the ‘-’ character and run the program on the file mail-list. The following command prints a list of the names of the people that work at or attend a university, and the first three digits of their phone numbers:

$ awk -F- -f edu.awk mail-list
-| Fabius       555
-| Samuel       555
-| Jean

Note the third line of output. The third line in the original file looked like this:

Jean-Paul    555-2127     R

The ‘-’ as part of the person’s name was used as the field separator, instead of the ‘-’ in the phone number that was originally intended. This demonstrates why you have to be careful in choosing your field and record separators.

Perhaps the most common use of a single character as the field separator occurs when processing the Unix system password file. On many Unix systems, each user has a separate entry in the system password file, with one line per user. The information in these lines is separated by colons. The first field is the user’s login name and the second is the user’s encrypted or shadow password. (A shadow password is indicated by the presence of a single ‘x’ in the second field.) A password file entry might look like this:

arnold:x:2076:10:Arnold Robbins:/home/arnold:/bin/bash

The following program searches the system password file and prints the entries for users whose full name is not indicated:

awk -F: '$5 == ""' /etc/passwd

Next: , Previous: , Up: Field Separators   [Contents][Index]

4.5.5 Making the Full Line Be a Single Field

Occasionally, it’s useful to treat the whole input line as a single field. This can be done easily and portably simply by setting FS to "\n" (a newline):22

awk -F'\n' 'program' files …

When you do this, $1 is the same as $0.

Changing FS Does Not Affect the Fields

According to the POSIX standard, awk is supposed to behave as if each record is split into fields at the time it is read. In particular, this means that if you change the value of FS after a record is read, the values of the fields (i.e., how they were split) should reflect the old value of FS, not the new one.

However, many older implementations of awk do not work this way. Instead, they defer splitting the fields until a field is actually referenced. The fields are split using the current value of FS! (d.c.) This behavior can be difficult to diagnose. The following example illustrates the difference between the two methods:

sed 1q /etc/passwd | awk '{ FS = ":" ; print $1 }'

which usually prints:


on an incorrect implementation of awk, while gawk prints the full first line of the file, something like:


(The sed23 command prints just the first line of /etc/passwd.)

Previous: , Up: Field Separators   [Contents][Index]

4.5.6 Field-Splitting Summary

It is important to remember that when you assign a string constant as the value of FS, it undergoes normal awk string processing. For example, with Unix awk and gawk, the assignment ‘FS = "\.."’ assigns the character string ".." to FS (the backslash is stripped). This creates a regexp meaning “fields are separated by occurrences of any two characters.” If instead you want fields to be separated by a literal period followed by any single character, use ‘FS = "\\.."’.

The following list summarizes how fields are split, based on the value of FS (‘==’ means “is equal to”):

FS == " "

Fields are separated by runs of whitespace. Leading and trailing whitespace are ignored. This is the default.

FS == any other single character

Fields are separated by each occurrence of the character. Multiple successive occurrences delimit empty fields, as do leading and trailing occurrences. The character can even be a regexp metacharacter; it does not need to be escaped.

FS == regexp

Fields are separated by occurrences of characters that match regexp. Leading and trailing matches of regexp delimit empty fields.

FS == ""

Each individual character in the record becomes a separate field. (This is a common extension; it is not specified by the POSIX standard.)


The IGNORECASE variable (see User-modified) affects field splitting only when the value of FS is a regexp. It has no effect when FS is a single character, even if that character is a letter. Thus, in the following code:

FS = "c"
$0 = "aCa"
print $1

The output is ‘aCa’. If you really want to split fields on an alphabetic character while ignoring case, use a regexp that will do it for you (e.g., ‘FS = "[c]"’). In this case, IGNORECASE will take effect.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Reading Files   [Contents][Index]

4.6 Reading Fixed-Width Data

This section discusses an advanced feature of gawk. If you are a novice awk user, you might want to skip it on the first reading.

gawk provides a facility for dealing with fixed-width fields with no distinctive field separator. For example, data of this nature arises in the input for old Fortran programs where numbers are run together, or in the output of programs that did not anticipate the use of their output as input for other programs.

An example of the latter is a table where all the columns are lined up by the use of a variable number of spaces and empty fields are just spaces. Clearly, awk’s normal field splitting based on FS does not work well in this case. Although a portable awk program can use a series of substr() calls on $0 (see String Functions), this is awkward and inefficient for a large number of fields.

The splitting of an input record into fixed-width fields is specified by assigning a string containing space-separated numbers to the built-in variable FIELDWIDTHS. Each number specifies the width of the field, including columns between fields. If you want to ignore the columns between fields, you can specify the width as a separate field that is subsequently ignored. It is a fatal error to supply a field width that has a negative value. The following data is the output of the Unix w utility. It is useful to illustrate the use of FIELDWIDTHS:

 10:06pm  up 21 days, 14:04,  23 users
User     tty       login  idle   JCPU   PCPU  what
hzuo     ttyV0     8:58pm            9      5  vi p24.tex
hzang    ttyV3     6:37pm    50                -csh
eklye    ttyV5     9:53pm            7      1  em thes.tex
dportein ttyV6     8:17pm  1:47                -csh
gierd    ttyD3    10:00pm     1                elm
dave     ttyD4     9:47pm            4      4  w
brent    ttyp0    26Jun91  4:46  26:46   4:41  bash
dave     ttyq4    26Jun9115days     46     46  wnewmail

The following program takes this input, converts the idle time to number of seconds, and prints out the first two fields and the calculated idle time:

BEGIN  { FIELDWIDTHS = "9 6 10 6 7 7 35" }
NR > 2 {
    idle = $4
    sub(/^ +/, "", idle)   # strip leading spaces
    if (idle == "")
        idle = 0
    if (idle ~ /:/) {
        split(idle, t, ":")
        idle = t[1] * 60 + t[2]
    if (idle ~ /days/)
        idle *= 24 * 60 * 60

    print $1, $2, idle

NOTE: The preceding program uses a number of awk features that haven’t been introduced yet.

Running the program on the data produces the following results:

hzuo      ttyV0  0
hzang     ttyV3  50
eklye     ttyV5  0
dportein  ttyV6  107
gierd     ttyD3  1
dave      ttyD4  0
brent     ttyp0  286
dave      ttyq4  1296000

Another (possibly more practical) example of fixed-width input data is the input from a deck of balloting cards. In some parts of the United States, voters mark their choices by punching holes in computer cards. These cards are then processed to count the votes for any particular candidate or on any particular issue. Because a voter may choose not to vote on some issue, any column on the card may be empty. An awk program for processing such data could use the FIELDWIDTHS feature to simplify reading the data. (Of course, getting gawk to run on a system with card readers is another story!)

Assigning a value to FS causes gawk to use FS for field splitting again. Use ‘FS = FS’ to make this happen, without having to know the current value of FS. In order to tell which kind of field splitting is in effect, use PROCINFO["FS"] (see Auto-set). The value is "FS" if regular field splitting is being used, or "FIELDWIDTHS" if fixed-width field splitting is being used:

if (PROCINFO["FS"] == "FS")
    regular field splitting …
else if  (PROCINFO["FS"] == "FIELDWIDTHS")
    fixed-width field splitting …
    content-based field splitting(see next section)

This information is useful when writing a function that needs to temporarily change FS or FIELDWIDTHS, read some records, and then restore the original settings (see Passwd Functions for an example of such a function).

Next: , Previous: , Up: Reading Files   [Contents][Index]

4.7 Defining Fields by Content

This section discusses an advanced feature of gawk. If you are a novice awk user, you might want to skip it on the first reading.

Normally, when using FS, gawk defines the fields as the parts of the record that occur in between each field separator. In other words, FS defines what a field is not, instead of what a field is. However, there are times when you really want to define the fields by what they are, and not by what they are not.

The most notorious such case is so-called comma-separated values (CSV) data. Many spreadsheet programs, for example, can export their data into text files, where each record is terminated with a newline, and fields are separated by commas. If commas only separated the data, there wouldn’t be an issue. The problem comes when one of the fields contains an embedded comma. In such cases, most programs embed the field in double quotes.24 So, we might have data like this:

Robbins,Arnold,"1234 A Pretty Street, NE",MyTown,MyState,12345-6789,USA

The FPAT variable offers a solution for cases like this. The value of FPAT should be a string that provides a regular expression. This regular expression describes the contents of each field.

In the case of CSV data as presented here, each field is either “anything that is not a comma,” or “a double quote, anything that is not a double quote, and a closing double quote.” If written as a regular expression constant (see Regexp), we would have /([^,]+)|("[^"]+")/. Writing this as a string requires us to escape the double quotes, leading to:

FPAT = "([^,]+)|(\"[^\"]+\")"

Putting this to use, here is a simple program to parse the data:

    FPAT = "([^,]+)|(\"[^\"]+\")"

    print "NF = ", NF
    for (i = 1; i <= NF; i++) {
        printf("$%d = <%s>\n", i, $i)

When run, we get the following:

$ gawk -f simple-csv.awk addresses.csv
NF =  7
$1 = <Robbins>
$2 = <Arnold>
$3 = <"1234 A Pretty Street, NE">
$4 = <MyTown>
$5 = <MyState>
$6 = <12345-6789>
$7 = <USA>

Note the embedded comma in the value of $3.

A straightforward improvement when processing CSV data of this sort would be to remove the quotes when they occur, with something like this:

if (substr($i, 1, 1) == "\"") {
    len = length($i)
    $i = substr($i, 2, len - 2)    # Get text within the two quotes

As with FS, the IGNORECASE variable (see User-modified) affects field splitting with FPAT.

Assigning a value to FPAT overrides field splitting with FS and with FIELDWIDTHS. Similar to FIELDWIDTHS, the value of PROCINFO["FS"] will be "FPAT" if content-based field splitting is being used.

NOTE: Some programs export CSV data that contains embedded newlines between the double quotes. gawk provides no way to deal with this. Even though a formal specification for CSV data exists, there isn’t much more to be done; the FPAT mechanism provides an elegant solution for the majority of cases, and the gawk developers are satisfied with that.

As written, the regexp used for FPAT requires that each field contain at least one character. A straightforward modification (changing the first ‘+’ to ‘*’) allows fields to be empty:

FPAT = "([^,]*)|(\"[^\"]+\")"

Finally, the patsplit() function makes the same functionality available for splitting regular strings (see String Functions).

To recap, gawk provides three independent methods to split input records into fields. The mechanism used is based on which of the three variables—FS, FIELDWIDTHS, or FPAT—was last assigned to.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Reading Files   [Contents][Index]

4.8 Multiple-Line Records

In some databases, a single line cannot conveniently hold all the information in one entry. In such cases, you can use multiline records. The first step in doing this is to choose your data format.

One technique is to use an unusual character or string to separate records. For example, you could use the formfeed character (written ‘\f’ in awk, as in C) to separate them, making each record a page of the file. To do this, just set the variable RS to "\f" (a string containing the formfeed character). Any other character could equally well be used, as long as it won’t be part of the data in a record.

Another technique is to have blank lines separate records. By a special dispensation, an empty string as the value of RS indicates that records are separated by one or more blank lines. When RS is set to the empty string, each record always ends at the first blank line encountered. The next record doesn’t start until the first nonblank line that follows. No matter how many blank lines appear in a row, they all act as one record separator. (Blank lines must be completely empty; lines that contain only whitespace do not count.)

You can achieve the same effect as ‘RS = ""’ by assigning the string "\n\n+" to RS. This regexp matches the newline at the end of the record and one or more blank lines after the record. In addition, a regular expression always matches the longest possible sequence when there is a choice (see Leftmost Longest). So, the next record doesn’t start until the first nonblank line that follows—no matter how many blank lines appear in a row, they are considered one record separator.

However, there is an important difference between ‘RS = ""’ and ‘RS = "\n\n+"’. In the first case, leading newlines in the input data file are ignored, and if a file ends without extra blank lines after the last record, the final newline is removed from the record. In the second case, this special processing is not done. (d.c.)

Now that the input is separated into records, the second step is to separate the fields in the records. One way to do this is to divide each of the lines into fields in the normal manner. This happens by default as the result of a special feature. When RS is set to the empty string and FS is set to a single character, the newline character always acts as a field separator. This is in addition to whatever field separations result from FS.25

The original motivation for this special exception was probably to provide useful behavior in the default case (i.e., FS is equal to " "). This feature can be a problem if you really don’t want the newline character to separate fields, because there is no way to prevent it. However, you can work around this by using the split() function to break up the record manually (see String Functions). If you have a single-character field separator, you can work around the special feature in a different way, by making FS into a regexp for that single character. For example, if the field separator is a percent character, instead of ‘FS = "%"’, use ‘FS = "[%]"’.

Another way to separate fields is to put each field on a separate line: to do this, just set the variable FS to the string "\n". (This single-character separator matches a single newline.) A practical example of a data file organized this way might be a mailing list, where blank lines separate the entries. Consider a mailing list in a file named addresses, which looks like this:

Jane Doe
123 Main Street
Anywhere, SE 12345-6789

John Smith
456 Tree-lined Avenue
Smallville, MW 98765-4321

A simple program to process this file is as follows:

# addrs.awk --- simple mailing list program

# Records are separated by blank lines.
# Each line is one field.
BEGIN { RS = "" ; FS = "\n" }

      print "Name is:", $1
      print "Address is:", $2
      print "City and State are:", $3
      print ""

Running the program produces the following output:

$ awk -f addrs.awk addresses
-| Name is: Jane Doe
-| Address is: 123 Main Street
-| City and State are: Anywhere, SE 12345-6789
-| Name is: John Smith
-| Address is: 456 Tree-lined Avenue
-| City and State are: Smallville, MW 98765-4321

See Labels Program for a more realistic program dealing with address lists. The following list summarizes how records are split, based on the value of RS:

RS == "\n"

Records are separated by the newline character (‘\n’). In effect, every line in the data file is a separate record, including blank lines. This is the default.

RS == any single character

Records are separated by each occurrence of the character. Multiple successive occurrences delimit empty records.

RS == ""

Records are separated by runs of blank lines. When FS is a single character, then the newline character always serves as a field separator, in addition to whatever value FS may have. Leading and trailing newlines in a file are ignored.

RS == regexp

Records are separated by occurrences of characters that match regexp. Leading and trailing matches of regexp delimit empty records. (This is a gawk extension; it is not specified by the POSIX standard.)

If not in compatibility mode (see Options), gawk sets RT to the input text that matched the value specified by RS. But if the input file ended without any text that matches RS, then gawk sets RT to the null string.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Reading Files   [Contents][Index]

4.9 Explicit Input with getline

So far we have been getting our input data from awk’s main input stream—either the standard input (usually your keyboard, sometimes the output from another program) or the files specified on the command line. The awk language has a special built-in command called getline that can be used to read input under your explicit control.

The getline command is used in several different ways and should not be used by beginners. The examples that follow the explanation of the getline command include material that has not been covered yet. Therefore, come back and study the getline command after you have reviewed the rest of this Web page and have a good knowledge of how awk works.

The getline command returns 1 if it finds a record and 0 if it encounters the end of the file. If there is some error in getting a record, such as a file that cannot be opened, then getline returns -1. In this case, gawk sets the variable ERRNO to a string describing the error that occurred.

In the following examples, command stands for a string value that represents a shell command.

NOTE: When --sandbox is specified (see Options), reading lines from files, pipes, and coprocesses is disabled.

Next: , Up: Getline   [Contents][Index]

4.9.1 Using getline with No Arguments

The getline command can be used without arguments to read input from the current input file. All it does in this case is read the next input record and split it up into fields. This is useful if you’ve finished processing the current record, but want to do some special processing on the next record right now. For example:

# Remove text between /* and */, inclusive
    if ((i = index($0, "/*")) != 0) {
        out = substr($0, 1, i - 1)  # leading part of the string
        rest = substr($0, i + 2)    # ... */ ...
        j = index(rest, "*/")       # is */ in trailing part?
        if (j > 0) {
            rest = substr(rest, j + 2)  # remove comment
        } else {
            while (j == 0) {
                # get more text
                if (getline <= 0) {
                    print("unexpected EOF or error:", ERRNO) > "/dev/stderr"
                # build up the line using string concatenation
                rest = rest $0
                j = index(rest, "*/")   # is */ in trailing part?
                if (j != 0) {
                    rest = substr(rest, j + 2)
        # build up the output line using string concatenation
        $0 = out rest
    print $0

This awk program deletes C-style comments (‘/* … */’) from the input. It uses a number of features we haven’t covered yet, including string concatenation (see Concatenation) and the index() and substr() built-in functions (see String Functions). By replacing the ‘print $0’ with other statements, you could perform more complicated processing on the decommented input, such as searching for matches of a regular expression. (This program has a subtle problem—it does not work if one comment ends and another begins on the same line.)

This form of the getline command sets NF, NR, FNR, RT, and the value of $0.

NOTE: The new value of $0 is used to test the patterns of any subsequent rules. The original value of $0 that triggered the rule that executed getline is lost. By contrast, the next statement reads a new record but immediately begins processing it normally, starting with the first rule in the program. See Next Statement.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Getline   [Contents][Index]

4.9.2 Using getline into a Variable

You can use ‘getline var’ to read the next record from awk’s input into the variable var. No other processing is done. For example, suppose the next line is a comment or a special string, and you want to read it without triggering any rules. This form of getline allows you to read that line and store it in a variable so that the main read-a-line-and-check-each-rule loop of awk never sees it. The following example swaps every two lines of input:

     if ((getline tmp) > 0) {
          print tmp
          print $0
     } else
          print $0

It takes the following list:


and produces these results:


The getline command used in this way sets only the variables NR, FNR, and RT (and, of course, var). The record is not split into fields, so the values of the fields (including $0) and the value of NF do not change.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Getline   [Contents][Index]

4.9.3 Using getline from a File

Use ‘getline < file’ to read the next record from file. Here, file is a string-valued expression that specifies the file name. ‘< file’ is called a redirection because it directs input to come from a different place. For example, the following program reads its input record from the file secondary.input when it encounters a first field with a value equal to 10 in the current input file:

    if ($1 == 10) {
         getline < "secondary.input"
    } else

Because the main input stream is not used, the values of NR and FNR are not changed. However, the record it reads is split into fields in the normal manner, so the values of $0 and the other fields are changed, resulting in a new value of NF. RT is also set.

According to POSIX, ‘getline < expression’ is ambiguous if expression contains unparenthesized operators other than ‘$’; for example, ‘getline < dir "/" file’ is ambiguous because the concatenation operator (not discussed yet; see Concatenation) is not parenthesized. You should write it as ‘getline < (dir "/" file)’ if you want your program to be portable to all awk implementations.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Getline   [Contents][Index]

4.9.4 Using getline into a Variable from a File

Use ‘getline var < file’ to read input from the file file, and put it in the variable var. As earlier, file is a string-valued expression that specifies the file from which to read.

In this version of getline, none of the predefined variables are changed and the record is not split into fields. The only variable changed is var.26 For example, the following program copies all the input files to the output, except for records that say ‘@include filename. Such a record is replaced by the contents of the file filename:

     if (NF == 2 && $1 == "@include") {
          while ((getline line < $2) > 0)
               print line
     } else

Note here how the name of the extra input file is not built into the program; it is taken directly from the data, specifically from the second field on the @include line.

The close() function is called to ensure that if two identical @include lines appear in the input, the entire specified file is included twice. See Close Files And Pipes.

One deficiency of this program is that it does not process nested @include statements (i.e., @include statements in included files) the way a true macro preprocessor would. See Igawk Program for a program that does handle nested @include statements.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Getline   [Contents][Index]

4.9.5 Using getline from a Pipe

Omniscience has much to recommend it. Failing that, attention to details would be useful.

Brian Kernighan

The output of a command can also be piped into getline, using ‘command | getline’. In this case, the string command is run as a shell command and its output is piped into awk to be used as input. This form of getline reads one record at a time from the pipe. For example, the following program copies its input to its output, except for lines that begin with ‘@execute’, which are replaced by the output produced by running the rest of the line as a shell command:

     if ($1 == "@execute") {
          tmp = substr($0, 10)        # Remove "@execute"
          while ((tmp | getline) > 0)
     } else

The close() function is called to ensure that if two identical ‘@execute’ lines appear in the input, the command is run for each one. See Close Files And Pipes. Given the input:

@execute who

the program might produce:

arnold     ttyv0   Jul 13 14:22
miriam     ttyp0   Jul 13 14:23     (murphy:0)
bill       ttyp1   Jul 13 14:23     (murphy:0)

Notice that this program ran the command who and printed the result. (If you try this program yourself, you will of course get different results, depending upon who is logged in on your system.)

This variation of getline splits the record into fields, sets the value of NF, and recomputes the value of $0. The values of NR and FNR are not changed. RT is set.

According to POSIX, ‘expression | getline’ is ambiguous if expression contains unparenthesized operators other than ‘$’—for example, ‘"echo " "date" | getline’ is ambiguous because the concatenation operator is not parenthesized. You should write it as ‘("echo " "date") | getline’ if you want your program to be portable to all awk implementations.

NOTE: Unfortunately, gawk has not been consistent in its treatment of a construct like ‘"echo " "date" | getline’. Most versions, including the current version, treat it at as ‘("echo " "date") | getline’. (This is also how BWK awk behaves.) Some versions instead treat it as ‘"echo " ("date" | getline)’. (This is how mawk behaves.) In short, always use explicit parentheses, and then you won’t have to worry.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Getline   [Contents][Index]

4.9.6 Using getline into a Variable from a Pipe

When you use ‘command | getline var’, the output of command is sent through a pipe to getline and into the variable var. For example, the following program reads the current date and time into the variable current_time, using the date utility, and then prints it:

     "date" | getline current_time
     print "Report printed on " current_time

In this version of getline, none of the predefined variables are changed and the record is not split into fields. However, RT is set.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Getline   [Contents][Index]

4.9.7 Using getline from a Coprocess

Reading input into getline from a pipe is a one-way operation. The command that is started with ‘command | getline’ only sends data to your awk program.

On occasion, you might want to send data to another program for processing and then read the results back. gawk allows you to start a coprocess, with which two-way communications are possible. This is done with the ‘|&’ operator. Typically, you write data to the coprocess first and then read the results back, as shown in the following:

print "some query" |& "db_server"
"db_server" |& getline

which sends a query to db_server and then reads the results.

The values of NR and FNR are not changed, because the main input stream is not used. However, the record is split into fields in the normal manner, thus changing the values of $0, of the other fields, and of NF and RT.

Coprocesses are an advanced feature. They are discussed here only because this is the section on getline. See Two-way I/O, where coprocesses are discussed in more detail.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Getline   [Contents][Index]

4.9.8 Using getline into a Variable from a Coprocess

When you use ‘command |& getline var’, the output from the coprocess command is sent through a two-way pipe to getline and into the variable var.

In this version of getline, none of the predefined variables are changed and the record is not split into fields. The only variable changed is var. However, RT is set.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Getline   [Contents][Index]

4.9.9 Points to Remember About getline

Here are some miscellaneous points about getline that you should bear in mind:

Previous: , Up: Getline   [Contents][Index]

4.9.10 Summary of getline Variants

Table 4.1 summarizes the eight variants of getline, listing which predefined variables are set by each one, and whether the variant is standard or a gawk extension. Note: for each variant, gawk sets the RT predefined variable.

VariantEffectawk / gawk
getlineSets $0, NF, FNR, NR, and RTawk
getline varSets var, FNR, NR, and RTawk
getline < fileSets $0, NF, and RTawk
getline var < fileSets var and RTawk
command | getlineSets $0, NF, and RTawk
command | getline varSets var and RTawk
command |& getlineSets $0, NF, and RTgawk
command |& getline varSets var and RTgawk

Table 4.1: getline variants and what they set

Next: , Previous: , Up: Reading Files   [Contents][Index]

4.10 Reading Input with a Timeout

This section describes a feature that is specific to gawk.

You may specify a timeout in milliseconds for reading input from the keyboard, a pipe, or two-way communication, including TCP/IP sockets. This can be done on a per-input, per-command, or per-connection basis, by setting a special element in the PROCINFO array (see Auto-set):

PROCINFO["input_name", "READ_TIMEOUT"] = timeout in milliseconds

When set, this causes gawk to time out and return failure if no data is available to read within the specified timeout period. For example, a TCP client can decide to give up on receiving any response from the server after a certain amount of time:

Service = "/inet/tcp/0/localhost/daytime"
if ((Service |& getline) > 0)
    print $0
else if (ERRNO != "")
    print ERRNO

Here is how to read interactively from the user27 without waiting for more than five seconds:

PROCINFO["/dev/stdin", "READ_TIMEOUT"] = 5000
while ((getline < "/dev/stdin") > 0)
    print $0

gawk terminates the read operation if input does not arrive after waiting for the timeout period, returns failure, and sets ERRNO to an appropriate string value. A negative or zero value for the timeout is the same as specifying no timeout at all.

A timeout can also be set for reading from the keyboard in the implicit loop that reads input records and matches them against patterns, like so:

$ gawk 'BEGIN { PROCINFO["-", "READ_TIMEOUT"] = 5000 }
> { print "You entered: " $0 }'
-| You entered: gawk

In this case, failure to respond within five seconds results in the following error message:

error→ gawk: cmd. line:2: (FILENAME=- FNR=1) fatal: error reading input file `-': Connection timed out

The timeout can be set or changed at any time, and will take effect on the next attempt to read from the input device. In the following example, we start with a timeout value of one second, and progressively reduce it by one-tenth of a second until we wait indefinitely for the input to arrive:

PROCINFO[Service, "READ_TIMEOUT"] = 1000
while ((Service |& getline) > 0) {
    print $0
    PROCINFO[Service, "READ_TIMEOUT"] -= 100

NOTE: You should not assume that the read operation will block exactly after the tenth record has been printed. It is possible that gawk will read and buffer more than one record’s worth of data the first time. Because of this, changing the value of timeout like in the preceding example is not very useful.

If the PROCINFO element is not present and the GAWK_READ_TIMEOUT environment variable exists, gawk uses its value to initialize the timeout value. The exclusive use of the environment variable to specify timeout has the disadvantage of not being able to control it on a per-command or per-connection basis.

gawk considers a timeout event to be an error even though the attempt to read from the underlying device may succeed in a later attempt. This is a limitation, and it also means that you cannot use this to multiplex input from two or more sources.

Assigning a timeout value prevents read operations from blocking indefinitely. But bear in mind that there are other ways gawk can stall waiting for an input device to be ready. A network client can sometimes take a long time to establish a connection before it can start reading any data, or the attempt to open a FIFO special file for reading can block indefinitely until some other process opens it for writing.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Reading Files   [Contents][Index]

4.11 Directories on the Command Line

According to the POSIX standard, files named on the awk command line must be text files; it is a fatal error if they are not. Most versions of awk treat a directory on the command line as a fatal error.

By default, gawk produces a warning for a directory on the command line, but otherwise ignores it. This makes it easier to use shell wildcards with your awk program:

$ gawk -f whizprog.awk *        Directories could kill this program

If either of the --posix or --traditional options is given, then gawk reverts to treating a directory on the command line as a fatal error.

See Extension Sample Readdir for a way to treat directories as usable data from an awk program.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Reading Files   [Contents][Index]

4.12 Summary

Previous: , Up: Reading Files   [Contents][Index]

4.13 Exercises

  1. Using the FIELDWIDTHS variable (see Constant Size), write a program to read election data, where each record represents one voter’s votes. Come up with a way to define which columns are associated with each ballot item, and print the total votes, including abstentions, for each item.
  2. Plain Getline, presented a program to remove C-style comments (‘/* … */’) from the input. That program does not work if one comment ends on one line and another one starts later on the same line. That can be fixed by making one simple change. What is it?

Next: , Previous: , Up: Top   [Contents][Index]

5 Printing Output

One of the most common programming actions is to print, or output, some or all of the input. Use the print statement for simple output, and the printf statement for fancier formatting. The print statement is not limited when computing which values to print. However, with two exceptions, you cannot specify how to print them—how many columns, whether to use exponential notation or not, and so on. (For the exceptions, see Output Separators and OFMT.) For printing with specifications, you need the printf statement (see Printf).

Besides basic and formatted printing, this chapter also covers I/O redirections to files and pipes, introduces the special file names that gawk processes internally, and discusses the close() built-in function.

Next: , Up: Printing   [Contents][Index]

5.1 The print Statement

Use the print statement to produce output with simple, standardized formatting. You specify only the strings or numbers to print, in a list separated by commas. They are output, separated by single spaces, followed by a newline. The statement looks like this:

print item1, item2, …

The entire list of items may be optionally enclosed in parentheses. The parentheses are necessary if any of the item expressions uses the ‘>’ relational operator; otherwise it could be confused with an output redirection (see Redirection).

The items to print can be constant strings or numbers, fields of the current record (such as $1), variables, or any awk expression. Numeric values are converted to strings and then printed.

The simple statement ‘print’ with no items is equivalent to ‘print $0’: it prints the entire current record. To print a blank line, use ‘print ""’. To print a fixed piece of text, use a string constant, such as "Don't Panic", as one item. If you forget to use the double-quote characters, your text is taken as an awk expression, and you will probably get an error. Keep in mind that a space is printed between any two items.

Note that the print statement is a statement and not an expression—you can’t use it in the pattern part of a pattern–action statement, for example.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Printing   [Contents][Index]

5.2 print Statement Examples

Each print statement makes at least one line of output. However, it isn’t limited to only one line. If an item value is a string containing a newline, the newline is output along with the rest of the string. A single print statement can make any number of lines this way.

The following is an example of printing a string that contains embedded newlines (the ‘\n’ is an escape sequence, used to represent the newline character; see Escape Sequences):

$ awk 'BEGIN { print "line one\nline two\nline three" }'
-| line one
-| line two
-| line three

The next example, which is run on the inventory-shipped file, prints the first two fields of each input record, with a space between them:

$ awk '{ print $1, $2 }' inventory-shipped
-| Jan 13
-| Feb 15
-| Mar 15

A common mistake in using the print statement is to omit the comma between two items. This often has the effect of making the items run together in the output, with no space. The reason for this is that juxtaposing two string expressions in awk means to concatenate them. Here is the same program, without the comma:

$ awk '{ print $1 $2 }' inventory-shipped
-| Jan13
-| Feb15
-| Mar15

To someone unfamiliar with the inventory-shipped file, neither example’s output makes much sense. A heading line at the beginning would make it clearer. Let’s add some headings to our table of months ($1) and green crates shipped ($2). We do this using a BEGIN rule (see BEGIN/END) so that the headings are only printed once:

awk 'BEGIN {  print "Month Crates"
              print "----- ------" }
           {  print $1, $2 }' inventory-shipped

When run, the program prints the following:

Month Crates
----- ------
Jan 13
Feb 15
Mar 15

The only problem, however, is that the headings and the table data don’t line up! We can fix this by printing some spaces between the two fields:

awk 'BEGIN { print "Month Crates"
             print "----- ------" }
           { print $1, "     ", $2 }' inventory-shipped

Lining up columns this way can get pretty complicated when there are many columns to fix. Counting spaces for two or three columns is simple, but any more than this can take up a lot of time. This is why the printf statement was created (see Printf); one of its specialties is lining up columns of data.

NOTE: You can continue either a print or printf statement simply by putting a newline after any comma (see Statements/Lines).

Next: , Previous: , Up: Printing   [Contents][Index]

5.3 Output Separators

As mentioned previously, a print statement contains a list of items separated by commas. In the output, the items are normally separated by single spaces. However, this doesn’t need to be the case; a single space is simply the default. Any string of characters may be used as the output field separator by setting the predefined variable OFS. The initial value of this variable is the string " " (i.e., a single space).

The output from an entire print statement is called an output record. Each print statement outputs one output record, and then outputs a string called the output record separator (or ORS). The initial value of ORS is the string "\n" (i.e., a newline character). Thus, each print statement normally makes a separate line.

In order to change how output fields and records are separated, assign new values to the variables OFS and ORS. The usual place to do this is in the BEGIN rule (see BEGIN/END), so that it happens before any input is processed. It can also be done with assignments on the command line, before the names of the input files, or using the -v command-line option (see Options). The following example prints the first and second fields of each input record, separated by a semicolon, with a blank line added after each newline:

$ awk 'BEGIN { OFS = ";"; ORS = "\n\n" }
>            { print $1, $2 }' mail-list
-| Amelia;555-5553
-| Anthony;555-3412
-| Becky;555-7685
-| Bill;555-1675
-| Broderick;555-0542
-| Camilla;555-2912
-| Fabius;555-1234
-| Julie;555-6699
-| Martin;555-6480
-| Samuel;555-3430
-| Jean-Paul;555-2127

If the value of ORS does not contain a newline, the program’s output runs together on a single line.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Printing   [Contents][Index]

5.4 Controlling Numeric Output with print

When printing numeric values with the print statement, awk internally converts each number to a string of characters and prints that string. awk uses the sprintf() function to do this conversion (see String Functions). For now, it suffices to say that the sprintf() function accepts a format specification that tells it how to format numbers (or strings), and that there are a number of different ways in which numbers can be formatted. The different format specifications are discussed more fully in Control Letters.

The predefined variable OFMT contains the format specification that print uses with sprintf() when it wants to convert a number to a string for printing. The default value of OFMT is "%.6g". The way print prints numbers can be changed by supplying a different format specification for the value of OFMT, as shown in the following example:

$ awk 'BEGIN {
>   OFMT = "%.0f"  # print numbers as integers (rounds)
>   print 17.23, 17.54 }'
-| 17 18

According to the POSIX standard, awk’s behavior is undefined if OFMT contains anything but a floating-point conversion specification. (d.c.)

Next: , Previous: , Up: Printing   [Contents][Index]

5.5 Using printf Statements for Fancier Printing

For more precise control over the output format than what is provided by print, use printf. With printf you can specify the width to use for each item, as well as various formatting choices for numbers (such as what output base to use, whether to print an exponent, whether to print a sign, and how many digits to print after the decimal point).

Next: , Up: Printf   [Contents][Index]

5.5.1 Introduction to the printf Statement

A simple printf statement looks like this:

printf format, item1, item2, …

As for print, the entire list of arguments may optionally be enclosed in parentheses. Here too, the parentheses are necessary if any of the item expressions uses the ‘>’ relational operator; otherwise, it can be confused with an output redirection (see Redirection).

The difference between printf and print is the format argument. This is an expression whose value is taken as a string; it specifies how to output each of the other arguments. It is called the format string.

The format string is very similar to that in the ISO C library function printf(). Most of format is text to output verbatim. Scattered among this text are format specifiers—one per item. Each format specifier says to output the next item in the argument list at that place in the format.

The printf statement does not automatically append a newline to its output. It outputs only what the format string specifies. So if a newline is needed, you must include one in the format string. The output separator variables OFS and ORS have no effect on printf statements. For example:

$ awk 'BEGIN {
>    ORS = "\nOUCH!\n"; OFS = "+"
>    msg = "Don\47t Panic!"
>    printf "%s\n", msg
> }'
-| Don't Panic!

Here, neither the ‘+’ nor the ‘OUCH!’ appears in the output message.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Printf   [Contents][Index]

5.5.2 Format-Control Letters

A format specifier starts with the character ‘%’ and ends with a format-control letter—it tells the printf statement how to output one item. The format-control letter specifies what kind of value to print. The rest of the format specifier is made up of optional modifiers that control how to print the value, such as the field width. Here is a list of the format-control letters:


Print a number as a character; thus, ‘printf "%c", 65’ outputs the letter ‘A’. The output for a string value is the first character of the string.

NOTE: The POSIX standard says the first character of a string is printed. In locales with multibyte characters, gawk attempts to convert the leading bytes of the string into a valid wide character and then to print the multibyte encoding of that character. Similarly, when printing a numeric value, gawk allows the value to be within the numeric range of values that can be held in a wide character. If the conversion to multibyte encoding fails, gawk uses the low eight bits of the value as the character to print.

Other awk versions generally restrict themselves to printing the first byte of a string or to numeric values within the range of a single byte (0–255).

%d, %i

Print a decimal integer. The two control letters are equivalent. (The ‘%i’ specification is for compatibility with ISO C.)

%e, %E

Print a number in scientific (exponential) notation. For example:

printf "%4.3e\n", 1950

prints ‘1.950e+03’, with a total of four significant figures, three of which follow the decimal point. (The ‘4.3’ represents two modifiers, discussed in the next subsection.) ‘%E’ uses ‘E’ instead of ‘e’ in the output.


Print a number in floating-point notation. For example:

printf "%4.3f", 1950

prints ‘1950.000’, with a total of four significant figures, three of which follow the decimal point. (The ‘4.3’ represents two modifiers, discussed in the next subsection.)

On systems supporting IEEE 754 floating-point format, values representing negative infinity are formatted as ‘-inf’ or ‘-infinity’, and positive infinity as ‘inf’ or ‘infinity’. The special “not a number” value formats as ‘-nan’ or ‘nan’ (see Math Definitions).


Like ‘%f’, but the infinity and “not a number” values are spelled using uppercase letters.

The ‘%F’ format is a POSIX extension to ISO C; not all systems support it. On those that don’t, gawk uses ‘%f’ instead.

%g, %G

Print a number in either scientific notation or in floating-point notation, whichever uses fewer characters; if the result is printed in scientific notation, ‘%G’ uses ‘E’ instead of ‘e’.


Print an unsigned octal integer (see Nondecimal-numbers).


Print a string.


Print an unsigned decimal integer. (This format is of marginal use, because all numbers in awk are floating point; it is provided primarily for compatibility with C.)

%x, %X

Print an unsigned hexadecimal integer; ‘%X’ uses the letters ‘A’ through ‘F’ instead of ‘a’ through ‘f’ (see Nondecimal-numbers).


Print a single ‘%’. This does not consume an argument and it ignores any modifiers.

NOTE: When using the integer format-control letters for values that are outside the range of the widest C integer type, gawk switches to the ‘%g’ format specifier. If --lint is provided on the command line (see Options), gawk warns about this. Other versions of awk may print invalid values or do something else entirely. (d.c.)

Next: , Previous: , Up: Printf   [Contents][Index]

5.5.3 Modifiers for printf Formats

A format specification can also include modifiers that can control how much of the item’s value is printed, as well as how much space it gets. The modifiers come between the ‘%’ and the format-control letter. We use the bullet symbol “•” in the following examples to represent spaces in the output. Here are the possible modifiers, in the order in which they may appear:


An integer constant followed by a ‘$’ is a positional specifier. Normally, format specifications are applied to arguments in the order given in the format string. With a positional specifier, the format specification is applied to a specific argument, instead of what would be the next argument in the list. Positional specifiers begin counting with one. Thus:

printf "%s %s\n", "don't", "panic"
printf "%2$s %1$s\n", "panic", "don't"

prints the famous friendly message twice.

At first glance, this feature doesn’t seem to be of much use. It is in fact a gawk extension, intended for use in translating messages at runtime. See Printf Ordering, which describes how and why to use positional specifiers. For now, we ignore them.

- (Minus)

The minus sign, used before the width modifier (see later on in this list), says to left-justify the argument within its specified width. Normally, the argument is printed right-justified in the specified width. Thus:

printf "%-4s", "foo"

prints ‘foo•’.


For numeric conversions, prefix positive values with a space and negative values with a minus sign.


The plus sign, used before the width modifier (see later on in this list), says to always supply a sign for numeric conversions, even if the data to format is positive. The ‘+’ overrides the space modifier.


Use an “alternative form” for certain control letters. For ‘%o’, supply a leading zero. For ‘%x’ and ‘%X’, supply a leading ‘0x’ or ‘0X’ for a nonzero result. For ‘%e’, ‘%E’, ‘%f’, and ‘%F’, the result always contains a decimal point. For ‘%g’ and ‘%G’, trailing zeros are not removed from the result.


A leading ‘0’ (zero) acts as a flag indicating that output should be padded with zeros instead of spaces. This applies only to the numeric output formats. This flag only has an effect when the field width is wider than the value to print.


A single quote or apostrophe character is a POSIX extension to ISO C. It indicates that the integer part of a floating-point value, or the entire part of an integer decimal value, should have a thousands-separator character in it. This only works in locales that support such characters. For example:

$ cat thousands.awk          Show source program
-| BEGIN { printf "%'d\n", 1234567 }
$ LC_ALL=C gawk -f thousands.awk
-| 1234567                   Results in "C" locale
$ LC_ALL=en_US.UTF-8 gawk -f thousands.awk
-| 1,234,567                 Results in US English UTF locale

For more information about locales and internationalization issues, see Locales.

NOTE: The ‘'’ flag is a nice feature, but its use complicates things: it becomes difficult to use it in command-line programs. For information on appropriate quoting tricks, see Quoting.


This is a number specifying the desired minimum width of a field. Inserting any number between the ‘%’ sign and the format-control character forces the field to expand to this width. The default way to do this is to pad with spaces on the left. For example:

printf "%4s", "foo"

prints ‘•foo’.

The value of width is a minimum width, not a maximum. If the item value requires more than width characters, it can be as wide as necessary. Thus, the following:

printf "%4s", "foobar"

prints ‘foobar’.

Preceding the width with a minus sign causes the output to be padded with spaces on the right, instead of on the left.


A period followed by an integer constant specifies the precision to use when printing. The meaning of the precision varies by control letter:

%d, %i, %o, %u, %x, %X

Minimum number of digits to print.

%e, %E, %f, %F

Number of digits to the right of the decimal point.

%g, %G

Maximum number of significant digits.


Maximum number of characters from the string that should print.

Thus, the following:

printf "%.4s", "foobar"

prints ‘foob’.

The C library printf’s dynamic width and prec capability (e.g., "%*.*s") is supported. Instead of supplying explicit width and/or prec values in the format string, they are passed in the argument list. For example:

w = 5
p = 3
s = "abcdefg"
printf "%*.*s\n", w, p, s

is exactly equivalent to:

s = "abcdefg"
printf "%5.3s\n", s

Both programs output ‘••abc’. Earlier versions of awk did not support this capability. If you must use such a version, you may simulate this feature by using concatenation to build up the format string, like so:

w = 5
p = 3
s = "abcdefg"
printf "%" w "." p "s\n", s

This is not particularly easy to read, but it does work.

C programmers may be used to supplying additional modifiers (‘h’, ‘j’, ‘l’, ‘L’, ‘t’, and ‘z’) in printf format strings. These are not valid in awk. Most awk implementations silently ignore them. If --lint is provided on the command line (see Options), gawk warns about their use. If --posix is supplied, their use is a fatal error.

Previous: , Up: Printf   [Contents][Index]

5.5.4 Examples Using printf

The following simple example shows how to use printf to make an aligned table:

awk '{ printf "%-10s %s\n", $1, $2 }' mail-list

This command prints the names of the people ($1) in the file mail-list as a string of 10 characters that are left-justified. It also prints the phone numbers ($2) next on the line. This produces an aligned two-column table of names and phone numbers, as shown here:

$ awk '{ printf "%-10s %s\n", $1, $2 }' mail-list
-| Amelia     555-5553
-| Anthony    555-3412
-| Becky      555-7685
-| Bill       555-1675
-| Broderick  555-0542
-| Camilla    555-2912
-| Fabius     555-1234
-| Julie      555-6699
-| Martin     555-6480
-| Samuel     555-3430
-| Jean-Paul  555-2127

In this case, the phone numbers had to be printed as strings because the numbers are separated by dashes. Printing the phone numbers as numbers would have produced just the first three digits: ‘555’. This would have been pretty confusing.

It wasn’t necessary to specify a width for the phone numbers because they are last on their lines. They don’t need to have spaces after them.

The table could be made to look even nicer by adding headings to the tops of the columns. This is done using a BEGIN rule (see BEGIN/END) so that the headers are only printed once, at the beginning of the awk program:

awk 'BEGIN { print "Name      Number"
             print "----      ------" }
           { printf "%-10s %s\n", $1, $2 }' mail-list

The preceding example mixes print and printf statements in the same program. Using just printf statements can produce the same results:

awk 'BEGIN { printf "%-10s %s\n", "Name", "Number"
             printf "%-10s %s\n", "----", "------" }
           { printf "%-10s %s\n", $1, $2 }' mail-list

Printing each column heading with the same format specification used for the column elements ensures that the headings are aligned just like the columns.

The fact that the same format specification is used three times can be emphasized by storing it in a variable, like this:

awk 'BEGIN { format = "%-10s %s\n"
             printf format, "Name", "Number"
             printf format, "----", "------" }
           { printf format, $1, $2 }' mail-list

Next: , Previous: , Up: Printing   [Contents][Index]

5.6 Redirecting Output of print and printf

So far, the output from print and printf has gone to the standard output, usually the screen. Both print and printf can also send their output to other places. This is called redirection.

NOTE: When --sandbox is specified (see Options), redirecting output to files, pipes, and coprocesses is disabled.

A redirection appears after the print or printf statement. Redirections in awk are written just like redirections in shell commands, except that they are written inside the awk program.

There are four forms of output redirection: output to a file, output appended to a file, output through a pipe to another command, and output to a coprocess. We show them all for the print statement, but they work identically for printf:

print items > output-file

This redirection prints the items into the output file named output-file. The file name output-file can be any expression. Its value is changed to a string and then used as a file name (see Expressions).

When this type of redirection is used, the output-file is erased before the first output is written to it. Subsequent writes to the same output-file do not erase output-file, but append to it. (This is different from how you use redirections in shell scripts.) If output-file does not exist, it is created. For example, here is how an awk program can write a list of peoples’ names to one file named name-list, and a list of phone numbers to another file named phone-list:

$ awk '{ print $2 > "phone-list"
>        print $1 > "name-list" }' mail-list
$ cat phone-list
-| 555-5553
-| 555-3412
$ cat name-list
-| Amelia
-| Anthony

Each output file contains one name or number per line.

print items >> output-file

This redirection prints the items into the preexisting output file named output-file. The difference between this and the single-‘>’ redirection is that the old contents (if any) of output-file are not erased. Instead, the awk output is appended to the file. If output-file does not exist, then it is created.

print items | command

It is possible to send output to another program through a pipe instead of into a file. This redirection opens a pipe to command, and writes the values of items through this pipe to another process created to execute command.

The redirection argument command is actually an awk expression. Its value is converted to a string whose contents give the shell command to be run. For example, the following produces two files, one unsorted list of peoples’ names, and one list sorted in reverse alphabetical order:

awk '{ print $1 > "names.unsorted"
       command = "sort -r > names.sorted"
       print $1 | command }' mail-list

The unsorted list is written with an ordinary redirection, while the sorted list is written by piping through the sort utility.

The next example uses redirection to mail a message to the mailing list bug-system. This might be useful when trouble is encountered in an awk script run periodically for system maintenance:

report = "mail bug-system"
print("Awk script failed:", $0) | report
print("at record number", FNR, "of", FILENAME) | report

The close() function is called here because it’s a good idea to close the pipe as soon as all the intended output has been sent to it. See Close Files And Pipes for more information.

This example also illustrates the use of a variable to represent a file or command—it is not necessary to always use a string constant. Using a variable is generally a good idea, because (if you mean to refer to that same file or command) awk requires that the string value be written identically every time.

print items |& command

This redirection prints the items to the input of command. The difference between this and the single-‘|’ redirection is that the output from command can be read with getline. Thus, command is a coprocess, which works together with but is subsidiary to the awk program.

This feature is a gawk extension, and is not available in POSIX awk. See Getline/Coprocess, for a brief discussion. See Two-way I/O, for a more complete discussion.

Redirecting output using ‘>’, ‘>>’, ‘|’, or ‘|&’ asks the system to open a file, pipe, or coprocess only if the particular file or command you specify has not already been written to by your program or if it has been closed since it was last written to.

It is a common error to use ‘>’ redirection for the first print to a file, and then to use ‘>>’ for subsequent output:

# clear the file
print "Don't panic" > "guide.txt"
# append
print "Avoid improbability generators" >> "guide.txt"

This is indeed how redirections must be used from the shell. But in awk, it isn’t necessary. In this kind of case, a program should use ‘>’ for all the print statements, because the output file is only opened once. (It happens that if you mix ‘>’ and ‘>>’ output is produced in the expected order. However, mixing the operators for the same file is definitely poor style, and is confusing to readers of your program.)

As mentioned earlier (see Getline Notes), many Many older awk implementations limit the number of pipelines that an awk program may have open to just one! In gawk, there is no such limit. gawk allows a program to open as many pipelines as the underlying operating system permits.

Piping into sh

A particularly powerful way to use redirection is to build command lines and pipe them into the shell, sh. For example, suppose you have a list of files brought over from a system where all the file names are stored in uppercase, and you wish to rename them to have names in all lowercase. The following program is both simple and efficient:

{ printf("mv %s %s\n", $0, tolower($0)) | "sh" }

END { close("sh") }

The tolower() function returns its argument string with all uppercase characters converted to lowercase (see String Functions). The program builds up a list of command lines, using the mv utility to rename the files. It then sends the list to the shell for execution.

See Shell Quoting for a function that can help in generating command lines to be fed to the shell.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Printing   [Contents][Index]

5.7 Special Files for Standard Preopened Data Streams

Running programs conventionally have three input and output streams already available to them for reading and writing. These are known as the standard input, standard output, and standard error output. These open streams (and any other open files or pipes) are often referred to by the technical term file descriptors.

These streams are, by default, connected to your keyboard and screen, but they are often redirected with the shell, via the ‘<’, ‘<<’, ‘>’, ‘>>’, ‘>&’, and ‘|’ operators. Standard error is typically used for writing error messages; the reason there are two separate streams, standard output and standard error, is so that they can be redirected separately.

In traditional implementations of awk, the only way to write an error message to standard error in an awk program is as follows:

print "Serious error detected!" | "cat 1>&2"

This works by opening a pipeline to a shell command that can access the standard error stream that it inherits from the awk process. This is far from elegant, and it also requires a separate process. So people writing awk programs often don’t do this. Instead, they send the error messages to the screen, like this:

print "Serious error detected!" > "/dev/tty"

(/dev/tty is a special file supplied by the operating system that is connected to your keyboard and screen. It represents the “terminal,”28 which on modern systems is a keyboard and screen, not a serial console.) This generally has the same effect, but not always: although the standard error stream is usually the screen, it can be redirected; when that happens, writing to the screen is not correct. In fact, if awk is run from a background job, it may not have a terminal at all. Then opening /dev/tty fails.

gawk, BWK awk, and mawk provide special file names for accessing the three standard streams. If the file name matches one of these special names when gawk (or one of the others) redirects input or output, then it directly uses the descriptor that the file name stands for. These special file names work for all operating systems that gawk has been ported to, not just those that are POSIX-compliant:


The standard input (file descriptor 0).


The standard output (file descriptor 1).


The standard error output (file descriptor 2).

With these facilities, the proper way to write an error message then becomes:

print "Serious error detected!" > "/dev/stderr"

Note the use of quotes around the file name. Like with any other redirection, the value must be a string. It is a common error to omit the quotes, which leads to confusing results.

gawk does not treat these file names as special when in POSIX-compatibility mode. However, because BWK awk supports them, gawk does support them even when invoked with the --traditional option (see Options).

Next: , Previous: , Up: Printing   [Contents][Index]

5.8 Special File names in gawk

Besides access to standard input, standard output, and standard error, gawk provides access to any open file descriptor. Additionally, there are special file names reserved for TCP/IP networking.

Next: , Up: Special Files   [Contents][Index]

5.8.1 Accessing Other Open Files with gawk

Besides the /dev/stdin, /dev/stdout, and /dev/stderr special file names mentioned earlier, gawk provides syntax for accessing any other inherited open file:


The file associated with file descriptor N. Such a file must be opened by the program initiating the awk execution (typically the shell). Unless special pains are taken in the shell from which gawk is invoked, only descriptors 0, 1, and 2 are available.

The file names /dev/stdin, /dev/stdout, and /dev/stderr are essentially aliases for /dev/fd/0, /dev/fd/1, and /dev/fd/2, respectively. However, those names are more self-explanatory.

Note that using close() on a file name of the form "/dev/fd/N", for file descriptor numbers above two, does actually close the given file descriptor.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Special Files   [Contents][Index]

5.8.2 Special Files for Network Communications

gawk programs can open a two-way TCP/IP connection, acting as either a client or a server. This is done using a special file name of the form:


The net-type is one of ‘inet’, ‘inet4’, or ‘inet6’. The protocol is one of ‘tcp’ or ‘udp’, and the other fields represent the other essential pieces of information for making a networking connection. These file names are used with the ‘|&’ operator for communicating with a coprocess (see Two-way I/O). This is an advanced feature, mentioned here only for completeness. Full discussion is delayed until TCP/IP Networking.

Previous: , Up: Special Files   [Contents][Index]

5.8.3 Special File name Caveats

Here are some things to bear in mind when using the special file names that gawk provides:

Next: , Previous: , Up: Printing   [Contents][Index]

5.9 Closing Input and Output Redirections

If the same file name or the same shell command is used with getline more than once during the execution of an awk program (see Getline), the file is opened (or the command is executed) the first time only. At that time, the first record of input is read from that file or command. The next time the same file or command is used with getline, another record is read from it, and so on.

Similarly, when a file or pipe is opened for output, awk remembers the file name or command associated with it, and subsequent writes to the same file or command are appended to the previous writes. The file or pipe stays open until awk exits.

This implies that special steps are necessary in order to read the same file again from the beginning, or to rerun a shell command (rather than reading more output from the same command). The close() function makes these things possible:




The argument filename or command can be any expression. Its value must exactly match the string that was used to open the file or start the command (spaces and other “irrelevant” characters included). For example, if you open a pipe with this:

"sort -r names" | getline foo

then you must close it with this:

close("sort -r names")

Once this function call is executed, the next getline from that file or command, or the next print or printf to that file or command, reopens the file or reruns the command. Because the expression that you use to close a file or pipeline must exactly match the expression used to open the file or run the command, it is good practice to use a variable to store the file name or command. The previous example becomes the following:

sortcom = "sort -r names"
sortcom | getline foo

This helps avoid hard-to-find typographical errors in your awk programs. Here are some of the reasons for closing an output file:

If you use more files than the system allows you to have open, gawk attempts to multiplex the available open files among your data files. gawk’s ability to do this depends upon the facilities of your operating system, so it may not always work. It is therefore both good practice and good portability advice to always use close() on your files when you are done with them. In fact, if you are using a lot of pipes, it is essential that you close commands when done. For example, consider something like this:

    command = ("grep " $1 " /some/file | my_prog -q " $3)
    while ((command | getline) > 0) {
        process output of command
    # need close(command) here

This example creates a new pipeline based on data in each record. Without the call to close() indicated in the comment, awk creates child processes to run the commands, until it eventually runs out of file descriptors for more pipelines.

Even though each command has finished (as indicated by the end-of-file return status from getline), the child process is not terminated;29 more importantly, the file descriptor for the pipe is not closed and released until close() is called or awk exits.

close() silently does nothing if given an argument that does not represent a file, pipe, or coprocess that was opened with a redirection. In such a case, it returns a negative value, indicating an error. In addition, gawk sets ERRNO to a string indicating the error.

Note also that ‘close(FILENAME)’ has no “magic” effects on the implicit loop that reads through the files named on the command line. It is, more likely, a close of a file that was never opened with a redirection, so awk silently does nothing, except return a negative value.

When using the ‘|&’ operator to communicate with a coprocess, it is occasionally useful to be able to close one end of the two-way pipe without closing the other. This is done by supplying a second argument to close(). As in any other call to close(), the first argument is the name of the command or special file used to start the coprocess. The second argument should be a string, with either of the values "to" or "from". Case does not matter. As this is an advanced feature, discussion is delayed until Two-way I/O, which describes it in more detail and gives an example.

Using close()’s Return Value

In many older versions of Unix awk, the close() function is actually a statement. (d.c.) It is a syntax error to try and use the return value from close():

command = "…"
command | getline info
retval = close(command)  # syntax error in many Unix awks

gawk treats close() as a function. The return value is -1 if the argument names something that was never opened with a redirection, or if there is a system problem closing the file or process. In these cases, gawk sets the predefined variable ERRNO to a string describing the problem.

In gawk, when closing a pipe or coprocess (input or output), the return value is the exit status of the command.30 Otherwise, it is the return value from the system’s close() or fclose() C functions when closing input or output files, respectively. This value is zero if the close succeeds, or -1 if it fails.

The POSIX standard is very vague; it says that close() returns zero on success and a nonzero value otherwise. In general, different implementations vary in what they report when closing pipes; thus, the return value cannot be used portably. (d.c.) In POSIX mode (see Options), gawk just returns zero when closing a pipe.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Printing   [Contents][Index]

5.10 Summary

Previous: , Up: Printing   [Contents][Index]

5.11 Exercises

  1. Rewrite the program:
    awk 'BEGIN { print "Month Crates"
                 print "----- ------" }
               { print $1, "     ", $2 }' inventory-shipped

    from Output Separators, by using a new value of OFS.

  2. Use the printf statement to line up the headings and table data for the inventory-shipped example that was covered in Print.
  3. What happens if you forget the double quotes when redirecting output, as follows:
    BEGIN { print "Serious error detected!" > /dev/stderr }

Next: , Previous: , Up: Top   [Contents][Index]

6 Expressions

Expressions are the basic building blocks of awk patterns and actions. An expression evaluates to a value that you can print, test, or pass to a function. Additionally, an expression can assign a new value to a variable or a field by using an assignment operator.

An expression can serve as a pattern or action statement on its own. Most other kinds of statements contain one or more expressions that specify the data on which to operate. As in other languages, expressions in awk can include variables, array references, constants, and function calls, as well as combinations of these with various operators.

Next: , Up: Expressions   [Contents][Index]

6.1 Constants, Variables, and Conversions

Expressions are built up from values and the operations performed upon them. This section describes the elementary objects that provide the values used in expressions.

Next: , Up: Values   [Contents][Index]

6.1.1 Constant Expressions

The simplest type of expression is the constant, which always has the same value. There are three types of constants: numeric, string, and regular expression.

Each is used in the appropriate context when you need a data value that isn’t going to change. Numeric constants can have different forms, but are internally stored in an identical manner.

Next: , Up: Constants   [Contents][Index] Numeric and String Constants

A numeric constant stands for a number. This number can be an integer, a decimal fraction, or a number in scientific (exponential) notation.31 Here are some examples of numeric constants that all have the same value:


A string constant consists of a sequence of characters enclosed in double quotation marks. For example:


represents the string whose contents are ‘parrot’. Strings in gawk can be of any length, and they can contain any of the possible eight-bit ASCII characters, including ASCII NUL (character code zero). Other awk implementations may have difficulty with some character codes.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Constants   [Contents][Index] Octal and Hexadecimal Numbers

In awk, all numbers are in decimal (i.e., base 10). Many other programming languages allow you to specify numbers in other bases, often octal (base 8) and hexadecimal (base 16). In octal, the numbers go 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, and so on. Just as ‘11’ in decimal is 1 times 10 plus 1, so ‘11’ in octal is 1 times 8 plus 1. This equals 9 in decimal. In hexadecimal, there are 16 digits. Because the everyday decimal number system only has ten digits (‘0’–‘9’), the letters ‘a’ through ‘f’ are used to represent the rest. (Case in the letters is usually irrelevant; hexadecimal ‘a’ and ‘A’ have the same value.) Thus, ‘11’ in hexadecimal is 1 times 16 plus 1, which equals 17 in decimal.

Just by looking at plain ‘11’, you can’t tell what base it’s in. So, in C, C++, and other languages derived from C, there is a special notation to signify the base. Octal numbers start with a leading ‘0’, and hexadecimal numbers start with a leading ‘0x’ or ‘0X’:


Decimal value 11


Octal 11, decimal value 9


Hexadecimal 11, decimal value 17

This example shows the difference:

$ gawk 'BEGIN { printf "%d, %d, %d\n", 011, 11, 0x11 }'
-| 9, 11, 17

Being able to use octal and hexadecimal constants in your programs is most useful when working with data that cannot be represented conveniently as characters or as regular numbers, such as binary data of various sorts.

gawk allows the use of octal and hexadecimal constants in your program text. However, such numbers in the input data are not treated differently; doing so by default would break old programs. (If you really need to do this, use the --non-decimal-data command-line option; see Nondecimal Data.) If you have octal or hexadecimal data, you can use the strtonum() function (see String Functions) to convert the data into a number. Most of the time, you will want to use octal or hexadecimal constants when working with the built-in bit-manipulation functions; see Bitwise Functions for more information.

Unlike in some early C implementations, ‘8’ and ‘9’ are not valid in octal constants. For example, gawk treats ‘018’ as decimal 18:

$ gawk 'BEGIN { print "021 is", 021 ; print 018 }'
-| 021 is 17
-| 18

Octal and hexadecimal source code constants are a gawk extension. If gawk is in compatibility mode (see Options), they are not available.

A Constant’s Base Does Not Affect Its Value

Once a numeric constant has been converted internally into a number, gawk no longer remembers what the original form of the constant was; the internal value is always used. This has particular consequences for conversion of numbers to strings:

$ gawk 'BEGIN { printf "0x11 is <%s>\n", 0x11 }'
-| 0x11 is <17>

Previous: , Up: Constants   [Contents][Index] Regular Expression Constants

A regexp constant is a regular expression description enclosed in slashes, such as /^beginning and end$/. Most regexps used in awk programs are constant, but the ‘~’ and ‘!~’ matching operators can also match computed or dynamic regexps (which are typically just ordinary strings or variables that contain a regexp, but could be more complex expressions).

Next: , Previous: , Up: Values   [Contents][Index]

6.1.2 Using Regular Expression Constants

When used on the righthand side of the ‘~’ or ‘!~’ operators, a regexp constant merely stands for the regexp that is to be matched. However, regexp constants (such as /foo/) may be used like simple expressions. When a regexp constant appears by itself, it has the same meaning as if it appeared in a pattern (i.e., ‘($0 ~ /foo/)’). (d.c.) See Expression Patterns. This means that the following two code segments:

if ($0 ~ /barfly/ || $0 ~ /camelot/)
    print "found"


if (/barfly/ || /camelot/)
    print "found"

are exactly equivalent. One rather bizarre consequence of this rule is that the following Boolean expression is valid, but does not do what its author probably intended:

# Note that /foo/ is on the left of the ~
if (/foo/ ~ $1) print "found foo"

This code is “obviously” testing $1 for a match against the regexp /foo/. But in fact, the expression ‘/foo/ ~ $1’ really means ‘($0 ~ /foo/) ~ $1’. In other words, first match the input record against the regexp /foo/. The result is either zero or one, depending upon the success or failure of the match. That result is then matched against the first field in the record. Because it is unlikely that you would ever really want to make this kind of test, gawk issues a warning when it sees this construct in a program. Another consequence of this rule is that the assignment statement:

matches = /foo/

assigns either zero or one to the variable matches, depending upon the contents of the current input record.

Constant regular expressions are also used as the first argument for the gensub(), sub(), and gsub() functions, as the second argument of the match() function, and as the third argument of the split() and patsplit() functions (see String Functions). Modern implementations of awk, including gawk, allow the third argument of split() to be a regexp constant, but some older implementations do not. (d.c.) Because some built-in functions accept regexp constants as arguments, confusion can arise when attempting to use regexp constants as arguments to user-defined functions (see User-defined). For example:

function mysub(pat, repl, str, global)
    if (global)
        gsub(pat, repl, str)
        sub(pat, repl, str)
    return str

    text = "hi! hi yourself!"
    mysub(/hi/, "howdy", text, 1)

In this example, the programmer wants to pass a regexp constant to the user-defined function mysub(), which in turn passes it on to either sub() or gsub(). However, what really happens is that the pat parameter is assigned a value of either one or zero, depending upon whether or not $0 matches /hi/. gawk issues a warning when it sees a regexp constant used as a parameter to a user-defined function, because passing a truth value in this way is probably not what was intended.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Values   [Contents][Index]

6.1.3 Variables

Variables are ways of storing values at one point in your program for use later in another part of your program. They can be manipulated entirely within the program text, and they can also be assigned values on the awk command line.

Next: , Up: Variables   [Contents][Index] Using Variables in a Program

Variables let you give names to values and refer to them later. Variables have already been used in many of the examples. The name of a variable must be a sequence of letters, digits, or underscores, and it may not begin with a digit. Here, a letter is any one of the 52 upper- and lowercase English letters. Other characters that may be defined as letters in non-English locales are not valid in variable names. Case is significant in variable names; a and A are distinct variables.

A variable name is a valid expression by itself; it represents the variable’s current value. Variables are given new values with assignment operators, increment operators, and decrement operators (see Assignment Ops). In addition, the sub() and gsub() functions can change a variable’s value, and the match(), split(), and patsplit() functions can change the contents of their array parameters (see String Functions).

A few variables have special built-in meanings, such as FS (the field separator) and NF (the number of fields in the current input record). See Built-in Variables for a list of the predefined variables. These predefined variables can be used and assigned just like all other variables, but their values are also used or changed automatically by awk. All predefined variables’ names are entirely uppercase.

Variables in awk can be assigned either numeric or string values. The kind of value a variable holds can change over the life of a program. By default, variables are initialized to the empty string, which is zero if converted to a number. There is no need to explicitly initialize a variable in awk, which is what you would do in C and in most other traditional languages.

Previous: , Up: Variables   [Contents][Index] Assigning Variables on the Command Line

Any awk variable can be set by including a variable assignment among the arguments on the command line when awk is invoked (see Other Arguments). Such an assignment has the following form:


With it, a variable is set either at the beginning of the awk run or in between input files. When the assignment is preceded with the -v option, as in the following:

-v variable=text

the variable is set at the very beginning, even before the BEGIN rules execute. The -v option and its assignment must precede all the file name arguments, as well as the program text. (See Options for more information about the -v option.) Otherwise, the variable assignment is performed at a time determined by its position among the input file arguments—after the processing of the preceding input file argument. For example:

awk '{ print $n }' n=4 inventory-shipped n=2 mail-list

prints the value of field number n for all input records. Before the first file is read, the command line sets the variable n equal to four. This causes the fourth field to be printed in lines from inventory-shipped. After the first file has finished, but before the second file is started, n is set to two, so that the second field is printed in lines from mail-list:

$ awk '{ print $n }' n=4 inventory-shipped n=2 mail-list
-| 15
-| 24
-| 555-5553
-| 555-3412

Command-line arguments are made available for explicit examination by the awk program in the ARGV array (see ARGC and ARGV). awk processes the values of command-line assignments for escape sequences (see Escape Sequences). (d.c.)

Previous: , Up: Values   [Contents][Index]

6.1.4 Conversion of Strings and Numbers

Number-to-string and string-to-number conversion are generally straightforward. There can be subtleties to be aware of; this section discusses this important facet of awk.

Next: , Up: Conversion   [Contents][Index] How awk Converts Between Strings and Numbers

Strings are converted to numbers and numbers are converted to strings, if the context of the awk program demands it. For example, if the value of either foo or bar in the expression ‘foo + bar’ happens to be a string, it is converted to a number before the addition is performed. If numeric values appear in string concatenation, they are converted to strings. Consider the following:

two = 2; three = 3
print (two three) + 4

This prints the (numeric) value 27. The numeric values of the variables two and three are converted to strings and concatenated together. The resulting string is converted back to the number 23, to which 4 is then added.

If, for some reason, you need to force a number to be converted to a string, concatenate that number with the empty string, "". To force a string to be converted to a number, add zero to that string. A string is converted to a number by interpreting any numeric prefix of the string as numerals: "2.5" converts to 2.5, "1e3" converts to 1,000, and "25fix" has a numeric value of 25. Strings that can’t be interpreted as valid numbers convert to zero.

The exact manner in which numbers are converted into strings is controlled by the awk predefined variable CONVFMT (see Built-in Variables). Numbers are converted using the sprintf() function with CONVFMT as the format specifier (see String Functions).

CONVFMT’s default value is "%.6g", which creates a value with at most six significant digits. For some applications, you might want to change it to specify more precision. On most modern machines, 17 digits is usually enough to capture a floating-point number’s value exactly.32

Strange results can occur if you set CONVFMT to a string that doesn’t tell sprintf() how to format floating-point numbers in a useful way. For example, if you forget the ‘%’ in the format, awk converts all numbers to the same constant string.

As a special case, if a number is an integer, then the result of converting it to a string is always an integer, no matter what the value of CONVFMT may be. Given the following code fragment:

CONVFMT = "%2.2f"
a = 12
b = a ""

b has the value "12", not "12.00". (d.c.)

Pre-POSIX awk Used OFMT for String Conversion

Prior to the POSIX standard, awk used the value of OFMT for converting numbers to strings. OFMT specifies the output format to use when printing numbers with print. CONVFMT was introduced in order to separate the semantics of conversion from the semantics of printing. Both CONVFMT and OFMT have the same default value: "%.6g". In the vast majority of cases, old awk programs do not change their behavior. See Print for more information on the print statement.

Previous: , Up: Conversion   [Contents][Index] Locales Can Influence Conversion

Where you are can matter when it comes to converting between numbers and strings. The local character set and language—the locale—can affect numeric formats. In particular, for awk programs, it affects the decimal point character and the thousands-separator character. The "C" locale, and most English-language locales, use the period character (‘.’) as the decimal point and don’t have a thousands separator. However, many (if not most) European and non-English locales use the comma (‘,’) as the decimal point character. European locales often use either a space or a period as the thousands separator, if they have one.

The POSIX standard says that awk always uses the period as the decimal point when reading the awk program source code, and for command-line variable assignments (see Other Arguments). However, when interpreting input data, for print and printf output, and for number-to-string conversion, the local decimal point character is used. (d.c.) In all cases, numbers in source code and in input data cannot have a thousands separator. Here are some examples indicating the difference in behavior, on a GNU/Linux system:

$ export POSIXLY_CORRECT=1                        Force POSIX behavior
$ gawk 'BEGIN { printf "%g\n", 3.1415927 }'
-| 3.14159
$ LC_ALL=en_DK.utf-8 gawk 'BEGIN { printf "%g\n", 3.1415927 }'
-| 3,14159
$ echo 4,321 | gawk '{ print $1 + 1 }'
-| 5
$ echo 4,321 | LC_ALL=en_DK.utf-8 gawk '{ print $1 + 1 }'
-| 5,321

The en_DK.utf-8 locale is for English in Denmark, where the comma acts as the decimal point separator. In the normal "C" locale, gawk treats ‘4,321’ as 4, while in the Danish locale, it’s treated as the full number including the fractional part, 4.321.

Some earlier versions of gawk fully complied with this aspect of the standard. However, many users in non-English locales complained about this behavior, because their data used a period as the decimal point, so the default behavior was restored to use a period as the decimal point character. You can use the --use-lc-numeric option (see Options) to force gawk to use the locale’s decimal point character. (gawk also uses the locale’s decimal point character when in POSIX mode, either via --posix or the POSIXLY_CORRECT environment variable, as shown previously.)

Table 6.1 describes the cases in which the locale’s decimal point character is used and when a period is used. Some of these features have not been described yet.

FeatureDefault--posix or --use-lc-numeric
%'gUse localeUse locale
%gUse periodUse locale
InputUse periodUse locale
strtonum()Use periodUse locale

Table 6.1: Locale decimal point versus a period

Finally, modern-day formal standards and the IEEE standard floating-point representation can have an unusual but important effect on the way gawk converts some special string values to numbers. The details are presented in POSIX Floating Point Problems.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Expressions   [Contents][Index]

6.2 Operators: Doing Something with Values

This section introduces the operators that make use of the values provided by constants and variables.

Next: , Up: All Operators   [Contents][Index]

6.2.1 Arithmetic Operators

The awk language uses the common arithmetic operators when evaluating expressions. All of these arithmetic operators follow normal precedence rules and work as you would expect them to.

The following example uses a file named grades, which contains a list of student names as well as three test scores per student (it’s a small class):

Pat   100 97 58
Sandy  84 72 93
Chris  72 92 89

This program takes the file grades and prints the average of the scores:

$ awk '{ sum = $2 + $3 + $4 ; avg = sum / 3
>        print $1, avg }' grades
-| Pat 85
-| Sandy 83
-| Chris 84.3333

The following list provides the arithmetic operators in awk, in order from the highest precedence to the lowest:

x ^ y
x ** y

Exponentiation; x raised to the y power. ‘2 ^ 3’ has the value eight; the character sequence ‘**’ is equivalent to ‘^’. (c.e.)

- x


+ x

Unary plus; the expression is converted to a number.

x * y


x / y

Division; because all numbers in awk are floating-point numbers, the result is not rounded to an integer—‘3 / 4’ has the value 0.75. (It is a common mistake, especially for C programmers, to forget that all numbers in awk are floating point, and that division of integer-looking constants produces a real number, not an integer.)

x % y

Remainder; further discussion is provided in the text, just after this list.

x + y


x - y


Unary plus and minus have the same precedence, the multiplication operators all have the same precedence, and addition and subtraction have the same precedence.

When computing the remainder of ‘x % y’, the quotient is rounded toward zero to an integer and multiplied by y. This result is subtracted from x; this operation is sometimes known as “trunc-mod.” The following relation always holds:

b * int(a / b) + (a % b) == a

One possibly undesirable effect of this definition of remainder is that ‘x % y’ is negative if x is negative. Thus:

-17 % 8 = -1

In other awk implementations, the signedness of the remainder may be machine-dependent.

NOTE: The POSIX standard only specifies the use of ‘^’ for exponentiation. For maximum portability, do not use the ‘**’ operator.

Next: , Previous: , Up: All Operators   [Contents][Index]

6.2.2 String Concatenation

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Brian Kernighan

There is only one string operation: concatenation. It does not have a specific operator to represent it. Instead, concatenation is performed by writing expressions next to one another, with no operator. For example:

$ awk '{ print "Field number one: " $1 }' mail-list
-| Field number one: Amelia
-| Field number one: Anthony

Without the space in the string constant after the ‘:’, the line runs together. For example:

$ awk '{ print "Field number one:" $1 }' mail-list
-| Field number one:Amelia
-| Field number one:Anthony

Because string concatenation does not have an explicit operator, it is often necessary to ensure that it happens at the right time by using parentheses to enclose the items to concatenate. For example, you might expect that the following code fragment concatenates file and name:

file = "file"
name = "name"
print "something meaningful" > file name

This produces a syntax error with some versions of Unix awk.33 It is necessary to use the following:

print "something meaningful" > (file name)

Parentheses should be used around concatenation in all but the most common contexts, such as on the righthand side of ‘=’. Be careful about the kinds of expressions used in string concatenation. In particular, the order of evaluation of expressions used for concatenation is undefined in the awk language. Consider this example:

    a = "don't"
    print (a " " (a = "panic"))

It is not defined whether the second assignment to a happens before or after the value of a is retrieved for producing the concatenated value. The result could be either ‘don't panic’, or ‘panic panic’.

The precedence of concatenation, when mixed with other operators, is often counter-intuitive. Consider this example:

$ awk 'BEGIN { print -12 " " -24 }'
-| -12-24

This “obviously” is concatenating -12, a space, and -24. But where did the space disappear to? The answer lies in the combination of operator precedences and awk’s automatic conversion rules. To get the desired result, write the program this way:

$ awk 'BEGIN { print -12 " " (-24) }'
-| -12 -24

This forces awk to treat the ‘-’ on the ‘-24’ as unary. Otherwise, it’s parsed as follows:

    -12 (" " - 24)
⇒ -12 (0 - 24)
⇒ -12 (-24)
⇒ -12-24

As mentioned earlier, when mixing concatenation with other operators, parenthesize. Otherwise, you’re never quite sure what you’ll get.

Next: , Previous: , Up: All Operators   [Contents][Index]

6.2.3 Assignment Expressions

An assignment is an expression that stores a (usually different) value into a variable. For example, let’s assign the value one to the variable z:

z = 1

After this expression is executed, the variable z has the value one. Whatever old value z had before the assignment is forgotten.

Assignments can also store string values. For example, the following stores the value "this food is good" in the variable message:

thing = "food"
predicate = "good"
message = "this " thing " is " predicate

This also illustrates string concatenation. The ‘=’ sign is called an assignment operator. It is the simplest assignment operator because the value of the righthand operand is stored unchanged. Most operators (addition, concatenation, and so on) have no effect except to compute a value. If the value isn’t used, there’s no reason to use the operator. An assignment operator is different; it does produce a value, but even if you ignore it, the assignment still makes itself felt through the alteration of the variable. We call this a side effect.

The lefthand operand of an assignment need not be a variable (see Variables); it can also be a field (see Changing Fields) or an array element (see Arrays). These are all called lvalues, which means they can appear on the lefthand side of an assignment operator. The righthand operand may be any expression; it produces the new value that the assignment stores in the specified variable, field, or array element. (Such values are called rvalues.)

It is important to note that variables do not have permanent types. A variable’s type is simply the type of whatever value was last assigned to it. In the following program fragment, the variable foo has a numeric value at first, and a string value later on:

foo = 1
print foo
foo = "bar"
print foo

When the second assignment gives foo a string value, the fact that it previously had a numeric value is forgotten.

String values that do not begin with a digit have a numeric value of zero. After executing the following code, the value of foo is five:

foo = "a string"
foo = foo + 5

NOTE: Using a variable as a number and then later as a string can be confusing and is poor programming style. The previous two examples illustrate how awk works, not how you should write your programs!

An assignment is an expression, so it has a value—the same value that is assigned. Thus, ‘z = 1’ is an expression with the value one. One consequence of this is that you can write multiple assignments together, such as:

x = y = z = 5

This example stores the value five in all three variables (x, y, and z). It does so because the value of ‘z = 5’, which is five, is stored into y and then the value of ‘y = z = 5’, which is five, is stored into x.

Assignments may be used anywhere an expression is called for. For example, it is valid to write ‘x != (y = 1)’ to set y to one, and then test whether x equals one. But this style tends to make programs hard to read; such nesting of assignments should be avoided, except perhaps in a one-shot program.

Aside from ‘=’, there are several other assignment operators that do arithmetic with the old value of the variable. For example, the operator ‘+=’ computes a new value by adding the righthand value to the old value of the variable. Thus, the following assignment adds five to the value of foo:

foo += 5

This is equivalent to the following:

foo = foo + 5

Use whichever makes the meaning of your program clearer.

There are situations where using ‘+=’ (or any assignment operator) is not the same as simply repeating the lefthand operand in the righthand expression. For example:

# Thanks to Pat Rankin for this example
    foo[rand()] += 5
    for (x in foo)
       print x, foo[x]

    bar[rand()] = bar[rand()] + 5
    for (x in bar)
       print x, bar[x]

The indices of bar are practically guaranteed to be different, because rand() returns different values each time it is called. (Arrays and the rand() function haven’t been covered yet. See Arrays, and see Numeric Functions for more information.) This example illustrates an important fact about assignment operators: the lefthand expression is only evaluated once.

It is up to the implementation as to which expression is evaluated first, the lefthand or the righthand. Consider this example:

i = 1
a[i += 2] = i + 1

The value of a[3] could be either two or four.

Table 6.2 lists the arithmetic assignment operators. In each case, the righthand operand is an expression whose value is converted to a number.

lvalue += incrementAdd increment to the value of lvalue.
lvalue -= decrementSubtract decrement from the value of lvalue.
lvalue *= coefficientMultiply the value of lvalue by coefficient.
lvalue /= divisorDivide the value of lvalue by divisor.
lvalue %= modulusSet lvalue to its remainder by modulus.
lvalue ^= powerRaise lvalue to the power power.
lvalue **= powerRaise lvalue to the power power. (c.e.)

Table 6.2: Arithmetic assignment operators

NOTE: Only the ‘^=’ operator is specified by POSIX. For maximum portability, do not use the ‘**=’ operator.

Syntactic Ambiguities Between ‘/=’ and Regular Expressions

There is a syntactic ambiguity between the /= assignment operator and regexp constants whose first character is an ‘=’. (d.c.) This is most notable in some commercial awk versions. For example:

$ awk /==/ /dev/null
error→ awk: syntax error at source line 1
error→  context is
error→         >>> /= <<<
error→ awk: bailing out at source line 1

A workaround is:

awk '/[=]=/' /dev/null

gawk does not have this problem; BWK awk and mawk also do not.

Previous: , Up: All Operators   [Contents][Index]

6.2.4 Increment and Decrement Operators

Increment and decrement operators increase or decrease the value of a variable by one. An assignment operator can do the same thing, so the increment operators add no power to the awk language; however, they are convenient abbreviations for very common operations.

The operator used for adding one is written ‘++’. It can be used to increment a variable either before or after taking its value. To pre-increment a variable v, write ‘++v’. This adds one to the value of v—that new value is also the value of the expression. (The assignment expression ‘v += 1’ is completely equivalent.) Writing the ‘++’ after the variable specifies post-increment. This increments the variable value just the same; the difference is that the value of the increment expression itself is the variable’s old value. Thus, if foo has the value four, then the expression ‘foo++’ has the value four, but it changes the value of foo to five. In other words, the operator returns the old value of the variable, but with the side effect of incrementing it.

The post-increment ‘foo++’ is nearly the same as writing ‘(foo += 1) - 1’. It is not perfectly equivalent because all numbers in awk are floating point—in floating point, ‘foo + 1 - 1’ does not necessarily equal foo. But the difference is minute as long as you stick to numbers that are fairly small (less than 1012).

Fields and array elements are incremented just like variables. (Use ‘$(i++)’ when you want to do a field reference and a variable increment at the same time. The parentheses are necessary because of the precedence of the field reference operator ‘$’.)

The decrement operator ‘--’ works just like ‘++’, except that it subtracts one instead of adding it. As with ‘++’, it can be used before the lvalue to pre-decrement or after it to post-decrement. Following is a summary of increment and decrement expressions:


Increment lvalue, returning the new value as the value of the expression.


Increment lvalue, returning the old value of lvalue as the value of the expression.


Decrement lvalue, returning the new value as the value of the expression. (This expression is like ‘++lvalue’, but instead of adding, it subtracts.)


Decrement lvalue, returning the old value of lvalue as the value of the expression. (This expression is like ‘lvalue++’, but instead of adding, it subtracts.)

Operator Evaluation Order

Doctor, it hurts when I do this!
Then don’t do that!

Groucho Marx

What happens for something like the following?

b = 6
print b += b++

Or something even stranger?

b = 6
b += ++b + b++
print b

In other words, when do the various side effects prescribed by the postfix operators (‘b++’) take effect? When side effects happen is implementation-defined. In other words, it is up to the particular version of awk. The result for the first example may be 12 or 13, and for the second, it may be 22 or 23.

In short, doing things like this is not recommended and definitely not anything that you can rely upon for portability. You should avoid such things in your own programs.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Expressions   [Contents][Index]

6.3 Truth Values and Conditions

In certain contexts, expression values also serve as “truth values”; i.e., they determine what should happen next as the program runs. This section describes how awk defines “true” and “false” and how values are compared.

Next: , Up: Truth Values and Conditions   [Contents][Index]

6.3.1 True and False in awk

Many programming languages have a special representation for the concepts of “true” and “false.” Such languages usually use the special constants true and false, or perhaps their uppercase equivalents. However, awk is different. It borrows a very simple concept of true and false from C. In awk, any nonzero numeric value or any nonempty string value is true. Any other value (zero or the null string, "") is false. The following program prints ‘A strange truth value’ three times:

   if (3.1415927)
       print "A strange truth value"
   if ("Four Score And Seven Years Ago")
       print "A strange truth value"
   if (j = 57)
       print "A strange truth value"

There is a surprising consequence of the “nonzero or non-null” rule: the string constant "0" is actually true, because it is non-null. (d.c.)

Next: , Previous: , Up: Truth Values and Conditions   [Contents][Index]

6.3.2 Variable Typing and Comparison Expressions

The Guide is definitive. Reality is frequently inaccurate.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Unlike in other programming languages, in awk variables do not have a fixed type. Instead, they can be either a number or a string, depending upon the value that is assigned to them. We look now at how variables are typed, and how awk compares variables.

Next: , Up: Typing and Comparison   [Contents][Index] String Type versus Numeric Type

The POSIX standard introduced the concept of a numeric string, which is simply a string that looks like a number—for example, " +2". This concept is used for determining the type of a variable. The type of the variable is important because the types of two variables determine how they are compared. Variable typing follows these rules:

The last rule is particularly important. In the following program, a has numeric type, even though it is later used in a string operation:

     a = 12.345
     b = a " is a cute number"
     print b

When two operands are compared, either string comparison or numeric comparison may be used. This depends upon the attributes of the operands, according to the following symmetric matrix:

        |       STRING          NUMERIC         STRNUM
STRING  |       string          string          string
NUMERIC |       string          numeric         numeric
STRNUM  |       string          numeric         numeric

The basic idea is that user input that looks numeric—and only user input—should be treated as numeric, even though it is actually made of characters and is therefore also a string. Thus, for example, the string constant " +3.14", when it appears in program source code, is a string—even though it looks numeric—and is never treated as a number for comparison purposes.

In short, when one operand is a “pure” string, such as a string constant, then a string comparison is performed. Otherwise, a numeric comparison is performed.

This point bears additional emphasis: All user input is made of characters, and so is first and foremost of string type; input strings that look numeric are additionally given the strnum attribute. Thus, the six-character input string ‘ +3.14 receives the strnum attribute. In contrast, the eight characters " +3.14" appearing in program text comprise a string constant. The following examples print ‘1’ when the comparison between the two different constants is true, and ‘0’ otherwise:

$ echo ' +3.14' | awk '{ print($0 == " +3.14") }'    True
-| 1
$ echo ' +3.14' | awk '{ print($0 == "+3.14") }'     False
-| 0
$ echo ' +3.14' | awk '{ print($0 == "3.14") }'      False
-| 0
$ echo ' +3.14' | awk '{ print($0 == 3.14) }'        True
-| 1
$ echo ' +3.14' | awk '{ print($1 == " +3.14") }'    False
-| 0
$ echo ' +3.14' | awk '{ print($1 == "+3.14") }'     True
-| 1
$ echo ' +3.14' | awk '{ print($1 == "3.14") }'      False
-| 0
$ echo ' +3.14' | awk '{ print($1 == 3.14) }'        True
-| 1

Next: , Previous: , Up: Typing and Comparison   [Contents][Index] Comparison Operators

Comparison expressions compare strings or numbers for relationships such as equality. They are written using relational operators, which are a superset of those in C. Table 6.3 describes them.

x < yTrue if x is less than y
x <= yTrue if x is less than or equal to y
x > yTrue if x is greater than y
x >= yTrue if x is greater than or equal to y
x == yTrue if x is equal to y
x != yTrue if x is not equal to y
x ~ yTrue if the string x matches the regexp denoted by y
x !~ yTrue if the string x does not match the regexp denoted by y
subscript in arrayTrue if the array array has an element with the subscript subscript

Table 6.3: Relational operators

Comparison expressions have the value one if true and zero if false. When comparing operands of mixed types, numeric operands are converted to strings using the value of CONVFMT (see Conversion).

Strings are compared by comparing the first character of each, then the second character of each, and so on. Thus, "10" is less than "9". If there are two strings where one is a prefix of the other, the shorter string is less than the longer one. Thus, "abc" is less than "abcd".

It is very easy to accidentally mistype the ‘==’ operator and leave off one of the ‘=’ characters. The result is still valid awk code, but the program does not do what is intended:

if (a = b)   # oops! should be a == b

Unless b happens to be zero or the null string, the if part of the test always succeeds. Because the operators are so similar, this kind of error is very difficult to spot when scanning the source code.

The following list of expressions illustrates the kinds of comparisons awk performs, as well as what the result of each comparison is:

1.5 <= 2.0

Numeric comparison (true)

"abc" >= "xyz"

String comparison (false)

1.5 != " +2"

String comparison (true)

"1e2" < "3"

String comparison (true)

a = 2; b = "2"
a == b

String comparison (true)

a = 2; b = " +2"
a == b

String comparison (false)

In this example:

$ echo 1e2 3 | awk '{ print ($1 < $2) ? "true" : "false" }'
-| false

the result is ‘false’ because both $1 and $2 are user input. They are numeric strings—therefore both have the strnum attribute, dictating a numeric comparison. The purpose of the comparison rules and the use of numeric strings is to attempt to produce the behavior that is “least surprising,” while still “doing the right thing.”

String comparisons and regular expression comparisons are very different. For example:

x == "foo"

has the value one, or is true if the variable x is precisely ‘foo’. By contrast:

x ~ /foo/

has the value one if x contains ‘foo’, such as "Oh, what a fool am I!".

The righthand operand of the ‘~’ and ‘!~’ operators may be either a regexp constant (//) or an ordinary expression. In the latter case, the value of the expression as a string is used as a dynamic regexp (see Regexp Usage; also see Computed Regexps).

A constant regular expression in slashes by itself is also an expression. /regexp/ is an abbreviation for the following comparison expression:

$0 ~ /regexp/

One special place where /foo/ is not an abbreviation for ‘$0 ~ /foo/’ is when it is the righthand operand of ‘~’ or ‘!~’. See Using Constant Regexps, where this is discussed in more detail.

Previous: , Up: Typing and Comparison   [Contents][Index] String Comparison with POSIX Rules

The POSIX standard says that string comparison is performed based on the locale’s collating order. This is the order in which characters sort, as defined by the locale (for more discussion, see Locales). This order is usually very different from the results obtained when doing straight character-by-character comparison.34

Because this behavior differs considerably from existing practice, gawk only implements it when in POSIX mode (see Options). Here is an example to illustrate the difference, in an en_US.UTF-8 locale:

$ gawk 'BEGIN { printf("ABC < abc = %s\n",
>                     ("ABC" < "abc" ? "TRUE" : "FALSE")) }'
-| ABC < abc = TRUE
$ gawk --posix 'BEGIN { printf("ABC < abc = %s\n",
>                             ("ABC" < "abc" ? "TRUE" : "FALSE")) }'
-| ABC < abc = FALSE

Next: , Previous: , Up: Truth Values and Conditions   [Contents][Index]

6.3.3 Boolean Expressions

A Boolean expression is a combination of comparison expressions or matching expressions, using the Boolean operators “or” (‘||’), “and” (‘&&’), and “not” (‘!’), along with parentheses to control nesting. The truth value of the Boolean expression is computed by combining the truth values of the component expressions. Boolean expressions are also referred to as logical expressions. The terms are equivalent.

Boolean expressions can be used wherever comparison and matching expressions can be used. They can be used in if, while, do, and for statements (see Statements). They have numeric values (one if true, zero if false) that come into play if the result of the Boolean expression is stored in a variable or used in arithmetic.

In addition, every Boolean expression is also a valid pattern, so you can use one as a pattern to control the execution of rules. The Boolean operators are:

boolean1 && boolean2

True if both boolean1 and boolean2 are true. For example, the following statement prints the current input record if it contains both ‘edu’ and ‘li’:

if ($0 ~ /edu/ && $0 ~ /li/) print

The subexpression boolean2 is evaluated only if boolean1 is true. This can make a difference when boolean2 contains expressions that have side effects. In the case of ‘$0 ~ /foo/ && ($2 == bar++)’, the variable bar is not incremented if there is no substring ‘foo’ in the record.

boolean1 || boolean2

True if at least one of boolean1 or boolean2 is true. For example, the following statement prints all records in the input that contain eitheredu’ or ‘li’:

if ($0 ~ /edu/ || $0 ~ /li/) print

The subexpression boolean2 is evaluated only if boolean1 is false. This can make a difference when boolean2 contains expressions that have side effects. (Thus, this test never really distinguishes records that contain both ‘edu’ and ‘li’—as soon as ‘edu’ is matched, the full test succeeds.)

! boolean

True if boolean is false. For example, the following program prints ‘no home!’ in the unusual event that the HOME environment variable is not defined:

BEGIN { if (! ("HOME" in ENVIRON))
            print "no home!" }

(The in operator is described in Reference to Elements.)

The ‘&&’ and ‘||’ operators are called short-circuit operators because of the way they work. Evaluation of the full expression is “short-circuited” if the result can be determined partway through its evaluation.

Statements that end with ‘&&’ or ‘||’ can be continued simply by putting a newline after them. But you cannot put a newline in front of either of these operators without using backslash continuation (see Statements/Lines).

The actual value of an expression using the ‘!’ operator is either one or zero, depending upon the truth value of the expression it is applied to. The ‘!’ operator is often useful for changing the sense of a flag variable from false to true and back again. For example, the following program is one way to print lines in between special bracketing lines:

$1 == "START"   { interested = ! interested; next }
interested      { print }
$1 == "END"     { interested = ! interested; next }

The variable interested, as with all awk variables, starts out initialized to zero, which is also false. When a line is seen whose first field is ‘START’, the value of interested is toggled to true, using ‘!’. The next rule prints lines as long as interested is true. When a line is seen whose first field is ‘END’, interested is toggled back to false.35

Most commonly, the ‘!’ operator is used in the conditions of if and while statements, where it often makes more sense to phrase the logic in the negative:

if (! some condition || some other condition) {
    … do whatever processing …

NOTE: The next statement is discussed in Next Statement. next tells awk to skip the rest of the rules, get the next record, and start processing the rules over again at the top. The reason it’s there is to avoid printing the bracketing ‘START’ and ‘END’ lines.

Previous: , Up: Truth Values and Conditions   [Contents][Index]

6.3.4 Conditional Expressions

A conditional expression is a special kind of expression that has three operands. It allows you to use one expression’s value to select one of two other expressions. The conditional expression in awk is the same as in the C language, as shown here:

selector ? if-true-exp : if-false-exp

There are three subexpressions. The first, selector, is always computed first. If it is “true” (not zero or not null), then if-true-exp is computed next, and its value becomes the value of the whole expression. Otherwise, if-false-exp is computed next, and its value becomes the value of the whole expression. For example, the following expression produces the absolute value of x:

x >= 0 ? x : -x

Each time the conditional expression is computed, only one of if-true-exp and if-false-exp is used; the other is ignored. This is important when the expressions have side effects. For example, this conditional expression examines element i of either array a or array b, and increments i:

x == y ? a[i++] : b[i++]

This is guaranteed to increment i exactly once, because each time only one of the two increment expressions is executed and the other is not. See Arrays, for more information about arrays.

As a minor gawk extension, a statement that uses ‘?:’ can be continued simply by putting a newline after either character. However, putting a newline in front of either character does not work without using backslash continuation (see Statements/Lines). If --posix is specified (see Options), this extension is disabled.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Expressions   [Contents][Index]

6.4 Function Calls

A function is a name for a particular calculation. This enables you to ask for it by name at any point in the program. For example, the function sqrt() computes the square root of a number.

A fixed set of functions are built in, which means they are available in every awk program. The sqrt() function is one of these. See Built-in for a list of built-in functions and their descriptions. In addition, you can define functions for use in your program. See User-defined for instructions on how to do this. Finally, gawk lets you write functions in C or C++ that may be called from your program (see Dynamic Extensions).

The way to use a function is with a function call expression, which consists of the function name followed immediately by a list of arguments in parentheses. The arguments are expressions that provide the raw materials for the function’s calculations. When there is more than one argument, they are separated by commas. If there are no arguments, just write ‘()’ after the function name. The following examples show function calls with and without arguments:

sqrt(x^2 + y^2)        one argument
atan2(y, x)            two arguments
rand()                 no arguments

CAUTION: Do not put any space between the function name and the opening parenthesis! A user-defined function name looks just like the name of a variable—a space would make the expression look like concatenation of a variable with an expression inside parentheses. With built-in functions, space before the parenthesis is harmless, but it is best not to get into the habit of using space to avoid mistakes with user-defined functions.

Each function expects a particular number of arguments. For example, the sqrt() function must be called with a single argument, the number of which to take the square root:


Some of the built-in functions have one or more optional arguments. If those arguments are not supplied, the functions use a reasonable default value. See Built-in for full details. If arguments are omitted in calls to user-defined functions, then those arguments are treated as local variables. Such local variables act like the empty string if referenced where a string value is required, and like zero if referenced where a numeric value is required (see User-defined).

As an advanced feature, gawk provides indirect function calls, which is a way to choose the function to call at runtime, instead of when you write the source code to your program. We defer discussion of this feature until later; see Indirect Calls.

Like every other expression, the function call has a value, often called the return value, which is computed by the function based on the arguments you give it. In this example, the return value of ‘sqrt(argument)’ is the square root of argument. The following program reads numbers, one number per line, and prints the square root of each one:

$ awk '{ print "The square root of", $1, "is", sqrt($1) }'
-| The square root of 1 is 1
-| The square root of 3 is 1.73205
-| The square root of 5 is 2.23607

A function can also have side effects, such as assigning values to certain variables or doing I/O. This program shows how the match() function (see String Functions) changes the variables RSTART and RLENGTH:

    if (match($1, $2))
        print RSTART, RLENGTH
        print "no match"

Here is a sample run:

$ awk -f matchit.awk
aaccdd  c+
-| 3 2
foo     bar
-| no match
abcdefg e
-| 5 1

Next: , Previous: , Up: Expressions   [Contents][Index]

6.5 Operator Precedence (How Operators Nest)

Operator precedence determines how operators are grouped when different operators appear close by in one expression. For example, ‘*’ has higher precedence than ‘+’; thus, ‘a + b * c’ means to multiply b and c, and then add a to the product (i.e., ‘a + (b * c)’).

The normal precedence of the operators can be overruled by using parentheses. Think of the precedence rules as saying where the parentheses are assumed to be. In fact, it is wise to always use parentheses whenever there is an unusual combination of operators, because other people who read the program may not remember what the precedence is in this case. Even experienced programmers occasionally forget the exact rules, which leads to mistakes. Explicit parentheses help prevent any such mistakes.

When operators of equal precedence are used together, the leftmost operator groups first, except for the assignment, conditional, and exponentiation operators, which group in the opposite order. Thus, ‘a - b + c’ groups as ‘(a - b) + c’ and ‘a = b = c’ groups as ‘a = (b = c)’.

Normally the precedence of prefix unary operators does not matter, because there is only one way to interpret them: innermost first. Thus, ‘$++i’ means ‘$(++i)’ and ‘++$x’ means ‘++($x)’. However, when another operator follows the operand, then the precedence of the unary operators can matter. ‘$x^2’ means ‘($x)^2’, but ‘-x^2’ means ‘-(x^2)’, because ‘-’ has lower precedence than ‘^’, whereas ‘$’ has higher precedence. Also, operators cannot be combined in a way that violates the precedence rules; for example, ‘$$0++--’ is not a valid expression because the first ‘$’ has higher precedence than the ‘++’; to avoid the problem the expression can be rewritten as ‘$($0++)--’.

This list presents awk’s operators, in order of highest to lowest precedence:




Field reference.

++ --

Increment, decrement.

^ **

Exponentiation. These operators group right to left.

+ - !

Unary plus, minus, logical “not.”

* / %

Multiplication, division, remainder.

+ -

Addition, subtraction.

String concatenation

There is no special symbol for concatenation. The operands are simply written side by side (see Concatenation).

< <= == != > >= >> | |&

Relational and redirection. The relational operators and the redirections have the same precedence level. Characters such as ‘>’ serve both as relationals and as redirections; the context distinguishes between the two meanings.

Note that the I/O redirection operators in print and printf statements belong to the statement level, not to expressions. The redirection does not produce an expression that could be the operand of another operator. As a result, it does not make sense to use a redirection operator near another operator of lower precedence without parentheses. Such combinations (e.g., ‘print foo > a ? b : c’) result in syntax errors. The correct way to write this statement is ‘print foo > (a ? b : c)’.

~ !~

Matching, nonmatching.


Array membership.


Logical “and.”


Logical “or.”


Conditional. This operator groups right to left.

= += -= *= /= %= ^= **=

Assignment. These operators group right to left.

NOTE: The ‘|&’, ‘**’, and ‘**=’ operators are not specified by POSIX. For maximum portability, do not use them.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Expressions   [Contents][Index]

6.6 Where You Are Makes a Difference

Modern systems support the notion of locales: a way to tell the system about the local character set and language. The ISO C standard defines a default "C" locale, which is an environment that is typical of what many C programmers are used to.

Once upon a time, the locale setting used to affect regexp matching, but this is no longer true (see Ranges and Locales).

Locales can affect record splitting. For the normal case of ‘RS = "\n"’, the locale is largely irrelevant. For other single-character record separators, setting ‘LC_ALL=C’ in the environment will give you much better performance when reading records. Otherwise, gawk has to make several function calls, per input character, to find the record terminator.

Locales can affect how dates and times are formatted (see Time Functions). For example, a common way to abbreviate the date September 4, 2015, in the United States is “9/4/15.” In many countries in Europe, however, it is abbreviated “4.9.15.” Thus, the ‘%x’ specification in a "US" locale might produce ‘9/4/15’, while in a "EUROPE" locale, it might produce ‘4.9.15’.

According to POSIX, string comparison is also affected by locales (similar to regular expressions). The details are presented in POSIX String Comparison.

Finally, the locale affects the value of the decimal point character used when gawk parses input data. This is discussed in detail in Conversion.

Previous: , Up: Expressions   [Contents][Index]

6.7 Summary

Next: , Previous: , Up: Top   [Contents][Index]

7 Patterns, Actions, and Variables

As you have already seen, each awk statement consists of a pattern with an associated action. This chapter describes how you build patterns and actions, what kinds of things you can do within actions, and awk’s predefined variables.

The pattern–action rules and the statements available for use within actions form the core of awk programming. In a sense, everything covered up to here has been the foundation that programs are built on top of. Now it’s time to start building something useful.

Next: , Up: Patterns and Actions   [Contents][Index]

7.1 Pattern Elements

Patterns in awk control the execution of rules—a rule is executed when its pattern matches the current input record. The following is a summary of the types of awk patterns:

/regular expression/

A regular expression. It matches when the text of the input record fits the regular expression. (See Regexp.)


A single expression. It matches when its value is nonzero (if a number) or non-null (if a string). (See Expression Patterns.)

begpat, endpat

A pair of patterns separated by a comma, specifying a range of records. The range includes both the initial record that matches begpat and the final record that matches endpat. (See Ranges.)


Special patterns for you to supply startup or cleanup actions for your awk program. (See BEGIN/END.)


Special patterns for you to supply startup or cleanup actions to be done on a per-file basis. (See BEGINFILE/ENDFILE.)


The empty pattern matches every input record. (See Empty.)

Next: , Up: Pattern Overview   [Contents][Index]

7.1.1 Regular Expressions as Patterns

Regular expressions are one of the first kinds of patterns presented in this book. This kind of pattern is simply a regexp constant in the pattern part of a rule. Its meaning is ‘$0 ~ /pattern/’. The pattern matches when the input record matches the regexp. For example:

/foo|bar|baz/  { buzzwords++ }
END            { print buzzwords, "buzzwords seen" }

Next: , Previous: , Up: Pattern Overview   [Contents][Index]

7.1.2 Expressions as Patterns

Any awk expression is valid as an awk pattern. The pattern matches if the expression’s value is nonzero (if a number) or non-null (if a string). The expression is reevaluated each time the rule is tested against a new input record. If the expression uses fields such as $1, the value depends directly on the new input record’s text; otherwise, it depends on only what has happened so far in the execution of the awk program.

Comparison expressions, using the comparison operators described in Typing and Comparison, are a very common kind of pattern. Regexp matching and nonmatching are also very common expressions. The left operand of the ‘~’ and ‘!~’ operators is a string. The right operand is either a constant regular expression enclosed in slashes (/regexp/), or any expression whose string value is used as a dynamic regular expression (see Computed Regexps). The following example prints the second field of each input record whose first field is precisely ‘li’:

$ awk '$1 == "li" { print $2 }' mail-list

(There is no output, because there is no person with the exact name ‘li’.) Contrast this with the following regular expression match, which accepts any record with a first field that contains ‘li’:

$ awk '$1 ~ /li/ { print $2 }' mail-list
-| 555-5553
-| 555-6699

A regexp constant as a pattern is also a special case of an expression pattern. The expression /li/ has the value one if ‘li’ appears in the current input record. Thus, as a pattern, /li/ matches any record containing ‘li’.

Boolean expressions are also commonly used as patterns. Whether the pattern matches an input record depends on whether its subexpressions match. For example, the following command prints all the records in mail-list that contain both ‘edu’ and ‘li’:

$ awk '/edu/ && /li/' mail-list
-| Samuel       555-3430        A

The following command prints all records in mail-list that contain eitheredu’ or ‘li’ (or both, of course):

$ awk '/edu/ || /li/' mail-list
-| Amelia       555-5553    F
-| Broderick    555-0542 R
-| Fabius       555-1234    F
-| Julie        555-6699   F
-| Samuel       555-3430        A
-| Jean-Paul    555-2127     R

The following command prints all records in mail-list that do not contain the string ‘li’:

$ awk '! /li/' mail-list
-| Anthony      555-3412   A
-| Becky        555-7685      A
-| Bill         555-1675       A
-| Camilla      555-2912     R
-| Fabius       555-1234    F
-| Martin       555-6480    A
-| Jean-Paul    555-2127     R

The subexpressions of a Boolean operator in a pattern can be constant regular expressions, comparisons, or any other awk expressions. Range patterns are not expressions, so they cannot appear inside Boolean patterns. Likewise, the special patterns BEGIN, END, BEGINFILE, and ENDFILE, which never match any input record, are not expressions and cannot appear inside Boolean patterns.

The precedence of the different operators that can appear in patterns is described in Precedence.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Pattern Overview   [Contents][Index]

7.1.3 Specifying Record Ranges with Patterns

A range pattern is made of two patterns separated by a comma, in the form ‘begpat, endpat’. It is used to match ranges of consecutive input records. The first pattern, begpat, controls where the range begins, while endpat controls where the pattern ends. For example, the following:

awk '$1 == "on", $1 == "off"' myfile

prints every record in myfile between ‘on’/‘off’ pairs, inclusive.

A range pattern starts out by matching begpat against every input record. When a record matches begpat, the range pattern is turned on, and the range pattern matches this record as well. As long as the range pattern stays turned on, it automatically matches every input record read. The range pattern also matches endpat against every input record; when this succeeds, the range pattern is turned off again for the following record. Then the range pattern goes back to checking begpat against each record.

The record that turns on the range pattern and the one that turns it off both match the range pattern. If you don’t want to operate on these records, you can write if statements in the rule’s action to distinguish them from the records you are interested in.

It is possible for a pattern to be turned on and off by the same record. If the record satisfies both conditions, then the action is executed for just that record. For example, suppose there is text between two identical markers (e.g., the ‘%’ symbol), each on its own line, that should be ignored. A first attempt would be to combine a range pattern that describes the delimited text with the next statement (not discussed yet, see Next Statement). This causes awk to skip any further processing of the current record and start over again with the next input record. Such a program looks like this:

/^%$/,/^%$/    { next }
               { print }

This program fails because the range pattern is both turned on and turned off by the first line, which just has a ‘%’ on it. To accomplish this task, write the program in the following manner, using a flag:

/^%$/     { skip = ! skip; next }
skip == 1 { next } # skip lines with `skip' set

In a range pattern, the comma (‘,’) has the lowest precedence of all the operators (i.e., it is evaluated last). Thus, the following program attempts to combine a range pattern with another, simpler test:

echo Yes | awk '/1/,/2/ || /Yes/'

The intent of this program is ‘(/1/,/2/) || /Yes/’. However, awk interprets this as ‘/1/, (/2/ || /Yes/)’. This cannot be changed or worked around; range patterns do not combine with other patterns:

$ echo Yes | gawk '(/1/,/2/) || /Yes/'
error→ gawk: cmd. line:1: (/1/,/2/) || /Yes/
error→ gawk: cmd. line:1:           ^ syntax error

As a minor point of interest, although it is poor style, POSIX allows you to put a newline after the comma in a range pattern. (d.c.)

Next: , Previous: , Up: Pattern Overview   [Contents][Index]

7.1.4 The BEGIN and END Special Patterns

All the patterns described so far are for matching input records. The BEGIN and END special patterns are different. They supply startup and cleanup actions for awk programs. BEGIN and END rules must have actions; there is no default action for these rules because there is no current record when they run. BEGIN and END rules are often referred to as “BEGIN and END blocks” by longtime awk programmers.

Next: , Up: BEGIN/END   [Contents][Index] Startup and Cleanup Actions

A BEGIN rule is executed once only, before the first input record is read. Likewise, an END rule is executed once only, after all the input is read. For example:

$ awk '
> BEGIN { print "Analysis of \"li\"" }
> /li/  { ++n }
> END   { print "\"li\" appears in", n, "records." }' mail-list
-| Analysis of "li"
-| "li" appears in 4 records.

This program finds the number of records in the input file mail-list that contain the string ‘li’. The BEGIN rule prints a title for the report. There is no need to use the BEGIN rule to initialize the counter n to zero, as awk does this automatically (see Variables). The second rule increments the variable n every time a record containing the pattern ‘li’ is read. The END rule prints the value of n at the end of the run.

The special patterns BEGIN and END cannot be used in ranges or with Boolean operators (indeed, they cannot be used with any operators). An awk program may have multiple BEGIN and/or END rules. They are executed in the order in which they appear: all the BEGIN rules at startup and all the END rules at termination. BEGIN and END rules may be intermixed with other rules. This feature was added in the 1987 version of awk and is included in the POSIX standard. The original (1978) version of awk required the BEGIN rule to be placed at the beginning of the program, the END rule to be placed at the end, and only allowed one of each. This is no longer required, but it is a good idea to follow this template in terms of program organization and readability.

Multiple BEGIN and END rules are useful for writing library functions, because each library file can have its own BEGIN and/or END rule to do its own initialization and/or cleanup. The order in which library functions are named on the command line controls the order in which their BEGIN and END rules are executed. Therefore, you have to be careful when writing such rules in library files so that the order in which they are executed doesn’t matter. See Options for more information on using library functions. See Library Functions, for a number of useful library functions.

If an awk program has only BEGIN rules and no other rules, then the program exits after the BEGIN rules are run.36 However, if an END rule exists, then the input is read, even if there are no other rules in the program. This is necessary in case the END rule checks the FNR and NR variables.

Previous: , Up: BEGIN/END   [Contents][Index] Input/Output from BEGIN and END Rules

There are several (sometimes subtle) points to be aware of when doing I/O from a BEGIN or END rule. The first has to do with the value of $0 in a BEGIN rule. Because BEGIN rules are executed before any input is read, there simply is no input record, and therefore no fields, when executing BEGIN rules. References to $0 and the fields yield a null string or zero, depending upon the context. One way to give $0 a real value is to execute a getline command without a variable (see Getline). Another way is simply to assign a value to $0.

The second point is similar to the first, but from the other direction. Traditionally, due largely to implementation issues, $0 and NF were undefined inside an END rule. The POSIX standard specifies that NF is available in an END rule. It contains the number of fields from the last input record. Most probably due to an oversight, the standard does not say that $0 is also preserved, although logically one would think that it should be. In fact, all of BWK awk, mawk, and gawk preserve the value of $0 for use in END rules. Be aware, however, that some other implementations and many older versions of Unix awk do not.

The third point follows from the first two. The meaning of ‘print’ inside a BEGIN or END rule is the same as always: ‘print $0’. If $0 is the null string, then this prints an empty record. Many longtime awk programmers use an unadorned ‘print’ in BEGIN and END rules, to mean ‘print ""’, relying on $0 being null. Although one might generally get away with this in BEGIN rules, it is a very bad idea in END rules, at least in gawk. It is also poor style, because if an empty line is needed in the output, the program should print one explicitly.

Finally, the next and nextfile statements are not allowed in a BEGIN rule, because the implicit read-a-record-and-match-against-the-rules loop has not started yet. Similarly, those statements are not valid in an END rule, because all the input has been read. (See Next Statement and see Nextfile Statement.)

Next: , Previous: , Up: Pattern Overview   [Contents][Index]

7.1.5 The BEGINFILE and ENDFILE Special Patterns

This section describes a gawk-specific feature.

Two special kinds of rule, BEGINFILE and ENDFILE, give you “hooks” into gawk’s command-line file processing loop. As with the BEGIN and END rules (see BEGIN/END), all BEGINFILE rules in a program are merged, in the order they are read by gawk, and all ENDFILE rules are merged as well.

The body of the BEGINFILE rules is executed just before gawk reads the first record from a file. FILENAME is set to the name of the current file, and FNR is set to zero.

The BEGINFILE rule provides you the opportunity to accomplish two tasks that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to perform:

The ENDFILE rule is called when gawk has finished processing the last record in an input file. For the last input file, it will be called before any END rules. The ENDFILE rule is executed even for empty input files.

Normally, when an error occurs when reading input in the normal input-processing loop, the error is fatal. However, if an ENDFILE rule is present, the error becomes non-fatal, and instead ERRNO is set. This makes it possible to catch and process I/O errors at the level of the awk program.

The next statement (see Next Statement) is not allowed inside either a BEGINFILE or an ENDFILE rule. The nextfile statement is allowed only inside a BEGINFILE rule, not inside an ENDFILE rule.

The getline statement (see Getline) is restricted inside both BEGINFILE and ENDFILE: only redirected forms of getline are allowed.

BEGINFILE and ENDFILE are gawk extensions. In most other awk implementations, or if gawk is in compatibility mode (see Options), they are not special.

Previous: , Up: Pattern Overview   [Contents][Index]

7.1.6 The Empty Pattern

An empty (i.e., nonexistent) pattern is considered to match every input record. For example, the program:

awk '{ print $1 }' mail-list

prints the first field of every record.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Patterns and Actions   [Contents][Index]

7.2 Using Shell Variables in Programs

awk programs are often used as components in larger programs written in shell. For example, it is very common to use a shell variable to hold a pattern that the awk program searches for. There are two ways to get the value of the shell variable into the body of the awk program.

A common method is to use shell quoting to substitute the variable’s value into the program inside the script. For example, consider the following program:

printf "Enter search pattern: "
read pattern
awk "/$pattern/ "'{ nmatches++ }
     END { print nmatches, "found" }' /path/to/data

The awk program consists of two pieces of quoted text that are concatenated together to form the program. The first part is double-quoted, which allows substitution of the pattern shell variable inside the quotes. The second part is single-quoted.

Variable substitution via quoting works, but can potentially be messy. It requires a good understanding of the shell’s quoting rules (see Quoting), and it’s often difficult to correctly match up the quotes when reading the program.

A better method is to use awk’s variable assignment feature (see Assignment Options) to assign the shell variable’s value to an awk variable. Then use dynamic regexps to match the pattern (see Computed Regexps). The following shows how to redo the previous example using this technique:

printf "Enter search pattern: "
read pattern
awk -v pat="$pattern" '$0 ~ pat { nmatches++ }
       END { print nmatches, "found" }' /path/to/data

Now, the awk program is just one single-quoted string. The assignment ‘-v pat="$pattern"’ still requires double quotes, in case there is whitespace in the value of $pattern. The awk variable pat could be named pattern too, but that would be more confusing. Using a variable also provides more flexibility, as the variable can be used anywhere inside the program—for printing, as an array subscript, or for any other use—without requiring the quoting tricks at every point in the program.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Patterns and Actions   [Contents][Index]

7.3 Actions

An awk program or script consists of a series of rules and function definitions interspersed. (Functions are described later. See User-defined.) A rule contains a pattern and an action, either of which (but not both) may be omitted. The purpose of the action is to tell awk what to do once a match for the pattern is found. Thus, in outline, an awk program generally looks like this:

[pattern]  { action }
 pattern  [{ action }]
function name(args) { … }

An action consists of one or more awk statements, enclosed in braces (‘{}’). Each statement specifies one thing to do. The statements are separated by newlines or semicolons. The braces around an action must be used even if the action contains only one statement, or if it contains no statements at all. However, if you omit the action entirely, omit the braces as well. An omitted action is equivalent to ‘{ print $0 }’:

/foo/  { }     match foo, do nothing — empty action
/foo/          match foo, print the record — omitted action

The following types of statements are supported in awk:


Call functions or assign values to variables (see Expressions). Executing this kind of statement simply computes the value of the expression. This is useful when the expression has side effects (see Assignment Ops).

Control statements

Specify the control flow of awk programs. The awk language gives you C-like constructs (if, for, while, and do) as well as a few special ones (see Statements).

Compound statements

Enclose one or more statements in braces. A compound statement is used in order to put several statements together in the body of an if, while, do, or for statement.

Input statements

Use the getline command (see Getline). Also supplied in awk are the next statement (see Next Statement) and the nextfile statement (see Nextfile Statement).

Output statements

Such as print and printf. See Printing.

Deletion statements

For deleting array elements. See Delete.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Patterns and Actions   [Contents][Index]

7.4 Control Statements in Actions

Control statements, such as if, while, and so on, control the flow of execution in awk programs. Most of awk’s control statements are patterned after similar statements in C.

All the control statements start with special keywords, such as if and while, to distinguish them from simple expressions. Many control statements contain other statements. For example, the if statement contains another statement that may or may not be executed. The contained statement is called the body. To include more than one statement in the body, group them into a single compound statement with braces, separating them with newlines or semicolons.

Next: , Up: Statements   [Contents][Index]

7.4.1 The if-else Statement

The if-else statement is awk’s decision-making statement. It looks like this:

if (condition) then-body [else else-body]

The condition is an expression that controls what the rest of the statement does. If the condition is true, then-body is executed; otherwise, else-body is executed. The else part of the statement is optional. The condition is considered false if its value is zero or the null string; otherwise, the condition is true. Refer to the following:

if (x % 2 == 0)
    print "x is even"
    print "x is odd"

In this example, if the expression ‘x % 2 == 0’ is true (i.e., if the value of x is evenly divisible by two), then the first print statement is executed; otherwise, the second print statement is executed. If the else keyword appears on the same line as then-body and then-body is not a compound statement (i.e., not surrounded by braces), then a semicolon must separate then-body from the else. To illustrate this, the previous example can be rewritten as:

if (x % 2 == 0) print "x is even"; else
        print "x is odd"

If the ‘;’ is left out, awk can’t interpret the statement and it produces a syntax error. Don’t actually write programs this way, because a human reader might fail to see the else if it is not the first thing on its line.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Statements   [Contents][Index]

7.4.2 The while Statement

In programming, a loop is a part of a program that can be executed two or more times in succession. The while statement is the simplest looping statement in awk. It repeatedly executes a statement as long as a condition is true. For example:

while (condition)

body is a statement called the body of the loop, and condition is an expression that controls how long the loop keeps running. The first thing the while statement does is test the condition. If the condition is true, it executes the statement body. After body has been executed, condition is tested again, and if it is still true, body executes again. This process repeats until the condition is no longer true. If the condition is initially false, the body of the loop never executes and awk continues with the statement following the loop. This example prints the first three fields of each record, one per line:

awk '
    i = 1
    while (i <= 3) {
        print $i
}' inventory-shipped

The body of this loop is a compound statement enclosed in braces, containing two statements. The loop works in the following manner: first, the value of i is set to one. Then, the while statement tests whether i is less than or equal to three. This is true when i equals one, so the ith field is printed. Then the ‘i++’ increments the value of i and the loop repeats. The loop terminates when i reaches four.

A newline is not required between the condition and the body; however, using one makes the program clearer unless the body is a compound statement or else is very simple. The newline after the open brace that begins the compound statement is not required either, but the program is harder to read without it.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Statements   [Contents][Index]

7.4.3 The do-while Statement

The do loop is a variation of the while looping statement. The do loop executes the body once and then repeats the body as long as the condition is true. It looks like this:

while (condition)

Even if the condition is false at the start, the body executes at least once (and only once, unless executing body makes condition true). Contrast this with the corresponding while statement:

while (condition)

This statement does not execute the body even once if the condition is false to begin with. The following is an example of a do statement:

    i = 1
    do {
        print $0
    } while (i <= 10)

This program prints each input record 10 times. However, it isn’t a very realistic example, because in this case an ordinary while would do just as well. This situation reflects actual experience; only occasionally is there a real use for a do statement.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Statements   [Contents][Index]

7.4.4 The for Statement

The for statement makes it more convenient to count iterations of a loop. The general form of the for statement looks like this:

for (initialization; condition; increment)

The initialization, condition, and increment parts are arbitrary awk expressions, and body stands for any awk statement.

The for statement starts by executing initialization. Then, as long as the condition is true, it repeatedly executes body and then increment. Typically, initialization sets a variable to either zero or one, increment adds one to it, and condition compares it against the desired number of iterations. For example:

awk '
    for (i = 1; i <= 3; i++)
        print $i
}' inventory-shipped

This prints the first three fields of each input record, with one field per line.

It isn’t possible to set more than one variable in the initialization part without using a multiple assignment statement such as ‘x = y = 0’. This makes sense only if all the initial values are equal. (But it is possible to initialize additional variables by writing their assignments as separate statements preceding the for loop.)

The same is true of the increment part. Incrementing additional variables requires separate statements at the end of the loop. The C compound expression, using C’s comma operator, is useful in this context, but it is not supported in awk.

Most often, increment is an increment expression, as in the previous example. But this is not required; it can be any expression whatsoever. For example, the following statement prints all the powers of two between 1 and 100:

for (i = 1; i <= 100; i *= 2)
    print i

If there is nothing to be done, any of the three expressions in the parentheses following the for keyword may be omitted. Thus, ‘for (; x > 0;) is equivalent to ‘while (x > 0). If the condition is omitted, it is treated as true, effectively yielding an infinite loop (i.e., a loop that never terminates).

In most cases, a for loop is an abbreviation for a while loop, as shown here:

while (condition) {

The only exception is when the continue statement (see Continue Statement) is used inside the loop. Changing a for statement to a while statement in this way can change the effect of the continue statement inside the loop.

The awk language has a for statement in addition to a while statement because a for loop is often both less work to type and more natural to think of. Counting the number of iterations is very common in loops. It can be easier to think of this counting as part of looping rather than as something to do inside the loop.

There is an alternative version of the for loop, for iterating over all the indices of an array:

for (i in array)
    do something with array[i]

See Scanning an Array for more information on this version of the for loop.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Statements   [Contents][Index]

7.4.5 The switch Statement

This section describes a gawk-specific feature. If gawk is in compatibility mode (see Options), it is not available.

The switch statement allows the evaluation of an expression and the execution of statements based on a case match. Case statements are checked for a match in the order they are defined. If no suitable case is found, the default section is executed, if supplied.

Each case contains a single constant, be it numeric, string, or regexp. The switch expression is evaluated, and then each case’s constant is compared against the result in turn. The type of constant determines the comparison: numeric or string do the usual comparisons. A regexp constant does a regular expression match against the string value of the original expression. The general form of the switch statement looks like this:

switch (expression) {
case value or regular expression:

Control flow in the switch statement works as it does in C. Once a match to a given case is made, the case statement bodies execute until a break, continue, next, nextfile, or exit is encountered, or the end of the switch statement itself. For example:

while ((c = getopt(ARGC, ARGV, "aksx")) != -1) {
    switch (c) {
    case "a":
        # report size of all files
        all_files = TRUE;
    case "k":
        BLOCK_SIZE = 1024       # 1K block size
    case "s":
        # do sums only
        sum_only = TRUE
    case "x":
        # don't cross filesystems
        fts_flags = or(fts_flags, FTS_XDEV)
    case "?":

Note that if none of the statements specified here halt execution of a matched case statement, execution falls through to the next case until execution halts. In this example, the case for "?" falls through to the default case, which is to call a function named usage(). (The getopt() function being called here is described in Getopt Function.)

Next: , Previous: , Up: Statements   [Contents][Index]

7.4.6 The break Statement

The break statement jumps out of the innermost for, while, or do loop that encloses it. The following example finds the smallest divisor of any integer, and also identifies prime numbers:

# find smallest divisor of num
    num = $1
    for (divisor = 2; divisor * divisor <= num; divisor++) {
        if (num % divisor == 0)
    if (num % divisor == 0)
        printf "Smallest divisor of %d is %d\n", num, divisor
        printf "%d is prime\n", num

When the remainder is zero in the first if statement, awk immediately breaks out of the containing for loop. This means that awk proceeds immediately to the statement following the loop and continues processing. (This is very different from the exit statement, which stops the entire awk program. See Exit Statement.)

The following program illustrates how the condition of a for or while statement could be replaced with a break inside an if:

# find smallest divisor of num
    num = $1
    for (divisor = 2; ; divisor++) {
        if (num % divisor == 0) {
            printf "Smallest divisor of %d is %d\n", num, divisor
        if (divisor * divisor > num) {
            printf "%d is prime\n", num

The break statement is also used to break out of the switch statement. This is discussed in Switch Statement.

The break statement has no meaning when used outside the body of a loop or switch. However, although it was never documented, historical implementations of awk treated the break statement outside of a loop as if it were a next statement (see Next Statement). (d.c.) Recent versions of BWK awk no longer allow this usage, nor does gawk.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Statements   [Contents][Index]

7.4.7 The continue Statement

Similar to break, the continue statement is used only inside for, while, and do loops. It skips over the rest of the loop body, causing the next cycle around the loop to begin immediately. Contrast this with break, which jumps out of the loop altogether.

The continue statement in a for loop directs awk to skip the rest of the body of the loop and resume execution with the increment-expression of the for statement. The following program illustrates this fact:

     for (x = 0; x <= 20; x++) {
         if (x == 5)
         printf "%d ", x
     print ""

This program prints all the numbers from 0 to 20—except for 5, for which the printf is skipped. Because the increment ‘x++’ is not skipped, x does not remain stuck at 5. Contrast the for loop from the previous example with the following while loop:

     x = 0
     while (x <= 20) {
         if (x == 5)
         printf "%d ", x
     print ""

This program loops forever once x reaches 5, because the increment (‘x++’) is never reached.

The continue statement has no special meaning with respect to the switch statement, nor does it have any meaning when used outside the body of a loop. Historical versions of awk treated a continue statement outside a loop the same way they treated a break statement outside a loop: as if it were a next statement (see Next Statement). (d.c.) Recent versions of BWK awk no longer work this way, nor does gawk.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Statements   [Contents][Index]

7.4.8 The next Statement

The next statement forces awk to immediately stop processing the current record and go on to the next record. This means that no further rules are executed for the current record, and the rest of the current rule’s action isn’t executed.

Contrast this with the effect of the getline function (see Getline). That also causes awk to read the next record immediately, but it does not alter the flow of control in any way (i.e., the rest of the current action executes with a new input record).

At the highest level, awk program execution is a loop that reads an input record and then tests each rule’s pattern against it. If you think of this loop as a for statement whose body contains the rules, then the next statement is analogous to a continue statement. It skips to the end of the body of this implicit loop and executes the increment (which reads another record).

For example, suppose an awk program works only on records with four fields, and it shouldn’t fail when given bad input. To avoid complicating the rest of the program, write a “weed out” rule near the beginning, in the following manner:

NF != 4 {
    printf("%s:%d: skipped: NF != 4\n", FILENAME, FNR) > "/dev/stderr"

Because of the next statement, the program’s subsequent rules won’t see the bad record. The error message is redirected to the standard error output stream, as error messages should be. For more detail, see Special Files.

If the next statement causes the end of the input to be reached, then the code in any END rules is executed. See BEGIN/END.

The next statement is not allowed inside BEGINFILE and ENDFILE rules. See BEGINFILE/ENDFILE.

According to the POSIX standard, the behavior is undefined if the next statement is used in a BEGIN or END rule. gawk treats it as a syntax error. Although POSIX does not disallow it, most other awk implementations don’t allow the next statement inside function bodies (see User-defined). Just as with any other next statement, a next statement inside a function body reads the next record and starts processing it with the first rule in the program.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Statements   [Contents][Index]

7.4.9 The nextfile Statement

The nextfile statement is similar to the next statement. However, instead of abandoning processing of the current record, the nextfile statement instructs awk to stop processing the current data file.

Upon execution of the nextfile statement, FILENAME is updated to the name of the next data file listed on the command line, FNR is reset to one, and processing starts over with the first rule in the program. If the nextfile statement causes the end of the input to be reached, then the code in any END rules is executed. An exception to this is when nextfile is invoked during execution of any statement in an END rule; in this case, it causes the program to stop immediately. See BEGIN/END.

The nextfile statement is useful when there are many data files to process but it isn’t necessary to process every record in every file. Without nextfile, in order to move on to the next data file, a program would have to continue scanning the unwanted records. The nextfile statement accomplishes this much more efficiently.

In gawk, execution of nextfile causes additional things to happen: any ENDFILE rules are executed if gawk is not currently in an END or BEGINFILE rule, ARGIND is incremented, and any BEGINFILE rules are executed. (ARGIND hasn’t been introduced yet. See Built-in Variables.)

With gawk, nextfile is useful inside a BEGINFILE rule to skip over a file that would otherwise cause gawk to exit with a fatal error. In this case, ENDFILE rules are not executed. See BEGINFILE/ENDFILE.

Although it might seem that ‘close(FILENAME)’ would accomplish the same as nextfile, this isn’t true. close() is reserved for closing files, pipes, and coprocesses that are opened with redirections. It is not related to the main processing that awk does with the files listed in ARGV.

NOTE: For many years, nextfile was a common extension. In September 2012, it was accepted for inclusion into the POSIX standard. See the Austin Group website.

The current version of BWK awk and mawk also support nextfile. However, they don’t allow the nextfile statement inside function bodies (see User-defined). gawk does; a nextfile inside a function body reads the first record from the next file and starts processing it with the first rule in the program, just as any other nextfile statement.

Previous: , Up: Statements   [Contents][Index]

7.4.10 The exit Statement

The exit statement causes awk to immediately stop executing the current rule and to stop processing input; any remaining input is ignored. The exit statement is written as follows:

exit [return code]

When an exit statement is executed from a BEGIN rule, the program stops processing everything immediately. No input records are read. However, if an END rule is present, as part of executing the exit statement, the END rule is executed (see BEGIN/END). If exit is used in the body of an END rule, it causes the program to stop immediately.

An exit statement that is not part of a BEGIN or END rule stops the execution of any further automatic rules for the current record, skips reading any remaining input records, and executes the END rule if there is one. gawk also skips any ENDFILE rules; they do not execute.

In such a case, if you don’t want the END rule to do its job, set a variable to a nonzero value before the exit statement and check that variable in the END rule. See Assert Function for an example that does this.

If an argument is supplied to exit, its value is used as the exit status code for the awk process. If no argument is supplied, exit causes awk to return a “success” status. In the case where an argument is supplied to a first exit statement, and then exit is called a second time from an END rule with no argument, awk uses the previously supplied exit value. (d.c.) See Exit Status for more information.

For example, suppose an error condition occurs that is difficult or impossible to handle. Conventionally, programs report this by exiting with a nonzero status. An awk program can do this using an exit statement with a nonzero argument, as shown in the following example:

    if (("date" | getline date_now) <= 0) {
        print "Can't get system date" > "/dev/stderr"
        exit 1
    print "current date is", date_now

NOTE: For full portability, exit values should be between zero and 126, inclusive. Negative values, and values of 127 or greater, may not produce consistent results across different operating systems.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Patterns and Actions   [Contents][Index]

7.5 Predefined Variables

Most awk variables are available to use for your own purposes; they never change unless your program assigns values to them, and they never affect anything unless your program examines them. However, a few variables in awk have special built-in meanings. awk examines some of these automatically, so that they enable you to tell awk how to do certain things. Others are set automatically by awk, so that they carry information from the internal workings of awk to your program.

This section documents all of gawk’s predefined variables, most of which are also documented in the chapters describing their areas of activity.

Next: , Up: Built-in Variables   [Contents][Index]

7.5.1 Built-in Variables That Control awk

The following is an alphabetical list of variables that you can change to control how awk does certain things.

The variables that are specific to gawk are marked with a pound sign (‘#’). These variables are gawk extensions. In other awk implementations or if gawk is in compatibility mode (see Options), they are not special. (Any exceptions are noted in the description of each variable.)


On non-POSIX systems, this variable specifies use of binary mode for all I/O. Numeric values of one, two, or three specify that input files, output files, or all files, respectively, should use binary I/O. A numeric value less than zero is treated as zero, and a numeric value greater than three is treated as three. Alternatively, string values of "r" or "w" specify that input files and output files, respectively, should use binary I/O. A string value of "rw" or "wr" indicates that all files should use binary I/O. Any other string value is treated the same as "rw", but causes gawk to generate a warning message. BINMODE is described in more detail in PC Using. mawk (see Other Versions) also supports this variable, but only using numeric values.


A string that controls the conversion of numbers to strings (see Conversion). It works by being passed, in effect, as the first argument to the sprintf() function (see String Functions). Its default value is "%.6g". CONVFMT was introduced by the POSIX standard.


A space-separated list of columns that tells gawk how to split input with fixed columnar boundaries. Assigning a value to FIELDWIDTHS overrides the use of FS and FPAT for field splitting. See Constant Size for more information.


A regular expression (as a string) that tells gawk to create the fields based on text that matches the regular expression. Assigning a value to FPAT overrides the use of FS and FIELDWIDTHS for field splitting. See Splitting By Content for more information.


The input field separator (see Field Separators). The value is a single-character string or a multicharacter regular expression that matches the separations between fields in an input record. If the value is the null string (""), then each character in the record becomes a separate field. (This behavior is a gawk extension. POSIX awk does not specify the behavior when FS is the null string. Nonetheless, some other versions of awk also treat "" specially.)

The default value is " ", a string consisting of a single space. As a special exception, this value means that any sequence of spaces, TABs, and/or newlines is a single separator.37 It also causes spaces, TABs, and newlines at the beginning and end of a record to be ignored.

You can set the value of FS on the command line using the -F option:

awk -F, 'program' input-files

If gawk is using FIELDWIDTHS or FPAT for field splitting, assigning a value to FS causes gawk to return to the normal, FS-based field splitting. An easy way to do this is to simply say ‘FS = FS’, perhaps with an explanatory comment.


If IGNORECASE is nonzero or non-null, then all string comparisons and all regular expression matching are case-independent. This applies to regexp matching with ‘~’ and ‘!~’, the gensub(), gsub(), index(), match(), patsplit(), split(), and sub() functions, record termination with RS, and field splitting with FS and FPAT. However, the value of IGNORECASE does not affect array subscripting and it does not affect field splitting when using a single-character field separator. See Case-sensitivity.


When this variable is true (nonzero or non-null), gawk behaves as if the --lint command-line option is in effect (see Options). With a value of "fatal", lint warnings become fatal errors. With a value of "invalid", only warnings about things that are actually invalid are issued. (This is not fully implemented yet.) Any other true value prints nonfatal warnings. Assigning a false value to LINT turns off the lint warnings.

This variable is a gawk extension. It is not special in other awk implementations. Unlike with the other special variables, changing LINT does affect the production of lint warnings, even if gawk is in compatibility mode. Much as the --lint and --traditional options independently control different aspects of gawk’s behavior, the control of lint warnings during program execution is independent of the flavor of awk being executed.


A string that controls conversion of numbers to strings (see Conversion) for printing with the print statement. It works by being passed as the first argument to the sprintf() function (see String Functions). Its default value is "%.6g". Earlier versions of awk used OFMT to specify the format for converting numbers to strings in general expressions; this is now done by CONVFMT.


The output field separator (see Output Separators). It is output between the fields printed by a print statement. Its default value is " ", a string consisting of a single space.


The output record separator. It is output at the end of every print statement. Its default value is "\n", the newline character. (See Output Separators.)


The working precision of arbitrary-precision floating-point numbers, 53 bits by default (see Setting precision).


The rounding mode to use for arbitrary-precision arithmetic on numbers, by default "N" (roundTiesToEven in the IEEE 754 standard; see Setting the rounding mode).


The input record separator. Its default value is a string containing a single newline character, which means that an input record consists of a single line of text. It can also be the null string, in which case records are separated by runs of blank lines. If it is a regexp, records are separated by matches of the regexp in the input text. (See Records.)

The ability for RS to be a regular expression is a gawk extension. In most other awk implementations, or if gawk is in compatibility mode (see Options), just the first character of RS’s value is used.


The subscript separator. It has the default value of "\034" and is used to separate the parts of the indices of a multidimensional array. Thus, the expression ‘foo["A", "B"]’ really accesses foo["A\034B"] (see Multidimensional).


Used for internationalization of programs at the awk level. It sets the default text domain for specially marked string constants in the source text, as well as for the dcgettext(), dcngettext(), and bindtextdomain() functions (see Internationalization). The default value of TEXTDOMAIN is "messages".

Next: , Previous: , Up: Built-in Variables   [Contents][Index]

7.5.2 Built-in Variables That Convey Information

The following is an alphabetical list of variables that awk sets automatically on certain occasions in order to provide information to your program.

The variables that are specific to gawk are marked with a pound sign (‘#’). These variables are gawk extensions. In other awk implementations or if gawk is in compatibility mode (see Options), they are not special:


The command-line arguments available to awk programs are stored in an array called ARGV. ARGC is the number of command-line arguments present. See Other Arguments. Unlike most awk arrays, ARGV is indexed from 0 to ARGC - 1. In the following example:

$ awk 'BEGIN {
>         for (i = 0; i < ARGC; i++)
>             print ARGV[i]
>      }' inventory-shipped mail-list
-| awk
-| inventory-shipped
-| mail-list

ARGV[0] contains ‘awk’, ARGV[1] contains ‘inventory-shipped’, and ARGV[2] contains ‘mail-list’. The value of ARGC is three, one more than the index of the last element in ARGV, because the elements are numbered from zero.

The names ARGC and ARGV, as well as the convention of indexing the array from 0 to ARGC - 1, are derived from the C language’s method of accessing command-line arguments.

The value of ARGV[0] can vary from system to system. Also, you should note that the program text is not included in ARGV, nor are any of awk’s command-line options. See ARGC and ARGV for information about how awk uses these variables. (d.c.)


The index in ARGV of the current file being processed. Every time gawk opens a new data file for processing, it sets ARGIND to the index in ARGV of the file name. When gawk is processing the input files, ‘FILENAME == ARGV[ARGIND]’ is always true.

This variable is useful in file processing; it allows you to tell how far along you are in the list of data files as well as to distinguish between successive instances of the same file name on the command line.

While you can change the value of ARGIND within your awk program, gawk automatically sets it to a new value when it opens the next file.


An associative array containing the values of the environment. The array indices are the environment variable names; the elements are the values of the particular environment variables. For example, ENVIRON["HOME"] might be "/home/arnold". Changing this array does not affect the environment passed on to any programs that awk may spawn via redirection or the system() function. (In a future version of gawk, it may do so.)

Some operating systems may not have environment variables. On such systems, the ENVIRON array is empty (except for ENVIRON["AWKPATH"] and ENVIRON["AWKLIBPATH"]; see AWKPATH Variable and see AWKLIBPATH Variable).


If a system error occurs during a redirection for getline, during a read for getline, or during a close() operation, then ERRNO contains a string describing the error.

In addition, gawk clears ERRNO before opening each command-line input file. This enables checking if the file is readable inside a BEGINFILE pattern (see BEGINFILE/ENDFILE).

Otherwise, ERRNO works similarly to the C variable errno. Except for the case just mentioned, gawk never clears it (sets it to zero or ""). Thus, you should only expect its value to be meaningful when an I/O operation returns a failure value, such as getline returning -1. You are, of course, free to clear it yourself before doing an I/O operation.


The name of the current input file. When no data files are listed on the command line, awk reads from the standard input and FILENAME is set to "-". FILENAME changes each time a new file is read (see Reading Files). Inside a BEGIN rule, the value of FILENAME is "", because there are no input files being processed yet.38 (d.c.) Note, though, that using getline (see Getline) inside a BEGIN rule can give FILENAME a value.


The current record number in the current file. awk increments FNR each time it reads a new record (see Records). awk resets FNR to zero each time it starts a new input file.


The number of fields in the current input record. NF is set each time a new record is read, when a new field is created, or when $0 changes (see Fields).

Unlike most of the variables described in this subsection, assigning a value to NF has the potential to affect awk’s internal workings. In particular, assignments to NF can be used to create fields in or remove fields from the current record. See Changing Fields.


An array whose indices and corresponding values are the names of all the built-in, user-defined, and extension functions in the program.

NOTE: Attempting to use the delete statement with the FUNCTAB array causes a fatal error. Any attempt to assign to an element of FUNCTAB also causes a fatal error.


The number of input records awk has processed since the beginning of the program’s execution (see Records). awk increments NR each time it reads a new record.


The elements of this array provide access to information about the running awk program. The following elements (listed alphabetically) are guaranteed to be available:


The value of the getegid() system call.


The value of the geteuid() system call.


This is "FS" if field splitting with FS is in effect, "FIELDWIDTHS" if field splitting with FIELDWIDTHS is in effect, or "FPAT" if field matching with FPAT is in effect.


The value of the getgid() system call.


A subarray, indexed by the names of all identifiers used in the text of the awk program. An identifier is simply the name of a variable (be it scalar or array), built-in function, user-defined function, or extension function. For each identifier, the value of the element is one of the following:


The identifier is an array.


The identifier is a built-in function.


The identifier is an extension function loaded via @load or -l.


The identifier is a scalar.


The identifier is untyped (could be used as a scalar or an array; gawk doesn’t know yet).


The identifier is a user-defined function.

The values indicate what gawk knows about the identifiers after it has finished parsing the program; they are not updated while the program runs.


The process group ID of the current process.


The process ID of the current process.


The parent process ID of the current process.


The default time format string for strftime(). Assigning a new value to this element changes the default. See Time Functions.


The value of the getuid() system call.


The version of gawk.

The following additional elements in the array are available to provide information about the MPFR and GMP libraries if your version of gawk supports arbitrary-precision arithmetic (see Arbitrary Precision Arithmetic):


The version of the GNU MP library.


The version of the GNU MPFR library.


The maximum precision supported by MPFR.


The minimum precision required by MPFR.

The following additional elements in the array are available to provide information about the version of the extension API, if your version of gawk supports dynamic loading of extension functions (see Dynamic Extensions):


The major version of the extension API.


The minor version of the extension API.

On some systems, there may be elements in the array, "group1" through "groupN" for some N. N is the number of supplementary groups that the process has. Use the in operator to test for these elements (see Reference to Elements).

The following elements allow you to change gawk’s behavior:

PROCINFO["command", "pty"]

For two-way communication to command, use a pseudo-tty instead of setting up a two-way pipe. See Two-way I/O for more information.

PROCINFO["input_name", "READ_TIMEOUT"]

Set a timeout for reading from input redirection input_name. See Read Timeout for more information.


If this element exists in PROCINFO, its value controls the order in which array indices will be processed by ‘for (indx in array)’ loops. This is an advanced feature, so we defer the full description until later; see Scanning an Array.


The length of the substring matched by the match() function (see String Functions). RLENGTH is set by invoking the match() function. Its value is the length of the matched string, or -1 if no match is found.


The start index in characters of the substring that is matched by the match() function (see String Functions). RSTART is set by invoking the match() function. Its value is the position of the string where the matched substring starts, or zero if no match was found.

RT #

The input text that matched the text denoted by RS, the record separator. It is set every time a record is read.


An array whose indices are the names of all defined global variables and arrays in the program. SYMTAB makes gawk’s symbol table visible to the awk programmer. It is built as gawk parses the program and is complete before the program starts to run.

The array may be used for indirect access to read or write the value of a variable:

foo = 5
SYMTAB["foo"] = 4
print foo    # prints 4

The isarray() function (see Type Functions) may be used to test if an element in SYMTAB is an array. Also, you may not use the delete statement with the SYMTAB array.

You may use an index for SYMTAB that is not a predefined identifier:

SYMTAB["xxx"] = 5
print SYMTAB["xxx"]

This works as expected: in this case SYMTAB acts just like a regular array. The only difference is that you can’t then delete SYMTAB["xxx"].

The SYMTAB array is more interesting than it looks. Andrew Schorr points out that it effectively gives awk data pointers. Consider his example:

# Indirect multiply of any variable by amount, return result

function multiply(variable, amount)
    return SYMTAB[variable] *= amount

You would use it like this:

    answer = 10.5
    multiply("answer", 4)
    print "The answer is", answer

When run, this produces:

$ gawk -f answer.awk
-| The answer is 42

NOTE: In order to avoid severe time-travel paradoxes,39 neither FUNCTAB nor SYMTAB is available as an element within the SYMTAB array.

Changing NR and FNR

awk increments NR and FNR each time it reads a record, instead of setting them to the absolute value of the number of records read. This means that a program can change these variables and their new values are incremented for each record. (d.c.) The following example shows this:

$ echo '1
> 2
> 3
> 4' | awk 'NR == 2 { NR = 17 }
> { print NR }'
-| 1
-| 17
-| 18
-| 19

Before FNR was added to the awk language (see V7/SVR3.1), many awk programs used this feature to track the number of records in a file by resetting NR to zero when FILENAME changed.

Previous: , Up: Built-in Variables   [Contents][Index]

7.5.3 Using ARGC and ARGV

Auto-set presented the following program describing the information contained in ARGC and ARGV:

$ awk 'BEGIN {
>        for (i = 0; i < ARGC; i++)
>            print ARGV[i]
>      }' inventory-shipped mail-list
-| awk
-| inventory-shipped
-| mail-list

In this example, ARGV[0] contains ‘awk’, ARGV[1] contains ‘inventory-shipped’, and ARGV[2] contains ‘mail-list’. Notice that the awk program is not entered in ARGV. The other command-line options, with their arguments, are also not entered. This includes variable assignments done with the -v option (see Options). Normal variable assignments on the command line are treated as arguments and do show up in the ARGV array. Given the following program in a file named showargs.awk:

    printf "A=%d, B=%d\n", A, B
    for (i = 0; i < ARGC; i++)
        printf "\tARGV[%d] = %s\n", i, ARGV[i]
END   { printf "A=%d, B=%d\n", A, B }

Running it produces the following:

$ awk -v A=1 -f showargs.awk B=2 /dev/null
-| A=1, B=0
-|        ARGV[0] = awk
-|        ARGV[1] = B=2
-|        ARGV[2] = /dev/null
-| A=1, B=2

A program can alter ARGC and the elements of ARGV. Each time awk reaches the end of an input file, it uses the next element of ARGV as the name of the next input file. By storing a different string there, a program can change which files are read. Use "-" to represent the standard input. Storing additional elements and incrementing ARGC causes additional files to be read.

If the value of ARGC is decreased, that eliminates input files from the end of the list. By recording the old value of ARGC elsewhere, a program can treat the eliminated arguments as something other than file names.

To eliminate a file from the middle of the list, store the null string ("") into ARGV in place of the file’s name. As a special feature, awk ignores file names that have been replaced with the null string. Another option is to use the delete statement to remove elements from ARGV (see Delete).

All of these actions are typically done in the BEGIN rule, before actual processing of the input begins. See Split Program and see Tee Program for examples of each way of removing elements from ARGV.

To actually get options into an awk program, end the awk options with -- and then supply the awk program’s options, in the following manner:

awk -f myprog.awk -- -v -q file1 file2 …

The following fragment processes ARGV in order to examine, and then remove, the previously mentioned command-line options:

    for (i = 1; i < ARGC; i++) {
        if (ARGV[i] == "-v")
            verbose = 1
        else if (ARGV[i] == "-q")
            debug = 1
        else if (ARGV[i] ~ /^-./) {
            e = sprintf("%s: unrecognized option -- %c",
                    ARGV[0], substr(ARGV[i], 2, 1))
            print e > "/dev/stderr"
        } else
        delete ARGV[i]

Ending the awk options with -- isn’t necessary in gawk. Unless --posix has been specified, gawk silently puts any unrecognized options into ARGV for the awk program to deal with. As soon as it sees an unknown option, gawk stops looking for other options that it might otherwise recognize. The previous command line with gawk would be:

gawk -f myprog.awk -q -v file1 file2 …

Because -q is not a valid gawk option, it and the following -v are passed on to the awk program. (See Getopt Function for an awk library function that parses command-line options.)

When designing your program, you should choose options that don’t conflict with gawk’s, because it will process any options that it accepts before passing the rest of the command line on to your program. Using ‘#!’ with the -E option may help (see Executable Scripts and see Options).

Previous: , Up: Patterns and Actions   [Contents][Index]

7.6 Summary

Next: , Previous: , Up: Top   [Contents][Index]

8 Arrays in awk

An array is a table of values called elements. The elements of an array are distinguished by their indices. Indices may be either numbers or strings.

This chapter describes how arrays work in awk, how to use array elements, how to scan through every element in an array, and how to remove array elements. It also describes how awk simulates multidimensional arrays, as well as some of the less obvious points about array usage. The chapter moves on to discuss gawk’s facility for sorting arrays, and ends with a brief description of gawk’s ability to support true arrays of arrays.

Next: , Up: Arrays   [Contents][Index]

8.1 The Basics of Arrays

This section presents the basics: working with elements in arrays one at a time, and traversing all of the elements in an array.

Next: , Up: Array Basics   [Contents][Index]

8.1.1 Introduction to Arrays

Doing linear scans over an associative array is like trying to club someone to death with a loaded Uzi.

Larry Wall

The awk language provides one-dimensional arrays for storing groups of related strings or numbers. Every awk array must have a name. Array names have the same syntax as variable names; any valid variable name would also be a valid array name. But one name cannot be used in both ways (as an array and as a variable) in the same awk program.

Arrays in awk superficially resemble arrays in other programming languages, but there are fundamental differences. In awk, it isn’t necessary to specify the size of an array before starting to use it. Additionally, any number or string, not just consecutive integers, may be used as an array index.

In most other languages, arrays must be declared before use, including a specification of how many elements or components they contain. In such languages, the declaration causes a contiguous block of memory to be allocated for that many elements. Usually, an index in the array must be a nonnegative integer. For example, the index zero specifies the first element in the array, which is actually stored at the beginning of the block of memory. Index one specifies the second element, which is stored in memory right after the first element, and so on. It is impossible to add more elements to the array, because it has room only for as many elements as given in the declaration. (Some languages allow arbitrary starting and ending indices—e.g., ‘15 .. 27’—but the size of the array is still fixed when the array is declared.)

A contiguous array of four elements might look like Figure 8.1, conceptually, if the element values are eight, "foo", "", and 30.

A Contiguous Array

Figure 8.1: A contiguous array

Only the values are stored; the indices are implicit from the order of the values. Here, eight is the value at index zero, because eight appears in the position with zero elements before it.

Arrays in awk are different—they are associative. This means that each array is a collection of pairs—an index and its corresponding array element value:


The pairs are shown in jumbled order because their order is irrelevant.40

One advantage of associative arrays is that new pairs can be added at any time. For example, suppose a tenth element is added to the array whose value is "number ten". The result is:

10"number ten"

Now the array is sparse, which just means some indices are missing. It has elements 0–3 and 10, but doesn’t have elements 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9.

Another consequence of associative arrays is that the indices don’t have to be nonnegative integers. Any number, or even a string, can be an index. For example, the following is an array that translates words from English to French:


Here we decided to translate the number one in both spelled-out and numeric form—thus illustrating that a single array can have both numbers and strings as indices. (In fact, array subscripts are always strings. There are some subtleties to how numbers work when used as array subscripts; this is discussed in more detail in Numeric Array Subscripts.) Here, the number 1 isn’t double-quoted, because awk automatically converts it to a string.

The value of IGNORECASE has no effect upon array subscripting. The identical string value used to store an array element must be used to retrieve it. When awk creates an array (e.g., with the split() built-in function), that array’s indices are consecutive integers starting at one. (See String Functions.)

awk’s arrays are efficient—the time to access an element is independent of the number of elements in the array.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Array Basics   [Contents][Index]

8.1.2 Referring to an Array Element

The principal way to use an array is to refer to one of its elements. An array reference is an expression as follows:


Here, array is the name of an array. The expression index-expression is the index of the desired element of the array.

The value of the array reference is the current value of that array element. For example, foo[4.3] is an expression referencing the element of array foo at index ‘4.3’.

A reference to an array element that has no recorded value yields a value of "", the null string. This includes elements that have not been assigned any value as well as elements that have been deleted (see Delete).

NOTE: A reference to an element that does not exist automatically creates that array element, with the null string as its value. (In some cases, this is unfortunate, because it might waste memory inside awk.)

Novice awk programmers often make the mistake of checking if an element exists by checking if the value is empty:

# Check if "foo" exists in a:         Incorrect!
if (a["foo"] != "") …

This is incorrect for two reasons. First, it creates a["foo"] if it didn’t exist before! Second, it is valid (if a bit unusual) to set an array element equal to the empty string.

To determine whether an element exists in an array at a certain index, use the following expression:

indx in array

This expression tests whether the particular index indx exists, without the side effect of creating that element if it is not present. The expression has the value one (true) if array[indx] exists and zero (false) if it does not exist. (We use indx here, because ‘index’ is the name of a built-in function.) For example, this statement tests whether the array frequencies contains the index ‘2’:

if (2 in frequencies)
    print "Subscript 2 is present."

Note that this is not a test of whether the array frequencies contains an element whose value is two. There is no way to do that except to scan all the elements. Also, this does not create frequencies[2], while the following (incorrect) alternative does:

if (frequencies[2] != "")
    print "Subscript 2 is present."

Next: , Previous: , Up: Array Basics   [Contents][Index]

8.1.3 Assigning Array Elements

Array elements can be assigned values just like awk variables:

array[index-expression] = value

array is the name of an array. The expression index-expression is the index of the element of the array that is assigned a value. The expression value is the value to assign to that element of the array.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Array Basics   [Contents][Index]

8.1.4 Basic Array Example

The following program takes a list of lines, each beginning with a line number, and prints them out in order of line number. The line numbers are not in order when they are first read—instead, they are scrambled. This program sorts the lines by making an array using the line numbers as subscripts. The program then prints out the lines in sorted order of their numbers. It is a very simple program and gets confused upon encountering repeated numbers, gaps, or lines that don’t begin with a number:

    if ($1 > max)
        max = $1
    arr[$1] = $0

    for (x = 1; x <= max; x++)
        print arr[x]

The first rule keeps track of the largest line number seen so far; it also stores each line into the array arr, at an index that is the line’s number. The second rule runs after all the input has been read, to print out all the lines. When this program is run with the following input:

5  I am the Five man
2  Who are you?  The new number two!
4  . . . And four on the floor
1  Who is number one?
3  I three you.

Its output is:

1  Who is number one?
2  Who are you?  The new number two!
3  I three you.
4  . . . And four on the floor
5  I am the Five man

If a line number is repeated, the last line with a given number overrides the others. Gaps in the line numbers can be handled with an easy improvement to the program’s END rule, as follows:

    for (x = 1; x <= max; x++)
        if (x in arr)
            print arr[x]

Next: , Previous: , Up: Array Basics   [Contents][Index]

8.1.5 Scanning All Elements of an Array

In programs that use arrays, it is often necessary to use a loop that executes once for each element of an array. In other languages, where arrays are contiguous and indices are limited to nonnegative integers, this is easy: all the valid indices can be found by counting from the lowest index up to the highest. This technique won’t do the job in awk, because any number or string can be an array index. So awk has a special kind of for statement for scanning an array:

for (var in array)

This loop executes body once for each index in array that the program has previously used, with the variable var set to that index.

The following program uses this form of the for statement. The first rule scans the input records and notes which words appear (at least once) in the input, by storing a one into the array used with the word as the index. The second rule scans the elements of used to find all the distinct words that appear in the input. It prints each word that is more than 10 characters long and also prints the number of such words. See String Functions for more information on the built-in function length().

# Record a 1 for each word that is used at least once
    for (i = 1; i <= NF; i++)
        used[$i] = 1

# Find number of distinct words more than 10 characters long
    for (x in used) {
        if (length(x) > 10) {
            print x
    print num_long_words, "words longer than 10 characters"

See Word Sorting for a more detailed example of this type.

The order in which elements of the array are accessed by this statement is determined by the internal arrangement of the array elements within awk and in standard awk cannot be controlled or changed. This can lead to problems if new elements are added to array by statements in the loop body; it is not predictable whether the for loop will reach them. Similarly, changing var inside the loop may produce strange results. It is best to avoid such things.

As a point of information, gawk sets up the list of elements to be iterated over before the loop starts, and does not change it. But not all awk versions do so. Consider this program, named loopcheck.awk:

    a["here"] = "here"
    a["is"] = "is"
    a["a"] = "a"
    a["loop"] = "loop"
    for (i in a) {
        a[j] = j
        print i

Here is what happens when run with gawk (and mawk):

$ gawk -f loopcheck.awk
-| here
-| loop
-| a
-| is

Contrast this to BWK awk:

$ nawk -f loopcheck.awk
-| loop
-| here
-| is
-| a
-| 1

Previous: , Up: Array Basics   [Contents][Index]

8.1.6 Using Predefined Array Scanning Orders with gawk

This subsection describes a feature that is specific to gawk.

By default, when a for loop traverses an array, the order is undefined, meaning that the awk implementation determines the order in which the array is traversed. This order is usually based on the internal implementation of arrays and will vary from one version of awk to the next.

Often, though, you may wish to do something simple, such as “traverse the array by comparing the indices in ascending order,” or “traverse the array by comparing the values in descending order.” gawk provides two mechanisms that give you this control:

The following special values for PROCINFO["sorted_in"] are available:


Array elements are processed in arbitrary order, which is the default awk behavior.


Order by indices in ascending order compared as strings; this is the most basic sort. (Internally, array indices are always strings, so with ‘a[2*5] = 1’ the index is "10" rather than numeric 10.)


Order by indices in ascending order but force them to be treated as numbers in the process. Any index with a non-numeric value will end up positioned as if it were zero.


Order by element values in ascending order (rather than by indices). Ordering is by the type assigned to the element (see Typing and Comparison). All numeric values come before all string values, which in turn come before all subarrays. (Subarrays have not been described yet; see Arrays of Arrays.)


Order by element values in ascending order (rather than by indices). Scalar values are compared as strings. Subarrays, if present, come out last.


Order by element values in ascending order (rather than by indices). Scalar values are compared as numbers. Subarrays, if present, come out last. When numeric values are equal, the string values are used to provide an ordering: this guarantees consistent results across different versions of the C qsort() function,41 which gawk uses internally to perform the sorting.


Like "@ind_str_asc", but the string indices are ordered from high to low.


Like "@ind_num_asc", but the numeric indices are ordered from high to low.


Like "@val_type_asc", but the element values, based on type, are ordered from high to low. Subarrays, if present, come out first.


Like "@val_str_asc", but the element values, treated as strings, are ordered from high to low. Subarrays, if present, come out first.


Like "@val_num_asc", but the element values, treated as numbers, are ordered from high to low. Subarrays, if present, come out first.

The array traversal order is determined before the for loop starts to run. Changing PROCINFO["sorted_in"] in the loop body does not affect the loop. For example:

$ gawk '
>    a[4] = 4
>    a[3] = 3
>    for (i in a)
>        print i, a[i]
> }'
-| 4 4
-| 3 3
$ gawk '
>    PROCINFO["sorted_in"] = "@ind_str_asc"
>    a[4] = 4
>    a[3] = 3
>    for (i in a)
>        print i, a[i]
> }'
-| 3 3
-| 4 4

When sorting an array by element values, if a value happens to be a subarray then it is considered to be greater than any string or numeric value, regardless of what the subarray itself contains, and all subarrays are treated as being equal to each other. Their order relative to each other is determined by their index strings.

Here are some additional things to bear in mind about sorted array traversal:

In addition, gawk provides built-in functions for sorting arrays; see Array Sorting Functions.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Arrays   [Contents][Index]

8.2 Using Numbers to Subscript Arrays

An important aspect to remember about arrays is that array subscripts are always strings. When a numeric value is used as a subscript, it is converted to a string value before being used for subscripting (see Conversion). This means that the value of the predefined variable CONVFMT can affect how your program accesses elements of an array. For example:

xyz = 12.153
data[xyz] = 1
CONVFMT = "%2.2f"
if (xyz in data)
    printf "%s is in data\n", xyz
    printf "%s is not in data\n", xyz

This prints ‘12.15 is not in data’. The first statement gives xyz a numeric value. Assigning to data[xyz] subscripts data with the string value "12.153" (using the default conversion value of CONVFMT, "%.6g"). Thus, the array element data["12.153"] is assigned the value one. The program then changes the value of CONVFMT. The test ‘(xyz in data)’ generates a new string value from xyz—this time "12.15"—because the value of CONVFMT only allows two significant digits. This test fails, because "12.15" is different from "12.153".

According to the rules for conversions (see Conversion), integer values always convert to strings as integers, no matter what the value of CONVFMT may happen to be. So the usual case of the following works:

for (i = 1; i <= maxsub; i++)
    do something with array[i]

The “integer values always convert to strings as integers” rule has an additional consequence for array indexing. Octal and hexadecimal constants (see Nondecimal-numbers) are converted internally into numbers, and their original form is forgotten. This means, for example, that array[17], array[021], and array[0x11] all refer to the same element!

As with many things in awk, the majority of the time things work as you would expect them to. But it is useful to have a precise knowledge of the actual rules, as they can sometimes have a subtle effect on your programs.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Arrays   [Contents][Index]

8.3 Using Uninitialized Variables as Subscripts

Suppose it’s necessary to write a program to print the input data in reverse order. A reasonable attempt to do so (with some test data) might look like this:

$ echo 'line 1
> line 2
> line 3' | awk '{ l[lines] = $0; ++lines }
> END {
>     for (i = lines - 1; i >= 0; i--)
>        print l[i]
> }'
-| line 3
-| line 2

Unfortunately, the very first line of input data did not appear in the output!

Upon first glance, we would think that this program should have worked. The variable lines is uninitialized, and uninitialized variables have the numeric value zero. So, awk should have printed the value of l[0].

The issue here is that subscripts for awk arrays are always strings. Uninitialized variables, when used as strings, have the value "", not zero. Thus, ‘line 1’ ends up stored in l[""]. The following version of the program works correctly:

{ l[lines++] = $0 }
    for (i = lines - 1; i >= 0; i--)
       print l[i]

Here, the ‘++’ forces lines to be numeric, thus making the “old value” numeric zero. This is then converted to "0" as the array subscript.

Even though it is somewhat unusual, the null string ("") is a valid array subscript. (d.c.) gawk warns about the use of the null string as a subscript if --lint is provided on the command line (see Options).

Next: , Previous: , Up: Arrays   [Contents][Index]

8.4 The delete Statement

To remove an individual element of an array, use the delete statement:

delete array[index-expression]

Once an array element has been deleted, any value the element once had is no longer available. It is as if the element had never been referred to or been given a value. The following is an example of deleting elements in an array:

for (i in frequencies)
    delete frequencies[i]

This example removes all the elements from the array frequencies. Once an element is deleted, a subsequent for statement to scan the array does not report that element and using the in operator to check for the presence of that element returns zero (i.e., false):

delete foo[4]
if (4 in foo)
    print "This will never be printed"

It is important to note that deleting an element is not the same as assigning it a null value (the empty string, ""). For example:

foo[4] = ""
if (4 in foo)
  print "This is printed, even though foo[4] is empty"

It is not an error to delete an element that does not exist. However, if --lint is provided on the command line (see Options), gawk issues a warning message when an element that is not in the array is deleted.

All the elements of an array may be deleted with a single statement by leaving off the subscript in the delete statement, as follows:

delete array

Using this version of the delete statement is about three times more efficient than the equivalent loop that deletes each element one at a time.

This form of the delete statement is also supported by BWK awk and mawk, as well as by a number of other implementations.

NOTE: For many years, using delete without a subscript was a common extension. In September 2012, it was accepted for inclusion into the POSIX standard. See the Austin Group website.

The following statement provides a portable but nonobvious way to clear out an array:42

split("", array)

The split() function (see String Functions) clears out the target array first. This call asks it to split apart the null string. Because there is no data to split out, the function simply clears the array and then returns.

CAUTION: Deleting all the elements from an array does not change its type; you cannot clear an array and then use the array’s name as a scalar (i.e., a regular variable). For example, the following does not work:

a[1] = 3
delete a
a = 3

Next: , Previous: , Up: Arrays   [Contents][Index]

8.5 Multidimensional Arrays

A multidimensional array is an array in which an element is identified by a sequence of indices instead of a single index. For example, a two-dimensional array requires two indices. The usual way (in many languages, including awk) to refer to an element of a two-dimensional array named grid is with grid[x,y].

Multidimensional arrays are supported in awk through concatenation of indices into one string. awk converts the indices into strings (see Conversion) and concatenates them together, with a separator between them. This creates a single string that describes the values of the separate indices. The combined string is used as a single index into an ordinary, one-dimensional array. The separator used is the value of the built-in variable SUBSEP.

For example, suppose we evaluate the expression ‘foo[5,12] = "value"’ when the value of SUBSEP is "@". The numbers 5 and 12 are converted to strings and concatenated with an ‘@’ between them, yielding "5@12"; thus, the array element foo["5@12"] is set to "value".

Once the element’s value is stored, awk has no record of whether it was stored with a single index or a sequence of indices. The two expressions ‘foo[5,12]’ and ‘foo[5 SUBSEP 12] are always equivalent.

The default value of SUBSEP is the string "\034", which contains a nonprinting character that is unlikely to appear in an awk program or in most input data. The usefulness of choosing an unlikely character comes from the fact that index values that contain a string matching SUBSEP can lead to combined strings that are ambiguous. Suppose that SUBSEP is "@"; then ‘foo["a@b", "c"] and ‘foo["a", "b@c"] are indistinguishable because both are actually stored as ‘foo["a@b@c"]’.

To test whether a particular index sequence exists in a multidimensional array, use the same operator (in) that is used for single-dimensional arrays. Write the whole sequence of indices in parentheses, separated by commas, as the left operand:

if ((subscript1, subscript2, …) in array)

Here is an example that treats its input as a two-dimensional array of fields; it rotates this array 90 degrees clockwise and prints the result. It assumes that all lines have the same number of elements:

     if (max_nf < NF)
          max_nf = NF
     max_nr = NR
     for (x = 1; x <= NF; x++)
          vector[x, NR] = $x

     for (x = 1; x <= max_nf; x++) {
          for (y = max_nr; y >= 1; --y)
               printf("%s ", vector[x, y])

When given the input:

1 2 3 4 5 6
2 3 4 5 6 1
3 4 5 6 1 2
4 5 6 1 2 3

the program produces the following output:

4 3 2 1
5 4 3 2
6 5 4 3
1 6 5 4
2 1 6 5
3 2 1 6

Up: Multidimensional   [Contents][Index]

8.5.1 Scanning Multidimensional Arrays

There is no special for statement for scanning a “multidimensional” array. There cannot be one, because, in truth, awk does not have multidimensional arrays or elements—there is only a multidimensional way of accessing an array.

However, if your program has an array that is always accessed as multidimensional, you can get the effect of scanning it by combining the scanning for statement (see Scanning an Array) with the built-in split() function (see String Functions). It works in the following manner:

for (combined in array) {
    split(combined, separate, SUBSEP)

This sets the variable combined to each concatenated combined index in the array, and splits it into the individual indices by breaking it apart where the value of SUBSEP appears. The individual indices then become the elements of the array separate.

Thus, if a value is previously stored in array[1, "foo"], then an element with index "1\034foo" exists in array. (Recall that the default value of SUBSEP is the character with code 034.) Sooner or later, the for statement finds that index and does an iteration with the variable combined set to "1\034foo". Then the split() function is called as follows:

split("1\034foo", separate, "\034")

The result is to set separate[1] to "1" and separate[2] to "foo". Presto! The original sequence of separate indices is recovered.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Arrays   [Contents][Index]

8.6 Arrays of Arrays

gawk goes beyond standard awk’s multidimensional array access and provides true arrays of arrays. Elements of a subarray are referred to by their own indices enclosed in square brackets, just like the elements of the main array. For example, the following creates a two-element subarray at index 1 of the main array a:

a[1][1] = 1
a[1][2] = 2

This simulates a true two-dimensional array. Each subarray element can contain another subarray as a value, which in turn can hold other arrays as well. In this way, you can create arrays of three or more dimensions. The indices can be any awk expressions, including scalars separated by commas (i.e., a regular awk simulated multidimensional subscript). So the following is valid in gawk:

a[1][3][1, "name"] = "barney"

Each subarray and the main array can be of different length. In fact, the elements of an array or its subarray do not all have to have the same type. This means that the main array and any of its subarrays can be nonrectangular, or jagged in structure. You can assign a scalar value to the index 4 of the main array a, even though a[1] is itself an array and not a scalar:

a[4] = "An element in a jagged array"

The terms dimension, row, and column are meaningless when applied to such an array, but we will use “dimension” henceforth to imply the maximum number of indices needed to refer to an existing element. The type of any element that has already been assigned cannot be changed by assigning a value of a different type. You have to first delete the current element, which effectively makes gawk forget about the element at that index:

delete a[4]
a[4][5][6][7] = "An element in a four-dimensional array"

This removes the scalar value from index 4 and then inserts a three-level nested subarray containing a scalar. You can also delete an entire subarray or subarray of subarrays:

delete a[4][5]
a[4][5] = "An element in subarray a[4]"

But recall that you can not delete the main array a and then use it as a scalar.

The built-in functions that take array arguments can also be used with subarrays. For example, the following code fragment uses length() (see String Functions) to determine the number of elements in the main array a and its subarrays:

print length(a), length(a[1]), length(a[1][3])

This results in the following output for our main array a:

2, 3, 1

The ‘subscript in array’ expression (see Reference to Elements) works similarly for both regular awk-style arrays and arrays of arrays. For example, the tests ‘1 in a’, ‘3 in a[1]’, and ‘(1, "name") in a[1][3]’ all evaluate to one (true) for our array a.

The ‘for (item in array)’ statement (see Scanning an Array) can be nested to scan all the elements of an array of arrays if it is rectangular in structure. In order to print the contents (scalar values) of a two-dimensional array of arrays (i.e., in which each first-level element is itself an array, not necessarily of the same length), you could use the following code:

for (i in array)
    for (j in array[i])
        print array[i][j]

The isarray() function (see Type Functions) lets you test if an array element is itself an array:

for (i in array) {
    if (isarray(array[i]) {
        for (j in array[i]) {
            print array[i][j]
        print array[i]

If the structure of a jagged array of arrays is known in advance, you can often devise workarounds using control statements. For example, the following code prints the elements of our main array a:

for (i in a) {
    for (j in a[i]) {
        if (j == 3) {
            for (k in a[i][j])
                print a[i][j][k]
        } else
            print a[i][j]

See Walking Arrays for a user-defined function that “walks” an arbitrarily dimensioned array of arrays.

Recall that a reference to an uninitialized array element yields a value of "", the null string. This has one important implication when you intend to use a subarray as an argument to a function, as illustrated by the following example:

$ gawk 'BEGIN { split("a b c d", b[1]); print b[1][1] }'
error→ gawk: cmd. line:1: fatal: split: second argument is not an array

The way to work around this is to first force b[1] to be an array by creating an arbitrary index:

$ gawk 'BEGIN { b[1][1] = ""; split("a b c d", b[1]); print b[1][1] }'
-| a

Previous: , Up: Arrays   [Contents][Index]

8.7 Summary

Next: , Previous: , Up: Top   [Contents][Index]

9 Functions

This chapter describes awk’s built-in functions, which fall into three categories: numeric, string, and I/O. gawk provides additional groups of functions to work with values that represent time, do bit manipulation, sort arrays, provide type information, and internationalize and localize programs.

Besides the built-in functions, awk has provisions for writing new functions that the rest of a program can use. The second half of this chapter describes these user-defined functions. Finally, we explore indirect function calls, a gawk-specific extension that lets you determine at runtime what function is to be called.

Next: , Up: Functions   [Contents][Index]

9.1 Built-in Functions

Built-in functions are always available for your awk program to call. This section defines all the built-in functions in awk; some of these are mentioned in other sections but are summarized here for your convenience.

Next: , Up: Built-in   [Contents][Index]

9.1.1 Calling Built-in Functions

To call one of awk’s built-in functions, write the name of the function followed by arguments in parentheses. For example, ‘atan2(y + z, 1)’ is a call to the function atan2() and has two arguments.

Whitespace is ignored between the built-in function name and the opening parenthesis, but nonetheless it is good practice to avoid using whitespace there. User-defined functions do not permit whitespace in this way, and it is easier to avoid mistakes by following a simple convention that always works—no whitespace after a function name.

Each built-in function accepts a certain number of arguments. In some cases, arguments can be omitted. The defaults for omitted arguments vary from function to function and are described under the individual functions. In some awk implementations, extra arguments given to built-in functions are ignored. However, in gawk, it is a fatal error to give extra arguments to a built-in function.

When a function is called, expressions that create the function’s actual parameters are evaluated completely before the call is performed. For example, in the following code fragment:

i = 4
j = sqrt(i++)

the variable i is incremented to the value five before sqrt() is called with a value of four for its actual parameter. The order of evaluation of the expressions used for the function’s parameters is undefined. Thus, avoid writing programs that assume that parameters are evaluated from left to right or from right to left. For example:

i = 5
j = atan2(++i, i *= 2)

If the order of evaluation is left to right, then i first becomes six, and then 12, and atan2() is called with the two arguments six and 12. But if the order of evaluation is right to left, i first becomes 10, then 11, and atan2() is called with the two arguments 11 and 10.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Built-in   [Contents][Index]

9.1.2 Numeric Functions

The following list describes all of the built-in functions that work with numbers. Optional parameters are enclosed in square brackets ([ ]):

atan2(y, x)

Return the arctangent of y / x in radians. You can use ‘pi = atan2(0, -1)’ to retrieve the value of pi.


Return the cosine of x, with x in radians.


Return the exponential of x (e ^ x) or report an error if x is out of range. The range of values x can have depends on your machine’s floating-point representation.


Return the nearest integer to x, located between x and zero and truncated toward zero. For example, int(3) is 3, int(3.9) is 3, int(-3.9) is -3, and int(-3) is -3 as well.


Return the natural logarithm of x, if x is positive; otherwise, return NaN (“not a number”) on IEEE 754 systems. Additionally, gawk prints a warning message when x is negative.


Return a random number. The values of rand() are uniformly distributed between zero and one. The value could be zero but is never one.43

Often random integers are needed instead. Following is a user-defined function that can be used to obtain a random nonnegative integer less than n:

function randint(n)
    return int(n * rand())

The multiplication produces a random number greater than or equal to zero and less than n. Using int(), this result is made into an integer between zero and n - 1, inclusive.

The following example uses a similar function to produce random integers between one and n. This program prints a new random number for each input record:

# Function to roll a simulated die.
function roll(n) { return 1 + int(rand() * n) }

# Roll 3 six-sided dice and
# print total number of points.
    printf("%d points\n", roll(6) + roll(6) + roll(6))

CAUTION: In most awk implementations, including gawk, rand() starts generating numbers from the same starting number, or seed, each time you run awk.44 Thus, a program generates the same results each time you run it. The numbers are random within one awk run but predictable from run to run. This is convenient for debugging, but if you want a program to do different things each time it is used, you must change the seed to a value that is different in each run. To do this, use srand().


Return the sine of x, with x in radians.


Return the positive square root of x. gawk prints a warning message if x is negative. Thus, sqrt(4) is 2.


Set the starting point, or seed, for generating random numbers to the value x.

Each seed value leads to a particular sequence of random numbers.45 Thus, if the seed is set to the same value a second time, the same sequence of random numbers is produced again.

CAUTION: Different awk implementations use different random-number generators internally. Don’t expect the same awk program to produce the same series of random numbers when executed by different versions of awk.

If the argument x is omitted, as in ‘srand()’, then the current date and time of day are used for a seed. This is the way to get random numbers that are truly unpredictable.

The return value of srand() is the previous seed. This makes it easy to keep track of the seeds in case you need to consistently reproduce sequences of random numbers.

POSIX does not specify the initial seed; it differs among awk implementations.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Built-in   [Contents][Index]

9.1.3 String-Manipulation Functions

The functions in this section look at or change the text of one or more strings.

gawk understands locales (see Locales) and does all string processing in terms of characters, not bytes. This distinction is particularly important to understand for locales where one character may be represented by multiple bytes. Thus, for example, length() returns the number of characters in a string, and not the number of bytes used to represent those characters. Similarly, index() works with character indices, and not byte indices.

CAUTION: A number of functions deal with indices into strings. For these functions, the first character of a string is at position (index) one. This is different from C and the languages descended from it, where the first character is at position zero. You need to remember this when doing index calculations, particularly if you are used to C.

In the following list, optional parameters are enclosed in square brackets ([ ]). Several functions perform string substitution; the full discussion is provided in the description of the sub() function, which comes toward the end, because the list is presented alphabetically.

Those functions that are specific to gawk are marked with a pound sign (‘#’). They are not available in compatibility mode (see Options):

asort(source [, dest [, how ] ]) #
asorti(source [, dest [, how ] ]) #

These two functions are similar in behavior, so they are described together.

NOTE: The following description ignores the third argument, how, as it requires understanding features that we have not discussed yet. Thus, the discussion here is a deliberate simplification. (We do provide all the details later on; see Array Sorting Functions for the full story.)

Both functions return the number of elements in the array source. For asort(), gawk sorts the values of source and replaces the indices of the sorted values of source with sequential integers starting with one. If the optional array dest is specified, then source is duplicated into dest. dest is then sorted, leaving the indices of source unchanged.

When comparing strings, IGNORECASE affects the sorting (see Array Sorting Functions). If the source array contains subarrays as values (see Arrays of Arrays), they will come last, after all scalar values. Subarrays are not recursively sorted.

For example, if the contents of a are as follows:

a["last"] = "de"
a["first"] = "sac"
a["middle"] = "cul"

A call to asort():


results in the following contents of a:

a[1] = "cul"
a[2] = "de"
a[3] = "sac"

The asorti() function works similarly to asort(); however, the indices are sorted, instead of the values. Thus, in the previous example, starting with the same initial set of indices and values in a, calling ‘asorti(a)’ would yield:

a[1] = "first"
a[2] = "last"
a[3] = "middle"
gensub(regexp, replacement, how [, target]) #

Search the target string target for matches of the regular expression regexp. If how is a string beginning with ‘g’ or ‘G’ (short for “global”), then replace all matches of regexp with replacement. Otherwise, how is treated as a number indicating which match of regexp to replace. If no target is supplied, use $0. It returns the modified string as the result of the function and the original target string is not changed.

gensub() is a general substitution function. Its purpose is to provide more features than the standard sub() and gsub() functions.

gensub() provides an additional feature that is not available in sub() or gsub(): the ability to specify components of a regexp in the replacement text. This is done by using parentheses in the regexp to mark the components and then specifying ‘\N’ in the replacement text, where N is a digit from 1 to 9. For example:

$ gawk '
>      a = "abc def"
>      b = gensub(/(.+) (.+)/, "\\2 \\1", "g", a)
>      print b
> }'
-| def abc

As with sub(), you must type two backslashes in order to get one into the string. In the replacement text, the sequence ‘\0’ represents the entire matched text, as does the character ‘&’.

The following example shows how you can use the third argument to control which match of the regexp should be changed:

$ echo a b c a b c |
> gawk '{ print gensub(/a/, "AA", 2) }'
-| a b c AA b c

In this case, $0 is the default target string. gensub() returns the new string as its result, which is passed directly to print for printing.

If the how argument is a string that does not begin with ‘g’ or ‘G’, or if it is a number that is less than or equal to zero, only one substitution is performed. If how is zero, gawk issues a warning message.

If regexp does not match target, gensub()’s return value is the original unchanged value of target.

gsub(regexp, replacement [, target])

Search target for all of the longest, leftmost, nonoverlapping matching substrings it can find and replace them with replacement. The ‘g’ in gsub() stands for “global,” which means replace everywhere. For example:

{ gsub(/Britain/, "United Kingdom"); print }

replaces all occurrences of the string ‘Britain’ with ‘United Kingdom’ for all input records.

The gsub() function returns the number of substitutions made. If the variable to search and alter (target) is omitted, then the entire input record ($0) is used. As in sub(), the characters ‘&’ and ‘\’ are special, and the third argument must be assignable.

index(in, find)

Search the string in for the first occurrence of the string find, and return the position in characters where that occurrence begins in the string in. Consider the following example:

$ awk 'BEGIN { print index("peanut", "an") }'
-| 3

If find is not found, index() returns zero.

With BWK awk and gawk, it is a fatal error to use a regexp constant for find. Other implementations allow it, simply treating the regexp constant as an expression meaning ‘$0 ~ /regexp/’. (d.c.)


Return the number of characters in string. If string is a number, the length of the digit string representing that number is returned. For example, length("abcde") is five. By contrast, length(15 * 35) works out to three. In this example, 15 * 35 = 525, and 525 is then converted to the string "525", which has three characters.

If no argument is supplied, length() returns the length of $0.

NOTE: In older versions of awk, the length() function could be called without any parentheses. Doing so is considered poor practice, although the 2008 POSIX standard explicitly allows it, to support historical practice. For programs to be maximally portable, always supply the parentheses.

If length() is called with a variable that has not been used, gawk forces the variable to be a scalar. Other implementations of awk leave the variable without a type. (d.c.) Consider:

$ gawk 'BEGIN { print length(x) ; x[1] = 1 }'
-| 0
error→ gawk: fatal: attempt to use scalar `x' as array

$ nawk 'BEGIN { print length(x) ; x[1] = 1 }'
-| 0

If --lint has been specified on the command line, gawk issues a warning about this.

With gawk and several other awk implementations, when given an array argument, the length() function returns the number of elements in the array. (c.e.) This is less useful than it might seem at first, as the array is not guaranteed to be indexed from one to the number of elements in it. If --lint is provided on the command line (see Options), gawk warns that passing an array argument is not portable. If --posix is supplied, using an array argument is a fatal error (see Arrays).

match(string, regexp [, array])

Search string for the longest, leftmost substring matched by the regular expression regexp and return the character position (index) at which that substring begins (one, if it starts at the beginning of string). If no match is found, return zero.

The regexp argument may be either a regexp constant (//) or a string constant (""). In the latter case, the string is treated as a regexp to be matched. See Computed Regexps for a discussion of the difference between the two forms, and the implications for writing your program correctly.

The order of the first two arguments is the opposite of most other string functions that work with regular expressions, such as sub() and gsub(). It might help to remember that for match(), the order is the same as for the ‘~’ operator: ‘string ~ regexp’.

The match() function sets the predefined variable RSTART to the index. It also sets the predefined variable RLENGTH to the length in characters of the matched substring. If no match is found, RSTART is set to zero, and RLENGTH to -1.

For example:

    if ($1 == "FIND")
        regex = $2
    else {
        where = match($0, regex)
        if (where != 0)
            print "Match of", regex, "found at", where, "in", $0

This program looks for lines that match the regular expression stored in the variable regex. This regular expression can be changed. If the first word on a line is ‘FIND’, regex is changed to be the second word on that line. Therefore, if given:

FIND ru+n
My program runs
but not very quickly
FIND Melvin
This line is property of Reality Engineering Co.
Melvin was here.

awk prints:

Match of ru+n found at 12 in My program runs
Match of Melvin found at 1 in Melvin was here.

If array is present, it is cleared, and then the zeroth element of array is set to the entire portion of string matched by regexp. If regexp contains parentheses, the integer-indexed elements of array are set to contain the portion of string matching the corresponding parenthesized subexpression. For example:

$ echo foooobazbarrrrr |
> gawk '{ match($0, /(fo+).+(bar*)/, arr)
>         print arr[1], arr[2] }'
-| foooo barrrrr

In addition, multidimensional subscripts are available providing the start index and length of each matched subexpression:

$ echo foooobazbarrrrr |
> gawk '{ match($0, /(fo+).+(bar*)/, arr)
>           print arr[1], arr[2]
>           print arr[1, "start"], arr[1, "length"]
>           print arr[2, "start"], arr[2, "length"]
> }'
-| foooo barrrrr
-| 1 5
-| 9 7

There may not be subscripts for the start and index for every parenthesized subexpression, because they may not all have matched text; thus, they should be tested for with the in operator (see Reference to Elements).

The array argument to match() is a gawk extension. In compatibility mode (see Options), using a third argument is a fatal error.

patsplit(string, array [, fieldpat [, seps ] ]) #

Divide string into pieces defined by fieldpat and store the pieces in array and the separator strings in the seps array. The first piece is stored in array[1], the second piece in array[2], and so forth. The third argument, fieldpat, is a regexp describing the fields in string (just as FPAT is a regexp describing the fields in input records). It may be either a regexp constant or a string. If fieldpat is omitted, the value of FPAT is used. patsplit() returns the number of elements created. seps[i] is the separator string between array[i] and array[i+1]. Any leading separator will be in seps[0].

The patsplit() function splits strings into pieces in a manner similar to the way input lines are split into fields using FPAT (see Splitting By Content).

Before splitting the string, patsplit() deletes any previously existing elements in the arrays array and seps.

split(string, array [, fieldsep [, seps ] ])

Divide string into pieces separated by fieldsep and store the pieces in array and the separator strings in the seps array. The first piece is stored in array[1], the second piece in array[2], and so forth. The string value of the third argument, fieldsep, is a regexp describing where to split string (much as FS can be a regexp describing where to split input records). If fieldsep is omitted, the value of FS is used. split() returns the number of elements created. seps is a gawk extension, with seps[i] being the separator string between array[i] and array[i+1]. If fieldsep is a single space, then any leading whitespace goes into seps[0] and any trailing whitespace goes into seps[n], where n is the return value of split() (i.e., the number of elements in array).

The split() function splits strings into pieces in a manner similar to the way input lines are split into fields. For example:

split("cul-de-sac", a, "-", seps)

splits the string "cul-de-sac" into three fields using ‘-’ as the separator. It sets the contents of the array a as follows:

a[1] = "cul"
a[2] = "de"
a[3] = "sac"

and sets the contents of the array seps as follows:

seps[1] = "-"
seps[2] = "-"

The value returned by this call to split() is three.

As with input field-splitting, when the value of fieldsep is " ", leading and trailing whitespace is ignored in values assigned to the elements of array but not in seps, and the elements are separated by runs of whitespace. Also, as with input field splitting, if fieldsep is the null string, each individual character in the string is split into its own array element. (c.e.)

Note, however, that RS has no effect on the way split() works. Even though ‘RS = ""’ causes the newline character to also be an input field separator, this does not affect how split() splits strings.

Modern implementations of awk, including gawk, allow the third argument to be a regexp constant (//) as well as a string. (d.c.) The POSIX standard allows this as well. See Computed Regexps for a discussion of the difference between using a string constant or a regexp constant, and the implications for writing your program correctly.

Before splitting the string, split() deletes any previously existing elements in the arrays array and seps.

If string is null, the array has no elements. (So this is a portable way to delete an entire array with one statement. See Delete.)

If string does not match fieldsep at all (but is not null), array has one element only. The value of that element is the original string.

In POSIX mode (see Options), the fourth argument is not allowed.

sprintf(format, expression1, …)

Return (without printing) the string that printf would have printed out with the same arguments (see Printf). For example:

pival = sprintf("pi = %.2f (approx.)", 22/7)

assigns the string ‘pi = 3.14 (approx.) to the variable pival.

strtonum(str) #

Examine str and return its numeric value. If str begins with a leading ‘0’, strtonum() assumes that str is an octal number. If str begins with a leading ‘0x’ or ‘0X’, strtonum() assumes that str is a hexadecimal number. For example:

$ echo 0x11 |
> gawk '{ printf "%d\n", strtonum($1) }'
-| 17

Using the strtonum() function is not the same as adding zero to a string value; the automatic coercion of strings to numbers works only for decimal data, not for octal or hexadecimal.46

Note also that strtonum() uses the current locale’s decimal point for recognizing numbers (see Locales).

sub(regexp, replacement [, target])

Search target, which is treated as a string, for the leftmost, longest substring matched by the regular expression regexp. Modify the entire string by replacing the matched text with replacement. The modified string becomes the new value of target. Return the number of substitutions made (zero or one).

The regexp argument may be either a regexp constant (//) or a string constant (""). In the latter case, the string is treated as a regexp to be matched. See Computed Regexps for a discussion of the difference between the two forms, and the implications for writing your program correctly.

This function is peculiar because target is not simply used to compute a value, and not just any expression will do—it must be a variable, field, or array element so that sub() can store a modified value there. If this argument is omitted, then the default is to use and alter $0.47 For example:

str = "water, water, everywhere"
sub(/at/, "ith", str)

sets str to ‘wither, water, everywhere, by replacing the leftmost longest occurrence of ‘at’ with ‘ith’.

If the special character ‘&’ appears in replacement, it stands for the precise substring that was matched by regexp. (If the regexp can match more than one string, then this precise substring may vary.) For example:

{ sub(/candidate/, "& and his wife"); print }

changes the first occurrence of ‘candidate’ to ‘candidate and his wife’ on each input line. Here is another example:

$ awk 'BEGIN {
>         str = "daabaaa"
>         sub(/a+/, "C&C", str)
>         print str
> }'
-| dCaaCbaaa

This shows how ‘&’ can represent a nonconstant string and also illustrates the “leftmost, longest” rule in regexp matching (see Leftmost Longest).

The effect of this special character (‘&’) can be turned off by putting a backslash before it in the string. As usual, to insert one backslash in the string, you must write two backslashes. Therefore, write ‘\\&’ in a string constant to include a literal ‘&’ in the replacement. For example, the following shows how to replace the first ‘|’ on each line with an ‘&’:

{ sub(/\|/, "\\&"); print }

As mentioned, the third argument to sub() must be a variable, field, or array element. Some versions of awk allow the third argument to be an expression that is not an lvalue. In such a case, sub() still searches for the pattern and returns zero or one, but the result of the substitution (if any) is thrown away because there is no place to put it. Such versions of awk accept expressions like the following:

sub(/USA/, "United States", "the USA and Canada")

For historical compatibility, gawk accepts such erroneous code. However, using any other nonchangeable object as the third parameter causes a fatal error and your program will not run.

Finally, if the regexp is not a regexp constant, it is converted into a string, and then the value of that string is treated as the regexp to match.

substr(string, start [, length ])

Return a length-character-long substring of string, starting at character number start. The first character of a string is character number one.48 For example, substr("washington", 5, 3) returns "ing".

If length is not present, substr() returns the whole suffix of string that begins at character number start. For example, substr("washington", 5) returns "ington". The whole suffix is also returned if length is greater than the number of characters remaining in the string, counting from character start.

If start is less than one, substr() treats it as if it was one. (POSIX doesn’t specify what to do in this case: BWK awk acts this way, and therefore gawk does too.) If start is greater than the number of characters in the string, substr() returns the null string. Similarly, if length is present but less than or equal to zero, the null string is returned.

The string returned by substr() cannot be assigned. Thus, it is a mistake to attempt to change a portion of a string, as shown in the following example:

string = "abcdef"
# try to get "abCDEf", won't work
substr(string, 3, 3) = "CDE"

It is also a mistake to use substr() as the third argument of sub() or gsub():

gsub(/xyz/, "pdq", substr($0, 5, 20))  # WRONG

(Some commercial versions of awk treat substr() as assignable, but doing so is not portable.)

If you need to replace bits and pieces of a string, combine substr() with string concatenation, in the following manner:

string = "abcdef"
string = substr(string, 1, 2) "CDE" substr(string, 6)

Return a copy of string, with each uppercase character in the string replaced with its corresponding lowercase character. Nonalphabetic characters are left unchanged. For example, tolower("MiXeD cAsE 123") returns "mixed case 123".


Return a copy of string, with each lowercase character in the string replaced with its corresponding uppercase character. Nonalphabetic characters are left unchanged. For example, toupper("MiXeD cAsE 123") returns "MIXED CASE 123".

Matching the Null String

In awk, the ‘*’ operator can match the null string. This is particularly important for the sub(), gsub(), and gensub() functions. For example:

$ echo abc | awk '{ gsub(/m*/, "X"); print }'
-| XaXbXcX

Although this makes a certain amount of sense, it can be surprising.

Up: String Functions   [Contents][Index] More about ‘\’ and ‘&’ with sub(), gsub(), and gensub()

CAUTION: This subsubsection has been reported to cause headaches. You might want to skip it upon first reading.

When using sub(), gsub(), or gensub(), and trying to get literal backslashes and ampersands into the replacement text, you need to remember that there are several levels of escape processing going on.

First, there is the lexical level, which is when awk reads your program and builds an internal copy of it to execute. Then there is the runtime level, which is when awk actually scans the replacement string to determine what to generate.

At both levels, awk looks for a defined set of characters that can come after a backslash. At the lexical level, it looks for the escape sequences listed in Escape Sequences. Thus, for every ‘\’ that awk processes at the runtime level, you must type two backslashes at the lexical level. When a character that is not valid for an escape sequence follows the ‘\’, BWK awk and gawk both simply remove the initial ‘\’ and put the next character into the string. Thus, for example, "a\qb" is treated as "aqb".

At the runtime level, the various functions handle sequences of ‘\’ and ‘&’ differently. The situation is (sadly) somewhat complex. Historically, the sub() and gsub() functions treated the two-character sequence ‘\&’ specially; this sequence was replaced in the generated text with a single ‘&’. Any other ‘\’ within the replacement string that did not precede an ‘&’ was passed through unchanged. This is illustrated in Table 9.1.

 You type         sub() sees          sub() generates
 ——–         ———-          —————
     \&              &            The matched text
    \\&             \&            A literal ‘&\\\&             \&            A literal ‘&\\\\&            \\&            A literal ‘\&\\\\\&            \\&            A literal ‘\&\\\\\\&           \\\&            A literal ‘\\&\\q             \q            A literal ‘\q

Table 9.1: Historical escape sequence processing for sub() and gsub()

This table shows the lexical-level processing, where an odd number of backslashes becomes an even number at the runtime level, as well as the runtime processing done by sub(). (For the sake of simplicity, the rest of the following tables only show the case of even numbers of backslashes entered at the lexical level.)

The problem with the historical approach is that there is no way to get a literal ‘\’ followed by the matched text.

Several editions of the POSIX standard attempted to fix this problem but weren’t successful. The details are irrelevant at this point in time.

At one point, the gawk maintainer submitted proposed text for a revised standard that reverts to rules that correspond more closely to the original existing practice. The proposed rules have special cases that make it possible to produce a ‘\’ preceding the matched text. This is shown in Table 9.2.

 You type         sub() sees         sub() generates
 ——–         ———-         —————
\\\\\\&           \\\&            A literal ‘\&\\\\&            \\&            A literal ‘\’, followed by the matched text
    \\&             \&            A literal ‘&\\q             \q            A literal ‘\q\\\\             \\            \\

Table 9.2: gawk rules for sub() and backslash

In a nutshell, at the runtime level, there are now three special sequences of characters (‘\\\&’, ‘\\&’, and ‘\&’) whereas historically there was only one. However, as in the historical case, any ‘\’ that is not part of one of these three sequences is not special and appears in the output literally.

gawk 3.0 and 3.1 follow these rules for sub() and gsub(). The POSIX standard took much longer to be revised than was expected. In addition, the gawk maintainer’s proposal was lost during the standardization process. The final rules are somewhat simpler. The results are similar except for one case.

The POSIX rules state that ‘\&’ in the replacement string produces a literal ‘&’, ‘\\’ produces a literal ‘\’, and ‘\’ followed by anything else is not special; the ‘\’ is placed straight into the output. These rules are presented in Table 9.3.

 You type         sub() sees         sub() generates
 ——–         ———-         —————
\\\\\\&           \\\&            A literal ‘\&\\\\&            \\&            A literal ‘\’, followed by the matched text
    \\&             \&            A literal ‘&\\q             \q            A literal ‘\q\\\\             \\            \

Table 9.3: POSIX rules for sub() and gsub()

The only case where the difference is noticeable is the last one: ‘\\\\’ is seen as ‘\\’ and produces ‘\’ instead of ‘\\’.

Starting with version 3.1.4, gawk followed the POSIX rules when --posix was specified (see Options). Otherwise, it continued to follow the proposed rules, as that had been its behavior for many years.

When version 4.0.0 was released, the gawk maintainer made the POSIX rules the default, breaking well over a decade’s worth of backward compatibility.49 Needless to say, this was a bad idea, and as of version 4.0.1, gawk resumed its historical behavior, and only follows the POSIX rules when --posix is given.

The rules for gensub() are considerably simpler. At the runtime level, whenever gawk sees a ‘\’, if the following character is a digit, then the text that matched the corresponding parenthesized subexpression is placed in the generated output. Otherwise, no matter what character follows the ‘\’, it appears in the generated text and the ‘\’ does not, as shown in Table 9.4.

  You type          gensub() sees         gensub() generates
  ——–          ————-         ——————
      &                    &            The matched text
    \\&                   \&            A literal ‘&\\\\                   \\            A literal ‘\\\\\&                  \\&            A literal ‘\’, then the matched text
\\\\\\&                 \\\&            A literal ‘\&\\q                   \q            A literal ‘q

Table 9.4: Escape sequence processing for gensub()

Because of the complexity of the lexical- and runtime-level processing and the special cases for sub() and gsub(), we recommend the use of gawk and gensub() when you have to do substitutions.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Built-in   [Contents][Index]

9.1.4 Input/Output Functions

The following functions relate to input/output (I/O). Optional parameters are enclosed in square brackets ([ ]):

close(filename [, how])

Close the file filename for input or output. Alternatively, the argument may be a shell command that was used for creating a coprocess, or for redirecting to or from a pipe; then the coprocess or pipe is closed. See Close Files And Pipes for more information.

When closing a coprocess, it is occasionally useful to first close one end of the two-way pipe and then to close the other. This is done by providing a second argument to close(). This second argument (how) should be one of the two string values "to" or "from", indicating which end of the pipe to close. Case in the string does not matter. See Two-way I/O, which discusses this feature in more detail and gives an example.

Note that the second argument to close() is a gawk extension; it is not available in compatibility mode (see Options).


Flush any buffered output associated with filename, which is either a file opened for writing or a shell command for redirecting output to a pipe or coprocess.

Many utility programs buffer their output (i.e., they save information to write to a disk file or the screen in memory until there is enough for it to be worthwhile to send the data to the output device). This is often more efficient than writing every little bit of information as soon as it is ready. However, sometimes it is necessary to force a program to flush its buffers (i.e., write the information to its destination, even if a buffer is not full). This is the purpose of the fflush() function—gawk also buffers its output, and the fflush() function forces gawk to flush its buffers.

Brian Kernighan added fflush() to his awk in April 1992. For two decades, it was a common extension. In December 2012, it was accepted for inclusion into the POSIX standard. See the Austin Group website.

POSIX standardizes fflush() as follows: if there is no argument, or if the argument is the null string (""), then awk flushes the buffers for all open output files and pipes.

NOTE: Prior to version 4.0.2, gawk would flush only the standard output if there was no argument, and flush all output files and pipes if the argument was the null string. This was changed in order to be compatible with Brian Kernighan’s awk, in the hope that standardizing this feature in POSIX would then be easier (which indeed proved to be the case).

With gawk, you can use ‘fflush("/dev/stdout")’ if you wish to flush only the standard output.

fflush() returns zero if the buffer is successfully flushed; otherwise, it returns a nonzero value. (gawk returns -1.) In the case where all buffers are flushed, the return value is zero only if all buffers were flushed successfully. Otherwise, it is -1, and gawk warns about the problem filename.

gawk also issues a warning message if you attempt to flush a file or pipe that was opened for reading (such as with getline), or if filename is not an open file, pipe, or coprocess. In such a case, fflush() returns -1, as well.

Interactive Versus Noninteractive Buffering

As a side point, buffering issues can be even more confusing if your program is interactive (i.e., communicating with a user sitting at a keyboard).50

Interactive programs generally line buffer their output (i.e., they write out every line). Noninteractive programs wait until they have a full buffer, which may be many lines of output. Here is an example of the difference:

$ awk '{ print $1 + $2 }'
1 1
-| 2
2 3
-| 5

Each line of output is printed immediately. Compare that behavior with this example:

$ awk '{ print $1 + $2 }' | cat
1 1
2 3
-| 2
-| 5

Here, no output is printed until after the Ctrl-d is typed, because it is all buffered and sent down the pipe to cat in one shot.


Execute the operating system command command and then return to the awk program. Return command’s exit status (see further on).

For example, if the following fragment of code is put in your awk program:

     system("date | mail -s 'awk run done' root")

the system administrator is sent mail when the awk program finishes processing input and begins its end-of-input processing.

Note that redirecting print or printf into a pipe is often enough to accomplish your task. If you need to run many commands, it is more efficient to simply print them down a pipeline to the shell:

while (more stuff to do)
    print command | "/bin/sh"

However, if your awk program is interactive, system() is useful for running large self-contained programs, such as a shell or an editor. Some operating systems cannot implement the system() function. system() causes a fatal error if it is not supported.

NOTE: When --sandbox is specified, the system() function is disabled (see Options).

On POSIX systems, a command’s exit status is a 16-bit number. The exit value passed to the C exit() function is held in the high-order eight bits. The low-order bits indicate if the process was killed by a signal (bit 7) and if so, the guilty signal number (bits 0–6).

Traditionally, awk’s system() function has simply returned the exit status value divided by 256. In the normal case this gives the exit status but in the case of death-by-signal it yields a fractional floating-point value.51 POSIX states that awk’s system() should return the full 16-bit value.

gawk steers a middle ground. The return values are summarized in Table 9.5.

SituationReturn value from system()
--traditionalC system()’s value divided by 256
--posixC system()’s value
Normal exit of commandCommand’s exit status
Death by signal of command256 + number of murderous signal
Death by signal of command with core dump512 + number of murderous signal
Some kind of error-1

Table 9.5: Return values from system()

Controlling Output Buffering with system()

The fflush() function provides explicit control over output buffering for individual files and pipes. However, its use is not portable to many older awk implementations. An alternative method to flush output buffers is to call system() with a null string as its argument:

system("")   # flush output

gawk treats this use of the system() function as a special case and is smart enough not to run a shell (or other command interpreter) with the empty command. Therefore, with gawk, this idiom is not only useful, it is also efficient. Although this method should work with other awk implementations, it does not necessarily avoid starting an unnecessary shell. (Other implementations may only flush the buffer associated with the standard output and not necessarily all buffered output.)

If you think about what a programmer expects, it makes sense that system() should flush any pending output. The following program:

     print "first print"
     system("echo system echo")
     print "second print"

must print:

first print
system echo
second print

and not:

system echo
first print
second print

If awk did not flush its buffers before calling system(), you would see the latter (undesirable) output.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Built-in   [Contents][Index]

9.1.5 Time Functions

awk programs are commonly used to process log files containing timestamp information, indicating when a particular log record was written. Many programs log their timestamps in the form returned by the time() system call, which is the number of seconds since a particular epoch. On POSIX-compliant systems, it is the number of seconds since 1970-01-01 00:00:00 UTC, not counting leap seconds.52 All known POSIX-compliant systems support timestamps from 0 through 231 - 1, which is sufficient to represent times through 2038-01-19 03:14:07 UTC. Many systems support a wider range of timestamps, including negative timestamps that represent times before the epoch.

In order to make it easier to process such log files and to produce useful reports, gawk provides the following functions for working with timestamps. They are gawk extensions; they are not specified in the POSIX standard.53 However, recent versions of mawk (see Other Versions) also support these functions. Optional parameters are enclosed in square brackets ([ ]):


Turn datespec into a timestamp in the same form as is returned by systime(). It is similar to the function of the same name in ISO C. The argument, datespec, is a string of the form "YYYY MM DD HH MM SS [DST]". The string consists of six or seven numbers representing, respectively, the full year including century, the month from 1 to 12, the day of the month from 1 to 31, the hour of the day from 0 to 23, the minute from 0 to 59, the second from 0 to 60,54 and an optional daylight-savings flag.

The values of these numbers need not be within the ranges specified; for example, an hour of -1 means 1 hour before midnight. The origin-zero Gregorian calendar is assumed, with year 0 preceding year 1 and year -1 preceding year 0. The time is assumed to be in the local time zone. If the daylight-savings flag is positive, the time is assumed to be daylight savings time; if zero, the time is assumed to be standard time; and if negative (the default), mktime() attempts to determine whether daylight savings time is in effect for the specified time.

If datespec does not contain enough elements or if the resulting time is out of range, mktime() returns -1.

strftime([format [, timestamp [, utc-flag] ] ])

Format the time specified by timestamp based on the contents of the format string and return the result. It is similar to the function of the same name in ISO C. If utc-flag is present and is either nonzero or non-null, the value is formatted as UTC (Coordinated Universal Time, formerly GMT or Greenwich Mean Time). Otherwise, the value is formatted for the local time zone. The timestamp is in the same format as the value returned by the systime() function. If no timestamp argument is supplied, gawk uses the current time of day as the timestamp. Without a format argument, strftime() uses the value of PROCINFO["strftime"] as the format string (see Built-in Variables). The default string value is "%a %b %e %H:%M:%S %Z %Y". This format string produces output that is equivalent to that of the date utility. You can assign a new value to PROCINFO["strftime"] to change the default format; see the following list for the various format directives.


Return the current time as the number of seconds since the system epoch. On POSIX systems, this is the number of seconds since 1970-01-01 00:00:00 UTC, not counting leap seconds. It may be a different number on other systems.

The systime() function allows you to compare a timestamp from a log file with the current time of day. In particular, it is easy to determine how long ago a particular record was logged. It also allows you to produce log records using the “seconds since the epoch” format.

The mktime() function allows you to convert a textual representation of a date and time into a timestamp. This makes it easy to do before/after comparisons of dates and times, particularly when dealing with date and time data coming from an external source, such as a log file.

The strftime() function allows you to easily turn a timestamp into human-readable information. It is similar in nature to the sprintf() function (see String Functions), in that it copies nonformat specification characters verbatim to the returned string, while substituting date and time values for format specifications in the format string.

strftime() is guaranteed by the 1999 ISO C standard55 to support the following date format specifications:


The locale’s abbreviated weekday name.


The locale’s full weekday name.


The locale’s abbreviated month name.


The locale’s full month name.


The locale’s “appropriate” date and time representation. (This is ‘%A %B %d %T %Y’ in the "C" locale.)


The century part of the current year. This is the year divided by 100 and truncated to the next lower integer.


The day of the month as a decimal number (01–31).


Equivalent to specifying ‘%m/%d/%y’.


The day of the month, padded with a space if it is only one digit.


Equivalent to specifying ‘%Y-%m-%d’. This is the ISO 8601 date format.


The year modulo 100 of the ISO 8601 week number, as a decimal number (00–99). For example, January 1, 2012, is in week 53 of 2011. Thus, the year of its ISO 8601 week number is 2011, even though its year is 2012. Similarly, December 31, 2012, is in week 1 of 2013. Thus, the year of its ISO week number is 2013, even though its year is 2012.


The full year of the ISO week number, as a decimal number.


Equivalent to ‘%b’.


The hour (24-hour clock) as a decimal number (00–23).


The hour (12-hour clock) as a decimal number (01–12).


The day of the year as a decimal number (001–366).


The month as a decimal number (01–12).


The minute as a decimal number (00–59).


A newline character (ASCII LF).


The locale’s equivalent of the AM/PM designations associated with a 12-hour clock.


The locale’s 12-hour clock time. (This is ‘%I:%M:%S %p’ in the "C" locale.)


Equivalent to specifying ‘%H:%M’.


The second as a decimal number (00–60).


A TAB character.


Equivalent to specifying ‘%H:%M:%S’.


The weekday as a decimal number (1–7). Monday is day one.


The week number of the year (with the first Sunday as the first day of week one) as a decimal number (00–53).


The week number of the year (with the first Monday as the first day of week one) as a decimal number (01–53). The method for determining the week number is as specified by ISO 8601. (To wit: if the week containing January 1 has four or more days in the new year, then it is week one; otherwise it is the last week [52 or 53] of the previous year and the next week is week one.)


The weekday as a decimal number (0–6). Sunday is day zero.


The week number of the year (with the first Monday as the first day of week one) as a decimal number (00–53).


The locale’s “appropriate” date representation. (This is ‘%A %B %d %Y’ in the "C" locale.)


The locale’s “appropriate” time representation. (This is ‘%T’ in the "C" locale.)


The year modulo 100 as a decimal number (00–99).


The full year as a decimal number (e.g., 2015).


The time zone offset in a ‘+HHMM’ format (e.g., the format necessary to produce RFC 822/RFC 1036 date headers).


The time zone name or abbreviation; no characters if no time zone is determinable.

%Ec %EC %Ex %EX %Ey %EY %Od %Oe %OH
%OI %Om %OM %OS %Ou %OU %OV %Ow %OW %Oy

“Alternative representations” for the specifications that use only the second letter (‘%c’, ‘%C’, and so on).56 (These facilitate compliance with the POSIX date utility.)


A literal ‘%’.

If a conversion specifier is not one of those just listed, the behavior is undefined.57

For systems that are not yet fully standards-compliant, gawk supplies a copy of strftime() from the GNU C Library. It supports all of the just-listed format specifications. If that version is used to compile gawk (see Installation), then the following additional format specifications are available:


The hour (24-hour clock) as a decimal number (0–23). Single-digit numbers are padded with a space.


The hour (12-hour clock) as a decimal number (1–12). Single-digit numbers are padded with a space.


The time as a decimal timestamp in seconds since the epoch.

Additionally, the alternative representations are recognized but their normal representations are used.

The following example is an awk implementation of the POSIX date utility. Normally, the date utility prints the current date and time of day in a well-known format. However, if you provide an argument to it that begins with a ‘+’, date copies nonformat specifier characters to the standard output and interprets the current time according to the format specifiers in the string. For example:

$ date '+Today is %A, %B %d, %Y.'
-| Today is Monday, September 22, 2014.

Here is the gawk version of the date utility. It has a shell “wrapper” to handle the -u option, which requires that date run as if the time zone is set to UTC:

#! /bin/sh
# date --- approximate the POSIX 'date' command

case $1 in
-u)  TZ=UTC0     # use UTC
     export TZ
     shift ;;

gawk 'BEGIN  {
    format = PROCINFO["strftime"]
    exitval = 0

    if (ARGC > 2)
        exitval = 1
    else if (ARGC == 2) {
        format = ARGV[1]
        if (format ~ /^\+/)
            format = substr(format, 2)   # remove leading +
    print strftime(format)
    exit exitval
}' "$@"

Next: , Previous: , Up: Built-in   [Contents][Index]

9.1.6 Bit-Manipulation Functions

I can explain it for you, but I can’t understand it for you.


Many languages provide the ability to perform bitwise operations on two integer numbers. In other words, the operation is performed on each successive pair of bits in the operands. Three common operations are bitwise AND, OR, and XOR. The operations are described in Table 9.6.

                Bit operator
          |  AND  |   OR  |  XOR
Operands  | 0 | 1 | 0 | 1 | 0 | 1
    0     | 0   0 | 0   1 | 0   1
    1     | 0   1 | 1   1 | 1   0

Table 9.6: Bitwise operations

As you can see, the result of an AND operation is 1 only when both bits are 1. The result of an OR operation is 1 if either bit is 1. The result of an XOR operation is 1 if either bit is 1, but not both. The next operation is the complement; the complement of 1 is 0 and the complement of 0 is 1. Thus, this operation “flips” all the bits of a given value.

Finally, two other common operations are to shift the bits left or right. For example, if you have a bit string ‘10111001’ and you shift it right by three bits, you end up with ‘00010111’.58 If you start over again with ‘10111001’ and shift it left by three bits, you end up with ‘11001000’. The following list describes gawk’s built-in functions that implement the bitwise operations. Optional parameters are enclosed in square brackets ([ ]):

and(v1, v2 [, …])

Return the bitwise AND of the arguments. There must be at least two.


Return the bitwise complement of val.

lshift(val, count)

Return the value of val, shifted left by count bits.

or(v1, v2 [, …])

Return the bitwise OR of the arguments. There must be at least two.

rshift(val, count)

Return the value of val, shifted right by count bits.

xor(v1, v2 [, …])

Return the bitwise XOR of the arguments. There must be at least two.

For all of these functions, first the double-precision floating-point value is converted to the widest C unsigned integer type, then the bitwise operation is performed. If the result cannot be represented exactly as a C double, leading nonzero bits are removed one by one until it can be represented exactly. The result is then converted back into a C double. (If you don’t understand this paragraph, don’t worry about it.)

Here is a user-defined function (see User-defined) that illustrates the use of these functions:

# bits2str --- turn a byte into readable ones and zeros

function bits2str(bits,        data, mask)
    if (bits == 0)
        return "0"

    mask = 1
    for (; bits != 0; bits = rshift(bits, 1))
        data = (and(bits, mask) ? "1" : "0") data

    while ((length(data) % 8) != 0)
        data = "0" data

    return data

    printf "123 = %s\n", bits2str(123)
    printf "0123 = %s\n", bits2str(0123)
    printf "0x99 = %s\n", bits2str(0x99)
    comp = compl(0x99)
    printf "compl(0x99) = %#x = %s\n", comp, bits2str(comp)
    shift = lshift(0x99, 2)
    printf "lshift(0x99, 2) = %#x = %s\n", shift, bits2str(shift)
    shift = rshift(0x99, 2)
    printf "rshift(0x99, 2) = %#x = %s\n", shift, bits2str(shift)

This program produces the following output when run:

$ gawk -f testbits.awk
-| 123 = 01111011
-| 0123 = 01010011
-| 0x99 = 10011001
-| compl(0x99) = 0x3fffffffffff66 = 00111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111101100110
-| lshift(0x99, 2) = 0x264 = 0000001001100100
-| rshift(0x99, 2) = 0x26 = 00100110

The bits2str() function turns a binary number into a string. Initializing mask to one creates a binary value where the rightmost bit is set to one. Using this mask, the function repeatedly checks the rightmost bit. ANDing the mask with the value indicates whether the rightmost bit is one or not. If so, a "1" is concatenated onto the front of the string. Otherwise, a "0" is added. The value is then shifted right by one bit and the loop continues until there are no more one bits.

If the initial value is zero, it returns a simple "0". Otherwise, at the end, it pads the value with zeros to represent multiples of 8-bit quantities. This is typical in modern computers.

The main code in the BEGIN rule shows the difference between the decimal and octal values for the same numbers (see Nondecimal-numbers), and then demonstrates the results of the compl(), lshift(), and rshift() functions.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Built-in   [Contents][Index]

9.1.7 Getting Type Information

gawk provides a single function that lets you distinguish an array from a scalar variable. This is necessary for writing code that traverses every element of an array of arrays (see Arrays of Arrays).


Return a true value if x is an array. Otherwise, return false.

isarray() is meant for use in two circumstances. The first is when traversing a multidimensional array: you can test if an element is itself an array or not. The second is inside the body of a user-defined function (not discussed yet; see User-defined), to test if a parameter is an array or not.

NOTE: Using isarray() at the global level to test variables makes no sense. Because you are the one writing the program, you are supposed to know if your variables are arrays or not. And in fact, due to the way gawk works, if you pass the name of a variable that has not been previously used to isarray(), gawk ends up turning it into a scalar.

Previous: , Up: Built-in   [Contents][Index]

9.1.8 String-Translation Functions

gawk provides facilities for internationalizing awk programs. These include the functions described in the following list. The descriptions here are purposely brief. See Internationalization, for the full story. Optional parameters are enclosed in square brackets ([ ]):

bindtextdomain(directory [, domain])

Set the directory in which gawk will look for message translation files, in case they will not or cannot be placed in the “standard” locations (e.g., during testing). It returns the directory in which domain is “bound.”

The default domain is the value of TEXTDOMAIN. If directory is the null string (""), then bindtextdomain() returns the current binding for the given domain.

dcgettext(string [, domain [, category] ])

Return the translation of string in text domain domain for locale category category. The default value for domain is the current value of TEXTDOMAIN. The default value for category is "LC_MESSAGES".

dcngettext(string1, string2, number [, domain [, category] ])

Return the plural form used for number of the translation of string1 and string2 in text domain domain for locale category category. string1 is the English singular variant of a message, and string2 is the English plural variant of the same message. The default value for domain is the current value of TEXTDOMAIN. The default value for category is "LC_MESSAGES".

Next: , Previous: , Up: Functions   [Contents][Index]

9.2 User-Defined Functions

Complicated awk programs can often be simplified by defining your own functions. User-defined functions can be called just like built-in ones (see Function Calls), but it is up to you to define them (i.e., to tell awk what they should do).

Next: , Up: User-defined   [Contents][Index]

9.2.1 Function Definition Syntax

It’s entirely fair to say that the awk syntax for local variable definitions is appallingly awful.

Brian Kernighan

Definitions of functions can appear anywhere between the rules of an awk program. Thus, the general form of an awk program is extended to include sequences of rules and user-defined function definitions. There is no need to put the definition of a function before all uses of the function. This is because awk reads the entire program before starting to execute any of it.

The definition of a function named name looks like this:

function name([parameter-list])

Here, name is the name of the function to define. A valid function name is like a valid variable name: a sequence of letters, digits, and underscores that doesn’t start with a digit. Here too, only the 52 upper- and lowercase English letters may be used in a function name. Within a single awk program, any particular name can only be used as a variable, array, or function.

parameter-list is an optional list of the function’s arguments and local variable names, separated by commas. When the function is called, the argument names are used to hold the argument values given in the call.

A function cannot have two parameters with the same name, nor may it have a parameter with the same name as the function itself.

CAUTION: According to the POSIX standard, function parameters cannot have the same name as one of the special predefined variables (see Built-in Variables), nor may a function parameter have the same name as another function.

Not all versions of awk enforce these restrictions. gawk always enforces the first restriction. With --posix (see Options), it also enforces the second restriction.

Local variables act like the empty string if referenced where a string value is required, and like zero if referenced where a numeric value is required. This is the same as the behavior of regular variables that have never been assigned a value. (There is more to understand about local variables; see Dynamic Typing.)

The body-of-function consists of awk statements. It is the most important part of the definition, because it says what the function should actually do. The argument names exist to give the body a way to talk about the arguments; local variables exist to give the body places to keep temporary values.

Argument names are not distinguished syntactically from local variable names. Instead, the number of arguments supplied when the function is called determines how many argument variables there are. Thus, if three argument values are given, the first three names in parameter-list are arguments and the rest are local variables.

It follows that if the number of arguments is not the same in all calls to the function, some of the names in parameter-list may be arguments on some occasions and local variables on others. Another way to think of this is that omitted arguments default to the null string.

Usually when you write a function, you know how many names you intend to use for arguments and how many you intend to use as local variables. It is conventional to place some extra space between the arguments and the local variables, in order to document how your function is supposed to be used.

During execution of the function body, the arguments and local variable values hide, or shadow, any variables of the same names used in the rest of the program. The shadowed variables are not accessible in the function definition, because there is no way to name them while their names have been taken away for the arguments and local variables. All other variables used in the awk program can be referenced or set normally in the function’s body.

The arguments and local variables last only as long as the function body is executing. Once the body finishes, you can once again access the variables that were shadowed while the function was running.

The function body can contain expressions that call functions. They can even call this function, either directly or by way of another function. When this happens, we say the function is recursive. The act of a function calling itself is called recursion.

All the built-in functions return a value to their caller. User-defined functions can do so also, using the return statement, which is described in detail in Return Statement. Many of the subsequent examples in this section use the return statement.

In many awk implementations, including gawk, the keyword function may be abbreviated func. (c.e.) However, POSIX only specifies the use of the keyword function. This actually has some practical implications. If gawk is in POSIX-compatibility mode (see Options), then the following statement does not define a function:

func foo() { a = sqrt($1) ; print a }

Instead, it defines a rule that, for each record, concatenates the value of the variable ‘func’ with the return value of the function ‘foo’. If the resulting string is non-null, the action is executed. This is probably not what is desired. (awk accepts this input as syntactically valid, because functions may be used before they are defined in awk programs.59)

To ensure that your awk programs are portable, always use the keyword function when defining a function.

Next: , Previous: , Up: User-defined   [Contents][Index]

9.2.2 Function Definition Examples

Here is an example of a user-defined function, called myprint(), that takes a number and prints it in a specific format:

function myprint(num)
     printf "%6.3g\n", num

To illustrate, here is an awk rule that uses our myprint() function:

$3 > 0     { myprint($3) }

This program prints, in our special format, all the third fields that contain a positive number in our input. Therefore, when given the following input:

 1.2   3.4    5.6   7.8
 9.10 11.12 -13.14 15.16
17.18 19.20  21.22 23.24

this program, using our function to format the results, prints:


This function deletes all the elements in an array (recall that the extra whitespace signifies the start of the local variable list):

function delarray(a,    i)
    for (i in a)
        delete a[i]

When working with arrays, it is often necessary to delete all the elements in an array and start over with a new list of elements (see Delete). Instead of having to repeat this loop everywhere that you need to clear out an array, your program can just call delarray(). (This guarantees portability. The use of ‘delete array’ to delete the contents of an entire array is a relatively recent60 addition to the POSIX standard.)

The following is an example of a recursive function. It takes a string as an input parameter and returns the string in reverse order. Recursive functions must always have a test that stops the recursion. In this case, the recursion terminates when the input string is already empty:

function rev(str)
    if (str == "")
        return ""

    return (rev(substr(str, 2)) substr(str, 1, 1))

If this function is in a file named rev.awk, it can be tested this way:

$ echo "Don't Panic!" |
> gawk -e '{ print rev($0) }' -f rev.awk
-| !cinaP t'noD

The C ctime() function takes a timestamp and returns it as a string, formatted in a well-known fashion. The following example uses the built-in strftime() function (see Time Functions) to create an awk version of ctime():

# ctime.awk
# awk version of C ctime(3) function

function ctime(ts,    format)
    format = "%a %b %e %H:%M:%S %Z %Y"

    if (ts == 0)
        ts = systime()       # use current time as default
    return strftime(format, ts)

You might think that ctime() could use PROCINFO["strftime"] for its format string. That would be a mistake, because ctime() is supposed to return the time formatted in a standard fashion, and user-level code could have changed PROCINFO["strftime"].

Next: , Previous: , Up: User-defined   [Contents][Index]

9.2.3 Calling User-Defined Functions

Calling a function means causing the function to run and do its job. A function call is an expression and its value is the value returned by the function.

Next: , Up: Function Caveats   [Contents][Index] Writing a Function Call

A function call consists of the function name followed by the arguments in parentheses. awk expressions are what you write in the call for the arguments. Each time the call is executed, these expressions are evaluated, and the values become the actual arguments. For example, here is a call to foo() with three arguments (the first being a string concatenation):

foo(x y, "lose", 4 * z)

CAUTION: Whitespace characters (spaces and TABs) are not allowed between the function name and the opening parenthesis of the argument list. If you write whitespace by mistake, awk might think that you mean to concatenate a variable with an expression in parentheses. However, it notices that you used a function name and not a variable name, and reports an error.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Function Caveats   [Contents][Index] Controlling Variable Scope

Unlike in many languages, there is no way to make a variable local to a {} block in awk, but you can make a variable local to a function. It is good practice to do so whenever a variable is needed only in that function.

To make a variable local to a function, simply declare the variable as an argument after the actual function arguments (see Definition Syntax). Look at the following example, where variable i is a global variable used by both functions foo() and bar():

function bar()
    for (i = 0; i < 3; i++)
        print "bar's i=" i

function foo(j)
    i = j + 1
    print "foo's i=" i
    print "foo's i=" i

      i = 10
      print "top's i=" i
      print "top's i=" i

Running this script produces the following, because the i in functions foo() and bar() and at the top level refer to the same variable instance:

top's i=10
foo's i=1
bar's i=0
bar's i=1
bar's i=2
foo's i=3
top's i=3

If you want i to be local to both foo() and bar(), do as follows (the extra space before i is a coding convention to indicate that i is a local variable, not an argument):

function bar(    i)
    for (i = 0; i < 3; i++)
        print "bar's i=" i

function foo(j,    i)
    i = j + 1
    print "foo's i=" i
    print "foo's i=" i

      i = 10
      print "top's i=" i
      print "top's i=" i

Running the corrected script produces the following:

top's i=10
foo's i=1
bar's i=0
bar's i=1
bar's i=2
foo's i=1
top's i=10

Besides scalar values (strings and numbers), you may also have local arrays. By using a parameter name as an array, awk treats it as an array, and it is local to the function. In addition, recursive calls create new arrays. Consider this example:

function some_func(p1,      a)
    if (p1++ > 3)

    a[p1] = p1


    printf("At level %d, index %d %s found in a\n",
         p1, (p1 - 1), (p1 - 1) in a ? "is" : "is not")
    printf("At level %d, index %d %s found in a\n",
         p1, p1, p1 in a ? "is" : "is not")
    print ""


When run, this program produces the following output:

At level 4, index 3 is not found in a
At level 4, index 4 is found in a

At level 3, index 2 is not found in a
At level 3, index 3 is found in a

At level 2, index 1 is not found in a
At level 2, index 2 is found in a

Previous: , Up: Function Caveats   [Contents][Index] Passing Function Arguments by Value Or by Reference

In awk, when you declare a function, there is no way to declare explicitly whether the arguments are passed by value or by reference.

Instead, the passing convention is determined at runtime when the function is called, according to the following rule: if the argument is an array variable, then it is passed by reference. Otherwise, the argument is passed by value.

Passing an argument by value means that when a function is called, it is given a copy of the value of this argument. The caller may use a variable as the expression for the argument, but the called function does not know this—it only knows what value the argument had. For example, if you write the following code:

foo = "bar"
z = myfunc(foo)

then you should not think of the argument to myfunc() as being “the variable foo.” Instead, think of the argument as the string value "bar". If the function myfunc() alters the values of its local variables, this has no effect on any other variables. Thus, if myfunc() does this:

function myfunc(str)
   print str
   str = "zzz"
   print str

to change its first argument variable str, it does not change the value of foo in the caller. The role of foo in calling myfunc() ended when its value ("bar") was computed. If str also exists outside of myfunc(), the function body cannot alter this outer value, because it is shadowed during the execution of myfunc() and cannot be seen or changed from there.

However, when arrays are the parameters to functions, they are not copied. Instead, the array itself is made available for direct manipulation by the function. This is usually termed call by reference. Changes made to an array parameter inside the body of a function are visible outside that function.

NOTE: Changing an array parameter inside a function can be very dangerous if you do not watch what you are doing. For example:

function changeit(array, ind, nvalue)
     array[ind] = nvalue

    a[1] = 1; a[2] = 2; a[3] = 3
    changeit(a, 2, "two")
    printf "a[1] = %s, a[2] = %s, a[3] = %s\n",
            a[1], a[2], a[3]

prints ‘a[1] = 1, a[2] = two, a[3] = 3’, because changeit() stores "two" in the second element of a.

Some awk implementations allow you to call a function that has not been defined. They only report a problem at runtime, when the program actually tries to call the function. For example:

    if (0)
function bar() { … }
# note that `foo' is not defined

Because the ‘if’ statement will never be true, it is not really a problem that foo() has not been defined. Usually, though, it is a problem if a program calls an undefined function.

If --lint is specified (see Options), gawk reports calls to undefined functions.

Some awk implementations generate a runtime error if you use either the next statement or the nextfile statement (see Next Statement, and see Nextfile Statement) inside a user-defined function. gawk does not have this limitation.

Next: , Previous: , Up: User-defined   [Contents][Index]

9.2.4 The return Statement

As seen in several earlier examples, the body of a user-defined function can contain a return statement. This statement returns control to the calling part of the awk program. It can also be used to return a value for use in the rest of the awk program. It looks like this:

return [expression]

The expression part is optional. Due most likely to an oversight, POSIX does not define what the return value is if you omit the expression. Technically speaking, this makes the returned value undefined, and therefore, unpredictable. In practice, though, all versions of awk simply return the null string, which acts like zero if used in a numeric context.

A return statement without an expression is assumed at the end of every function definition. So, if control reaches the end of the function body, then technically the function returns an unpredictable value. In practice, it returns the empty string. awk does not warn you if you use the return value of such a function.

Sometimes, you want to write a function for what it does, not for what it returns. Such a function corresponds to a void function in C, C++, or Java, or to a procedure in Ada. Thus, it may be appropriate to not return any value; simply bear in mind that you should not be using the return value of such a function.

The following is an example of a user-defined function that returns a value for the largest number among the elements of an array:

function maxelt(vec,   i, ret)
     for (i in vec) {
          if (ret == "" || vec[i] > ret)
               ret = vec[i]
     return ret

You call maxelt() with one argument, which is an array name. The local variables i and ret are not intended to be arguments; there is nothing to stop you from passing more than one argument to maxelt() but the results would be strange. The extra space before i in the function parameter list indicates that i and ret are local variables. You should follow this convention when defining functions.

The following program uses the maxelt() function. It loads an array, calls maxelt(), and then reports the maximum number in that array:

function maxelt(vec,   i, ret)
     for (i in vec) {
          if (ret == "" || vec[i] > ret)
               ret = vec[i]
     return ret

# Load all fields of each record into nums.
     for(i = 1; i <= NF; i++)
          nums[NR, i] = $i

     print maxelt(nums)

Given the following input:

 1 5 23 8 16
44 3 5 2 8 26
256 291 1396 2962 100
-6 467 998 1101
99385 11 0 225

the program reports (predictably) that 99,385 is the largest value in the array.

Previous: , Up: User-defined   [Contents][Index]

9.2.5 Functions and Their Effects on Variable Typing

awk is a very fluid language. It is possible that awk can’t tell if an identifier represents a scalar variable or an array until runtime. Here is an annotated sample program:

function foo(a)
    a[1] = 1   # parameter is an array

    b = 1
    foo(b)  # invalid: fatal type mismatch

    foo(x)  # x uninitialized, becomes an array dynamically
    x = 1   # now not allowed, runtime error

In this example, the first call to foo() generates a fatal error, so awk will not report the second error. If you comment out that call, though, then awk does report the second error.

Usually, such things aren’t a big issue, but it’s worth being aware of them.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Functions   [Contents][Index]

9.3 Indirect Function Calls

This section describes an advanced, gawk-specific extension.

Often, you may wish to defer the choice of function to call until runtime. For example, you may have different kinds of records, each of which should be processed differently.

Normally, you would have to use a series of if-else statements to decide which function to call. By using indirect function calls, you can specify the name of the function to call as a string variable, and then call the function. Let’s look at an example.

Suppose you have a file with your test scores for the classes you are taking, and you wish to get the sum and the average of your test scores. The first field is the class name. The following fields are the functions to call to process the data, up to a “marker” field ‘data:’. Following the marker, to the end of the record, are the various numeric test scores.

Here is the initial file:

Biology_101 sum average data: 87.0 92.4 78.5 94.9
Chemistry_305 sum average data: 75.2 98.3 94.7 88.2
English_401 sum average data: 100.0 95.6 87.1 93.4

To process the data, you might write initially:

    class = $1
    for (i = 2; $i != "data:"; i++) {
        if ($i == "sum")
            sum()   # processes the whole record
        else if ($i == "average")
        …           # and so on

This style of programming works, but can be awkward. With indirect function calls, you tell gawk to use the value of a variable as the name of the function to call.

The syntax is similar to that of a regular function call: an identifier immediately followed by an opening parenthesis, any arguments, and then a closing parenthesis, with the addition of a leading ‘@’ character:

the_func = "sum"
result = @the_func()   # calls the sum() function

Here is a full program that processes the previously shown data, using indirect function calls:

# indirectcall.awk --- Demonstrate indirect function calls

# average --- return the average of the values in fields $first - $last

function average(first, last,   sum, i)
    sum = 0;
    for (i = first; i <= last; i++)
        sum += $i

    return sum / (last - first + 1)

# sum --- return the sum of the values in fields $first - $last

function sum(first, last,   ret, i)
    ret = 0;
    for (i = first; i <= last; i++)
        ret += $i

    return ret

These two functions expect to work on fields; thus, the parameters first and last indicate where in the fields to start and end. Otherwise, they perform the expected computations and are not unusual:

# For each record, print the class name and the requested statistics
    class_name = $1
    gsub(/_/, " ", class_name)  # Replace _ with spaces

    # find start
    for (i = 1; i <= NF; i++) {
        if ($i == "data:") {
            start = i + 1

    printf("%s:\n", class_name)
    for (i = 2; $i != "data:"; i++) {
        the_function = $i
        printf("\t%s: <%s>\n", $i, @the_function(start, NF) "")
    print ""

This is the main processing for each record. It prints the class name (with underscores replaced with spaces). It then finds the start of the actual data, saving it in start. The last part of the code loops through each function name (from $2 up to the marker, ‘data:’), calling the function named by the field. The indirect function call itself occurs as a parameter in the call to printf. (The printf format string uses ‘%s’ as the format specifier so that we can use functions that return strings, as well as numbers. Note that the result from the indirect call is concatenated with the empty string, in order to force it to be a string value.)

Here is the result of running the program:

$ gawk -f indirectcall.awk class_data1
-| Biology 101:
-|     sum: <352.8>
-|     average: <88.2>
-| Chemistry 305:
-|     sum: <356.4>
-|     average: <89.1>
-| English 401:
-|     sum: <376.1>
-|     average: <94.025>

The ability to use indirect function calls is more powerful than you may think at first. The C and C++ languages provide “function pointers,” which are a mechanism for calling a function chosen at runtime. One of the most well-known uses of this ability is the C qsort() function, which sorts an array using the famous “quicksort” algorithm (see the Wikipedia article for more information). To use this function, you supply a pointer to a comparison function. This mechanism allows you to sort arbitrary data in an arbitrary fashion.

We can do something similar using gawk, like this:

# quicksort.awk --- Quicksort algorithm, with user-supplied
#                   comparison function

# quicksort --- C.A.R. Hoare's quicksort algorithm. See Wikipedia
#               or almost any algorithms or computer science text.

function quicksort(data, left, right, less_than,    i, last)
    if (left >= right)  # do nothing if array contains fewer
        return          # than two elements

    quicksort_swap(data, left, int((left + right) / 2))
    last = left
    for (i = left + 1; i <= right; i++)
        if (@less_than(data[i], data[left]))
            quicksort_swap(data, ++last, i)
    quicksort_swap(data, left, last)
    quicksort(data, left, last - 1, less_than)
    quicksort(data, last + 1, right, less_than)

# quicksort_swap --- helper function for quicksort, should really be inline

function quicksort_swap(data, i, j,      temp)
    temp = data[i]
    data[i] = data[j]
    data[j] = temp

The quicksort() function receives the data array, the starting and ending indices to sort (left and right), and the name of a function that performs a “less than” comparison. It then implements the quicksort algorithm.

To make use of the sorting function, we return to our previous example. The first thing to do is write some comparison functions:

# num_lt --- do a numeric less than comparison

function num_lt(left, right)
    return ((left + 0) < (right + 0))

# num_ge --- do a numeric greater than or equal to comparison

function num_ge(left, right)
    return ((left + 0) >= (right + 0))

The num_ge() function is needed to perform a descending sort; when used to perform a “less than” test, it actually does the opposite (greater than or equal to), which yields data sorted in descending order.

Next comes a sorting function. It is parameterized with the starting and ending field numbers and the comparison function. It builds an array with the data and calls quicksort() appropriately, and then formats the results as a single string:

# do_sort --- sort the data according to `compare'
#             and return it as a string

function do_sort(first, last, compare,      data, i, retval)
    delete data
    for (i = 1; first <= last; first++) {
        data[i] = $first

    quicksort(data, 1, i-1, compare)

    retval = data[1]
    for (i = 2; i in data; i++)
        retval = retval " " data[i]

    return retval

Finally, the two sorting functions call do_sort(), passing in the names of the two comparison functions:

# sort --- sort the data in ascending order and return it as a string

function sort(first, last)
    return do_sort(first, last, "num_lt")

# rsort --- sort the data in descending order and return it as a string

function rsort(first, last)
    return do_sort(first, last, "num_ge")

Here is an extended version of the data file:

Biology_101 sum average sort rsort data: 87.0 92.4 78.5 94.9
Chemistry_305 sum average sort rsort data: 75.2 98.3 94.7 88.2
English_401 sum average sort rsort data: 100.0 95.6 87.1 93.4

Finally, here are the results when the enhanced program is run:

$ gawk -f quicksort.awk -f indirectcall.awk class_data2
-| Biology 101:
-|     sum: <352.8>
-|     average: <88.2>
-|     sort: <78.5 87.0 92.4 94.9>
-|     rsort: <94.9 92.4 87.0 78.5>
-| Chemistry 305:
-|     sum: <356.4>
-|     average: <89.1>
-|     sort: <75.2 88.2 94.7 98.3>
-|     rsort: <98.3 94.7 88.2 75.2>
-| English 401:
-|     sum: <376.1>
-|     average: <94.025>
-|     sort: <87.1 93.4 95.6 100.0>
-|     rsort: <100.0 95.6 93.4 87.1>

Another example where indirect functions calls are useful can be found in processing arrays. This is described in Walking Arrays.

Remember that you must supply a leading ‘@’ in front of an indirect function call.

Starting with version 4.1.2 of gawk, indirect function calls may also be used with built-in functions and with extension functions (see Dynamic Extensions). There are some limitations when calling built-in functions indirectly, as follows.

gawk does its best to make indirect function calls efficient. For example, in the following case:

for (i = 1; i <= n; i++)

gawk looks up the actual function to call only once.

Previous: , Up: Functions   [Contents][Index]

9.4 Summary

Next: , Previous: , Up: Top   [Contents][Index]

Part II:
Problem Solving with awk

10 A Library of awk Functions

User-defined describes how to write your own awk functions. Writing functions is important, because it allows you to encapsulate algorithms and program tasks in a single place. It simplifies programming, making program development more manageable and making programs more readable.

In their seminal 1976 book, Software Tools,62 Brian Kernighan and P.J. Plauger wrote:

Good Programming is not learned from generalities, but by seeing how significant programs can be made clean, easy to read, easy to maintain and modify, human-engineered, efficient and reliable, by the application of common sense and good programming practices. Careful study and imitation of good programs leads to better writing.

In fact, they felt this idea was so important that they placed this statement on the cover of their book. Because we believe strongly that their statement is correct, this chapter and Sample Programs, provide a good-sized body of code for you to read and, we hope, to learn from.

This chapter presents a library of useful awk functions. Many of the sample programs presented later in this Web page use these functions. The functions are presented here in a progression from simple to complex.

Extract Program presents a program that you can use to extract the source code for these example library functions and programs from the Texinfo source for this Web page. (This has already been done as part of the gawk distribution.)

If you have written one or more useful, general-purpose awk functions and would like to contribute them to the awk user community, see How To Contribute, for more information.

The programs in this chapter and in Sample Programs, freely use gawk-specific features. Rewriting these programs for different implementations of awk is pretty straightforward:

Next: , Up: Library Functions   [Contents][Index]

10.1 Naming Library Function Global Variables

Due to the way the awk language evolved, variables are either global (usable by the entire program) or local (usable just by a specific function). There is no intermediate state analogous to static variables in C.

Library functions often need to have global variables that they can use to preserve state information between calls to the function—for example, getopt()’s variable _opti (see Getopt Function). Such variables are called private, as the only functions that need to use them are the ones in the library.

When writing a library function, you should try to choose names for your private variables that will not conflict with any variables used by either another library function or a user’s main program. For example, a name like i or j is not a good choice, because user programs often use variable names like these for their own purposes.

The example programs shown in this chapter all start the names of their private variables with an underscore (‘_’). Users generally don’t use leading underscores in their variable names, so this convention immediately decreases the chances that the variable names will be accidentally shared with the user’s program.

In addition, several of the library functions use a prefix that helps indicate what function or set of functions use the variables—for example, _pw_byname() in the user database routines (see Passwd Functions). This convention is recommended, as it even further decreases the chance of inadvertent conflict among variable names. Note that this convention is used equally well for variable names and for private function names.64

As a final note on variable naming, if a function makes global variables available for use by a main program, it is a good convention to start those variables’ names with a capital letter—for example, getopt()’s Opterr and Optind variables (see Getopt Function). The leading capital letter indicates that it is global, while the fact that the variable name is not all capital letters indicates that the variable is not one of awk’s predefined variables, such as FS.

It is also important that all variables in library functions that do not need to save state are, in fact, declared local.65 If this is not done, the variables could accidentally be used in the user’s program, leading to bugs that are very difficult to track down:

function lib_func(x, y,    l1, l2)
    # some_var should be local but by oversight is not
    use variable some_var

A different convention, common in the Tcl community, is to use a single associative array to hold the values needed by the library function(s), or “package.” This significantly decreases the number of actual global names in use. For example, the functions described in Passwd Functions might have used array elements PW_data["inited"], PW_data["total"], PW_data["count"], and PW_data["awklib"], instead of _pw_inited, _pw