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Programming Awk for fun and profit

I recently came to learn and love Awk, a “pattern-directed scanning and processing language”. If you find yourself working with text on a command line often, you owe it to yourself to learn some Awk.

Awk is valuable to learn, because in many cases it can replace complex Unix pipelines consisting of sed, grep, cut, wc and tr. It offers a concise language for text processing that makes it easier to use than Perl or Ruby. And above all, Awk is so small, it is easy to learn.

Awk’s main purpose is to extract information from structured text, and report it in newly combined or aggregated ways.

The components of an Awk program

Records and fields

The Awk programming language revolves around records and fields. Awk’s purpose is to parse input into records, parse records into fields, operate on those records to generate output records and fields.

In true Unix fashion, by default a record consists of a single line, with fields separated by whitespace. Naturally, you can customize delimiters using the special variables RS and FS for Record Separator and Field Separator and their output-specific companions ORS and OFS.

Note that FS is actually a regular expression, so you can tell Awk to split on various punctuation characters at once using a value like [| ,()].


An Awk program always loops over all the records from its input to execute rules. A rule consists of a pattern and an action:

pattern { action }

A rule’s action is executed when its pattern matches the current record. The default pattern matches any record; the default action is to print the current record.

Multiple rules in a single program are separated by newlines or semicolons.


Patterns can match record by regular expression, by range or by boolean expression. Here are a few examples:

By regular expression: /foo/
Matches when the entire record contains “foo” somewhere.
By boolean expression: $2 ~ /foo/
Matches when the second field matches the regular expression foo.
By boolean expression: NR % 2
Matches all uneven records (lines), because NR is a special variable containing the current record number and 0 is falsy.
By range: /foo/, /bar/
Using the comma notation, this matches every record from the first to contain foo up to and including the next that contains bar. For example, you can print a table definition from a Ruby on Rails db/schema.rb file using awk '/create_table "users"/, /^ end/' db/schema.rb.
Run a block of code before or after looping over all the input. This is useful for setting up arrays, modifying special variables and presenting aggregated results.


While the default action of printing the current action already makes Awk an interesting alternative to grep, custom actions make Awk truly powerful.

Actions can contain entire programs using loops, variables, functions and conditionals – but in the end they usually come down to printing information to the output stream.

For example, you can print columns from the input record using the special $ function:1

{ print $2, $1 }

This program prints the first two columns of every record in reverse order. To have a little more control over output formatting, you can use the familiar printf function:

{ printf "%6s: $%.2f", $1, $2 }

This will print the first input column as six characters wide, right-aligned string; and the second as monetary value.

Advanced Awk programming

Awk is a surprisingly complete programming language. Consider the following example program:

BEGIN { max = 0 }
{ if($1 > max) max = $1 }
END { print max }

This simple program demonstrates the use of variables and conditionals to find the biggest value in the first column.

Consider the following example:

{ categories[$2]++ }
  for(key in categories) {
    print key, categories[key]

This program builds a histogram of the second column, outputting each unique value found in the second column of its input, following by how many times that value was found. Note the use of an associative array and the for(key in array) loop.

Finally, Awk allows you to use a set of built-in functions and even define your own.

Running Awk programs

The simplest way to use Awk is on the command line, for example to print known usernames:

$ awk -F: '{ print $1 }' /etc/passwd

Awk will read its first non-option argument as the program to run, and any other arguments as files to read. Awk will gladly accept multiple files as one big input stream. Of course, it will also work fine in a Unix pipeline.

When your programs get too large to comfortably write at a command prompt, you could put it in a file and tell Awk to run it:

$ awk -f my_program.awk /etc/passwd

Alternatively, as Awk also functions as an interpreter, you can write your Awk programs in an executable file. In a file called usernames.awk:

#!/usr/bin/awk -f
BEGIN { FS = ":" }
{ print $1 }

Make the file executable with chmod +x usernames.awk and invoke it with ./usernames.awk /etc/passwd.

Example program

Here is an example (prettified) script that parses some server log files, containing information about products fetched from a remote server and the total amount of time that took. We want to create a histogram showing time intervals and the total number of products in that category. The logs contain some lines that look like this:

[CatalogItem] Retrieved 12 product, expected 46 (1837.8ms)

This program is composed of several Awk scripts piped together, with a sort thrown in as well.

$ awk -F '[ ()]|ms' '
  # Construct an array of categories of average request times
  # and the number of products in that category.
  /\[CatalogItem\] Retrieved/ {
    number_of_products = $6
    total_request_time = $8
    average_response_time = nummber_of_products / total_request_time
    categories[int(average_response_time)] += number_of_products

  # When all lines have been read, print the results
  END {
    for(label in categories) {
      print label, categories[l]
  ' production.log
  awk '
    BEGIN {
      max = 0
    # Loop over all records to find the highest frequency
    # in the histogram
      if($2 > max) {
        max = $2
      categories[$1] = $2
    # Print the histogram again, but relate all frequencies to the
    # maximum we found
    END {
      for(label in categories) {
        printf("%5d %d\n", label, categories[label] / max)
  awk '
      # Construct a visual bar sized by the histogram frequency
      # in the second column. Note that Awk's string concatenation
      # operator is the space.
      bar = ""
      size = $2
      while(size-- > 0) {
        bar = bar "#"

      # Print the original histogram labels and the generated bar.
      printf("%6d %s\n", $1, bar)
  sort -n

This program will output something like:

     0 ##
   100 ######
   200 ###############
   300 #########


Search around the web and you’ll find dozens of pages with Awk one-liners to do all sorts of crazy text manipulation stuff. They’re a good resource to pick up new ideas from, but the power of Awk lies not in building libraries of text processing functions, but rather in the ability to quickly whip up custom scripts to handle unique circumstances. Master Awk and be creative!

  1. Since $ is a function, you could use expressions to retrieve a dynamic column number, i.e. n = NR % 2; print $n

Arjan van der Gaag

Arjan van der Gaag

A thirtysomething software developer, historian and all-round geek. This is his blog about Ruby, Rails, Javascript, Git, CSS, software and the web. Back to all talks and articles?


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