awk Getting started with awk

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The name AWK comes from the last initials of its creators Alfred V. Aho, Peter J. Weinberger, and
Brian W. Kernighan.



NameInitial VersionVersionRelease Date
POSIX awk1992IEEE Std 1003.1, 2013 Edition2013-04-19
One True Awk or nawk or BWK awk198X-2012-12-20
GNU awk or gawk19864.1.32015-05-19

AWK by examples

AWK is string manipulation language, used largely in UNIX systems. The idea behind AWK was to create a versatile language to use when working on files, which wasn't too complex to understand.

AWK has some other variants, but the main concept is the same, just with additional features. These other variants are NAWK and GAWK. GAWK contains all of the features of both, whilst NAWK is one step above AWK, if you like.

The most simple way to think of AWK, is to consider that it has 2 main parts. The pattern, and the action.

Probably the most basic example of AWK: (See also: Hello World)

BEGIN {print "START"}
      {print        }
END   {print "STOP" }

Here, the keywords BEGIN and END are the pattern, whilst the action is inside the {}. This example would be useless, but it would only take minor changes to actually make this into a useful function.

BEGIN {print "File\tAuthor"}
      {print $8, "\t", $3}
END {print " - DONE - "}

Here, \t represents a Tab character, and is used to even up the output line boundaries. $8 and $3 are similar to the use that is seen in Shell Scripts , but instead of using the 3rd and 8th arguments, it uses the 3rd and 8th column of the input line.

So, this example would print: File Author on the top line, whilst the second line is to do with the file paths. $8 is the name of the file, $3 is the owner (When looking at the directory path, this will be more clear). Finally, the bottom line would print, as you would expect - DONE -

Credit for the above example goes to

Reference file

coins.txt from Greg Goebel:

gold     1    1986  USA                 American Eagle
gold     1    1908  Austria-Hungary     Franz Josef 100 Korona
silver  10    1981  USA                 ingot
gold     1    1984  Switzerland         ingot
gold     1    1979  RSA                 Krugerrand
gold     0.5  1981  RSA                 Krugerrand
gold     0.1  1986  PRC                 Panda
silver   1    1986  USA                 Liberty dollar
gold     0.25 1986  USA                 Liberty 5-dollar piece
silver   0.5  1986  USA                 Liberty 50-cent piece
silver   1    1987  USA                 Constitution dollar
gold     0.25 1987  USA                 Constitution 5-dollar piece
gold     1    1988  Canada              Maple Leaf

Minimal theory

General awk one-liner:

awk <awk program> <file>


<shell-command> | awk <awk program> 

<shell-command> and <file> are addressed as awk input.

<awk program> is a code following this template (single, not double, quotes):

'BEGIN   {<init actions>};
 <cond1> {<program actions>};
 <cond2> {<program actions>};
 END  {<final actions>}'


  • <condX> condition is most often a regular expression /re/ , to be matched with awk input lines;
  • <* actions> are sequence of statements, similar to shell commands, equipped with C-like constructs.

`` is processed according to the following rules:
  1. BEGIN ... and END ... are optional and executed before or after processing awk input lines.
  2. For each line in the awk input, if condition <condN> is meat, then the related <program actions> block is executed.
  3. {<program actions>} defaults to {print $0} .

Conditions can be combined with standard logical operators:

    /gold/ || /USA/ && !/1986/

where && has precedence over || ;

Theprint statement. print item1 item2 statement prints items on STDOUT.
Items can be variables (X , $0 ), strings ("hello") or numbers.
item1, item2 are collated with the value of the OFS variable;
item1 item2 are justapoxed! Use item1 " " item2 for spaces or printf for more features.

Variables do not need $ , i.e.: print myVar;
The following special variables are builtin in awk:

  • FS : acts as field separator to splits awk input lines in fields. I can be a single character, FS="c" ; a null string, FS="" (then each individual character becomes a separate field); a regular expression without slashes, FS="re" ; FS=" " stands for runs of spaces and tabs and is defaults value.
  • NF : the number of fields to read;
  • $1 , $2 , ...: 1st field, 2nd field. etc. of the current input line,
  • $0 : current input line;
  • NR : current put line number.
  • OFS : string to collate fields when printed.
  • ORS : output record separator, by default a newline.
  • RS : Input line (record) separator. Defaults to newline. Set as FS .
  • IGNORECASE : affects FS and RS when are regular expression;


Filter lines by regexp gold and count them:

# awk 'BEGIN {print "Coins"} /gold/{i++; print $0}  END {print i " lines out of " NR}' coins.txt
gold     1    1986  USA                 American Eagle      
gold     1    1908  Austria-Hungary     Franz Josef 100 Korona 
gold     1    1984  Switzerland         ingot 
gold     1    1979  RSA                 Krugerrand 
gold     0.5  1981  RSA                 Krugerrand 
gold     0.1  1986  PRC                 Panda                       
gold     0.25 1986  USA                 Liberty 5-dollar piece
gold     0.25 1987  USA                 Constitution 5-dollar piece
gold     1    1988  Canada              Maple Leaf
9 lines out of 13

Default print $0 action and condition based on internal awk variable NR :

# awk 'BEGIN {print "First 3 coins"} NR<4' coins.txt
First 3 coins                                                  
gold     1    1986  USA                 American Eagle         
gold     1    1908  Austria-Hungary     Franz Josef 100 Korona 
silver  10    1981  USA                 ingot
Formatting with C-style `printf`:
# awk '{printf ("%s \t %3.2f\n", $1, $2)}' coins.txt
gold     1.00                                      
gold     1.00                                      
silver   10.00                                     
gold     1.00                                      
gold     1.00                                      
gold     0.50                                      
gold     0.10                                      
silver   1.00                                      
gold     0.25                                      
silver   0.50                                      
silver   1.00                                      
gold     0.25                                      
gold     1.00

Condition Examples

awk 'NR % 6'            # prints all lines except those divisible by 6
awk 'NR > 5'            # prints from line 6 onwards (like tail -n +6, or sed '1,5d')
awk '$2 == "foo"'       # prints lines where the second field is "foo"
awk '$2 ~ /re/'         # prints lines where the 2nd field mateches the regex /re/
awk 'NF >= 6'           # prints lines with 6 or more fields
awk '/foo/ && !/bar/'   # prints lines that match /foo/ but not /bar/
awk '/foo/ || /bar/'    # prints lines that match /foo/ or /bar/ (like grep -e 'foo' -e 'bar')
awk '/foo/,/bar/'       # prints from line matching /foo/ to line matching /bar/, inclusive
awk 'NF'                # prints only nonempty lines (or: removes empty lines, where NF==0)
awk 'NF--'              # removes last field and prints the line

By adding an action {...} one can print a specific field, rather than the whole line, e.g.:

awk '$2 ~ /re/{print $3 " " $4}'

prints the third and fourth field of lines where the second field mateches the regex /re/.

Some string functions

substr() function:

# awk '{print substr($3,3) " " substr($4,1,3)}' 
86 USA                                            
08 Aus                                            
81 USA                                            
84 Swi                                            
79 RSA                                            
81 RSA                                            
86 PRC                                            
86 USA                                            
86 USA                                            
86 USA                                            
87 USA                                            
87 USA                                            
88 Can                                            

match(s, r [, arr]) returns the position in s where the regex r occurs and sets the values of RSTART and RLENGTH . If the argument arr is provided, it returns the array arr where elements are set to the matched parenthesized subexpression. The 0’th element matches of arr is set to the entire regex match. Also expressions arr[n, "start"] and arr[n, "length"] provide the starting position and length of each matching substring.

More string functions:

sub(/regexp/, "newstring"[, target])
gsub(/regexp/, "newstring"[, target])


A simple statement is often any of the following:

variable = expression 
print [ expression-list ] 
printf format [ , expression-list ] 
next # skip remaining patterns on this input line
exit # skip the rest of the input

If stat1 and stat2 are statements, the following are also statements:


{stat1;  stat2}


if ( conditional ) statement [ else statement ]

The following standard C-like are constructs are statements:

if ( conditional ) statement [ else statement ]
while ( conditional ) statement
for ( expression ; conditional ; expression ) statement
break    # usual C meaning 
continue # usual C meaning 

A C-style loop to print the variable length description element, starting with field 4:

# awk '{out=""; for(i=4;i<=NF;i++){out=out" "$i}; print out}' coins.txt
USA American Eagle                    
Austria-Hungary Franz Josef 100 Korona
USA ingot                             
Switzerland ingot                     
RSA Krugerrand                        
RSA Krugerrand                        
PRC Panda                             
USA Liberty dollar                    
USA Liberty 5-dollar piece            
USA Liberty 50-cent piece             
USA Constitution dollar               
USA Constitution 5-dollar piece       
Canada Maple Leaf

Note that i is initialized to 0.

If conditions and calculations applied to nuneric fields:

# awk '/gold/ {if($3<1980) print $0 "$" 425*$2}' coins.txt    
gold     1    1908  Austria-Hungary     Franz Josef 100 Korona      $425
gold     1    1979  RSA                 Krugerrand                  $425   

AWK executable script

#!/usr/bin/gawk -f
# This is a comment
(pattern) {action}

Passing shell variables

# var="hello"
# awk -v x="$var" 'BEGIN {print x}'

Hello world

The Hello world example is as simple as:

awk 'BEGIN {print "Hello world"}'

The most basic awk program consists of a true value (typically 1 ) and makes awk echo its input:

$ date | awk '1'
Mon Jul 25 11:12:05 CEST 2016

Since "hello world" is also a true value, you could also say:

$ date | awk '"hello world"'
Mon Jul 25 11:12:05 CEST 2016

However, your intention becomes much clearer if you write

$ date | awk '{print}'
Mon Jul 25 11:12:05 CEST 2016


How to run AWK programs

If the program is short, you can include it in the command that runs awk:

awk -F: '{print $1, $2}' /etc/passwd

In this example, using command line switch -F: we advise awk to use : as input fields delimiter. Is is the same like

awk 'BEGIN{FS=":"}{print $1,$2}' file

Alternativelly, we can save the whole awk code in an awk file and call this awk programm like this:

awk -f 'program.awk' input-file1 input-file2 ...

program.awk can be whatever multiline program, i.e :

# file print_fields.awk
BEGIN {print "this is a header"; FS=":"}
{print $1, $2}
END {print "that was it"}

And then run it with:

awk -f print_fields.awk /etc/passwd   #-f advises awk which program file to load

Or More generally:

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

The advantage of having the program in a seperate file is that you can write the programm with correct identation to make sense, you can include comments with # , etc

Got any awk Question?