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The name grep is a combination of editor command characters. the name came from Unix editor command :g/RE/p, which translates to global Regular Expression print

There are four major variants of grep, controlled by the following options.

This "multiple personalities" behavior is very confusing.  I hate the fact that nobody has the courage to implement a new standard grep and that the current implementation has all warts accumulated during the 30 years of Unix existence. I highly recommend using -P option (Perl regular expressions) as default by redefining grep -P as an alias grep. It makes grep behavior less insane.

Two shortcuts egrep and fgrep are available:

Also there is a separate implementation of grep that uses Perl regular expressions exclusively, called pcregrep. 

We will assume GNU version of grep. Other version are quite similar and sometimes more powerful, but GNU grep is a standard de-facto and currently it beat others by having -P (Perl regex) option.  Which I highly recommend to use as a standard option defining it is grep alias, for example:

alias grep="grep -P "

Process file that are detected as binary by file or grep

-a, --text

Process a binary file as if it were text; this is equivalent to the --binary-files=text option.

For example

grep -Ea -A 5 '$Subject:' inbox

Listing only file names of those files that contain (or do not contain if -v is used) the string

Listing only file names of those files that contain (or do not contain if -v is used) the string

Option -l allows you to list only files that contain the search string.

Window of output

GNU grep is able to output lines in the visinity of the match line:

Context Line Control

Ignoring case

i, --ignore-case
Ignore case distinctions in both the PATTERN and the input files. (-i is specified by POSIX .)

Reversal of matching

-v, --invert-match Invert the sense of matching, to select non-matching lines. (-v is specified by POSIX .)

Getting patterns from a file

-f FILE, --file=FILE Obtain patterns from FILE, one per line. The empty file contains zero patterns, and therefore matches nothing. (-f is specified by POSIX .)

Grep regular expressions

Unix grep is the old and pretty capricious text file search utility that can search either for strings or for regular expression.  I never have much luck in writing complex regular expression in "old" grep despite using Perl on daily basis (and due to my teaching experience being reasonably well-versed in regex syntax. Few worked from the first time and it make sense to check behavior of a text before performing some actions which depend on such output.

With the introduction of Perl regular expressions in GNU grep situation improved considerably.  

It's important to understand that for historical reasons grep supports regex in three variations:

This "multiple personalities" behavior is very confusing.  I hate the fact that nobody has the courage to implement a new standard grep and that the current implementation has all warts accumulated during the 30 years of Unix existence. I highly recommend using -P option (Perl regular expressions) as default by redefining grep -P as a alias grep. It makes grep behavior less insane.

Two shortcuts egrep and fgrep are available. egrep is the same as grep -E. fgrep is the same as grep -F.

Also there is a separate implementation of grep that uses Perl regular expressions exclusively, called pcregrep 

The most primitive regular expression is a string. In this case grep returns all matching lines that contain foo as a substring.  grep has a special version that does string searching very fast (fgrep, see below). For example,

fgrep foo file # returns all the lines that contain a string "foo" in the file "file".

Another way of using grep is to have it accept data through STDIN. instead of having it search a file. For example,

ls | fgrep blah  # lists all files in the current directory containing the string "blah"
In GNU grep you can also colorize the output using "--color"option with grep command which basically surround the matching string with the marker find in GREP_COLOR environment variable.
grep --color=auto  foo myfile

As for regular expressions grep is very idiosyncratic in a sense that you need to remember to use backslash before any special character in a regular expressions. For example:

grep 'if | while'   #-- wrong

grep 'if \|while'  #-- will work, please note single quotes

In complex cases please always use  -P option (Perl regular expression option -- available only in GNU grep), or egrep if -P option is unavailable.

In complex cases  always use Perl or use grep -P option

There are also several variants of grep that can search directly in archives, for example gzgrep and bzgrep.   gzgrep is an envelope for grep that can invoke the grep on compressed or  gzip'ed files. All options specified are passed directly to grep. If no  file  is specified,  then the standard input is decompressed and fed to grep.  Otherwise the given files are uncompressed if necessary and fed to grep.


Dr. Nikolai Bezroukov

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[Jul 30, 2011] pcregrep(1) grep with Perl-compatible regex - Linux man page

pcregrep searches files for character patterns, in the same way as other grep commands do, but it uses the PCRE regular expression library to support patterns that are compatible with the regular expressions of Perl 5. See pcrepattern for a full description of syntax and semantics of the regular expressions that PCRE supports

[Aug 4, 2009] Tech Tip View Config Files Without Comments Linux Journal

I've been using this grep invocation for years to trim comments out of config files. Comments are great but can get in your way if you just want to see the currently running configuration. I've found files hundreds of lines long which had fewer than ten active configuration lines, it's really hard to get an overview of what's going on when you have to wade through hundreds of lines of comments.

$ grep ^[^#] /etc/ntp.conf

The regex ^[^#] matches the first character of any line, as long as that character that is not a #. Because blank lines don't have a first character they're not matched either, resulting in a nice compact output of just the active configuration lines.

[Mar 18, 2009] UNIX BASH scripting Highlight match with color in grep command

You can change this color by setting the GREP_COLOR environment variable to different combinations (from the color code list given below).

I use

$ export GREP_COLOR='1;30;43'

which basically highlights the matched pattern with foreground color black and background color yellow (shown below in the snap).

The set display attributes list:

0 Reset all attributes
1 Bright
2 Dim
4 Underscore
5 Blink
7 Reverse
8 Hidden

Foreground Colours
30 Black
31 Red
32 Green
33 Yellow
34 Blue
35 Magenta
36 Cyan
37 White

Background Colours
40 Black
41 Red
42 Green
43 Yellow
44 Blue
45 Magenta
46 Cyan
47 White

[Sep 11, 2008] glark by Jeff Pace

Ruby based

glark offers grep-like searching of text files, with very powerful, complex regular expressions (e.g., "/foo\w+/ and /bar[^\d]*baz$/ within 4 lines of each other"). It also highlights the matches, displays context (preceding and succeeding lines), does case-insensitive matches, and automatic exclusion of non-text files. It supports most options from the GNU version of grep.

[May 06, 2008] ack! - Perl-based grep replacement

There are some tools that look like you will never replace them. One of those (for me) is grep. It does what it does very well (remarks about the shortcomings of regexen in general aside). It works reasonably well with Unicode/UTF-8 (a great opportunity to Fail Miserably for any tool, viz. a2ps).

Yet, the other day I read about ack, which claims to be "better than grep, a search tool for programmers". Woo. Better than grep? In what way?

The ack homepage lists the top ten reasons why one should use it instead of grep. Actually, it's thirteen reasons but then some are dupes. So I'd say "about ten reasons". Let's look at them in order.

  1. It's blazingly fast because it only searches the stuff you want searched.

    Wait, how does it know what I want? A DWIM-Interface at last? Not quite. First off, ack is faster than grep for simple searches. Here's an example:

    $ time ack 1Jsztn-000647-SL exim_main.log >/dev/null
    real    0m3.463s
    user    0m3.280s
    sys     0m0.180s
    $ time grep -F 1Jsztn-000647-SL exim_main.log >/dev/null
    real    0m14.957s
    user    0m14.770s
    sys     0m0.160s

    Two notes: first, yes, the file was in the page cache before I ran ack; second, I even made it easy for grep by telling it explicitly I was looking for a fixed string (not that it helped much, the same command without -F was faster by about 0.1s). Oh and for completeness, the exim logfile I searched has about two million lines and is 250M. I've run those tests ten times for each, the times shown above are typical.

    So yes, for simple searches, ack is faster than grep. Let's try with a more complicated pattern, then. This time, let's use the pattern (klausman|gentoo) on the same file. Note that we have to use -E for grep to use extended regexen, which ack in turn does not need, since it (almost) always uses them. Here, grep takes its sweet time: 3:56, nearly four minutes. In contrast, ack accomplished the same task in 49 seconds (all times averaged over ten runs, then rounded to integer seconds).

    As for the "being clever" side of speed, see below, points 5 and 6

  2. ack is pure Perl, so it runs on Windows just fine.

    This isn't relevant to me, since I don't use windows for anything where I might need grep. That said, it might be a killer feature for others.

  3. The standalone version uses no non-standard modules, so you can put it in your ~/bin without fear.

    Ok, this is not so much of a feature than a hard criterion. If I needed extra modules for the whole thing to run, that'd be a deal breaker. I already have tons of libraries, I don't need more undergrowth around my dependency tree.

  4. Searches recursively through directories by default, while ignoring .svn, CVS and other VCS directories.

    This is a feature, yet one that wouldn't pry me away from grep: -r is there (though it distinctly feels like an afterthought). Since ack ignores a certain set of files and directories, its recursive capabilities where there from the start, making it feel more seamless.

  5. ack ignores most of the crap you don't want to search

    To be precise:

    • VCS directories
    • blib, the Perl build directory
    • backup files like foo~ and #foo#
    • binary files, core dumps, etc.

    Most of the time, I don't want to search those (and have to exclude them with grep -v from find results). Of course, this ignore-mode can be switched off with ack (-u). All that said, it sure makes command lines shorter (and easier to read and construct). Also, this is the first spot where ack's Perl-centricism shows. I don't mind, even though I prefer that other language with P.

  6. Ignoring .svn directories means that ack is faster than grep for searching through trees.

    Dupe. See Point 5

  7. Lets you specify file types to search, as in --perl or --nohtml.

    While at first glance, this may seem limited, ack comes with a plethora of definitions (45 if I counted correctly), so it's not as perl-centric as it may seem from the example. This feature saves command-line space (if there's such a thing), since it avoids wild find-constructs. The docs mention that --perl also checks the shebang line of files that don't have a suffix, but make no mention of the other "shipped" file type recognizers doing so.

  8. File-filtering capabilities usable without searching with ack -f. This lets you create lists of files of a given type.

    This mostly is a consequence of the feature above. Even if it weren't there, you could simply search for "."

  9. Color highlighting of search results.

    While I've looked upon color in shells as kinda childish for a while, I wouldn't want to miss syntax highlighting in vim, colors for ls (if they're not as sucky as the defaults we had for years) or match highlighting for grep. It's really neat to see that yes, the pattern you grepped for indeed matches what you think it does. Especially during evolutionary construction of command lines and shell scripts.

  10. Uses real Perl regular expressions, not a GNU subset

    Again, this doesn't bother me much. I use egrep/grep -E all the time, anyway. And I'm no Perl programmer, so I don't get withdrawal symptoms every time I use another regex engine.

  11. Allows you to specify output using Perl's special variables

    This sounds neat, yet I don't really have a use case for it. Also, my perl-fu is weak, so I probably won't use it anyway. Still, might be a killer feature for you.

    The docs have an example:

    ack '(Mr|Mr?s)\. (Smith|Jones)' --output='$&'
  12. Many command-line switches are the same as in GNU grep:

    Specifically mentioned are -w, -c and -l. It's always nice if you don't have to look up all the flags every time.

  13. Command name is 25% fewer characters to type! Save days of free-time! Heck, it's 50% shorter compared to grep -r

    Okay, now we have proof that not only the ack webmaster can't count, he's also making up reasons for fun. Works for me.

Bottom line: yes, ack is an exciting new tool which partly replaces grep. That said, a drop-in replacement it ain't. While the standalone version of ack needs nothing but a perl interpreter and its standard modules, for embedded systems that may not work out (vs. the binary with no deps beside a libc). This might also be an issue if you need grep early on during boot and /usr (where your perl resides) isn't mounted yet. Also, default behaviour is divergent enough that it might yield nasty surprises if you just drop in ack instead of grep. Still, I recommend giving ack a try if you ever use grep on the command line. If you're a coder who often needs to search through working copies/checkouts, even more so.


I've written a followup on this, including some tips for day-to-day usage (and an explanation of grep's sucky performance).


René "Necoro" Neumann writes (in German, translation by me):

Stumbled across your blog entry about "ack" today. I tried it and found it to be cool :). So I created two ebuilds for it:

Just wanted to let you know (there is no comment function on your blog).

[May 31, 2006] GNU grep's new features By: Michael Stutz

It looks like GNU grep became too overloaded with features ("christmas tree"). In many complex cases custom Perl script can compete with grep.

If you haven't been paying attention to GNU grep recently, you should be happily surprised by some of the new features and options that have come about with the 2.5 series. They bring it functionality you can't get anywhere else -- including the ability to output only matched patterns (not lines), color output, and new file and directory options.

Granted, the addition of this feature set caused a number of bugs that made it necessary to rewrite part of the code, but the latest 2.5.1a bugfix release is eminently usable.

One highlight of the new version is its ability to output only matched patterns. This is one of the most exciting features, because it adds completely new functionality to the tool. Remember, "grep" is an acronym -- it got its name from a function in the old Unix ed utility, global / regular expression / print -- and its purpose was to output lines from its input that match a given regular expression.

It remains such, but the new -o option (or --only-matching) specifies that only the matched patterns themselves are to be output, and not the entire lines they come on. If more than one match is found on a single line, those matches are output on lines of their own.

With this new option, suddenly GNU grep is transformed from a utility that outputs lines into a tool for harvesting patterns. You can use it to harvest data from input files, such as pulling out referrers from your server logs, or URLs from a file:

egrep -o '(((http(s)?|ftp|telnet|news|gopher)://|mailto:)[^\(\)[:space:]]+)' logfile

Or grab email addresses from a file:

egrep -o '\@/:[:space:]]+\>@[a-zA-Z_\.]+?\.[a-zA-Z]{2,3}' somefile

Use it to pull out all the senders from an email archive and sort into a file of unique addresses:

grep '^From: ' huge-mail-archive | egrep -o '\@/:[:space:]]+\>@[a-zA-Z_\.]+?\.[a-zA-Z]{2,3}' | sort | uniq > email.addresses

New uses for this feature keep popping up. You can use it, for instance, as a tool for testing regular expressions. Say you've whipped up a complicated regexp to do some task. You think it's the world's greatest regexp, it's going to do everything short of solving all the world's problems -- but at runtime, it doesn't seem to go as planned.

Next time this happens, use the -o option when you're in the design stage, and have grep read from the standard input, where you can feed it test data -- you'll see right away whether or not it matches exactly what you think it does. Since grep will be tossing back to you not the matched lines but the actual matches to the expression, it'll give you a pretty good clue how to fix it.

Output matches in color

Use the --color option to display matches in the input in color (red, by default). Color is added via ANSI escape sequences, which don't work in all displays, but grep is smart enough to detect this and won't use color (even if specified) if you're sending the output down a pipeline. Otherwise, if you piped the output to (say) less, the ANSI escape sequences would send garbage to the screen. If, on the other hand, that's really what you want to do, there's a workaround: use the --color=always to force it, and call less with the -R flag (which prints all raw control characters). That way, the color codes will escape correctly and you'll page through screens of text with your matched patterns in full color:

grep --color=always "regexp" myfile | less -R

The GREP_COLOR environment variable controls which color is used. To change the color from red to something else, set GREP_COLOR to a numeric value according to this chart:

30	black
31	red
32	green
33	yellow
34	blue
35	purple
36	cyan
37	white

For example, to have matches highlighted in a shade of green:

GREP_COLOR=32; export GREP_COLOR; grep pattern myfile

Use Perl regexps

One of the biggest developments in regular expressions to occur in the last few decades has been the Perl programming language, with its own regular expression dialect. GNU grep now takes Perl-style regexps with the -P option. (It's not always compiled in by default, so if you get an error message of "grep: The -P option is not supported" when you try to use it, you'll have to get the sources and recompile.)

To search for a bell character (Ctrl-g), you can now use:

grep -P '\cG' myfile

This is considered a "major variant" of grep, as with the -E and -F options (which are the egrep and fgrep tools, respectively), but it doesn't yet come with an associated program name -- perhaps new versions will have a prep binary (it sounds much better than pgrep) that will mean the same thing as using -P.

Dealing with input

A number of new features have to do with files and input. The new --label option lets you specify a text "label" to standard input. Where it's really useful is when you're grepping a lot of files at once, plus standard input, and you're making use of the labels that grep prefixes its matches with. Normally, standard input would be the only one with a label you couldn't control -- it's always prefixed with "(standard input)" as its label. Now, it can be prefixed with whatever argument you give the --label option.

grep changes quick reference

-Cx prints context lines before and after matches and must have argument x.

--color outputs matches in color (default red).

-D action specifies an action to take on device files (the default is "read").

--exclude= filespec excludes files matching filespec.

--include= filespec only searches through files matching filespec.

--label= name makes name the new label for stdin.

--line-buffered turns on line buffering.

-m X stops searching input after finding X matched lines.

-o outputs only matched patterns, not entire lines.

-P uses Perl-style regular expressions.

When searching through multiple files, you can control which files to search for with the --include and --exclude options. For example, to search for "linux" only in files with .txt extensions in the /usr/local/src directory tree, use:

grep -r --include=*.txt linux /usr/local/src

When you're recursively searching directories of files, you'll get errors when grep comes across a device file. With the new --devices option, you can specify what you want it to do on these files, by giving it an optional action. The default action is "read," which means to just read the file as any other file. But you can also specify "skip," which will skip the file entirely. Those are currently the only two methods for handling devices.

To search for "linux" in all files on the system, excluding special device files, use:

grep -r --device=skip linux /

Finally, the --line-buffered option turns on line buffering, and --m (or --max-count) gives the maximum number of matched lines to show, after which grep will stop searching the given input. For example, this command searches a huge file with line buffering, exiting after at most 10 matched lines occur:

grep --line-buffered -m 10 huge.file

POSIX updates

Some of the other new updates were made are so that GNU grep conforms to POSIX.2, including subtle changes in exit status.

One of these changes is that the interpretation of character classes is now locale-dependent. That means that ranges specified in bracketed expressions like [A-Z] don't mean the same thing everywhere. If the system's current locale environment calls for its own characters or sorting, these settings will override any default character range.

Another related update is a change to the old -C option, which outputs a specified number of lines of context before and after matched lines. In the past, when you used -C without an option, grep would output two lines of before-and-after context, but now you have to give an argument; if you don't, grep will report an error and exit. That's something to look out for if you've got any old shells scripts or routines sitting around that call grep.

[ z a z z y b o b . c o m ] -usr-share-doc-tips

GNU grep comes with a recursive option (-r,-R) that allows you to recursively grep for a pattern through all files and any subdirectories.

But what happens if you aren't using GNU grep? You can use find to assist...

find /path/to/files -exec grep "pattern" {} \;

You can, of course, provide your usual options to grep, e.g.

find /path/to/files -exec grep -li "pattern" {} \;

pcregrep-4.5-1.i386 RPM

pcregrep searches files for character patterns, in the same way as other grep commands do, but it uses the PCRE regular expression library to support patterns that are compatible with the regular expressions of Perl 5. See pcre(3) for a full description of syntax and semantics.

If no files are specified, pcregrep reads the standard input. By default, each line that matches the pattern is copied to the standard output, and if there is more than one file, the file name is printed before each line of output. However, there are options that can change how pcregrep behaves.

Lines are limited to BUFSIZ characters. BUFSIZ is defined in <stdio.h>. The newline character is removed from the end of each line before it is matched against the pattern.

Re Replacing GNU grep revisited

Chris Costello said:
> On Sunday, June 22, 2003, Sean Farley wrote:
>> Reasons to consider for switching:
>> 1. GNU's grep -r option "is broken" according to the following post.
>>    The only thing I have noticed is that FreeGrep has more options for
>> controlling how symbolic links are traversed.
>    A workaround for this problem in the meantime would be to use
>      find <directory> -type f | xargs grep EXPR
>    Just FYI.

Rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated.  And to call myself busy any
more is an understatement.

But yes, I got an email from Ted Unangst telling me about the OpenBSD move
to FreeGrep and this pleases me greatly.  I have been glancing over thier
CVS tree (via the web) and they have made a number of changes to fix the
bugs being discussed here.  Aside from a handful of errors (which are
presumably correctable), the speed is still an issue.

It is horribly slow when compared to the GNU version.  FreeBSD will see
better times than OpenBSD due to some changes made to the regex code a few
years ago which I adapted from the 4.4BSD-Lite2 code for grep, but it
still lags behind GNU in performance.


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[May 06, 2008] ack! - Perl-based grep replacement

Searching in Unusual Ways and Places

Clearly, grep is a command I can’t live without. I constantly use it on its own and in pipes with other commands. For example:

% ps -aux | egrep 'chavez|PID'
chavez  14355   0.0   1.6   2556  1792  pts/2  S     10:23   0:00  -tcsh
chavez  18684  89.5   9.6  27680  5280  ?      R N   Sep25  85:26  /home/j03/l988

I use this command combination often enough with different usernames that I’ve defined an alias for it.

Less Well-Known Regular Expression Constructs

Most are familiar with the asterisk, plus sign, and question mark modifiers to regular expression items (match zero or more, one or more, or exactly one of the item, respectively). However, you can specify how many of each item should be matched even more precisely using some extended regular expression constructs (use egrep or grep -E):

Form Meaning

{n} Match exactly n of the preceding item.
{n,} Match n or more of the preceding item.
{n,m} Match at least n and no more than m of the preceding item.

Here are some simple examples:

% grep -E "t{2}" bio
She has written eight books, including 
Essential Cultural Studies from Pitt. When 
she's not writing

% grep -E "[0-9]{3,}" bio
network of Unix and Windows NT/2000/XP 
systems. She

% grep -E "(the ){2,}|(and ){2,}" bio
and and creating murder mystery games. She
you'd like to receive the the free newsletter

The first command searches for double t’s; the second command looks for numbers of three or more digits; and the third command searches for two consecutive instances of the words “the” and “and” (it’s a primitive copy editor). You might be tempted to formulate the final item as:

(the |and ){2,}

However, this won’t work, as it will match “and the,” which is not generally an error.

Finally, be aware that the constuct {,m}, which might mean “match m or fewer of the preceding item,” is not defined.

Random Findings


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The Last but not Least

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Last modified: July 13, 2016