Using sed and awk

3 minute read

In the world of Unix-based systems, text manipulation is a common task performed by developers, system administrators, and data analysts alike. Among the myriad of tools available, Sed and Awk stand out as powerful utilities for processing and transforming text efficiently. In this tutorial, we will delve into the intricacies of using Sed and Awk, exploring their features, syntax, and practical applications.

Introduction to Sed:

Sed, short for Stream Editor, is a command-line utility used for parsing and transforming text streams. It excels at performing tasks such as search and replace, text filtering, and line-by-line processing.

Basic Syntax:

The basic syntax of Sed follows this pattern:


Key Sed Commands:

  1. Search and Replace (s command): Replace occurrences of a pattern within a text stream.

     sed 's/pattern/replacement/g' input.txt
  2. Printing Lines (p command): Print specific lines based on conditions.

     sed -n '5,10p' input.txt
  3. Delete Lines (d command): Delete lines based on conditions.

     sed '/pattern/d' input.txt
  4. Inserting and Appending (i and a commands): Insert or append text at specified line numbers.

     sed '3i\Inserted Line' input.txt
  5. Substitution with Regular Expressions: Utilize powerful regular expressions for advanced text manipulation.

Introduction to Awk:

Awk is a versatile programming language designed for text processing and pattern scanning. It operates on a record-by-record basis and is particularly useful for extracting and manipulating data from structured text files.

Basic Syntax:

The basic syntax of Awk follows this pattern:

awk 'pattern { action }' input_file

Key Awk Features:

  1. Field Separation: Awk automatically splits input records into fields, making it easy to access and manipulate specific columns.

  2. Pattern Matching: Define patterns to match specific conditions within input records.

  3. Built-in Variables: Awk provides built-in variables like NR (current record number), NF (number of fields), and $1, $2, etc. (individual fields).

  4. Custom Functions: Define custom functions to perform complex operations on input data.

Practical Examples:

Let’s illustrate the usage of Sed and Awk with some practical examples:

Example 1: Extracting Usernames from a Password File Using Awk

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

Example 2: Replacing Multiple Occurrences of a Word in a Text File Using Sed

sed 's/old_word/new_word/g' input.txt

Example 3: Filtering Log Entries by Error Level Using Awk

awk '$3 == "ERROR" {print $0}' log_file.txt


Sed and Awk are indispensable tools for text manipulation in Unix environments. With their robust features and versatile syntax, they enable developers and administrators to perform a wide range of tasks efficiently. By mastering Sed and Awk, you’ll unlock the power to manipulate and transform text data with ease, empowering you to tackle complex challenges in scripting, data processing, and system administration.


1. What is Sed and Awk used for?

Sed and Awk are powerful text processing utilities commonly used in Unix-based systems. Sed (Stream Editor) is primarily used for performing text transformations, such as search and replace, filtering, and line-by-line processing. Awk, on the other hand, is a versatile programming language designed for pattern scanning and processing of structured text files. It is particularly useful for extracting and manipulating data from tabular or delimited text files.

2. Can Sed and Awk be used together?

Yes, Sed and Awk can be used together in Unix pipelines to perform complex text processing tasks. Sed is often used for basic text transformations and filtering, while Awk is used for more advanced data extraction and manipulation tasks. Combining the two allows for seamless processing of text data, leveraging the strengths of each utility.

3. Are Sed and Awk portable across different Unix-like systems?

Yes, Sed and Awk are standard utilities included in most Unix-like operating systems, including Linux, macOS, and BSD variants. As such, scripts written using Sed and Awk are generally portable across different Unix environments, ensuring compatibility and consistency in text processing tasks.

4. What are the differences between Sed and Awk?

While both Sed and Awk are text processing utilities, they have distinct features and use cases. Sed is more focused on performing simple text transformations and editing tasks, such as search and replace, line deletion, and insertion. Awk, on the other hand, is a full-fledged programming language with support for complex data manipulation, pattern matching, and structured text processing. Awk excels at tasks involving data extraction, filtering, and reporting from tabular or delimited text files.

5. Are there any limitations to using Sed and Awk?

While Sed and Awk are powerful tools for text processing, they may have limitations when dealing with extremely large or complex datasets. In such cases, performance considerations and memory usage should be taken into account. Additionally, Sed and Awk may not be suitable for processing binary files or highly structured data formats that require specialized parsing techniques. In such scenarios, other tools or programming languages may be more appropriate.