What Is Awk in Shell Scripting?


Scott Campbell

The Awk programming language is a powerful tool for text processing in shell scripting. It provides a concise and efficient way to manipulate data, making it an essential component of any shell scripter’s toolkit.

What Is Awk?
Awk is a versatile programming language that allows you to search for and process patterns within files. It was initially developed at Bell Labs in the 1970s and has since become a standard feature on most Unix-like operating systems. The name “awk” is derived from the surnames of its creators: Alfred Aho, Peter Weinberger, and Brian Kernighan.

How Does Awk Work?
Awk works by scanning input files line by line and applying user-defined patterns and actions to them. It uses pattern-action pairs, where each pattern specifies a condition to match, and each action specifies what to do when the condition is met.

Here’s a basic syntax example of an awk command:

awk 'pattern { action }' input_file

  • The pattern defines the condition that needs to be met for the action to be executed.
  • The action specifies what should be done when the pattern matches.
  • The input_file is the file(s) that need to be processed.

Awk processes each line of the input file(s) against all defined patterns until it reaches the end of the file(s). It then moves on to the next line and repeats the process.

Awk Features:

Awk provides several key features that make it a popular choice for text processing:

1. Pattern Matching:

Awk allows you to define patterns using regular expressions or simple string matching.

This enables you to search for specific patterns within your data and perform actions accordingly. For example, you can search for lines that contain a specific word or match a certain pattern.

2. Field Separation:

Awk automatically divides each line of input into fields based on a predefined separator.

By default, the separator is whitespace, but you can specify a different separator using the -F option. This makes it easy to access and manipulate individual fields within each line.

3. Built-in Variables:

Awk provides numerous built-in variables that give you access to useful information during data processing. For example, the NF variable represents the number of fields in the current line, while NR represents the current record (line) number.

4. Powerful Functions:

Awk includes many powerful built-in functions that allow you to perform various operations on your data. These functions range from basic arithmetic and string manipulation to more advanced tasks like sorting and mathematical calculations.

Awk Examples:

Now let’s take a look at some practical examples of how awk can be used in shell scripting:

1. Counting the Number of Lines in a File:
awk 'END {print NR}' input_file

This command prints the total number of lines in the specified input file.

2. Extracting Specific Fields:
awk '{print $1, $4}' input_file

This command prints the first and fourth fields of each line in the input file.

3. Filtering Lines Based on Conditions:
awk '$3 > 50 {print $0}' input_file

This command prints all lines where the value of the third field is greater than 50.

These are just a few examples of what awk can do. With its rich set of features and flexibility, awk allows you to perform complex text processing tasks efficiently.


Awk is a powerful text processing language that provides a concise and efficient way to manipulate data within shell scripts. With its pattern matching capabilities, field separation, built-in variables, and powerful functions, awk enables you to perform a wide range of text processing tasks with ease.

Whether you need to extract specific information from files, filter lines based on conditions, or perform calculations on your data, awk has got you covered. So next time you find yourself dealing with text processing in shell scripting, give awk a try and experience its versatility firsthand.

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