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Mar 01: Michael Sanders demos an X-windows GUI for AWK.

Mar 01: Awk100#24: A. Lahm and E. de Rinaldis' patent search, in AWK

Feb 28: Tim Menzies asks this community to write an AWK cookbook.

Feb 28: Arnold Robbins announces a new debugger for GAWK.

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Feb 28: Updated: the AWK FAQ

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Jan 31: Comment system added to For example, see discussion bottom of ?keys2awk

Jan 31: Martin Cohen shows that Gawk can handle massively long strings (300 million characters).

Jan 31: The AWK FAQ is being updated. For comments/ corrections/ extensions, please mail

Jan 31: Martin Cohen finds Awk on the Android platform.

Jan 31: Aleksey Cheusov released a new version of runawk.

Jan 31: Hirofumi Saito contributes a candidate Awk mascot.

Jan 31: Michael Sanders shows how to quickly build an AWK GUI for windows.

Jan 31: Hyung-Hwan Chung offers QSE, an embeddable Awk Interpreter.

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categories: Learn,Jan,2009,Timm

Four Keys to Gawk

by T. Menzies

Imagine Gawk as a kind of a cut-down C language with four tricks:

  1. self-initializing variables
  2. pattern-based programming
  3. regular expressions
  4. associative arrays.

What to all these do? Well....

Self-initializing variables.

You don't need to define variables- they appear as your use them.

There are only three types: stings, numbers, and arrays.

To ensure a number is a number, add zero to it.


To ensure a string is a string, add an empty string to it.

x= x "" "the string you really want to add"

To ensure your variables aren't global, use them within a function and add more variables to the call. For example if a function is passed two variables, define it with two PLUS the local variables:

 function haslocals(passed1,passed2,         local1,local2,local3) {
        passed1=passes1+1  # changes externally
        local1=7           # only changed locally

Note that its good practice to add white space between passed and local variables.

Pattern-based programming

Gawk programs can contain functions AND pattern/action pairs.

If the pattern is satisfied, the action is called.

 /^\.P1/ { if (p != 0) print ".P1 after .P1, line", NR;
           p = 1;
 /^\.P2/ { if (p != 1) print ".P2 with no preceding .P1, line", NR;
           p = 0;
 END     { if (p != 0) print "missing .P2 at end" }

Two magic patterns are BEGIN and END. These are true before and after all the input files are read. Use END of end actions (e.g. final reports) and BEGIN for start up actions such as initializing default variables, setting the field separator, resetting the seed of the random number generator:

        while (getline < "Usr.Dict.Words") #slurp in dictionary 
                dict[$0] = 1
        FS=",";                            #set field seperator
        srand();                           #reset random seed
        Round=10;                          #always start globals with U.C.

The default action is {print $0}; i.e. print the whole line.

The default pattern is 1; i.e. true.

Patterns are checked, top to bottom, in source-code order.

Patterns can contain regular expressions. In the above example /^\.P1/ means "front of line followed by a full stop followed by P1". Regular expressions are important enough for their own section.

A Small Example

Ok, so now we know enough to explain an simple report function. How does hist.awk work in the following?

% cat /etc/passwd | grep -v \# | cut -d: -f 6|sort |
                    uniq -c | sort -r -n | Gawk -f hist.awk

              **************************  26 /var/empty
                                      **   2 /var/virusmails
                                      **   2 /var/root
                                       *   1 /var/xgrid/controller
                                       *   1 /var/xgrid/agent
                                       *   1 /var/teamsserver
                                       *   1 /var/spool/uucp
                                       *   1 /var/spool/postfix
                                       *   1 /var/spool/cups
                                       *   1 /var/pcast/server
                                       *   1 /var/pcast/agent
                                       *   1 /var/imap
                                       *   1 /Library/WebServer

hist.awk reads the maximum width from line one (when NR==1), then scales it to some maximum width value. For each line, it then prints the line ($0) with some stars at front.

NR==1  { Width = Width ? Width : 40 ; sets Width if it is missing
         Scale = $1 > Width ? $1 / Width : 1 
       { Stars=int($1*Scale);  
         print str(Width - Stars," ") str(Stars,"*") $0 

# note that, in the following "tmp" is a local variable
function str(n,c, tmp) { # returns a string, size "n", of all  "c" 
    while((n--) > 0 ) tmp= c tmp 
    return tmp 

Regular Expressions

Do you know what these mean?

  • /^[ \t\n]*/
  • /[ \t\n]*$/
  • /^[+-]?([0-9]+[.]?[0-9]*|[.][0-9]+)([eE][+-]?[0-9]+)?$/

Well, the first two are leading and trailing blank spaces on a line and the last one is the definition of an IEEE-standard number written as a regular expression. Once we know that, we can do a bunch of common tasks like trimming away white space around a string:

  function trim(s,     t) {
    sub(/^[ \t\n]*/,"",t);
    sub(/[ \t\n]*$/,"",t);
    return t

or recognize something that isn't a number:

if ( $i !~ /^[+-]?([0-9]+[.]?[0-9]*|[.][0-9]+)([eE][+-]?[0-9]+)?$/ ) 
    {print "ERROR: " $i " not a number}

Regular expressions are an astonishingly useful tool supported by many languages (e.g. Awk, Perl, Python, Java). The following notes review the basics. For full details, see

Syntax: Here's the basic building blocks of regular expressions:

matches the character c (assuming c is a character with no special meaning in regexps).

matches the literal character c; e.g. tabs and newlines are \t and \n respectively.

matches any character except newline.

matches the beginning of a line or a string.

matches the end of a line or a string.

matches any of the characters ac... (character class).

matches any character except abc... and newline (negated character class).

matches zero or more r's.

And that's enough to understand our trim function shown above. The regular expression /[ \t]*$/ means trailing whitespace; i.e. zero-or-more spaces or tabs followed by the end of line.

More Syntax:

But that's only the start of regular expressions. There's lots more. For example:

matches one or more r's.

matches zero or one r's.

matches either r1 or r2 (alternation).

matches r1, and then r2 (concatenation).

matches r (grouping).

Now we can read ^[+-]?([0-9]+[.]?[0-9]*|[.][0-9]+)([eE][+-]?[0-9]+)?$ like this:

^[+-]? ...
Numbers begin with zero or one plus or minus signs.

Simple numbers are just one or more numbers.

which may be followed by a decimal point and zero or more digits.

Alternatively, a number can have zero leading numbers and just start with a decimal point.

.... ([eE]...)?$
Also, there may be an exponent added

and that exponent is a positive or negative bunch of digits.

Associative arrays

Gawk has arrays, but they are only indexed by strings. This can be very useful, but it can also be annoying. For example, we can count the frequency of words in a document (ignoring the icky part about printing them out):

Gawk '{for(i=1;i <=NF;i++) freq[$i]++ }' filename

The array will hold an integer value for each word that occurred in the file. Unfortunately, this treats foo'',Foo'', and foo,'' as different words. Oh well. How do we print out these frequencies? Gawk has a specialfor'' construct that loops over the values in an array. This script is longer than most command lines, so it will be expressed as an executable script:

 #!/usr/bin/awk -f
  {for(i=1;i <=NF;i++) freq[$i]++ }
  END{for(word in freq) print word, freq[word]  }

You can find out if an element exists in an array at a certain index with the expression:

index in array

This expression tests whether or not the particular index exists, without the side effect of creating that element if it is not present.

You can remove an individual element of an array using the delete statement:

delete array[index]

It is not an error to delete an element which does not exist.

Gawk has a special kind of for statement for scanning an array:

 for (var in array)

This loop executes body once for each different value that your program has previously used as an index in array, with the variable var set to that index.

There order in which the array is scanned is not defined.

To scan an array in some numeric order, you need to use keys 1,2,3,... and store somewhere that the array is N long. Then you can do the Here are some useful array functions. We begin with the usual stack stuff. These stacks have items 1,2,3,.... and position 0 is reserved for the size of the stack

 function top(a)        {return a[a[0]]}
 function push(a,x,  i) {i=++a[0]; a[i]=x; return i}
 function pop(a,   x,i) {
   if (!i) {return ""} else {x=a[i]; delete a[i]; return x}}

The pop function can be used in the usual way:

 BEGIN {push(a,1); push(a,2); push(a,3);
        while(x=pop(a)) print x

We can catch everything in an array to a string:

 function a2s(a,  i,s) {
        for (i in a) {s=s " " i "= [" a[i]"]\n"}; 
        return s}

  BEGIN {push(L,1); push(L,2); push(L,3);
        print a2s(L);}
  0= [3]
  1= [1]
  2= [2]
  3= [3]

And we can go the other way and convert a string into an array using the built in split function. These pod files were built using a recursive include function that seeks patterns of the form:

^=include file

This function splits likes on space characters into the array `a' then looks for =include in a[1]. If found, it calls itself recursively on a[2]. Otherwise, it just prints the line:

 function rinclude (line,    x,a) {
   split(line,a,/ /);
   if ( a[1] ~ /^\=include/ ) { 
     while ( ( getline x < a[2] ) > 0) rinclude(x);
   else {print line}

Note that the third argument of the split function can be any regular expression.

By the way, here's a nice trick with arrays. To print the lines in a files in a random order:

 BEGIN {srand()}
 END   {for(I in Array) print $0}

Short, heh? This is not a perfect solution. Gawk can only generate 1,000,000 different random numbers so the birthday theorem cautions that there is a small chance that the lines will be lost when different lines are written to the same randomly selected location. After some experiments, I can report that you lose around one item after 1,000 inserts and 10 to 12 items after 10,000 random inserts. Nothing to write home about really. But for larger item sets, the above three liner is not what you want to use. For exampl,e 10,000 to 12,000 items (more than 10%) are lost after 100,000 random inserts. Not good!

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