An Awk Primer/Awk Overview

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The Awk text-processing language is useful for such tasks as:


  • Tallying information from text files and creating reports from the results.
  • Adding additional functions to text editors like "vi".
  • Translating files from one format to another.
  • Creating small databases.
  • Performing mathematical operations on files of numeric data.


Awk has two faces: it is a utility for performing simple text-processing tasks, and it is a programming language for performing complex text-processing tasks.


The two faces are really the same, however. Awk uses the same mechanisms for handling any text-processing task, but these mechanisms are flexible enough to allow useful Awk programs to be entered on the command line, or to implement complicated programs containing dozens of lines of Awk statements.

Awk statements comprise a programming language. In fact, Awk is useful for simple, quick-and-dirty computational programming. Anybody who can write a BASIC program can use Awk, although Awk's syntax is different from that of BASIC. Anybody who can write a C program can use Awk with little difficulty, and those who would like to learn C may find Awk a useful stepping stone, with the caution that Awk and C have significant differences beyond their many similarities.

There are, however, things that Awk is not. It is not really well suited for extremely large, complicated tasks. It is also an "interpreted" language -- that is, an Awk program cannot run on its own, it must be executed by the Awk utility itself. That means that it is relatively slow, though it is efficient as interpretive languages go, and that the program can only be used on systems that have Awk. There are translators available that can convert Awk programs into C code for compilation as stand-alone programs, but such translators have to be purchased separately.

One last item before proceeding: What does the name "Awk" mean? Awk actually stands for the names of its authors: "Aho, Weinberger, & Kernighan". Kernighan later noted: "Naming a language after its authors ... shows a certain poverty of imagination." The name is reminiscent of that of an oceanic bird known as an "auk", and so the picture of an auk often shows up on the cover of books on Awk.