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sed ("stream editor") is Unix utility for parsing and transforming text files, with ports available on a variety of operating systems. For many purposes, it has been superseded by perl (or the earlier AWK), but for simple transforms in shell scripts, sed retains some use.

Sed is line-oriented – it operates one line at a time – and allows regular expression matching and substitution.

Simple use[edit | edit source]

The most commonly used feature of sed is the s command (“substitution”, or “the s/// construction”), which replaces one pattern with another; this originates in the earlier ed, and retains use in perl.


sed s/cat/dog/g in > out

will replace “cat” by “dog” in file in and output it to file out; the “g” means “global”: replace all matches, not just the first on a given line.

One will often wish to use single quotes (' ') to surround the pattern to avoid the shell misinterpreting it:

sed 's/cat/dog/g' in > out

Some implementations require the expression to be preceded by -e and one will wish to use this regardless if there are several patterns:

sed -e 's/cat/dog/g' -e 's/meow/woof/g' in > out

Sed can also operate as a pipe, taking in standard input and sending to standard output.

Complex patterns[edit | edit source]

For complex patterns, one will likely wish to use the -r (GNU sed) or -E (BSD sed) switch to enable “extended regular expressions”, as sed’s default escaping and regular expressions can be awkward to use, particularly in escaping of “(”.

Especially useful is grouping, using (…) to indicate a group in the pattern to match, and using \1, \2, …, \9 to refer to that numbered group in the substitution pattern. For example,

 sed -r 's/<(.*)>/<\1><\/\1>/g'

replaces <a> with <a></a>. This allows simple field parsing and processing, such as reordering of multiple groups of patterns.

Programming[edit | edit source]

Beyond use of the s command, one can develop complex programs in sed.

Line-oriented[edit | edit source]

Sed is line-oriented – it operates one line at a time, stripping the trailing newline. To operating on multiple lines, one must use more complicated constructions, namely the N command (add next line to buffer), or H followed by g. See Sed FAQ, Section 5.10

Concatenating lines[edit | edit source]

For the simple task of concatenating all lines in a file, easiest is to use the tr utility:

tr '\n' ' '

meaning “replace newlines by spaces”. Note that sed (other than GNU sed) has space limits, so any method to concatenate an entire file into one line in sed yields the entire file in memory; tr instead just processes the input from start to finish, and hence has no such memory problems.

In an expression, this can be written as:

tr '\n' ' ' < in > out

Related programs[edit | edit source]

grep and tr are useful complements – the first selects lines, the second applies single-character translation. For instance, you might use grep to select certain lines, then pipe through sed to parse said lines.

AWK and, especially, Perl, are higher-power languages in the same vein, and can be used as alternatives if the desired task is awkward to do in sed.

Options[edit | edit source]

Command-line options for the POSIX standard sed:

  • -n: Only produce output via the p command.
  • -e script
  • -f script-file

Command-line options of GNU sed, beyond the POSIX standard sed:

  • --version
  • --help
  • --quiet, and --silent, in addition to -n
  • --expression=script
  • --file=script-file
  • -i[SUFFIX], --in-place[=SUFFIX]
  • -l N, --line-length=N
  • --posix
  • -b, --binary
  • --follow-symlinks
  • -r, --regexp-extended
  • -s, --separate
  • -u, --unbuffered

Command-line options of BSD sed (installed by default on macOS), beyond the POSIX standard sed:

  • -E: Use extended regular expressions
  • -a
  • -i extension
  • -l


Regular expressions[edit | edit source]

Sed uses a particular version of regular expressions different from grep and Perl. Sed covers POSIX basic regular expressions (see also Regular Expressions/Posix Basic Regular Expressions).

Regular expression features available in sed include *, ., ^, $, [ ], [^ ], \( \), \n, \{i\}, \{i,j\} , and \{i,\} .

Regular expression features available in GNU sed as GNU extensions include \+, \?, \, \b, \B, \w, \W, \s, \S, \`, \', \<, \>. Further included are \a (bel character), \f (form feed), \n (newline), \r (carriage return), \t (horizontal tab), \v (vertical tab), \cx (Control-x), \dxxx (character by decimal ascii value), \oxxx (character by octal ascii value), \xhh (character by hexadecimal ascii value).

Predefined character classes supported by sed include [:alpha:], [:blank:], [:cntrl:], [:digit:], [:graph:], [:lower:], [:print:], [:punct:], [:space:], [:upper:], and [:xdigit:].

Regular expression features unavailable in sed include Perl metacharacters \d, \D, \A and \Z.


Oneliner examples[edit | edit source]

Oneliner examples of substitution:

sed "s/concieve/conceive/" myfile.txt
  • Replaces the first occurrence of "concieve" on each line.
sed "s/concieve/conceive/g" myfile.txt
  • Replaces all occurrences, because of "g" at the end.
sed "s/concieve/conceive/g;s/recieve/receive/g" myfile.txt
  • Does two replacements.
$ echo "abccbd" | sed "s/a\([bc]*\)d/\1/g"
  • Uses \( and \) to mark a group and \1 to refer to the group in the replacement part.
  • Possibly works only with GNU sed; to be verified.
$ echo "abccbd" | sed -r "s/a([bc]*)d/\1/g"
  • In GNU sed, it does the same thing as the previous example, just that the use of -r to switch on extended regular expressions has obviated the need to place backslash before "(" to indicate grouping.
  • The -r switch is available in GNU sed, and unavailable in the original Unix sed.
$ echo "a  b" | sed -r "s/a\s*b/ab/g"
  • In GNU sed, uses "\s" to denote whitespace, and "*" to let the previous character group be iterated any number of times. Needs -r to enable extended regex in GNU sed.
sed "s/\x22/'/g" myfile.txt
  • In GNU sed, replaces each quotation mark with a single quote. \x22 refers to the character whose hexadecimal ASCII value is 22, which is the quotation mark.
$ echo Hallo | sed "s/hallo/hello/gi"
  • Ignores character case, because of "i" at the end. Does not preserve capitalization, outputting "hello" rather than "Hello".
$ echo a2 | sed "s/[[:alpha:]]/z/g"
  • Use [[:alpha:]], which stands for any letter. Notice that the character class is listed as "[:alpha:]" in manuals, with single "[".

Concrete examples[edit | edit source]

  • To convert a date format to another:
$ echo "03/11/2015 23:54:03" | sed -r "s/([0-9]+)\/([0-9]+)\/([0-9]+)/\3-\2-\1/g"
2015-11-03 23:54:03

Limitations[edit | edit source]

Sed does not support non-greedy matches as seen in ".*?" expression. In Unix shell scripting, you can use a Perl one-liner to emulate sed with non-greedy matches:

$ echo "abcbbc" | perl -pe "s/a.*?c/ac/"
$ perl -pe "s/a.*c/ac/" # without the non-greedy "?"

Related Wikibooks[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]