12 September 2015

Unix to Know this Command Series: Printing from Streams with sed -n '/pattern/'p

I like to think of the Unix command-line utilities as though they were interesting characters — it helps me remember the different command switches based on each command’s personality.

sed is my simple and obedient search hound. He has a single input — his hound-dog nose. He can match patterns coming through the input stream to patterns given to him by his handler. And finally, he can output his findings in an output stream — WOOF!

sed is tremendously effective for searching, editing, and printing text without leaving the command-line. I’d like to share with you the sed -n '/pattern/'p, today. This simple command has saved me enough time that I want to share it. Let’s get started!

Note: this command can be used in most Linux, GNU, and Unix scripting shells. Some Windows command-line tools like Cygwin and PowerShell support this command, as well. The title is more catchy my way, though.

What is sed?

A Unix command for stream-oriented editing without opening an editor.

sed fills a buffer with input from stdin or a file, modifies the buffer based on desired patterns and arguments, and then outputs the contents to stdout.

Pretty simple, eh? Simple, but powerful. Ok, then how do we use sed?

How to use sed -n '/pattern/'p?

  • sed -n will silence the printing of pattern space matches that we don’t care about
  • the p part of sed -n '/pattern/'p is a command that prints from the modified buffer
  • the '/pattern/' part specifies the pattern by which to filter and modify the buffer — any legitimate Unix regular expression
  • finally, the command accepts an input file (or text from stdin) to filter

The complete command will output the lines that contain the given pattern. Let’s look at an example.

Example of printing with sed -n '/pattern/'p

Imagine that we have an example JavaScript file that contains some console.log statements, like the following:

We want to print out all of the lines that contain a console.log statement from example.js, but we do not want to leave the command-line or open a text editor. Here, we use the basic sed print command:

Great, but we also want to see the line numbers of each match! Easy, instead of p for the print command, we use a variation {=;p;} to get the matching line numbers:

Awesome, but we want the line numbers to be on the same line as the matching text! This actually cannot be done with a single sed command.

If you use = in sed the line number will be printed on a separate line and is not available in the pattern space for manipulation. However, you can pipe the output into another instance of sed to merge the line number and the matching text (source).

But, we can achieve the desired result by using two sed commands — we can pipe the output of the first sed command into another sed command that joins the line numbers with the matching lines, as follows:

Nice! But, I am lazy and won’t remember those patterns, so I want a simpler command. Let’s quickly talk about using grep as an alternative.

Sidenote: grep

The same outcome can be achieved in different ways, as is usual in the Unix world. So, even though this tutorial is about the sed print command, I want to mention the grep -n pattern file command. Here is the above sed example rewritten using grep:

I prefer the grep command for this use-case, but sed is an important tool, and I think it is easiest to learn by starting with a simple example like printing. So, I saved the more practical grep command for last to force you to read about sed.


  • sed is a powerful stream editor for searching and manipulating text from stdin or a file, using Regular Expression patterns
  • We learned to use sed -n '/pattern/p' file to search a file and print the matching text
  • Next, we learned to use sed -n '/pattern/{=;p;}' file to search a file and print the matching text and line numbers
  • Then, we looked at piping the result of the previous sed command into another sed command, in order to join the line numbers with the matching text — sed -n '/pattern/{;=p;}' file | sed '{N;s/\n/ /}'
  • Finally, we talked about using the simpler grep -n pattern file command to achieve our desired result

To learn more about sed and it’s myriad use-cases, check out man sed or online man sed. If you like learning Unix commands, check out my other Unix posts.

Remember, it isn’t just me that should know these scripting tools — unix to know these commands, too™