A guide to intermediate awk scripting

Learn how to structure commands into executable scripts.
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This article explores awk's capabilities, which are easier to use now that you know how to structure your command into an executable script.

Logical operators and conditionals

You can use the logical operators and (written &&) and or (written ||) to add specificity to your conditionals.

For example, to select and print only records with the string "purple" in the second column and an amount less than five in the third column:

$2 == "purple" && $3 < 5 {print $1}

If a record has "purple" in column two but a value greater than or equal to 5 in column three, then it is not selected. Similarly, if a record matches column three's requirement but lacks "purple" in column two, it is also not selected.

Next command

Say you want to select every record in your file where the amount is greater than or equal to eight and print a matching record with two asterisks (**). You also want to flag every record with a value between five (inclusive) and eight with only one asterisk (*). There are a few ways to do this, and one way is to use the next command to instruct awk that after it takes an action, it should stop scanning and proceed to the next record.

Here's an example:

NR == 1 {
  print $0;

$3 >= 8 {
  printf "%s\t%s\n", $0, "**";

$3 >= 5 {
  printf "%s\t%s\n", $0, "*";

$3 < 5 {
  print $0;

BEGIN command

The BEGIN command lets you print and set variables before awk starts scanning a text file. For instance, you can set the input and output field separators inside your awk script by defining them in a BEGIN statement. This example adapts the simple script from the previous article for a file with fields delimited by commas instead of whitespace:

#!/usr/bin/awk -f
# Print each record EXCEPT
# IF the first record contains "raspberry", 
# THEN replace "red" with "pi"


$1 == "raspberry" {

END command

The END command, like BEGIN, allows you to perform actions in awk after it completes its scan through the text file you are processing. If you want to print cumulative results of some value in all records, you can do that only after all records have been scanned and processed.

The BEGIN and END commands run only once each. All rules between them run zero or more times on each record. In other words, most of your awk script is a loop that is executed at every new line of the text file you're processing, with the exception of the BEGIN and END rules, which run before and after the loop.

Here is an example that wouldn't be possible without the END command. This script accepts values from the output of the df Unix command and increments two custom variables (used and available) with each new record.

$1 != "tempfs" {
    used += $3;
    available += $4;

    printf "%d GiB used\n%d GiB available\n", used/2^20, available/2^20;

Save the script as total.awk and try it:

df -l | awk -f total.awk

The used and available variables act like variables in many other programming languages. You create them arbitrarily and without declaring their type, and you add values to them at will. At the end of the loop, the script adds the records in the respective columns together and prints the totals.


As you can probably tell from all the logical operators and casual calculations so far, awk does math quite naturally. This arguably makes it a very useful calculator for your terminal. Instead of struggling to remember the rather unusual syntax of bc, you can just use awk along with its special BEGIN function to avoid the requirement of a file argument:

$ awk 'BEGIN { print 2*21 }'
$ awk 'BEGIN {print 8*log(4) }'

Admittedly, that's still a lot of typing for simple (and not so simple) math, but it wouldn't take much effort to write a frontend, which is an exercise for you to explore.

This article is adapted from an episode of Hacker Public Radio, a community technology podcast.

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Seth Kenlon
Seth Kenlon is a UNIX geek, free culture advocate, independent multimedia artist, and D&D nerd. He has worked in the film and computing industry, often at the same time.
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Dave Morriss is a retired IT Manager based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He worked in the UK higher education sector providing IT services to students and staff.


The text "If a record has "purple" in column two but a value greater than five in column three, then it is not selected." should read "greater than or equal to five"

Thanks, Mark_Steward_1337, you're right. I've added your clarification.

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