Unix command-line tools

The standard command-line tools available on Unix-based systems are wonderful, if occasionally inscrutable. This page contains some commands I found useful.

Note: I'm writing these commands on macOS and while they're almost always identical across all Unix-based systems there are some (small) differences in the tools that come with the operating system. Some options from Linux may not be available on macOS, or viceversa.

Tools used

You can read about the available options for any tool by running man:

man <command>

👉 The man help pages can sometimes be hard to understand. tldr is a community-driven effort to offer clearer examples of each command, so you might want to look into it.

General tidbits

Additional resources

Adding a newline character to a command argument

Use the $'…' format to have \n be interpreted as a newline character.

my-command --text=$'Hello\nWorld'

Tricks to aid refactoring

I found these commands useful for poking around a large codebase.

Sort files by number of lines

This command sorts all JavaScript files in the current folder by their line count, from the largest file to the smallest.

find . -name '*.js' | xargs wc -l | sort -r

Example output:

   92573 total
    3203 js/first-file.js
    2443 js/second-file.js
    1858 js/third-file.js

How it's built:

  1. find all JavaScript files (*.js) in the current (.) folder
  2. pass the results, via xargs, to the line counter (wc)
  3. sort the line count report from largest to smallest (-r)

Dealing with spaces in file names

For the command to work with spaces in file names, we need to make find and xargs work better together by using these options:

The command now looks like this:

find . -name '*.js' -print0 | xargs -0 wc -l | sort -r

Find all unique occurrences of a certain pattern

This command looks at code that matches the pattern "console.something()" and extracts all the different somethings.

find . -name '*.js' | xargs perl -nle 'print $1 if /console\.([a-z]+)\(/i' | sort -u

Example output:


How it's built:

  1. find all JavaScript files (*.js) in the current directory (.)
  2. pass the file names to a perl command that extracts a RegExp pattern
  3. finally, sort the extracted patterns to show only -unique occurrences

💡 To make the command work with files that contain spaces in their name, we'll need to use the -print0 / -0 combo again.

The perl part

Unix-based systems have another tool for matching patterns, called grep. However, grep on macOS doesn't have an option to extract just a part of a RegExp, so we need to use perl for this.

Glossing over the -nle arguments to the perl command (about which you can read here), the code looks for the pattern:


And prints the first capturing group ([a-z]+) out of the regular expression.

Variation: find most frequent occurrences of a certain pattern

Here, instead of finding the list of unique occurrences of a certain pattern, we count how many time a certain pattern occurs.

find . -name '*.js' | xargs perl -nle 'print $1 if /console\.([a-z]+)\(/i' | sort | uniq -c | sort -nr

The command will result in something like:

  85 log
  65 error
  52 warn
  19 time
  17 timeEnd
   9 info
   6 trace

The find and perl parts are the same, but we've replaced sort -u with:

  1. A simple sort to sort the occurrences alphabetically, then
  2. -count the occurrences of unique patterns, then
  3. sort the patterns again by the number of occurrences (-numeric and -rreversed)

Find the most frequently changed files

This command is adapted from Software Design X-Rays by Adam Tornhill:

git log --name-only --diff-filter=M --format=format: | grep -ve '^$' | sort | uniq -c | sort -r

For this repo you're reading, it gives us these results:


Let's unpack how it's built:

The git part

The grep part

The git log will contain empty lines between the commits; we'll exclude them from our count using grep.

We'll use a regular expression (-e). The ^$ pattern (start of line immediately followed by end of line) matches any empty line, but by using the -v flag to invert the pattern we can pick only the lines that don't match, i.e. are not empty.

The sort / uniq part

Variation: only count changes on files that match a certain pattern

If we replace grep -ve '^$' with grep -e 'some pattern', we can limit our count to files whose names match a pattern. For example, targeting JavaScript files with grep -e '\.js$' — notice we've removed the -v (invert) flag. The full command becomes:

git log --name-only --diff-filter=M --format=format: | grep -e '\.js$' | sort | uniq -c | sort -r

Sort files by number of lines changed on a Git branch

git diff --stat origin/master HEAD | awk '{ print $3, $1 }' | sort -rn

Find the differences between the output of two commands

The general formula is:

diff <( ... command 1 goes here ... ) <( ... command 2 goes here ... )

It works even with curl (the -s is for silent):

diff <(curl -s <(curl -s

Find files who don't have counterparts, and create them

Some static site generators' multilanguage features work by creating separate Markdown files for each language, e.g. for English and for German.

To find which .md files don't have their equivalent file:

join -v 1 \
<(find . -name "*.md" -not -name "*" | sort) \
<(find . -name "*" | sed -E "s/\.de\.md/\.md/" | sort)

The first find gets us the list of .md files in English (i.e. Markdowns that don't end in

The second find gets us the list of .md files in German (ending in * ), then we use sed to replace with .md.

Note: We sort the output of both find commands, because the join command expects it. But in this case, both being the output of a find command, it may not be needed?

The join -v 1 prints out all the lines in file 1 (English) which are not matched by a line in file 2 (German).

Now, let's copy over the English version for German files we haven't found:

join -v 1 \
<(find . -name "*.md" -not -name "*" | sort) \
<(find . -name "*" | sed -E "s/\.de\.md/\.md/" | sort) \
| sed "p;s/\.md/\.de\.md/" | xargs -n2 cp

We reach for sed once more to produce the the original line (with p;), followed by the same line with .md changed back to With this input:

we get:

xargs takes the input two lines at a time (-n2) and uses them as the first, and the second argument to cp, respectively. Something like:


Alternatively we can use the -n option in cp, which only makes a copy of the file if the destination file doesn't already exist, to avoid having to run two separate finds and a join:

find . -name "*.md" -not -name "*" | sed "p;s/\.md/\.de\.md/" | xargs -n2 cp -n

Change files from JSON to JS modules

To work around the limitations of the format, I needed to convert hundreds of files from JSON to JS modules that export plain objects.

Step 1: batch rename

As a variation of the previous pattern, to rename (i.e. move) files matching a certain pattern:

find . -name "*.json" | sed "p;s/\.json/\.data\.js/" | xargs -n2 mv

Step 2: add in export default

We want to change the files from:


"some_key": "some_value"


module.exports = {
some_key: 'some_value'

For this, we'll use sed to replace the content of the first line:

find . -name '*.data.js' | xargs -n1 sed -i "" '1s/^.*$/export default \{/'

Note: when addressing specific lines, we must use the -n1 flag on xargs to have sed run on each individual file. We want:

sed file1
sed file2
sed file3
# etc.

Instead of:

sed file1 file2 file3 ...

Because the line addressing works cumulatively across all input files, meaning 1 only matches the first line in the first file.

Step 3: add an import statement

One of the reasons to switch from JSON to JS was to make some strings amenable to localization. For that I needed to add an import statement at the beginning of each file:

import { t } from 'js/i18n';

// rest of the file.

A word of caution about the sed that comes with macOS:

First attempt: a false start

To match the beginning of the first line in sed, we can use 1s/^/.../. We'd like to add our import statement there, followed by a couple of newline breaks. At this point, I was convinced there's no way to coerce macOS sed to insert newlines, so I'm thinking: MacBook keyboards come with a suprinsingly-handy § button, can we work around the \n problem by using the separate tr program? Something like:

sed "1s#^#import { t } from 'js/i18n';§§#" | tr § '\n'

There's a lot going on, so let's unpack it. For the sed part:

Since we want to pipe the sed output to the tr command — which will replace each occurrence of the § character with \n — we're not using the -i (in-place) flag like before.

And here's our first roadblock. If we were to pipe the output back to the original file (like -i did before):

sed "1s#^#...§§#" | tr § '\n' >

We'd notice that ends up empty. That's because redirecting stdout to our file via the > operator immediately opens (and truncates) our file before sed even has the chance to read it.

There's a command called sponge that you need to install separately (with brew install moreutils) for this exact purpose:

sed "1s#^#...§§#" | tr § '\n' | sponge

But using sponge introduces a new dependency, surely there must be some sort of POSIX command, or a combination thereof, to obtain a similar result. tee sounds like it would allow you to write back to the original file:

sed "1s#^#...§§#" | tr § '\n' | tee

But the way tee works makes it an unreliable replacement for sponge, and it does seem like vanilla alternatives revolve around writing to a temporary file, then mv-ing it over the original file. Ugh.

We're already stuck, and we haven't even figured out how to make this idea work on a whole batch of files, since running multiple commands with xargs entails writing the compound command as a string and running it with sh, making the entire command something along the lines of:

find . -name '*.data.js' | xargs -n1 -I__FILE__ sh -c "sed \"1s#^#import { t } from 'js/i18n';§§#\" __FILE__ | tr § '\n' | sponge __FILE__"


Second attempt: a light at the end of the tunnel

Sometimes you read the wrong Stack Overflow answer, or read the right answer poorly, and off you go on a false premise.

It turns out you actually can insert \n characters with sed on macOS?! Our struggle resolves to this pithy one- (well, technically two-) liner:

find . -name '*.txt' | xargs -n1 \
sed -i "" $'1s#^#import { t } from \'js/i18n\';\\\n\\\n#'

Using $'...' makes the whole sed command a C-style string which replaces \\ with \ and \n with a literal newline, making it equivalent to:

1s#^#import { t } from 'js/i18n';\

For the sake of completeness, you might also want to take a look at using cat and echo to prepend a line.

Step 5: replace some things with some other things

Okay, now that we've imported the t function, let's apply it to some strings in our JS file; that is, to turn this:

import { t } from 'js/i18n';

module.exports = {
some_key: 'some_value'

to this:

import { t } from 'js/i18n';

module.exports = {
some_key: t`some_value`

This is done by capturing some_value and using a back-reference to wrap t around it:

find . -name '*.txt' | xargs -n1 \
sed -E 's/("mykey"): "([^"]*)"/\1: t`\2`/g'

By default, sed works with BRE (basic regular expressions), which lack some of the comforts of their modern counterparts. Running it with the -E flag interprets regular expressions as extended.

Note: we match some_value by [^"]*, i.e. a sequence of zero or more non-quote characters. This is not entirely correct, as JavaScript strings can contain (escaped) quote characters, or span multiple lines.

See also: What is the purpose of -e in a sed command?