Why Learn AWK?

March 16, 2016

Because of the arcane syntax?
Because other languages can’t do the job?


I resisted AWK for a long time. Couldn’t I already do everything I needed with sed and grep? I felt that anything more complex should be done with a “real” language. AWK seemed like yet-another thing to learn, with marginal benefits.

Why Learn AWK?

Let me count the ways.

You are working TOO HARD

Too many times, I’ve seen people working way too hard at the command-line trying to solve simple tasks.

Imagine programming without regular expressions.

Can you even imagine the alternative? Would it entail building FSMs from scratch? Would it be easy to program? Would it be fun? Would it work the way you want?

That’s life without AWK.

For simple tasks (“only print column 3” or “sum the numbers from column 2”) almost falling in the “grep-and-sed” category, but where you feel you might need to open a man page, AWK is usually the solution.

And if you think that creating a new script file (column_3.py or sum_col_2.rb), putting it somewhere on disk, and invoking it on your data isn’t bad – I’m telling you that you’re working too hard.


On Linux, BSD, or Mac OS, AWK is already available. It is required by any POSIX-compliant OS.

More importantly, it will be the AWK you know. It has been around for a long time and the way it works is stable. Any upgrade would not (could not) break your scripts – it’s the closest thing to “it just works”.

Contrast with BASH or Python … do you have the right version? Does it have all the language features you need? Is it backward and forward compatible?

When I write a script in AWK, I know 2 things:


You shouldn’t write anything complicated in AWK. That’s a feature – it limits what you’re going to attempt with the language. You are not going to write a web server in AWK and you know it wouldn’t be a good idea.

There’s something refreshing about knowing that you’re not going to import a library (let alone a framework), and worry about dependencies.

You’re writing an AWK script and you’re going to focus on what AWK is good at.

Language Features

Do you want the following? (especially compared to BASH)

It’s all there, ready to go. Don’t worry about the version number, the bolted-on syntax, or the dependence on other tools.

Convenience: minimized bureaucracy

In a script sandwich, your logic is the “meat”, and the surrounding bureaucracy is the “bread”. In practice, bureaucracy means:

These things are needed but they aren’t what your script is about. AWK takes care of all that, your code is implicitly surrounded by a loop that’s going to iterate over every input line.

DISCLAIMER: This isn’t AWK, it’s JavaScript. It might as well be pseudocode. All code simplified and for illustrative purposes only.

// open each file, assign content to "lines"
lines.forEach(function (line) {
  // the code you write goes here
// close all the files

AWK is going to break each line into “fields” or “columns” – for many people, that feature is the main reason to use AWK. By default, AWK breaks a line into fields based on whitespace (i.e. /\s+/) and ignores leading or trailing whitespace.

Also, AWK is automatically going to set a bunch of useful variables for you:

// open each file, assign content to "lines"
var NR = 0;
lines.forEach(function (line) {
  NR = NR + 1;
  var fields = line.trim().split(/\s+/);
  var NF = fields.length;
  // the code you write goes here
// close all the files

Convenience: automatic conversions

AWK does automatic string-to-number conversions. That’s something terrible in “real” programming languages, but very convenient within the scope of the things you should attempt with AWK.

Convenience: automatic variables

Variables are automatically created when first used, you don’t need to declare variables.


Let’s unpack it:

It’s even more useful with hashes:


Convenience: built-in functions

AWK has a bunch of numeric and string functions at your disposal.


AWK is PERFECT when you use it for what it’s meant to do:

Now What?

Maybe I’ve convinced you to reconsider AWK: good.

How do you learn AWK?

There are many possibilities:

In my next post, I’ll explain everything you need to get you started with AWK.

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