(Very) Small Editors

Linux systems use text pervasively and provide an almost-infinite number of tools to manipulate it. This month, let’s look at three lesser-known text handling tools: the line editors ex (which is usually part of the vi editor) and ed, and the stream editor, sed.

Most of our examples use regular expressions (or “regex”). If you aren’t familiar with regex, see the article “Hitting the Motherlode”. (Depending on the version you have, ed, ex, and sed may not handle regular expressions as sophisticated as the ones handled by Perl, but they’ll all understand at least the metacharacters ^ $ & * \ . [-].)

Scripted editing and more with ed and ex

Before emacs and vi came along, ed was the Unix editor. Designed in the days when a Unix “display” was a printing teletype, ed reads commands from its standard input — usually your keyboard or a file. It only displays the text you’re editing if you use its p (“print”) command. The original version output only a ? after an error, leaving you to figure out what went wrong. The ex editor, which comes with many versions of vi, is an extended ed with more commands and friendlier output.

Since we have powerful visual editors these days, why use an ancient beast like ed or ex? Here are three reasons:

If you haven’t used a line editor, please see a good Linux or Unix book for details. We’ll introduce them, then quickly get into specific examples.

ed and ex commands have basically two parts: an address (or a range of addresses) and an operation. However, only one of those is required. An address tells where to perform the operation; the default, in most cases, is the current line. An address by itself — without an operation — simply changes the current line and displays the line you’ve moved to. Most operations make a change to the file.

The address can be for a single line or a range of lines. You can give explicit line numbers, where 1 is the first line, and $ stands for the last line number, whatever that is. You can also use regular expressions that match one or more lines: just put the regex between forward slash (/) characters.

Let’s see an example. The command.


. reads, “Delete all lines between line 1 and the next, subsequent line starting with a #.” Here, the operation, d, deletes the lines; 1 refers to the first line and ^# refers to the next line that begins (the ^ refers to the start of the line) with a #. When decoding commands like this, train your eyes to break commands into the address range and the operation.

Here’s another example of addressing. You’ll often want to match some line before another line. For instance, you might want to delete all lines from the first line until the line preceding the comment character. Here’s how:


If you compare this to the previous example, you’ll see that we’ve changed the range-ending line from /^#/ to /^#/-1. In ed and ex, you can make a relative line address with a + (to increase the line number) or - (to decrease it). So, the previous command reads, “Delete all lines between line 1 and the line before the next line starting with #, inclusive.”

Let’s finish our whirlwind syntax tour with one of the most common operations: s, for substitute. The s command has basically two parts: a pattern and a replacement, separated by forward slash (/) characters. The pattern is a regular expression; the replacement is literal text with a few twists.

Here’s an example: we want to add a comment character (#) and a space to the start of every line in the same range (1,/^#/-1) we used previously. (That is, we want to “comment out” those lines.) The operation to use is s/^/# /, which reads, “At the start of the line (^), insert # and a space.” Here’s the whole command, including the address range:

1,/^#/-1s/^/# /

We’ve jumped right in to one of the most cryptic examples — not to scare you away — but to show you the expressive power of line editors. With just a few keystrokes, you can do something complex. Once you’ve learned the syntax well, you can even type commands over a slow data line with no “echo” to show what you’ve done.

If you want to perform that same command on all of the files whose names end with .cfg, a simple Bourne shell loop can invoke ed on each file. Use echo and a pipe to write editing commands to ed’s standard input (which is where ed gets its commands). Here’s the script:

for file in *.cfg
  echo '1,/^#/-1s/^/#/
  w' | ed "$file"

echo can send more than one line of commands to ed by surrounding multiple lines with quotes. The w command (the second line that echo outputs) tells ed to write the edited file. There are lots of other ed operations, but let’s jump ahead and take a brief look at ex.

Introducing the ex Editor

The ex editor, an extended ed, is built-in to most versions of vi. There are two ways to run ex commands from within vi:

Type a colon (:), followed by an ex command. After you press RETURN, the command runs and places you back in vi mode. (Some ex commands you might have used already include :%s to do a global substitution, :w to write the file, and :q to quit.)

Type Q (uppercase “Q”) to enter ex mode. (If your version of vi supports this, you should see a colon (:) prompt.) Type ed or ex commands. To go back to vi mode, type vi.

For instance, if you’re editing a file with vi and want to “comment out” all of the lines from the top of the file to just before the first comment, you could type the same ed command we saw earlier, preceded by a colon:

:1,/^#/-1s/^/# /

That command adds a hash sign (#) to every line, whether there’s any text on it or not. Because you’ll be back in vi mode immediately after, you can see the effect of your edit. (You can press u to undo the command, or use other vi commands to make other changes.)

You can do more with the ex (and ed) “global” operation, g. It steps through each line in a range, performing another operation on that line. Let’s see the command, then talk about it:

1,/^#/-1g/./s/^/# /

(From vi, type a colon (:) before that command.) 1,/^#/-1 is the address range we’ve used before. The g is followed by a regular expression, /./, which matches any line with at least one character. The rest of the command, s/^/# /, is executed on all matching lines; as we saw before, it prepends a comment character and a space.

So, to sum up the previous command, on all lines from line 1 to the line just before the first comment character (1,/^#/-1), on all non-empty lines (g/./), add a comment character and a space to the start of the line (/^/# /).

The sed Stream Editor

Most text editors are designed to edit files. The sed editor is different: it edits a stream of text from its standard input, and emits the edited version of the text to its standard output. So sed doesn’t edit a file; it edits a “stream” (hence its name) of text “on the fly.”

sed commands look like ed commands, with a couple of important differences:

In ed, the default address is the current line. (That is, if you don’t give an address, ed operates only on the current line.) In sed, the default address is every line. So, for instance, the sed command s/^/# / would add a comment character to the start of every line, while the command 1s/^/# / would add it only to line 1.

Relative addressing, like “the line before the next line with a comment character,” doesn’t work in sed. That’s because sed reads the text stream line-by-line. (You can work around this with sed loops and multiline patterns.)

Listing One has a familiar example: “commenting out” all lines from line 1 to the first line with a comment character, inclusive. sed can accept commands on its command line, but it’s best to use the -e option.

Listing One: A simple file, and a simple sed edit

$ cat afile
This is line 1.

This is line 3.
# Line 4 starts with a comment.
Line 5 doesn't.
$ cat afile | sed -e '1,/^#/s/^/# /'
# This is line 1.
# This is line 3.
# # Line 4 starts with a comment.
Line 5 doesn't.

To make this more obvious, we’ll violate the old rule that “Using cat with just one filename means you’re doing something wrong,” use cat, and pipe a file to sed’s standard input. You’ll often pipe sed’s output somewhere else — to another program or the printer, for instance — but we’ll simply display it on the screen.

In Listing One, cat displays the original, unedited file. Next, cat is piped to sed, which adds a comment character to the (#) beginning of several lines. You can see that sed added an extra comment character to the start of line 4 before it stopped editing. Let’s fix that.

You can put editing commands in a file. Our file is called is sedscr, which includes a test-and-branch command before the s command. Listing Two shows the script and the result.

Listing Two: A sed script with nested patterns

$ cat sedscr
1,/^#/ {
   s/^/# /
$ cat afile | sed -f sedscr
# This is line 1.
# This is line 3.
# Line 4 starts with a comment.
Line 5 doesn't.

sed’s grouping braces let you apply a series of commands to all lines in a range of addresses. Our group of commands starts with the familiar range we’ve seen: 1,/^#/, which means, “All lines from line 1 through the first line starting with a # character.” On each matching line, sed attempts the braced commands from first to last:

The first command, /^#/b, has the address /^#/. This matches comments (lines starting with #). On those lines, sed executes b, which skips the rest of the editing script. So, this first command doesn’t take effect on lines 1 through 3, but on line 4, the command makes sed branch — and skip the next command, which would have added another # to the start of line 4.

The command s/^/# / should be familiar by now. It operates on every line of input matching 1,/^#/ — except line 4 (due to the /^#/b command) and line 5 (which is outside the range 1,/^#/).

Why use this unique editor instead of, say, Tcl or Perl? sed is small and fast, which is useful for busy machines like mail servers that can use sed to edit email messages on-the-fly from within procmail. Let’s see a more complete example.

sed can collect multiple lines, editing them as they’re collected or later. There’s also a special hold space where you can store lines temporarily. Let’s use these two sed features and make an editing script that joins continued lines (lines starting with spaces or tabs) in a mail message header. A header could look like this before editing:

From: Jerry Peek <jpeek@xyz.pdq>
To: joe@abc.pdq,
Subject: A test message

...and this afterward:

From: Jerry Peek <jpeek@xyz.pdq>
To: joe@abc.pdq, aecho@bcd.pdq
Subject: A test message

Listing Three shows a script to join the lines. It appends input lines to the hold space until a non-continuation line is found; then the hold space is output and the new line is held.

Listing Three: sed script using hold space

1,/^$/ {
  # Join continuation lines:
  /^[  ]/ {
    s/\n[  ]*/ /
  # This is a non-continuation line.
  # Hold it and output previous line
  # (except line 1, when nothing's held):

All of the commands are inside an address range 1,/^$/, so they apply only to the message header (which always ends with an empty line, matched by /^$/). The group of commands between the inner curly-braces are only applied to continuation lines. (Although you cannot see them, the braces in /^[  ]/ have a single space and a single TAB character inside). Let’s see how this works on the To: field.

  1. When we reach the commands matched by /^[  ]/, the pattern space (which has the current input line) contains aecho@bcd.pdq, and the hold space has the previous input line To: joe@abc.pdq,. The x “exchange” command swaps these two. Now the pattern space has the previous line To: joe@abc.pdq,.
  2. The “get” command adds a newline and the line from the hold space onto the pattern space. Now the pattern space has both lines of the To: field.
  3. The s command replaces the newline (\n) and all spaces and tabs at the start of the next line (after the newline) with a single space. This joins the lines.
  4. The h or “hold” command puts the joined line into the hold space.
  5. The b command skips the rest of the script, since those commands do not apply to a continuation line.

The rest of the script is outside the inner curly braces, so it’s only read for non-continuation lines. The x command swaps the current line with the previous, held line(s). The 1!p command uses the ! or “not” operator. It says, “On all lines except line 1, print.” (When we’re reading line 1, which is never be a continuation line, there’s nothing to print.)

This compact language takes some time to get used to. The sed FAQ, at http://sed.sourceforge.net/sedfaq.html, has much more information.

Power Tip: Suspending ssh

The ssh program, and its insecure cousin rsh, open a login session to a remote system. You can’t access your local system from that terminal while ssh is running, but you can use job control to suspend your ssh session.

Type the ssh command string, which is RETURN followed by a tilde (~) character; then type the usual job-control suspend character CTRL-Z. To resume the session later, use the job-control “foreground” command, fg.

The ssh man page lists more of these handy commands.

Jerry Peek is a freelance writer and instructor who has used Unix and Linux for over 20 years. He’s happy to hear from readers; see http://www.jpeek.com/contact.html.

[Read previous article] [Read next article]
[Read Jerry’s other Linux Magazine articles]