Doing More with less, Part One

Developer Mark Nudelman has been working on less since version less-1, released in 1985. This month, let’s cover the Linux version less-394 (yes, it’s the 394th version), but you can also get less for other operating systems, including Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows — which makes it a great cross-platform choice for exploring files and viewing data from pipes.

Assuming you know the basics of less, let’s look instead at overall setup and configuration. Next month we’ll dig into details of using this powerful pager.

Default Options

Set the LESS environment variable in your shell’s setup file (like .profile) with the command-line options less should use by default. For instance, if you like more-verbose prompting (-m), the target of a search to be shown on line 5 of the screen (-j5), search targets not to be highlighted (-G) and marked in the status column instead (-J), set LESS=-mj5GJ.

Some options can have quite a bit of text after the option name, like -P, which sets the less prompt. To explicitly end an option and its text, use a dollar sign ($). For instance, you could set LESS='-mj5$GJ' to mark the end of the option -j and its argument 5. (The single quotes around the value prevent the shell from treating $ as the start of a shell variable.)

To override these default settings, type option names preceded by dash-plus (-+) on the command line. For instance, to override the -J option in the LESS string, type less -+J filename.

You can also set and override most options while less is running, as you’ll see next month.

Controlling Character Display

Recent versions of less have extensive support for international character sets, including double-width and nonprintable characters, even on systems that don’t support locales. You can also customize how binary and control characters are shown.

If your version of less doesn’t do the right thing by default, or if you’d like to change the settings, see the man page section“ National Character Sets”.

Setting the Prompt

By default, when you start less, it prompts with the filename on the first screen, and then prompts with a colon (:).

The -m option prompts with the percentage of the file displayed so far, or the number of bytes when showing standard input.

(To see the percentage while reading standard input, first jump to the end of the text with the vi-like command G or the Emacs-like command ESC->. less then knows how long the text is. Jump back to your previous place with '' (two single quotes) or C-xC-x' and the prompt will display the number of lines and the percentage. One of the great features of less is that it automatically buffers standard input so you can jump back and forth through text read from a pipe.)

The -M option adds the filename and the line numbers on the current screen.

You can also customize the prompt by setting the -P option. The string after -P can include:

A complete explanation would fill most of this month’s column, so read the manual page (which has a complete list of operators, and quite a few examples) for the details.

Let’s see a simple example. When reading a file, less prompts with Reading filename.; otherwise it prompts Reading stdin.... Here’s the prompt string:

Reading ?f"%f":stdin.\.\.\.

The word Reading and the space after it are output literally. The ?f starts an if-else test that’s true if a file is being read. If true, the text up to the colon, "%f", is interpreted and output; it’s the current filename inside a pair of double quotes. If ?f is false, the text after the colon, stdin, is interpreted and output. The first period ends the if-else. The three other periods (which have backslashes before each to make them literal) are output at the end of every prompt.

If you’re also storing other options in your LESS environment variable, it’s probably most clear to put the -P option last. For example, to set the options -j5 and -a plus that prompt, use:

LESS='-j5aPReading ?f"%f":stdin.\.\.\.'

& <=

Customizing the Editor

If you type the v command while less is running, it starts your default text editor (specified by your VISUAL or EDITOR environment variable). After you quit the editor, less displays the just-edited file.

By default, the first argument less gives the editor is +nnn, where nnn is the current line number in the middle of your screen. If your editor doesn’t support that syntax (vi, Emacs, nano, and Pico all do) or if you’d like to customize the way the editor is started, you can change the editor invocation by setting the LESSEDIT environment variable, which has the same syntax as the prompt string. The default is:

%E ?lm+%lm. %f

It starts with the editor name (%E). Next is a test to see if the current line number is known ?lm. If it’s known, a plus sign and the line number are output. Finally, %f gives the current filename.

Here’s a brief example of changing the editor invocation string. You use the Emacs editor, and you’re running less from within an xterm-like window. When you type the v command within less, Emacs opens a separate X window by default. This can be a bit disconcerting, so you want to add the -nw option to tell Emacs to edit within the same window as less. Since Emacs requires that the -nw option come first, you’d insert that option before the if-else test, like this command in a .bash_profile file:

export LESSEDIT='%E -nw ?lm+%lm. %f'

Preprocessing less Input

The LESSOPEN environment variable can name a program or script to preprocess the text that less displays. One popular use of this is to let you read compressed files directly. For instance, typing less somefile.gz would display the uncompressed somefile.gz. If you often read the directory of a tar file by typing tar - tzvf tarball.tar.gz|less, your preprocessor script could do the same thing when you type less tarball.tar.gz. One preprocessor script can handle many different situations.

If the preprocessor returns no output, less opens the input file as normal. The preprocessor is invoked once for each input file.

Although the program specified by LESSOPEN can write the preprocessed text into a temporary file (which can be removed by another program specified in the LESSCLOSE envariable), there’s often a simpler way: Create a program that writes the preprocessed text to its standard output. Begin the LESSOPEN value with a vertical bar (|), then list the program’s name, and a %s where the input filename should be substituted.

So, if you write a script named lesspipe and put it somewhere in your search path, you’d set:

LESSOPEN="|lesspipe %s"

Listing One shows a sample lesspipe shell script. It outputs a heading before the tar listings; because less displays the text it reads from the script’s output, the heading appears before the listing.

Listing One: Sample lesspipe shell script

# lesspipe - preprocessor for less(1)
# Invoked via envariable: LESSOPEN='|lesspipe %s'

case "$1" in
# Handle tar archive:
echo “==== Directory of tarball '$1':”
tar -tvf "$1"
# Handle compressed tar archive:
echo “==== Directory of tarball '$1':”

tar -tzvf "$1"
# Handle other compressed files.
# gunzip can read .gz, .z, and .Z formats:
gunzip -c "$1"

Custom Commands

The less commands are mostly compatible with commands understood by the old more pager and with vi and Emacs editor commands. That’s a lot of commands! If your fingers tend to find the wrong keys sometimes, you may wish to disable many of the less commands you never use.

If you’re using a non-U.S. keyboard, some of the less commands may fall on inconvenient or missing keys; you might want to assign them to more convenient keys. Or, for instance, you might think that v isn’t a good command to start the editor; you’d rather use e.

And if your shell setup file (like .profile) has several environment variables for less, you could prefer to move that configuration information to a single central file.

All of that, and more, can be set up in a lesskey file. You write a plain-text input file with a filename you choose and pass that name to lesskey:

$ lesskey ~/.lesskey.input

lesskey generates a binary configuration file for less. The default name is ~/.less. (You can also generate a system-wide file for all users. The lesskey man page explains.)

The lesskey input file can have up to three sections:

Other lines starting with # and blank lines are ignored.

Each line in the #command section has the following syntax, separated by whitespace:

command-key-string action optional-input

The command-key-string is a sequence of up to 15 keys, including literal names like e (for the lowercase e key), escapes like \t (for the tab key), a caret followed by a letter (such as ^E to represent control-E), and a backslash followed by one to three octal digits that specify a character by its octal value. If this string is the same as a default less command, your definition will override the default.

When you type a command-key-string to less, it executes the corresponding action. The action is one of a long list of mnemonic names (listed in the lesskey man page) like forw-screen or repaint. It can also be the special word invalid (which makes less beep to signal an error) or noaction (which is simply ignored). Use those two words to disable default less commands.

The optional-input is input text that’s fed to less as if you’d typed it on the keyboard after the action has been performed. For instance, let’s say you wanted to define a key to display a particular file. The action would be examine; this causes less to prompt you for the filename to read. The optional-input would be the filename which you’d otherwise type from the keyboard. (If you didn’t include an optional-input, then less would prompt you for the filename to examine.)

Each line in the #env section starts with the name of an environment variable, then an equal sign surrounded by optional whitespace (which is ignored), followed by the value of the environment variable. Any backslashes in the value should be doubled; that is, use \\ for each single backslash you want to store in the environment variable.

As an example, let’s disable the v key (which, by default, opens the file in your editor) and define the e key to do the same thing (instead of its default meaning, moving forward one line). Let

s also define the LESS and LESSEDIT environment variables. Listing Two shows the input file.

Listing Two: Sample lesskey input file

# $HOME/.lesskey.input - input file for lesskey(1)

v invalid

e visual

LESS = -j5aPReading ?f“%f”:stdin.\\.\\.\\.
LESSEDIT = %E -nw ?lm+%lm. %f

There are many more details in the lesskey manual page.


There’s even more you can do to configure less. To learn more, read the online manual pages and go to the less home page.

Jerry Peek is a freelance writer and instructor who has used Unix and Linux for more than 25 years. He's happy to hear from readers; see

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