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Working with files

File types

Unix treats all files (barring some special cases) as merely sequences of bytes. That is to say, for normal files, it does not distinguish between different types or formats. It is up to the programs which work with files to decide how to interpret their contents.

Having said that, users often think of files as having a type based on what kinds of operations they might like to perform on them. For example, we might think of a file as containing the source of a Python program, or as the sequence data from a DNA sample.

The file command tries to guess the type of a file based on its contents and various heuristics:

$ file main.c
main.c: ASCII C program text
$ file main.o
main.o: ELF 64-bit LSB relocatable, AMD x86-64, ..
$ file stats.r
stats.r ASCII English text

The last example above is a script from the R statistical programming language, which demonstrates that the file command is not comprehensive and only knows about the most common file types.

It is also common for users to distinguish files as being "text" or “binary” (though we emphasise again that Unix itself makes no such distinction). For example, the source code of a HTML page is regarded as text, whereas the contents of a compiled program is regarded as binary. The Unix philosophy has tended to encourage the use of text files because they are generally “human readable” whereas binary files are generally not. However, a text representation of data might not always be as compact as a binary one (especially when numbers are being stored).

Traditionally text files contained sequences of bytes representing members of the ASCII character set, where each character occupies exactly one byte in the file. However, ASCII is slowly being superseded by Unicode, which contains all the ASCII characters plus many others, including characters from non Latin-based languages. Unicode characters are stored in files using a multi-byte encoding scheme such as UTF-8 (which was designed to be backwards compatible with ASCII).

Unix comes with a large number of commands which help you manipulate text files, and on GNU/Linux they generally support Unicode. However, the ASCII subset of Unicode is still widely used, and we stick to that character set in this document for simplicity.

Displaying the contents of files

You can display the entire contents of one or more files with the cat command:

$ cat poem.txt
fat cat
sat flat

The cat command is nice and simple, but it tends to be impractical for large files because it shows the entire contents at once. An alternative is the less command, which supports text scrolling and searching:

$ less stats.r
SIZE <- 100                # side of square grid in pixels

It is hard to show the output of the less command in this document, so we just show the first few lines in the example above. You can use the arrow keys to scroll up and down in the output, /pattern to search for "pattern" in the file, and q to quit.

Sometimes you only want to view the first or last few lines of a file: this can be done with the head and tail commands respectively:

$ head -n3 stats.r
SIZE <- 100                # side of square grid in pixels
$ tail -n5 main.c
   visualise(argc, argv);
   return 0;

The -n argument to head and tail is the number of lines to display, which, if you leave it out, defaults to 10.

Searching for patterns in files

You can search for a pattern in one or more files using the grep command:

$ grep include *.c
main.c:#include "simulate.h"
queue.c:#include <assert.h>
queue.c:#include "types.h"
simulate.c:#include <gsl/gsl_rng.h>

The example above searches for all the lines that contain the pattern "include" in all the files in the working directory that end in “.c”.

When grep finds a match for the pattern in a file it prints out the whole line. When multiple files are searched it prints the name of the file before the matching line.

The pattern can be a regular expression which allows sophisticated searches to be performed. We don’t have space to describe regular expressions in this document, but there is quite a detailed entry on Wikipedia:

The grep command has many arguments which control its behaviour. A couple of the more common ones are -R for recursive search, -i for case-insensitive search.

Comparing files for differences

You can find differences between two files using the diff command. For example, suppose we have two files with the contents of each shown below:


#include <stdio.h>
int main(void) {
    printf ("Hello World\n");
    return 0;


#include <stdio.h>
int main(void) {
    printf ("Bonjour Monde\n");
    return 0;
$ diff hello.c bonjour.c
<     printf ("Hello World\n");
>     printf ("Bonjour Monde\n");

The output of diff shows the lines where the files differ. The text 3c3 means that the 3rd line in the first file was changed to the 3rd line in the second file. The < character marks lines in the first file and the > character marks lines in the second file. If the files are the same then diff will produce no output.

Editing files

There are many ways to edit files on Unix, but perhaps the simplest way is to use the full-screen text editor called nano.

To create a new file, run nano with no arguments:

$ nano

To edit an existing file, run nano with the name of the file to edit as an argument:

$ nano poem.txt

A great feature of nano is that it has only a few commands and the most important ones are displayed at the bottom of the screen, like so:

^G Get Help  ^O WriteOut
^X Exit      ^J Justify

The ^ character means "hold down the Control Key while pressing the character next to it". So, for example, to exit nano you should hold down the Control Key and simultaneously press the x key (despite appearances the single-letter characters in nano’s commands should be lowercase). If you have changed the file before exiting nano will prompt you to save the changes.

Experienced Unix users tend to prefer text editors with more features than nano. The most popular editors, especially for programmers, are vim and emacs. The popularity of these editors is because although they are hard for beginners to learn, they enable experts to operate more rapidly. We won't cover these editors here.

Other handy commands which operate on files

There are lots of other commands on Unix which operate on files. We don’t have space to describe them all in detail, but here is a short list which you might like to lookup in the future:

Command Description
awk Data extraction and reporting scripting language.
cut Remove sections from lines in a file.
find Search for files in a directory hierarchy using a pattern syntax.
gzip File compression (to make the file consume less space).
sed Tool for filtering and transforming text, similar to awk.
sort Sort lines of text files based on defined fields in each line.
tar Store many files in a single archive.
tr Translate or delete characters in a file.
uniq Report or omit repeated lines in a file.
wc Count the number of lines, words and characters in files.