Linux Know-How provides a collection of introductory texts on often needed Linux skills.

Grep and regular expressions

NoteIf you are not on Linux

We use GNU grep in these examples, which supports extended regular expressions. GNU grep is the default on Linux systems. If you are working on proprietary systems, check with the -V option which version you are using. GNU grep can be downloaded from

Line and word anchors

From the previous example, we now exclusively want to display lines starting with the string "root":

cathy ~> grep ^root /etc/passwd

If we want to see which accounts have no shell assigned whatsoever, we search for lines ending in ":":

cathy ~> grep :$ /etc/passwd

To check that PATH is exported in ~/.bashrc, first select "export" lines and then search for lines starting with the string "PATH", so as not to display MANPATH and other possible paths:

cathy ~> grep export ~/.bashrc | grep '\<PATH'
  export PATH="/bin:/usr/lib/mh:/lib:/usr/bin:/usr/local/bin:/usr/ucb:/usr/dbin:$PATH"

Similarly, \> matches the end of a word.

If you want to find a string that is a separate word (enclosed by spaces), it is better use the -w, as in this example where we are displaying information for the root partition:

cathy ~> grep -w / /etc/fstab
LABEL=/                 /                       ext3    defaults        1 1

If this option is not used, all the lines from the file system table will be displayed.

Character classes

A bracket expression is a list of characters enclosed by "[" and "]". It matches any single character in that list; if the first character of the list is the caret, "^", then it matches any character NOT in the list. For example, the regular expression "[0123456789]" matches any single digit.

Within a bracket expression, a range expression consists of two characters separated by a hyphen. It matches any single character that sorts between the two characters, inclusive, using the locale's collating sequence and character set. For example, in the default C locale, "[a-d]" is equivalent to "[abcd]". Many locales sort characters in dictionary order, and in these locales "[a-d]" is typically not equivalent to "[abcd]"; it might be equivalent to "[aBbCcDd]", for example. To obtain the traditional interpretation of bracket expressions, you can use the C locale by setting the LC_ALL environment variable to the value "C".

Finally, certain named classes of characters are predefined within bracket expressions. See the grep man or info pages for more information about these predefined expressions.

cathy ~> grep [yf] /etc/group

cathy ~> ls *[1-9].xml
app1.xml  chap1.xml  chap2.xml  chap3.xml  chap4.xml

In the example, all the lines containing either a "y" or "f" character are first displayed, followed by an example of using a range with the ls command.


Use the "." for a single character match. If you want to get a list of all five-character English dictionary words starting with "c" and ending in "h" (handy for solving crosswords):

cathy ~> grep '\<c...h\>' /usr/share/dict/words

If you want to display lines containing the literal dot character, use the -F option to grep.

For matching multiple characters, use the asterisk. This example selects all words starting with "c" and ending in "h" from the system's dictionary:

cathy ~> grep '\<c.*h\>' /usr/share/dict/words
--output omitted--

If you want to find the literal asterisk character in a file or output, use grep -F:

cathy ~> grep * /etc/profile

cathy ~> grep -F '*' /etc/profile
for i in /etc/profile.d/*.sh ; do

Last Update: 2010-12-16