The cut command

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The cut command is a fast way to extract parts of lines of text files. It belongs to the oldest Unix commands. Its most popular implementations are the GNU version found on Linux and the FreeBSD version found on MacOS, but each flavor of Unix has its own. See below for differences. The input lines are read either from stdin or from files listed as arguments on the command line.



|Parameter|Details| |:—|:—| |-f, –fields| Field-based selection |-d, –delimiter| Delimiter for field-based selection |-c, –characters| Character-based selection, delimiter ignored or error |-s, –only-delimited| Suppress lines with no delimiter characters (printed as-is otherwise) |–complement| Inverted selection (extract all except specified fields/characters |–output-delimiter| Specify when it has to be different from the input delimiter


1. Syntax differences

Long options in the table above are only supported by the GNU version.

2. No character gets special treatment

FreeBSD cut (which comes with MacOS, for example) doesn’t have the --complement switch, and, in the case of character ranges, one can use the colrm command instead:

$ cut --complement -c3-5 <<<"123456789"

$ colrm 3 5 <<<"123456789"

However, there is a big difference, because colrm treats TAB characters (ASCII 9) as real tabulations up to the next multiple of eight, and backspaces (ASCII 8) as -1 wide; on the contrary, cut treats all characters as one column wide.

$ colrm  3 8 <<<$'12\tABCDEF' # Input string has an embedded TAB

$ cut --complement -c3-8 <<<$'12\tABCDEF'

3. (Still no) Internationalization

When cut was designed, all characters were one byte long and internationalization was not a problem. When writing systems with wider characters became popular, the solution adopted by POSIX was to ditinguish between the old -c switch, which should retain its meaning of selecting characters, no matter how many bytes wide, and to introduce a new switch -b which should select bytes, irrespective of the current character encoding. In most popular implementations, -b was introduced and works, but -c is still working exactly like -b and not as it should. For example with GNU cut:

It seems that SE’s spam filter blacklists English texts with isolated kanji characters in them. I could not overcome this limitation, so the following examples are less expressive than they could be.

# In an encoding where each character in the input string is three bytes wide,
# Selecting bytes 1-6 yields the first two characters (correct)
$ LC_ALL=ja_JP.UTF-8 cut -b1-6 kanji.utf-8.txt
...first two characters of each line...

# Selecting all three characters with the -c switch doesn’t work.
# It behaves like -b, contrary to documentation.
$ LC_ALL=ja_JP.UTF-8 cut -c1-3 kanji.utf-8.txt
...first character of each line...

# In this case, an illegal UTF-8 string is produced.
# The -n switch would prevent this, if implemented.
$ LC_ALL=ja_JP.UTF-8 cut -n -c2 kanji.utf-8.txt
...second byte, which is an illegal UTF-8 sequence...

If your characters are outside the ASCII range and you want to use cut, you should always be aware of character width in your encoding and use -b accordingly. If and when -c starts working as documented, you won’t have to change your scripts.

4. Speed comparisons

cut’s limitations have people doubting its usefulness. In fact, the same functionality can be achieved by more powerful, more popular utilities. However, cut’s advantage is its performance. See below for some speed comparisons. test.txt has three million lines, with five space-separated fields each. For the awk test, mawk was used, because it’s faster than GNU awk. The shell itself (last line) is by far the worst performer. The times given (in seconds) are what the time command gives as real time.

(Just to avoid misunderstandings: all tested commands gave the same output with the given input, but they are of course not equivalent and would give different outputs in different situations, in particular if the fields were delimited by a variable number of spaces)

Command | Time | — | —: |cut -d ' ' -f1,2 test.txt | 1.138s |awk '{print $1 $2}' test.txt | 1.688s |join -a1 -o1.1,1.2 test.txt /dev/null | 1.767s |perl -lane 'print "@F[1,2]"' test.txt | 11.390s |grep -o '^\([^ ]*\) \([^ ]*\)' test.txt | 22.925s |sed -e 's/^\([^ ]*\) \([^ ]*\).*$/\1 \2/' test.txt | 52.122s |while read a b _; do echo $a $b; done <test.txt | 55.582s |

5. Referential man pages

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