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    Xargs howto

Xargs is used to build argument lists from the standard input and to execute commands on each element of the list. It turns out to be very useful, in particular with commands as rm, grep, find. In general it's worth considering the use of xargs any time we have a command that builds a list of objects (like file names found with ls or find) that needs to be piped as input for another command.
The behaviour of xargs can be mymicked by the single backquotes (``) as we will see in examples. However, the backquotes method has few limits, as the size of the argument list that can be built or the difficulty in handling spaces and other non-standard characters.


Standard use

The syntax of xargs can be syntetically written

$ <command_1> | xargs <command_2>

xargs pass the list of objects created by <command_1> as a whole to the <command_2>. A few examples to explain. We can print the names of the files in the current directory with ls

$ ls
file1 file2 file3

The standard command executed by xargs is echo

$ ls | xargs
file1 file2 file3

White spaces and newlines are delimiters of the objects in the list. We could decide to print the file names in the current directory preceded by the string "Found:". We use ls and xargs

$ ls | xargs echo Found:
Found: file1 file2 file3

The list of names is used as a whole object and passed to echo. The same result could have been obtained using the backquotes as in

$ echo Found: `ls`
Found: file1 file2 file3

Argument list too long

Sometimes when executing a command the error "Argument list too long" appears because too many arguments are being submitted at ones to the command. A typical example is

$ rm -f *

when the number of files in the current directory is huge. The problem is easily solved with xargs and find:

$ find . -maxdepth 1 -type f -print0 | xargs -0 rm -f

Break the input and delimiters

But xargs offers more options than the backquote. We can break the list into single arguments and call the argument command for each of them. For example, we may want to append the string "Found:" at the beginning of each file name. To obtain this we need to use the option -I

$ ls | xargs -r -I {} echo Found: {}
Found: file1
Found: file2
Found: file3

The {} is a standard name for list items. The same could have been written using -i

$ ls | xargs -i echo Found: {}
Found: file1
Found: file2
Found: file3

Note that the label of the items (in this case {}) can be modified to be more expressive, like

$ ls | xargs -I filename echo Found: filename
Found: file1
Found: file2
Found: file3

A specific delimiter can be enforced using the option -d <delim>, for example

$ xargs -a file -d\n -I {} echo Output: {}

The elements of the input list can be passed in a maximum number per line using the option -n <num>.

$ ls | xargs
file1 file2 file3 file4 file5 file6
$ ls | xargs -n 2
file1 file2
file3 file4
file5 file6


No action if argument list is empty

In a command like

find <something> | xargs <some action>

xargs will execute <some action> even if the list of arguments provided by find is completely empty. This is almost always not what we want. To avoid it we must use the -r option

$ find . -type f -print0 | xargs -0 -r rm

White spaces

White spaces are delimiters for xargs, causing problems in handling filenames. To achieve the correct behaviour the option -0 exist that forces xargs to consider only newlines as delimiters.

$ ls
file1.txt file2.txt file3.txt file 4.txt
$ find . -name "*.txt" | xargs rm -f
$ ls
file 4.txt

This happens since the strings "file" and "4.txt" have been passed to rm separately. To correct the behavior use the following

$ find . -name "*.txt" -print0 | xargs -0 rm -f

A similar example is a safe command to search for files and echos their names

$ find . -maxdepth 1 -type f -print0 | xargs -0 -I {} echo Found: {}
Found: file1
Found: file2
Found: file3
Found: file 4 # note the white space

Read from a file

The -a option allows to read from a file instead of the standard input. If we have a file "foo" containing


we can do

$ xargs -a file -n 1 -I {} echo Output: {}
Output: string1
Output: string2
Output: string3

Input and output redirection

Input and output can be redirected using the usual < > symbols. For example print the output of a list of files using cat. The list is in the list.txt file

$ xargs cat < list.txt

Now we redirect the previous output to a new file. This can be done to concatenate files

$ xargs cat < list.txt > new_file.txt

Note about speed with find

The -exec option of find can be used in place of xargs with similar results. For example we can find all the files in the current directory and remove all the writing permissions in the following way

$ find . -type f -exec chmod -w {} \;

Alternatively xargs can be used

$ find . -type f | xargs chmod -w

These two alternatives give equivalent results. But the second one is much faster. The reason is that in the first case chmod is called for each single file found, while in the second case it's called only once for the whole list of files. There is of course a third alternative

$ find . -type f | xargs -n1 -I {} chmod -w {} 

In this last case chmod is again called once for each element in the list, so there shouldn't be much difference comparing with the first option.


1. Print a list of found files

$ find . -maxdepth 1 -type f -print0 | xargs -0

2. Print a list preceded by a string

$ find . -maxdepth 1 -type f -print0 | xargs -0 echo "String"

3. Print a list where each single element is preceded by "String"

$ find . -maxdepth 1 -type f -print0 | xargs -0 -n 1 -I {} echo "String" {}

4. Check which file have a string inside and print filename and line

$ find . -maxdepth 1 -type f -print0 | xargs -0 grep string

5. Check which file have a string inside and print only the line

$ find . -maxdepth 1 -type f -print0 | xargs -0 -n 1 -I {} grep string {}

6. Print first line of each file

$ find . -maxdepth 1 -type f -print0 | xargs -0 head -n 1

7. Print last line of each file

$ find . -maxdepth 1 -type f -print0 | xargs -0 tail -n 1

8. Search & remove

$ find . -maxdepth 1 -type f -print0 | xargs -0 rm

9. Search & remove one by one

$ find . -maxdepth 1 -type f -print0 | xargs -0 -n 1 -I {} rm -p {}

10. Search for mp3 files and remove. They may have white spaces

$ find . -maxdepth 1 -name '*.mp3' -print0 | xargs -0 -r rm

11. Count lines in files

$ find . -maxdepth 1 -type f -print0 | xargs -0 wc -l

12. Move files

$ find . -maxdepth 1 -type f -print0 | xargs -0 -I {} mv {} dest/folder/

13. Move files between original directory to backup directory appending .bak to the file name

$ find src_dir/ -maxdepth 1 -type f -print0 | xargs -0 -n 1 -I {} mv src_dir/{} dest_dir/{}.bak

14. Copy files

$ find . -maxdepth 1 -type f -print0 | xargs -0 -n 1 -I {} cp {} dest/folder/

15. Tar files

$ find . -maxdepth 1 -type f -print0 | xargs -0 tar czf archive.tar.gz

16. Fetch files from internet given the urls in a list

$ xargs -a urls.txt wget -c


Update: 06/03/2016

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