Skip to main content

Build Commands on the Fly

In the earlier chapters of this part of the book we've seen a number of ways to manipulate text. Now we're going to introduce the xargs command and show how to use our text manipulation skills to dynamically build complex commands on the fly.

Introducing Xargs

The xargs [build and execute commands] command takes input, uses the input to create commands, then executes the commands. I tend to remember it as "Execute with Arguments" as the name xargs sounds a little odd!

How xargs is used is probably easiest to see with an example. Let's use it to build a set of commands which will remove any empty files from a folder.

Before we show xargs let's create some empty files which we'll later clean up:

$ mkdir -p ~/effective-shell/tmp
$ cd ~/effective-shell/tmp
$ touch file{1..100}.txt

We're using a nice shell trick here called Brace Expansion - the shell will expand file{1..100}.txt into file1.txt, file2.txt and so on, all the way to file100.txt.

We could just look for empty files in our /tmp folder for this example, but a file in that folder might be in use, so a safer way to demonstrate xargs is to use some temporary files which we create ourselves.

We could search for empty files with the command below:

$ find . -empty
A refresher on Finding Files

In this chapter we'll be using the find (find files and folders) command a lot - if you need a refresher, check Chapter 11 - Finding Files.

The find command has outputted a list of files, now we want to use the rm (remove file) command to delete each one. Let's just pipe the list of files to the rm command, check Chapter 7 - Thinking in Pipelines if you need a reminder of how piping works:

$ find . -empty | rm
rm: missing operand
Try 'rm --help' for more information.

What's going on here? Well basically the issue is that the rm command doesn't actually read the list of files from stdin, the list of files has to be passed as a parameter to the command. How can we take this list of files and pass it to rm as a set of parameters?

This is what xargs is for! Before we delete the files, let's just see what happens when we pass the list to xargs:

$ find . -empty | xargs
./file40.txt ./file8.txt ./file35.txt ./file81.txt ...

By default xargs take the input, joins each line together with a space and then passes it to the echo command. The echo command writes it out to the screen.

We can change the command xargs passes the arguments to:

$ find . -empty | xargs echo rm
rm ./file40.txt ./file8.txt ./file35.txt ./file81.txt ...

Very interesting! Now we've told xargs to pass the output to the echo rm command - this just writes out rm followed by the list of files. Putting echo before whatever command you want to run is a useful way to check the command before we commit to running it.

Let's finish the job and delete each file:

$ find . -empty | xargs rm

Done! You can run ls to confirm that the file has been deleted.

This is xargs - it constructs and executes a command using arguments from standard input. Now let's see how we can take this further.

Handling Whitespace, Special Characters and Tracing

One common challenge with xargs is how to deal with spaces. To see what I mean, let's create three files with spaces in the names:

$ touch "chapter "{1,2,3}.md
$ find . -type f

What if we wanted to delete these files? Let's try that with rm:

$ find . -type f | xargs rm
rm: cannot remove './chapter': No such file or directory
rm: cannot remove '': No such file or directory

The file name has a space in it, which is confusing rm as it thinks we're providing six paths rather than three.

We can use the -t (trace) option to see what xargs actually tried to do:

$ find . -type f | xargs -t rm
rm ./chapter ./chapter ./chapter

Hopefully you can spot the error - the rm command thinks it needs to remove six files, because there are spaces in the filenames and there are not quotes around the filenames to let rm know this!

Fortunately, find loves xargs - they are part of the same package of tools (which is called 'findutils'). And there's a special pair of options that can deal with this.

For find, we are going to use the -print0 action and for xargs we'll use the -0 option. Let's see how it looks now, then describe what's going on under the hood:

$ find . -type f -print0 | xargs -0 -t rm
rm './chapter' './chapter' './chapter'

In Chapter 11 - Finding Files we saw that the default action of the find command is -print, which writes out the path of each item found. The -print0 action is very similar - but it instead it writes out each item followed by a special 'null' character1.

Now that we've told find to end each result with a special 'null' character, we just tell xargs that the 'null' character is what separates each line of input. We do this with the -0 (use NUL as separators) option.

You don't need to really understand the internals - if you are a computer programmer it might make sense, this is how strings in things like the C Programming language work. All you need to know is that it means the xargs program won't get confused when it sees spaces, tabs, quotes, newlines, or anything else which might be goofy in a file name.

My recommendation would be to always pair up the -print0 action with the -0 option - it means you won't get caught out by odd file names. And definitely make use of the -t (trace) option to see what xargs is actually doing!

One Command or Many Commands?

By default xargs takes all of the input and passes it as a set of arguments to the provided command. We can see this below:

$ touch file{1..5}
$ find . -type f | xargs echo
./file1 ./file2 ./file3 ./file4 ./file5

We don't need to provide echo to xargs, it is the default, but I have added it for clarity. But what is really important is that we have called echo once and once only.

xargs has passed all of the arguments it has been given to the command.

We can tell xargs how many lines of input it should use for the command with the -L (max lines) parameter:

$ find . -type f | xargs -L 1 echo

We've now called the echo command once for each line of input, meaning that echo has been called five times.

In general if you can provide all of the arguments to a single command the system may be able to process the command slightly faster. However, if there are lots of arguments, the command itself might not be able to handle all of the arguments you give it.

You can set -L to other values too - xargs will use up to the number of lines provided:

$ find . -type f | xargs -L 3 echo
./file1 ./file2 ./file3
./file4 ./file5

Here we've allowed up to three input lines per command.

You will probably not use the -L parameter very often, but it is really important that you understand what it does. And that is because many of the other options we'll use imply -L 1 - we'll see why in the next example.

find . -name "chapter*" | xargs rm
rm: cannot remove './chapter': No such file or directory
rm: cannot remove '1.txt': No such file or directory

Constructing more complex commands with the 'I' Parameter

You have probably noticed by now that the xargs command puts the arguments it is given at the end of the command you write.

What if you need the arguments to go somewhere else? For example, what if I wanted to copy every text file in a folder to another location?

Here's how we might start - and what'll go wrong!

$ find . -name "*.txt" -print0 | xargs -0 -t cp ~/backups
cp /home/dwmkerr/backups ./file2.txt ./file3.txt ./file1.txt
cp: target './file1.txt' is not a directory

The problem is that the destination location for where we copy the files has to be the last parameter - but xargs puts the list of files at the end of the command.

And by the way - we've used the -0 parameter to make sure that funny filenames are handled properly (a good habit to get into) and the -t parameter to trace - which means we see the command which will be run.

So we need to tell xargs where to put the list of arguments. We can do that with the -I (replace string) parameter. This parameter lets us tell xargs exactly where we want to put the arguments:

$ find . -name "*.txt" -print0 | xargs -0 -t -I {} cp {} ~/backups
cp ./file2.txt /home/dwmkerr/backups
cp ./file3.txt /home/dwmkerr/backups
cp ./file1.txt /home/dwmkerr/backups

Here we have set the 'replacement string' to be {}. This means when xargs sees {} in the command it will replace it with the arguments we provide as its input.

The first observation you might make is that as soon as we use the -I parameter it automatically implies that we use the -L 1 parameter, i.e. we run the command once for each individual input line.

For the example we have shown above, this isn't really necessary, xargs could just write all of the arguments. The reason xargs does this is that we are not actually limited to using the replacement once only - we can use it multiple times.

Here's a similar example, but in this one we put .bak at the end of each filename as we copy it:

$ find . -name "*.txt" -print0 | xargs -0 -t -I {} cp {} ~/backups/{}.bak
cp ./file2.txt /home/dwmkerr/backups/./file2.txt.bak
cp ./file3.txt /home/dwmkerr/backups/./file3.txt.bak
cp ./file1.txt /home/dwmkerr/backups/./file1.txt.bak

Because we can use the replacement string multiple times, xargs splits up the commands so it is one command per input argument. If it didn't do this and we tried the command above it would not work properly.

The -I parameter is incredibly powerful, it lets us construct complex commands.

You don't need to use the {} letters as the replacement string, any sequence of characters will work. For example:

$ env | xargs -I % echo "You have env var: % set!"
You have env var: SHELL=/bin/bash set!
You have env var: COLORTERM=truecolor set!
You have env var: EDITOR=vi set!

In this example we used % as the replacement string.

You might wonder why is {} so commonly used in examples or the manpages. The reason is that this is the default replacement string used by find if we perform an action like -exec:

$ find . -type f -empty -exec stat {} \;

The {} characters are used as the placeholder for files found with the find command, so people often use the same placeholder for xargs, but you are not required to use these characters.

Requesting Confirmation with the Prompt Option

The -p (prompt) option tells xargs to ask the user to confirm each command before it is run.

Let's test this out by deleting a set of 'pods' from a Kubernetes cluster. You don't have to worry about what a Kubernetes cluster is, I'm just using this as an example to highlight that you don't have to be limited to using find as the input for xargs!

On my machine I can show the pods available to me in my cluster with this command:

$ kubectl get pods -o name

Three pods are shown. I could use this command to build input to xargs to let me to chose which pods to delete, interactively:

$ kubectl get pods -o name | xargs -L 1 -p kubectl delete
kubectl --context minikube delete pod/my-app?...n
kubectl --context minikube delete pod/nginx?...y
pod "nginx" deleted
kubectl --context minikube delete pod/postgres?...n

This is fantastic! We've used -L 1 to make sure that we only deal with one pod at a time (rather than trying to delete all three at once) and the -p flag to ask the user to press 'y' or 'n' in each case. The xargs command helpfully shows us what it is going to do and asks for confirmation first.

I think this really hints at the true power of xargs - yes it can be combined with find to perform operations on files, but it can also be used with other tools to build more complex operations.

Splitting up Input with a Delimiter

We can ask the user whether they want to see files in all of their 'path' locations with the command below:

$ echo $PATH | xargs -d ':' -p -L 1 ls
ls /home/dwmkerr/.pyenv/shims ?...n
ls /home/dwmkerr/.nvm/versions/node/v14.15.1/bin ?...n

The $PATH environment variable holds all of the folders the shell will search in for binaries - and each folder is separated by a : colon character (you can read more about $PATH in Chapter 10 - Understanding Commands.

We use the -d (delimiter) parameter to tell xargs that each argument in the input is separated with a colon. We also use the -L 1 and -p parameters to process this input one folder at a time and ask the user if they want to see the contents of the folder.


In this chapter we introduced xargs, a powerful command which allows us to build other commands on the fly. We can trace, showing how the resulting command will look, ask the user for confirmation, control how many commands we run and more.

There are more options for the xargs command, you can read all about them with man xargs. But I think if you learn the key parameters we've shown in this chapter you'll be well equipped to use xargs in your day to day wok.

In the next chapter we'll look at some of the advanced features which are built into most shells which allow us to manipulate text.

  1. The character is ASCII NUL, which is the number zero. This is often used in programming to represent 'null' or 'nothing at all', not the digit zero as is used when printing to the screen, which is actually represented by number 30. You can see the actual ASCII table with man ascii.