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I ran the following to replace a term used in all files in the current working directory:

$ find . -type f -print0 | xargs -0 sed -i'.bup' -e's/Ms. Johnson/Mrs. Melbin/g'

This performed the word substitution but it also created .bup files of files that never had the Ms. Johnson string.

How do I perform the substitution without creating all these unnecessary backups?

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seems to me as a bug of sed see – Hotschke Dec 12 '13 at 17:06
There is probably a better approach possible using ex, and conditionally (only if the file is changed) running :!cp '%' '%.bup' before saving and exiting. Might be worth looking into. – Wildcard Mar 17 at 9:15
I wrote a question about my idea above on the vi stack exchange. – Wildcard Mar 17 at 9:33
up vote 4 down vote accepted

You could check the files' contents to make sure that a substitution will take place when sed operates on them:

find . \
    -type f \
    -exec grep -q 'Ms. Johnson' {} \; \
    -print0 |
xargs -0 sed -i'.bup' -e's/Ms. Johnson/Mrs. Melbin/g'

If you want to be really clever about it, you could forego using find at all:

grep -Z -l -r 'Ms. Johnson' |
    xargs -0 sed -i'.bup' -e's/Ms. Johnson/Mrs. Melbin/g'
share|improve this answer
I think you need a '{}' just before your \; in that -exec. – Jander Nov 21 '11 at 3:13
@Jander Thanks. – amphetamachine Nov 21 '11 at 3:18

Find has an -exec operator that executes an arbitrary command. Even better, -exec is a test, so you can chain several -execs together, and if earlier commands fail, later ones won't get executed. The string {} gets replaced with the current filename, and ; marks the end of the command. You should quote both to avoid the shell interfering.


find . -type f \
    -exec grep -q 'Ms. Johnson' '{}' \; \
    -exec sed -i'.bup' -e's/Ms. Johnson/Mrs. Melbin/g' '{}' \;
share|improve this answer
I've never had a problem using bare {}'s. – amphetamachine Nov 21 '11 at 3:14
@amphetamachine: Neither have I, but the man page suggests it. It could be a csh thing, or there might be shells (not Bash and not POSIX) who expand {} to the null string when doing brace expansion. – Jander Nov 21 '11 at 5:16

I looked at the man page and didn't see any way to do it directly through sed, as I'm sure you did before asking. I see several ways to work around this using grep, but I think the easiest is this:

grep -rlZ "Ms. Johnson" . | xargs -0 sed -i'.bup' -e's/Ms. Johnson/Mrs. Melbin/g'

-r recurse
-l print filename only
-Z end names with null

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Seems like you need to build a list of files that match your search terms first.

for match in $(find -type f -exec grep -l $search "{}" \;)
do sed -i'.bup' -e "/$search/ s/$search/Mrs. Melbin/g" "$match"
share|improve this answer
You forgot the . as the first argument to find. Also, as I was informed myself not too long ago, you don't actually need to quote or escape the {} – Kevin Nov 21 '11 at 3:18
Don't generate a list of files and perform command substitution on that. First find generates a newline-separated list of files, then the shell breaks up this list at any whitespace (not just newlines) and then the shell treats each word as a glob pattern. This only works if your file names do not contain whitespace or \[?*. Other answers on this page show how to do this correctly. – Gilles Nov 21 '11 at 23:15
@Kevin The . is unnecessary with find (at least find found on linux) because it's assumed when no path is passed an argument. – laebshade Nov 21 '11 at 23:48

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