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$ awk 'length > 72' {HOW TO PRINT THE LINEs IN PCS?} msg

ie I want it to add \n after 72 chars and continue, so initially you may need to remove all single \ns and the add them. It may be easier be easier with other tool but let's give a try to awk.


Williamson provided the right answer but some help needed to read it. I break the problem into parts with simpler examples, below.

  1. Why does the code below print \t in both cases, gsub should substitute things? x is a dummy-file, some odd 0 at the end.

  2. Attacking the line line = $0 \n more = getline \n gsub("\t"," ") in Williamson's reply, line apparently gets whole stdout while more gets popped value of $0, right?

Code to part 1

$ gawk '{ hallo="tjena\t tjena2"; gsub("\t"," "); }; END {print hallo; gsub("\t", ""); hallo=hallo gsub("\t",""); print hallo }' x
tjena  tjena2
tjena  tjena20
share|improve this question
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Here is an AWK script that wraps long lines and re-wraps the remainders as well as short lines:

awk -v WIDTH=72 '
    gsub("\t"," ")
    $0 = line $0
    while (length <= WIDTH) {
        line = $0
        more = getline
        gsub("\t"," ")
        if (more)
            $0 = line " " $0
            $0 = line
    while (length >= WIDTH) {
        print substr($0,1,WIDTH)
        $0 = substr($0,WIDTH+1)
    line = $0 " "


There is a Perl script available on CPAN which does a very nice job of reformatting text. It's called paradj (individual files). In order to do hyphenation, you will also need TeX::Hyphen.

The available switches are:

--width=n (or -w=n or -w n)
    Line width is n chars long

--left (or -l)
    Output is left-justified (default)

--right (or -r)
    Output is right-justified

--centered (or -c)
    Output is centered

--both (or -b)
    Output is both left- and right-justified

--indent=n (or -i=n or -i n)
    Leave n spaces for initial indention (defaults to 0)

--newline (or -n)
    Insert blank lines between paragraphs

--hyphenate (or -h)
    Hyphenate word that doesn't fit on a line

Here is a diff of some changes I made to support a left-margin option:

< my ($indent, $newline);
> my ($indent, $margin, $newline);
>   "margin:i" => \$margin,
> $margin = 0 if (!$margin);
>     print " " x $margin;
>   print "--margin=n (or -m=n or -m n)  Add a left margin of n ";
>   print "spaces\n";
>   print "                                (defaults to 0)\n";
share|improve this answer
By the way, I lifted Gilles' script to use as part of mine. – Dennis Williamson Nov 6 '10 at 0:07

Not using awk

I understand this may just be one part of a larger problem you are trying to solve using awk or simply an attempt to understand awk better, but if you really just want to keep your line length to 72 columns, there is a much better tool.

The fmt tool was designed with specifically this in mind:

fmt --width=72 filename

fmt will also try hard to break the lines in reasonable places, making the output nicer to read. See the info page for more details about what fmt considers "reasonable places."

share|improve this answer
GNU fmt doesn't support multibyte encodings, width means bytes, not chars. – Phillip Kovalev Jan 23 '13 at 11:22

Awk is a Turing-complete language, and not a particularly obfuscated one, so it's easy enough to truncate lines. Here's a straightforward imperative version.

awk -v WIDTH=72 '
    while (length>WIDTH) {
        print substr($0,1,WIDTH);

If you want to truncate lines between words, you can code it up in awk, but recognizing words is a non-trivial (for reasons having more to do with natural languages than algorithmic difficulty). Many systems have a utility called fmt that does just that.

share|improve this answer
Heh, I was editing my answer to include this as you were writing yours. I think I'll just remove my edits. I really wish I could see when somebody else was writing an answer. – Steven D Nov 5 '10 at 20:01
Strictly speaking, your script isn't truncating lines; rather, it's wrapping long lines, but not re-wrapping the remainder. – Dennis Williamson Nov 5 '10 at 22:44

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