Say I have a file:

# file: 'test.txt'
foobar bash 1
foobar happy

I only want to know what words appear after "foobar", so I can use this regex:

"foobar \(\w\+\)"

The parenthesis indicate that I have a special interest in the word right after foobar. But when I do a grep "foobar \(\w\+\)" test.txt, I get the entire lines that match the entire regex, rather than just "the word after foobar":

foobar bash 1
foobar happy

I would much prefer that the output of that command looked like this:


Is there a way to tell grep to only output the items that match the grouping (or a specific grouping) in a regular expression?

  • 4
    for those who do not need grep: perl -lne 'print $1 if /foobar (\w+)/' < test.txt – vault Dec 19 '16 at 11:56

GNU grep has the -P option for perl-style regexes, and the -o option to print only what matches the pattern. These can be combined using look-around assertions (described under Extended Patterns in the perlre manpage) to remove part of the grep pattern from what is determined to have matched for the purposes of -o.

$ grep -oP 'foobar \K\w+' test.txt

The \K is the short-form (and more efficient form) of (?<=pattern) which you use as a zero-width look-behind assertion before the text you want to output. (?=pattern) can be used as a zero-width look-ahead assertion after the text you want to output.

For instance, if you wanted to match the word between foo and bar, you could use:

$ grep -oP 'foo \K\w+(?= bar)' test.txt

or (for symmetry)

$ grep -oP '(?<=foo )\w+(?= bar)' test.txt
  • 2
    How you do it if your regex has more than a grouping? (as the title implied?) – barracel Mar 21 '13 at 7:52
  • 4
    @barracel: I don't believe you can. Time for sed(1) – camh Mar 22 '13 at 22:51
  • 1
    @camh I have just tested that grep -oP 'foobar \K\w+' test.txt outputs nothing with the OP's test.txt. The grep version is 2.5.1. What could be wrong ? O_O – SOUser Jul 24 '14 at 14:19
  • @XichenLi: I can't say. I just built v2.5.1 of grep (it's pretty old - from 2006) and it worked for me. – camh Jul 25 '14 at 10:18
  • @SOUser: I experienced the same - outputs nothing to file. I submitted the edit request to include '>' before the filename to send output as this worked for me. – rjchicago Dec 15 '16 at 21:40

Standard grep can't do this, but recent versions of GNU grep can. You can turn to sed, awk or perl. Here are a few examples that do what you want on your sample input; they behave slightly differently in corner cases.

Replace foobar word other stuff by word, print only if a replacement is done.

sed -n -e 's/^foobar \([[:alnum:]]\+\).*/\1/p'

If the first word is foobar, print the second word.

awk '$1 == "foobar" {print $2}'

Strip foobar if it's the first word, and skip the line otherwise; then strip everything after the first whitespace and print.

perl -lne 's/^foobar\s+// or next; s/\s.*//; print'
  • Awesome! I thought I may be able to do this with sed, but I haven't used it before and was hoping I could use my familiar grep. But the syntax for these commands actually looks very familiar now that I am familiar with vim-style search & replace + regexes. Thanks a ton. – Cory Klein May 19 '11 at 23:51
  • 1
    Not true, Gilles. See my answer for a GNU grep solution. – camh May 20 '11 at 1:33
  • 1
    @camh: Ah, I didn't know GNU grep now had full PCRE support. I've corrected my answer, thanks. – Gilles May 20 '11 at 7:14
  • 1
    This answer is especially useful for embedded Linux since Busybox grep doesn't have PCRE support. – Craig McQueen Mar 17 '16 at 0:12
  • Obviously there are multiple ways to accomplish the same task presented, however, if the OP ask for grep usage, why you answer something else? Also, your first paragraph is incorrect: yes grep can do it. – fcm Mar 11 at 13:31
    sed -n "s/^.*foobar\s*\(\S*\).*$/\1/p"

-n     suppress printing
s      substitute
^.*    anything before foobar
foobar initial search match
\s*    any white space character (space)
\(     start capture group
\S*    capture any non-white space character (word)
\)     end capture group
.*$    anything after the capture group
\1     substitute everything with the 1st capture group
p      print it
  • 1
    +1 for the sed example, seems like a better tool for the job than grep. One comment, the ^ and $ are extraneous since .* is a greedy match. However, including them might help clarify the intent of the regex. – Tony May 30 '18 at 21:22

Well, if you know that foobar is always the first word or the line, then you can use cut. Like so:

grep "foobar" test.file | cut -d" " -f2
  • The -o switch on grep is widely implemented (moreso than the Gnu grep extensions), so doing grep -o "foobar" test.file | cut -d" " -f2 will increase the effectiveness of this solution, which is more portable than using lookbehind assertions. – dubiousjim Apr 19 '12 at 21:04
  • I believe that you would need grep -o "foobar .*" or grep -o "foobar \w+". – G-Man Apr 14 '18 at 7:20

If PCRE is not supported you can achieve the same result with two invocations of grep. For example to grab the word after foobar do this:

<test.txt grep -o 'foobar  *[^ ]*' | grep -o '[^ ]*$'

This can be expanded to an arbitrary word after foobar like this (with EREs for readability):

<test.txt egrep -o 'foobar +([^ ]+ +){'$i'}[^ ]+' | grep -o '[^ ]*$'



Note the index i is zero-based.


pcregrep has a smarter -o option that lets you choose which capturing groups you want output.  So, using your example file,

$ pcregrep -o1 "foobar (\w+)" test.txt

Using grep is not cross-platform compatible, since -P/--perl-regexp is only available on GNU grep, not BSD grep.

Here is the solution using ripgrep:

$ rg -o "foobar (\w+)" -r '$1' <test.txt

As per man rg:

-r/--replace REPLACEMENT_TEXT Replace every match with the text given.

Capture group indices (e.g., $5) and names (e.g., $foo) are supported in the replacement string.

Related: GH-462.


I found the answer of @jgshawkey very helpful. grep is not such a good tool for this, but sed is, although here we have an example that uses grep to grab a relevant line.

Regex syntax of sed is idiosyncratic if you are not used to it.

Here is another example: this one parses output of xinput to get an ID integer

⎜   ↳ SynPS/2 Synaptics TouchPad                id=19   [slave  pointer  (2)]

and I want 19

export TouchPadID=$(xinput | grep 'TouchPad' | sed  -n "s/^.*id=\([[:digit:]]\+\).*$/\1/p")

Note the class syntax:


and the need to escape the following +

I assume only one line matches.

  • This is exactly what I was trying to do. Thanks! – James May 12 at 0:07
  • Slightly simpler version without the extra grep, assuming 'TouchPad' is to the left of 'id' : echo "SynPS/2 Synaptics TouchPad id=19 [slave pointer (2)]" | sed -nE "s/.*TouchPad.+id=([0-9]+).*/\1/p" – Amit Naidu May 19 at 5:10

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