I wonder what when we should use pipeline and when we shouldn't.

Say for instance, to kill certain process which handling pdf files, the following will not work by using pipeline:

ps aux | grep pdf | awk '{print $2}'|kill

Instead, we can only do it with following ways:

kill $(ps aux| grep pdf| awk '{print $2}')


ps aux | grep pdf | awk '{print $2}'| xargs kill

According to man bash ( version 4.1.2 ):

The standard output of command is connected via a pipe to the standard input of command2.

For above scenario:

  • the stdin of grep is the stdout of ps. That works.
  • the stdin of awk is the stdout of grep. That works.
  • the stdin of kill is the stdout of awk. That doesn't work.

The stdin of the following command is always getting input from the previous command's stdout.

  • Why doesn't it work with kill or rm?
  • What's the different between kill, rm input with grep, awk input?
  • Are there any rules?
  • 1
    This is not an answer but you might want to have a look at the pgrep, pkill and killall commands.
    – terdon
    Jul 3, 2014 at 11:15
  • 2
    @terdon:I just use above scenario to show the pipeline issue, I understand that pgrep and the rest can achieve this perfectly :)
    – sylye
    Jul 3, 2014 at 11:33

4 Answers 4


This is an interesting question, and it deals with a part of the Unix/Linux philosophy.

So, what is the difference between programs like grep, sed, sort on the one hand and kill, rm, ls on the other hand? I see two aspects.

The filter aspect

  • The first kind of programs is also called filters. They take an input, either from a file or from STDIN, modify it, and generate some output, mostly to STDOUT. They are meant to be used in a pipe with other programs as sources and destinations.

  • The second kind of programs acts on an input, but the output they give is often not related to the input. kill has no output when it works regularly, neither does rm. The just have a return value to show success. They do not normally take input from STDIN, but mostly give output to STDOUT.

For programs like ls, the filter aspect does not work that good. It can certainly have an input (but does not need one), and the output is closely related to that input, but it does not work as a filter. However, for that kind of programs, the other aspect still works:

The semantic aspect

  • For filters, their input has no semantic meaning. They just read data, modify data, output data. It doesn't matter whether this is a list of numeric values, some filenames or HTML source code. The meaning of this data is only given by the code you provide to the filter: the regex for grep, the rules for awk or the Perl program.

  • For other programs, like kill or ls, their input has a meaning, a denotation. kill expects process numbers, ls expects file or path names. They cannot handle arbitrary data and they are not meant to. Many of them do not even need any input or parameters, like ps. They do not normally read from STDIN.

One could probably combine these two aspects: A filter is a program whose input does not have a semantic meaning for the program.

I'm sure I have read about this philosophy somewhere, but I don't remember any sources at the moment, sorry. If someone has some sources present, please feel free to edit.


There are two common ways to provide inputs to programs:

  • provide data to STDIN of the processes
  • specify command line arguments

kill uses only command line arguments. It does not read from STDIN. Programs like grep and awk read from STDIN (if no filenames are given as command line arguments) and process the data according to their command line arguments (pattern, statements, flags, ...).

You can only pipe to STDIN of other processes, not to command line arguments.

The common rule is, that programs uses STDIN to process arbitrary amount of data. All extra input parameters or, if there are usually only few at all, are passed by command line arguments. If the command line can get very long, for example for long awk program texts, there is often the possibility to read these from extra program files (-f option of awk).

To use the STDOUT of programs as command line arguments, use $(...) or in case of lots of data xargs. find can also this directly with -exec ... {} +.

For completeness: To write command line arguments to STDOUT, use echo.

  • 4
    How do we know a command will only take arguments but not STDIN ? Is there a systematic or programmatic way rather than guessing or read from man page ? By only reading the man page, I couldn't get any specific clues to be firm on whether the command can or cannot take STDIN, as STDIN is also part of the arguments from the way a man page present. For instance, gzip, in the SYNOPSIS, it didn't say it must take a FILENAME as input. I am looking is there a more systematic way to determine that.
    – sylye
    Jul 3, 2014 at 11:01
  • There is also the "-" argument which means "stdin" (or "stdout") for some commands.
    – Emmanuel
    Jul 3, 2014 at 11:01
  • Won't xargs precisely allow you to "pipe to command line arguments"?
    – T. Verron
    Jul 3, 2014 at 16:24
  • @T.Verron yes, this is the task of xargs. It calls the command if necessary more than once (command line size is limited) and has lots of other options.
    – jofel
    Jul 3, 2014 at 16:43
  • 2
    The text of the description will describe how you can use the program. For instance, gzip says: " The gzip program compresses and decompresses files using Lempel-Ziv coding (LZ77). If no files are specified, gzip will compress from standard input, or decompress to standard output." If a man page does not mention standard input, it won't use it. Jul 3, 2014 at 18:58

There are no "rules" as such. Some programs take input from STDIN, and some do not. If a program can take input from STDIN, it can be piped to, if not, it can't.

You can normally tell whether a program will take input or not by thinking about what it does. If the program's job is to somehow manipulate the contents of a file (e.g. grep, sed, awk etc.), it normally takes input from STDIN. If its job is to manipulate the file itself (e.g. mv,rm, cp) or a process (e.g. kill, lsof) or to return information about something (e.g. top, find, ps) then it doesn't.

Another way of thinking about it is the difference between arguments and input. For example:

mv foo bar

In the command above, mv has no input as such. What it has been given is two arguments. It does not know or care what is in either of the files, it just knows those are its arguments and it should manipulate them.

On the other hand

sed -e 's/foo/bar/' < file
--- -- ------------   ----
 |   |       |          |-> input
 |   |       |------------> argument        
 |   |--------------------> option/flag/switch
 |------------------------> command

Here, sed has been given input as well as an argument. Since it takes input, it can read it from STDIN and it can be piped to.

It gets more complicated when an argument can be the input. For example

cat file

Here, file is the argument that was given to cat. To be precise, the file name file is the argument. However, since cat is a program that manipulates the contents of files, its input is whatever is inside file.

This can be illustrated using strace, a program that tracks the system calls made by processes. If we run cat foo via strace, we can see that the file foo is opened:

$ strace cat foo 2| grep foo
execve("/bin/cat", ["cat", "foo"], [/* 44 vars */]) = 0
open("foo", O_RDONLY)     

The first line above shows that the program /bin/cat was called and its arguments were cat and foo (the first argument is always the program itself). Later on, the argument foo was opened in read only mode. Now, compare this with

$ strace ls foo 2| grep foo 
execve("/bin/ls", ["ls", "foo"], [/* 44 vars */]) = 0
stat("foo", {st_mode=S_IFREG|0644, st_size=0, ...}) = 0
lstat("foo", {st_mode=S_IFREG|0644, st_size=0, ...}) = 0
write(1, "foo\n", 4foo

Here also, ls took itself and foo as arguments. However, there is no open call, the argument is not treated as input. Instead, ls calls the system's stat library (which is not the same thing as the stat command) to get information about the file foo.

In summary, if the command you're running will read its input, you can pipe to it, if it doesn't, you can't.

  • What is the meaning of 2 before pipe?
    – Prvt_Yadav
    Sep 5, 2020 at 16:16
  • @Prvt_Yadav that pipes stderr (standard error) instead of stdout
    – terdon
    Sep 5, 2020 at 16:44
  • Why doesn't it work with kill or rm?

kill and rm do not need STDIN.

  • What's the different between kill, rm input with grep, awk input?

For kill and rm, users provide their customized information as argument, and $(cmd) helps taking the STDOUT of cmd and converting it info argument.

For grep and awk, users provide arguments and in addition, also STDIN or a regular file that will be processed by the command. STDIN can be passed with pipeline | or by manually inputting.

  • Are there any rules?

Read the manual or the source codes. And if you find nothing you need, you can make a simple but maybe dangerous test:

Just input the command you are curious about, with arguments that you have already understand, and see whether the command pause (nothing happen). If it pause, it is actually waiting for STDIN (you can try cat and echo to see the different). You manually type Ctrl-D and the command goes ahead (show results or errors) and returns. Such a command needs STDIN in that situation (with arguments you provide).

The same command may not need STDIN in different situations (e.g., cat waits for STDIN but cat file.txt not).

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