I am working on mac with sed, perl, awk, bash..

I have a large-ish (10GB) text file which has 13 fields (columns) of TAB delimited data. Unfortunately some of these lines have extraneous TABs , so I want to delete the entire line where we have extra TABs , and thus unequal fields. (I don't mind discarding the lines in their entirety)

What I currently have writes the number of fields into another file.

awk -F'\t' '{print NF}' infile  > fieldCount

head fieldCount

I would like to construct a short script that removes any line with more (or less) than 13 proper fields (from the original file).

  1. speed is helpful as I have to do this on multiple files
  2. doing it in one sweep would be cool
  3. I currently am porting the fieldCount file into Python, trying to load with line by line.


vaild (13 columns)

a       b       c       d       e       f       g       h       i       j       k       l       m

invalid (14 columns)

a       b       c       d       e       f       g       h       i       j       k       l       m       n
  • Can you give example which valid line and invalid line?
    – cuonglm
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 17:52

3 Answers 3


You almost have it already:

awk -F'\t' 'NF==13 {print}' infile  > newfile

And, if you're on one of those systems where you're charged by the keystroke ( :) ) you can shorten that to

awk -F'\t' 'NF==13' infile  > newfile

To do multiple files in one sweep, and to actually change the files (and not just create new files), identify a filename thats not in use (for example, scharf), and perform a loop, like this:

for f in list
    awk -F'\t' 'NF==13 {print}' "$f" > scharf  &&  mv -f -- scharf "$f"

The list can be one or more filenames and/or wildcard filename expansion patterns; for example,

for f in blue.data green.data *.dat orange.data red.data /ultra/violet.dat

The mv command overwrites the input file (e.g., blue.data) with the temporary scharf file (which has only the lines from the input file with 13 fields).  (Be sure this is what you want to do, and be careful.  To be safe, you should probably back up your data first.)  The -f tells mv to overwrite the input file, even though it already exists.  The -- protects you against weirdness if any of your files has a name beginning with -.

  • just a little push was all i needed -thx partner
    – T. Scharf
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 18:05

Since this is a large file, it may be worth using a slightly more complex tool for a performance gain. Usually, specialized tools are faster than generalist tools. For example, solving the same problem with cut tends to be faster than grep which tends to be faster than sed which tends to be faster than awk (the flip side being that later tools can do things that earlier ones can't).

You want to remove lines with 13 tab characters or more, so:

LC_ALL=C grep -Ev '(␉.*){13}'

or maybe (I don't expect a measurable performance difference)

LC_ALL=C grep -Ev '(␉.*){12}␉'

where is a literal tab character. Setting the locale to C isn't necessary, but speeds up some versions of GNU grep compared with multibyte locales.


With perl:

perl -F'\t' -anle 'print if @F == 13' file

to edit inplace, add -i option:

perl -i.bak -F'\t' -anle 'print if @F == 13' file
  • thanks Gnouc - I have to accept G-mans answer he beat you by a few minutes.. but I really appreciate it
    – T. Scharf
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 18:03
  • @T.Scharf: I think mine is better if you want to do with multiple files. But don't mind to chose what is the best for you.
    – cuonglm
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 18:05

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