Can I get less not to monochrome its output?

E.g., the output from git diff is colored, but git diff | less is not.



git diff --color=always | less -r

--color=always is there to tell git to output color codes even if the output is a pipe (not a tty). And -r is there to tell less to interpret those color codes and other escape sequences. Use -R for ANSI color codes only.

  • 4
    @ripper234. With recent gits, git config color.ui true should be enough to obtain colored output, and to automatically run a pager for long outputs. Aug 24 '11 at 12:48
  • 6
    In parallel to this Q/A, watch --color 'git diff --cached --color=always' and its friends can bring you some additional awesomeness. Jul 26 '13 at 9:19
  • 46
    Isn't using less -R better (or export LESS=R in /etc/profile)? Why would you allow it to display anything but ANSI "color" escape sequences? Also, the man page says Warning: when the -r option is used, less cannot keep track of the actual appearance of the screen (since this depends on how the screen responds to each type of control character). Thus, various display problems may result, such as long lines being split in the wrong place.
    – x-yuri
    Jun 10 '14 at 12:57
  • 16
    And if you forgot to specify -r option, you can just type "-r" at the less prompt. This of course works with most or all less options (i.e., -i to turn on ignorecase).
    – haridsv
    Jan 7 '16 at 9:32
  • 11
    grep --color=always works the same way. This is not part of this question or answer, but I got here from googling about that question so there it is. Dec 6 '16 at 14:37

Another option would be to enable colors and use 'less -r' as your pager.

git config --global color.ui true
git config --global core.pager 'less -r'

This results in

    ui = true
    pager = less -r

in your ~/.gitconfig

For more information see the Pro Git book.

Possible values for color.ui can be found in the man page of git-config. The output of man git-config | grep "color.ui$" -A8 is

    This variable determines the default value for variables such as color.diff and
    color.grep that control the use of color per command family. Its scope will expand as
    more commands learn configuration to set a default for the --color option. Set it to
    false or never if you prefer Git commands not to use color unless enabled explicitly
    with some other configuration or the --color option. Set it to always if you want all
    output not intended for machine consumption to use color, to true or auto (this is the
    default since Git 1.8.4) if you want such output to use color when written to the
  • 13
    Using Git 2.11, I found that color.ui true did not work with a pager, but color.ui always did. This may have changed since the answer was posted.
    – Tom Zych
    Jan 2 '17 at 14:18
  • 3
    This option (to enable colors and use 'less -r' as your pager by default) with color.ui true do work for comands like git -p diff and git -p status (where -p means pipe all output into $PAGER, by default it's less) even for rather old versions of git (for example, Git 1.7.1). But you still need color.ui always (which tells git to output color codes "even if the output is a pipe (not a tty)") to get colored output when you directly specify git status | less -r or git diff | less -r. When you specify output redirection explicitly, you won't see the output after quit from pager.
    – kenichi
    Jan 19 '18 at 17:06
  • git status | less and git -p status seem to behave exactly the same for me when color.ui always is set - but since the former both requires a discouraged configuration option and is longer, I'll simply go with the latter ^^
    – xeruf
    Mar 28 '20 at 13:01

Use -r (--raw-control-chars) option to less, or also -R (only ANSI escape sequences).

I have an alias for this in ~/.bashrc

alias rless='less -r'
  • 8
    Actually I just did alias less='less -r'. Any reason not to?
    – ripper234
    Aug 24 '11 at 12:25
  • 3
    @ripper234: I vaguely remember there could be cases when using -r when not needed can lead to visualization problem.
    – enzotib
    Aug 24 '11 at 12:29
  • 1
    For instance, when you pipe ack with less -r you lose a carriage return Jan 14 '13 at 15:58
  • 9
    You can just use \less if visualization messes up. Oct 26 '13 at 0:41
  • 8
    Uh, you don’t have to alias less to anything, just set the $LESS environment variable to the set of flags you always want to provide to less, e.g. export LESS='-MRq -z-2 -j2’
    – wjv
    Aug 30 '17 at 19:28

Also tree has an option to force colors on:

tree -C | less -r

And so on for ls:

ls -lR --color | less -r

In case anyone is interested in paging a json with jq and less it can be achieved using:

jq -C <jq args> file.json | less -R


jq -C . file.json | less -R

Source: https://github.com/stedolan/jq/issues/764#issuecomment-95355331


I know this is old and many have already provided the right answer but I would like to add that it is always better to use less -R and not less -r if you only need ANSI colors as -r may cause problems in displaying the characters.

From the manual:

  -r or --raw-control-chars
         Causes "raw" control characters to be displayed.   The  default
         is  to display control characters using the caret notation; for
         example, a control-A (octal 001) is displayed as  "^A".   Warn‐
         ing:  when the -r option is used, less cannot keep track of the
         actual appearance of the screen (since this depends on how  the
         screen responds to each type of control character).  Thus, var‐
         ious display problems may result,  such  as  long  lines  being
         split in the wrong place.

         Like  -r,  but only ANSI "color" escape sequences are output in
         "raw" form.  Unlike -r, the  screen  appearance  is  maintained
         correctly  in  most  cases.   ANSI "color" escape sequences are
         sequences of the form:

              ESC [ ... m

Just to add another version on the "use less -r":

Use the environment variable LESS with the value r (or add r to whatever it already is)

E.g., as I use it in my .bashrc:

export LESS=-Xr

The X stops the screen from clearing when exiting less.

  • 1
    unfortunately -X also breaks mouse scrolling for me :c
    – xeruf
    Apr 17 '18 at 11:27

I believe the ultimate solution is to use unbuffer which can be found in the expect package.

In essence, you retain git diff color by running the command as follows:

unbuffer git --no-pager diff [some_file] | less -r

You have to use --no-pager as otherwise the command hangs.

I'd have liked to take credit for this but jcubic got there long before me.

  • This is what I was looking for! A general solution that doesn't require remembering the syntax for every possible command with color output. Jul 21 at 3:14

I was looking for a way to achieve this for yq to parse YAML files because I have to work with large YAML files on a daily basis. A quick look at the man yq confirmed that -C flag is also available for yq. The following worked for me.

kustomize build k8s/overlays/dev | yq eval -C | less -r

I added and alias in my ~/.zshrc file for convenience

alias yqlc='yq eval -C | less -r'


kustomize build k8s/overlays/dev | yqlc

works like a charm.

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