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What is the simplest way to extract from a file a line given by its number. E.g., I want the 666th line of somefile. How would you do this in your terminal, or in a shell script?

I can see solutions like head -n 666 somefile | tail -n 1, or even the half-incorrect cat -n somefile | grep -F 666, but there must be something nicer, faster, and more robust. Maybe using a more obscure unix command/utility?

marked as duplicate by Gilles, slm Sep 10 '15 at 0:11

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  • Related question: stackoverflow.com/q/12182910/1331399 – Thor Sep 9 '15 at 12:59
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    It really doesn't get much faster or robust than the head/tail approach. My Perl solution is as fast or slightly faster in some cases (but the inverse will probably be true in others). The only "nicer" one will be the awk 'NR==666 but that, while shorter, is significantly slower. – terdon Sep 9 '15 at 14:37
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    @phs Please post your 'PS' as comments to the individual answerers. It has nothing to do with the question content and should not be part of one. Apart from that it triggered a spurious reopen review cycle. – Anthon Sep 10 '15 at 11:25

sed (stream editor) is the right tool for this kind of job:

sed -n '666p' somefile

Edit: @tachomi's solution sed '666q;d' somefile is better when operating on a huge text file, because it makes sed exit after printing the pattern without reading the rest of the file. On all other files, the difference is irrelevant.

  • @dr01: Thanks! I only use sed for replacements, e.g. sed -e "s/../../g", sometimes with regular expressions, and always felt that sed's manual and its full list of commands was too painful for me. So here -n is don't echo, 666 is an address, and p is print? – phs Sep 9 '15 at 12:52
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    Yes. sed is a powerful tool, it is worth learning all its options. – dr01 Sep 9 '15 at 12:55
  • sed -n '666{p;q}' somefile unless your sed dialect won't accept that and requires sed -n -e '10{p' -e 'q}' somefile This allows you to quit early without the conceptual dissonance of "deleting" the lines that you don't want printed. It's merely a stylistic alternative. – Dennis Williamson Sep 9 '15 at 22:40

You can use sed

sed -n '666p' somefile


sed '666!d' somefile

Or in large files

sed '666q;d' somefile 

In bash script

sed "$line"'q;d' somefile
  • Why distinguish between large file and non-large file when they're a couple chars different? – Nick T Sep 9 '15 at 16:40
  • /usr/bin/bash is a decidedly non-standard location. You on Arch Linux or something? O.o – muru Sep 9 '15 at 19:33
  • The redirection on the very last line is unnecessary. – Dennis Williamson Sep 9 '15 at 22:41

POSIXly (and maybe the fastest with huge file):

tail -n +666 | head -n1
  • Why the downvote? – cuonglm Sep 9 '15 at 12:48
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    @dr01: No, the OP use head then tail, which is very different from tail then head. – cuonglm Sep 9 '15 at 12:49
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    @dr01: Run your sed and mine with the file a huge file, and you can see the different. Yours is even worse than tachomy, since you read the rest of the file instead of quitting after hit the line. Read this for more details. – cuonglm Sep 9 '15 at 12:51
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    @cuonglm Good point. +1 for speed. – dr01 Sep 9 '15 at 13:01
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    @terdon: You can see the same issue and benchmark here. – cuonglm Sep 9 '15 at 15:51


awk 'NR == 666 { print ; exit ; } '


awk -vline=$LINE 'NR == line { print ;  exit ; } ' 
awk 'NR == '$LINE' { print ; exit ;  } '

if you want to provide line number via a shell variable ($LINE) .

e[dx]it: as per terdon suggestion.

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    You don't need that. Remember that awk treats any statement evaluating to true as a call to print. That's why 1; will print the line. All you need is awk 'NR==666. – terdon Sep 9 '15 at 14:20
  • That wasn't my suggestion, it was yours! My suggestion was awk 'NR==666 which is as slow as your original but shorter. The exit; makes all the difference! – terdon Sep 9 '15 at 14:49
  • the exit in perl make me think of an exit in awk. – Archemar Sep 9 '15 at 14:51

A Perl way:

perl -ne 'print && exit if $.==666' file

I tested by creating a file with the numbers from 1 to 999999. On this file, the Perl solution above and awk with exit are the fastest of those mentioned so far:

$ perl -le 'print for 1..999999' > file

$ time perl -ne 'print && exit if $.==666' file

real    0m0.004s
user    0m0.000s
sys     0m0.000s

$ time awk 'NR==666 { print ; exit ; } ' file

real    0m0.004s
user    0m0.000s
sys     0m0.000s

$ time tail -n +666 file | head -n1

real    0m0.021s
user    0m0.004s
sys     0m0.000s

$ time sed -n '666p' file

real    0m0.125s
user    0m0.112s
sys     0m0.012s

$ time awk 'NR==666' file

real    0m0.161s
user    0m0.156s
sys     0m0.000s

That said, your original solution of head -n666 file | tail -n1 is also blindingly fast, very robust and completely portable. Why do you think it's not?

  • can you time awk 'NR==666 { print ; exit ; } ' ? I guess it would be as fast as perl. – Archemar Sep 9 '15 at 14:46
  • @Archemar of course! You're quite right, that one is as fast as Perl. Add it to your answer. – terdon Sep 9 '15 at 14:47
  • @terdon: Yes head -n666 is fast on your huge file because head stops reading after 666 lines and because 666 is much smaller than 999999. Still, that solution will have head output a lot of garbage for tail to read and dismiss. – phs Sep 9 '15 at 15:22
  • @phs good point about 666 being smaller. My Perl approach is significantly slower when told to print line 999999. However, the head/tail or tail/head is still fast as anything, portable and efficient. I understand the aesthetic considerations and it would be nicer not to print needless lines but this all happens in the background and it is still blindingly fast. I'd stick with it. – terdon Sep 9 '15 at 15:27
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    Run { head -n 665 >/dev/null; head -n 1; } <infile if you want to avoid reading and dismissing lots of garbage. – don_crissti Sep 9 '15 at 18:03

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