I'm compiling a file with gcc (actually I'm make'ing, but never mind), which sends some colorized error messages to stderr. So, I do:

gcc a.c 2>&1 | less

but what I get is lines such as:

a.c: In function <E2><80><98>whatever(int)<E2><80><99>:
a.c:11:10: warning: etc etc

that is, I see the numeric escape codes rather than the colors.

I tried to follow the advice in this answer on SU, but it didn't work for me. Or rather, ls --color | less works, but not my gcc command above. What should I do?


  • I'm connected to this machine via SSH, with TERM=xterm-256color
  • Without piping through less, I do get the colors on the terminal.
  • 1
    Does less -R work?
    – Wildcard
    Oct 7, 2016 at 12:50
  • @Wildcard: No, in the sense that I get the same thing.
    – einpoklum
    Oct 7, 2016 at 12:51
  • What if you pipe through cat? Do you still see colors on the terminal?
    – Wildcard
    Oct 7, 2016 at 12:53
  • @Wildcard: No, I don't. but if I do cat -v I notice there are nonprinting characters.
    – einpoklum
    Oct 7, 2016 at 12:56
  • Okay, that means the problem is with the escape sequences that gcc is generating when its output is sent somewhere other than a tty—rather than a problem with less. I don't have a gcc man page on the box I'm on right now, but if you search for "color" in your man page you might find something. Good luck. :)
    – Wildcard
    Oct 7, 2016 at 13:00

1 Answer 1


Posting as an answer as requested.

There are two problems here:

  • By default gcc prints color codes only when the output is a terminal.
  • By default less doesn't send raw color characters to the terminal.

You can force gcc to print color codes by passing it the option -fdiagnostics-color=always. Beware that this will break various tools that rely on parsing compiler errors.

You can force less to send color codes to the terminal by passing it options -r or -R. The latter is safer, since it only allows codes for actual ANSI colors.

Summing it up:

gcc -fdiagnostics-color=always a.c 2>&1 | less -R

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