I am trying to compose a grep statement and it is killing me. I am also tired of getting the arguments list too long error. I have a file, let's call it subset.txt. It contains hundreds of lines with specific strings such as MO43312948. In my object directory I have thousands of files and I need to copy all the files that contain the strings listed in subset.txt into another directory.

I was trying to start with this to just return the matching files from the objects directory.

grep -F "$(subset.txt)" /objects/*

I keep getting `bash: /bin/grep: Argument list too long``

  • 6
    Why have you put "$(subset.txt)" in the command like that? That is command substitution, which will make your shell execute subset.txt (as if it were a command or script).
    – JigglyNaga
    Dec 29 '16 at 15:32

You can pass a directory as a target to grep with -R and a file of input patterns with -f:

  -f FILE, --file=FILE
          Obtain patterns from FILE, one per line.  If this option is used
          multiple  times  or  is  combined with the -e (--regexp) option,
          search for all patterns given.  The  empty  file  contains  zero
          patterns, and therefore matches nothing.

   -R, --dereference-recursive
          Read all files under each directory,  recursively.   Follow  all
          symbolic links, unlike -r.

So, you're looking for:

grep -Ff subset.txt -r objects/

You can get the list of matching files with:

grep -Flf subset.txt -r objects/

So, if your final list isn't too long, you can just do:

 mv $(grep -Flf subset.txt -r objects/) new_dir/

If that returns an argument list too long error, use:

grep -Flf subset.txt -r objects/ | xargs -I{} mv {} bar/

And if your file names can contain spaces or other strange characters, use (assuming GNU grep):

grep -FZlf subset.txt -r objects/ | xargs -0I{} mv {} bar/

Finally, if you want to exclude binary files, use:

grep -IFZlf subset.txt -r objects/ | xargs -0I{} mv {} bar/
  • … or to avoid potentially thousands of mv invocation with one argument each: ... | xargs -0 mv -t bar/ (assuming your mv supports the -t option). Dec 30 '16 at 8:30


grep -F -f subset.txt 

to tell grep to read from subset.txt file.

you may use find to walk the file.

find . -type f -exec grep -F -f subset.txt {} \;


find . -type f -exec grep -F -f subset.txt {}  +
  • Any advantage of using find instead of -r other than that you do additional filtering?
    – phk
    Dec 29 '16 at 15:41
  • 1
    @phk grep -r searches in symlinks to regular files, which may or may not be desirable (if they point inside the same tree, you're searching the same file twice; if they point outside, you're searching a file which may or may not be desired). Dec 29 '16 at 23:52
  • Modern versions of grep have options to control their interaction with symbolic links (man grep to determine the specifics for the current system). A recursive grep will be a lot faster than running grep individually on every file via find.
    – Perry
    Dec 30 '16 at 4:49
  • 1
    @Perry are you sure about that? Why? Also, note that this answer is using -exec +, so it will group files and not run one grep per file.
    – terdon
    Dec 30 '16 at 12:41
  • I stand corrected, I was unaware of the different semantics of -exec {} + vs -exec {} \; ... you learn something new every day (I still see no reason why a single recursive grep wont be faster than multiple greps run from find due to process creation and pattern parsing overhead but I don't have specific numbers to hand to back that up).
    – Perry
    Dec 31 '16 at 0:04

If you want to speed up grep even more, you can set the locale in your shell before running it, i.e. use "LC_ALL=c". This will be inherited into grep and will disable Unicode processing when not necessary and in some cases can dramatically speed up grep. A great blog documenting this can be found at http://www.inmotionhosting.com/support/website/ssh/speed-up-grep-searches-with-lc-all. This trick also can speed up bash shell scripts as well, not just grep.

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