I'm trying to pull out the third subexpression from this line:

#EXTRA_GROUPS="dialout cdrom floppy audio video plugdev users"

(yep, the adduser.conf file, for those of you who are curious) with:

sed 's/\(EXTRA_GROUPS=\)\("\)\(.*\)\("\)/\3/' adduser.conf

While this does work and produces

#dialout cdrom floppy audio video plugdev users

(I've left the # symbol out of the expression, so please disregard), this

sed 's/\(EXTRA_GROUPS=\)\("\)\(.*\)\("\)//3' adduser.conf

doesn't and leaves the file as is.

I do realize that the last example is supposed to delete back reference number three, but when I modify the command with /sd/3 ("replace 3rd subexpression with sd") it doesn't really do anything, either.

I have tried running the command with the -n //p options-all to the same result.

I'm using GNU sed version 4.2.2 on a Debian Jessie box.

Have I missed some crucial part of my core utilities "education" or is it that I haven't been out in the sun for while?

  • 2
    s/.../.../3 means "replace 3rd occurrence" (of the entire pattern), not "replace 3rd subexpression". Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 11:10

1 Answer 1


The /n flag to the substitute command s in sed does not have anything to do with the back-reference \n.

  • With, e.g., s/regex/string/3 you replace the third match of regex (on the current line) with string.
  • With s/regex/\3/, you replace the first match of regex with the third capture-group.
  • With s/regex/\3/3, you replace the third match of regex with the third capture-group.

In this case, I would probably go with something simpler, like

sed 's/^.*EXTRA_GROUPS="\([^"]*\)".*$/\1/'

There's no use in capturing bits of the string if you're not using it.

  • To clarify, I was referring to the sed -n 's///p' filename(print only the modified line) command. But in any case-killer! That answers my question! I was also curious if I can replace the third regex with some new string, in this case everything inside the double quotes "dialout, cdrom, floppy..." with, say "foobar"?
    – Max
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 11:22
  • @Kusalananda: Since you have .* at the beginning and at the end of the pattern, you can leave out the ^ and $, because greedy * will eat up everything to the bounds of the line anyhow. As well, you can replace [^"] with ., as long as behaviour for additional double quotes is undefined.
    – Philippos
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 11:40

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