I have a text file like so

foo bar baz
1   a   alpha
2   b   beta
3   c   gamma

I can use awk to print certain columns, like 1 and 3, with {print $1, $3}, but I want to specify the columns to print by specifying the header of the column instead, something like {print $foo, $baz}. This is useful so I don't have to open the file and count the columns manually to see which column is which, and I don't have to update the script if the column number or order changes. Can I do this with awk (or another shell tool)?

awk '
NR==1 {
    for (i=1; i<=NF; i++) {
        f[$i] = i
{ print $(f["foo"]), $(f["baz"]) }
' file
foo baz
1 alpha
2 beta
3 gamma

That is an immensely useful idiom. I have a lot of data in spreadsheets and different spreadsheets might have a common subset of columns I'm interested in but not necessarily in the same order across all spreadsheets or with the same numbers of other columns before/between them so being able to export them as CSV or similar and then simply run an awk script using the column names instead of column numbers is absolutely invaluable.

  • This is great thanks and works for my purposes. Are you able to clarify how this works for an awk beginner? What is the f[$i] syntax doing in this, and how does awk work out which columns match the strings? – AlexLipp Jul 30 '19 at 13:19
  • You're welcome. That's absolutely basic awk syntax, just look up fields and arrays in the awk man page (or google it). Add print i and print $i and print f[$i]` statements in the loop, etc. to trace whats happening if that helps. – Ed Morton Jul 30 '19 at 14:32

You ask for awk, but you could also use a more specialized tool for this: csvtool.

csvtool -t ' ' -u ' ' namedcol foo,baz file


csvtool -t ' ' -u ' ' col 1,3 file

Assuming that the file is a TSV ("tab separated values") file, using csvkit:

$ csvcut -t -c foo,baz file.tsv

The output will be properly formatted CSV, but could easily be changed back to TSV:

$ csvcut -t -c foo,baz file.tsv | csvformat -T
foo     baz
1       alpha
2       beta
3       gamma

The -c option to csvcut can also take numbers and ranges, and can also be used to rearrange the columns of the input data (a feature I often miss in the standard cut utility).

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