Suppose there is a directory holding 300 data files. I want to randomly select 200 of those files and move them into another directory. Is there a way to do that under Unix/Linux?

  • R can probably do this in the twinkling of an eye with list.files()...
    – sr_
    May 10, 2012 at 14:29
  • 4
    I'd vaguely plug together shuf and head (or just use shuf -n, should've read the man page...) May 10, 2012 at 14:41

6 Answers 6


If your system has shuf, you can use this quite conveniently (even handling ugly file names):

shuf -zen200 source/* | xargs -0 mv -t dest

If you don't have shuf but have a sort that takes -R, this should work:

find source -type f -print0 | sort -Rz | cut -d $'\0' -f-200 | xargs -0 mv -t dest
  • 7
    Ah yes, because where else would one look for shuffling than in a tool for sorting. (At least shuf isn't called tros because it does the opposite of sorting.) May 10, 2012 at 16:52
  • 2
    There's no such thing as the opposite of sorting (in the same sense as there's no such thing as "no weather"). Random is still sorted, it's just sorted randomly.
    – Plutor
    May 10, 2012 at 20:43
  • 1
    What is the "-zen200"? That's not in any of the documentation for shuf, or anywhere on the Internet, but your example doesn't work without it. Quite mystical.
    – SigmaX
    Feb 17, 2015 at 21:56
  • 2
    @SigmaX Indeed, quite zen, isn't it. Hint: it's 3 separate flags.
    – Kevin
    Feb 17, 2015 at 22:05

If this needs to be statistically random, you shouldn't use RANDOM % ${#keys[@]}. Consider:

  1. $RANDOM has 32768 unique values
  2. The first selection is 1 out of 300 elements
  3. 32768 = 109 * 300 + 68

Thus, when selecting the first item, there's a 110/32768~=0.33569% chance for each of the 68 first elements, and 109/32768~=0.33264% chance for each of the other 232 elements to be selected. Picking is repeated several times with different chances, but biased towards the first elements whenever 32768 % ${#keys[@]} -ne 0, so the error compounds.

This should be unbiased, and works with any filename:

while IFS= read -r -d '' -u 9
    mv -- "$REPLY" /target/dir
done 9< <(find /source/dir -mindepth 1 -print0 | shuf -n 200 -z)
for (( i=0; i<200; i++ )); do
    rnd=$(( RANDOM % ${#keys[@]} ))
    mv "${files[$key]}" "$otherdir"
    unset files[$key]

Kevin's solution works great! Something else I've used a lot because it find it easier to remember off the top of my head is something like:

cp `ls | shuf -n 200` destination

Put all filenames into an array named "files" in bash:

files=( * )

size of array:

echo ${#files[@]}

define 2/3 of them as sample size:


for i in $(seq 1 $take)
    echo ${files[r]}

This will select duplicates, and isn't tested with filenames with blanks and such.

The simplest way to avoid duplicates is, to iterate over all files, and pick each one with 2/3 chance, but this will not necessarily lead to 200 files.

This will remove a file if it was chosen from the list and fulfill your requirements:

files=( * )
# define 2/3 of them as sample size:

while (( i < $take ))
    if [[ -n $f ]]
        echo ${files[r]}
        unset files[r]    
  • You might select the same file more than once. May 10, 2012 at 14:43
  • Very nice shell script. To get around your problem of not getting 200 files, you probably want to use Reservoir Sampling: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reservoir_sampling I'm going to be weak and not include a shell script example of this.
    – user732
    May 10, 2012 at 14:51
  • @glennjackman: I wrote so, yes. Needed some minutes to figure out, how to remove entries from the array. May 10, 2012 at 14:53
  • Minor caveat: $RANDOM can only have values 0 through 32767, so this will not work properly if you have more than 32768 files. Also, fetching is biased towards the first files.
    – l0b0
    May 10, 2012 at 15:02
  • @l0b0: Requirements where, to pick 200 from 300. If the files aren't in the current directory, but on a file server, it will not work too. Different requirements, different answer. May 10, 2012 at 15:05

One liner in bash:

ls original_directory/|sort -R|head -number_of_files_to_move|while read file; do cp "new_directory/"$file test; done
  • Please elaborate; U&L is a knowledge base. Feb 22, 2017 at 9:01

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