I read about Awk split behavior here:

[...] the fs argument to the split function (see String Functions) shall be interpreted as extended regular expressions. These can be either ERE tokens or arbitrary expressions, and shall be interpreted in the same manner as the right-hand side of the ~ or !~ operator.


If the right-hand operand is any expression other than the lexical token ERE, the string value of the expression shall be interpreted as an extended regular expression, including the escape conventions described above.


However I have noticed an unexpected result, with this code:

  print split("te.st", q, ".")

I would expect the . to represent any character, and for the result to be 6. However all my tests returned 2. Running this code gives the expected 6:

  print split("te.st", q, /./)

Tested with:

  • gawk
  • gawk --posix
  • mawk 1.3.4
  • mawk 1.3.3
  • nawk (original-awk)

Am I misunderstanding the documentation or is this an error?


1 Answer 1


This is not an error; it's just that the standard isn't clear enough while trying to codify the existing practice.

The mawk(1) manual is more explicit:

split(expr, A, sep) works as follows:


(2) If sep = " " (a single space), then <SPACE> is trimmed from the front and back of expr, and sep becomes <SPACE>. mawk defines <SPACE> as the regular expression /[ \t\n]+/. Otherwise sep is treated as a regular expression, except that meta-characters are ignored for a string of length 1, e.g., split(x, A, "*") and split(x, A, /*/) are the same.

Also, the GNU awk manual from the current sources:

split(s, a [, r [, seps] ])


Splitting behaves identically to field splitting, described above. In particular, if r is a single-character string, that string acts as the separator, even if it happens to be a regular expression metacharacter.

This is the description from the susv4 standard:

An extended regular expression can be used to separate fields by assigning a string containing the expression to the built-in variable FS, either directly or as a consequence of using the -F sepstring option. The default value of the FS variable shall be a single <space>. The following describes FS behavior:

  1. If FS is a null string, the behavior is unspecified.
  2. If FS is a single character:

    a. If FS is <space>, skip leading and trailing <blank> and <newline> characters; fields shall be delimited by sets of one or more <blank> or <newline> characters.

    b. Otherwise, if FS is any other character c, fields shall be delimited by each single occurrence of c.

  3. Otherwise, the string value of FS shall be considered to be an extended regular expression. Each occurrence of a sequence matching the extended regular expression shall delimit fields.

Your example matches 2.b.

Even if that explicitly mentions FS, it's same behavior with any argument used instead of it as the 3rd argument to split in all awk implementations, including in the case where that argument is a space.

It's unlikely that behavior will ever change, because the FS variable is just a string (awk doesn't have regexp objects, like javascript or perl; you cannot assign a regexp to a variable, as in a=/./ or $a=qr/./); it's the split function (called either implicitly or explicitly) which does interpret its argument as described above.

The origin of this behavior may be compatibility with the "old" awk, where FS (or the 3rd argument to split) was always treated as a single character. Example (on unix v7):

$ awk 'BEGIN{FS="."; print split("foo.bar.baz", a, "bar"); print a[2] }'
$ awk 'BEGIN{FS="."; print split("foo.bar.baz", a, /bar/); print a[2] }'
awk: syntax error near line 1
awk: illegal statement near line 1
Bus error - core dumped
  • 1
    Not that using . as a regex to split on makes much sense anyway, it would destroy the string and return the number of characters plus one, and there are easier ways to get that. I don't think there are other single-character REs that would make sense here either (but I might be wrong).
    – ilkkachu
    Nov 27, 2018 at 12:52
  • 1
    awk -F'|', awk -F., awk -F+, awk -F'$', awk -F'^', awk -F'\' are common. Note that in the original awk, awk -Ft meant split on tab (back then as you say, only the first character was used). That's one case where backward compatibility was not maintained with nawk. Here, with POSIX awk, you can always use FS = "(.)" for FS to be the regexp matching a single character (.{1} would also work but is less portable). Nov 27, 2018 at 13:00

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