I have always been using single-quotes for the field separation like: awk -F';' ...

Quite new to me is the way of using a backslash like: awk -F\; ...

is there a technical difference for either, or is it just a matter of preference?


That's all to do with your shell, not with awk.

In Bourne-like shells, \, '...' and "..." are all quoting operators.

Quoting removes the special meaning a character may have in the syntax of the shell. \ quotes a single character (except for newline which it removes instead), '...' and "..." can quote more than one (with "..." not quoting every character).

; is a special character in the syntax of the shell. It's used to separate commands. You want to quote it if you want to pass it verbatim to a command. \;, ';' will do.

";" will also do as ; is not one of those characters that are still special within double quotes, but you'd need "\\" to pass one literal backslash to a command because \ is one of those characters that are still special within "..." (though it's then only special when followed by other special characters within "..." like that " itself).

Again that very much depends on the shell. In the rc shell for instance, \ and " are not special let alone quoting characters, -F\; wouldn't work there as the command would be parsed as both the awk -F\ and ... command separated with ;.

See How to use a special character as a normal one? for more details.

To complicates things further, note that the argument to -F itself also goes through one or two layers of backslash processing by awk.

awk processes first the argument it receives to expand ANSI C escape sequences in it. If you use awk -F '\t' or awk -F \\t or awk -F "\\t" or awk -F "\t", awk receives an argument that contains \t, which it expands to a TAB character. The FS awk variable will contain a TAB character, not \t.

With awk -F '\\', awk receives a \\ argument and sets FS to the \ character. Strictly speaking, awk -F '\' would is unspecified as that escape sequence is unfinished but in practice, except for busybox awk, all awk implementations I know treat it the same as awk -F '\\'.

In awk, when FS contains a single character, that character is the field separator. awk -F . splits the records on dot characters.

However when FS contains more than one character, it is interpreted as a regular expression. awk -F .. doesn't spilt on sequences of two dots, but on sequences of any two characters as . is the regular expression operator that matches any single character. To split on two dots, you'd need awk -F '[.][.]' or awk -F '\\.\\.'.

With awk -F '\\\\', a literal \\\\ is passed by the shell to awk, awk expands each of those two \\ to \, so FS becomes \\, which is treated as a regular expression. \ is also special in the regular expression syntax and is used to remove the special meaning of a character as a regex operator this time. So again, that is splitting on backslash characters, though this time, as a regular expression.

So, in practice, to split on \, all of these (in Bourne-like shells) will work:

awk -F '\'      # FS becomes a single \ except in busybox where it's empty
awk -F "\\"     # instead so it's a one-character split on backslash
awk -F \\       # and a one-field-by-character split in busybox

awk -F '\\'     # FS becomes a single \ in every awk implementation
awk -F \\\\     # so one-character split on backslash
awk -F "\\\\"

awk -F '\\\'    # FS is \ on busybox and \\ in other implementations
awk -F \\\\\\   # so one-character split on backslash in busybox and
awk -F "\\\\\\" # \\ regex split in other implementations, to the same effect

awk -F '\\\\'     # FS is \\ in all implementations so
awk -F \\\\\\\\   # \\ regex split
awk -F "\\\\\\\"

I would advise to use single quotes as they are the most straightforward and least surprising kind of quotes. So here, to split on backslash portably: awk -F '\\'.

You can also do things like:

 awk -v FS='\\' ...


 awk 'BEGIN{FS="\\"} ...'


awk ... 'FS=\\'


FS='\' awk 'BEGIN{FS = ENVIRON["FS"]} ...'

(that one avoiding the extra backslash expansion performed by awk, so need only one backslash).


All characters within single quotes are treated literally (i.e. no character is special between a pair of single quotes). Without single quotes, you need to backslash-escape a character with a special meaning if you want to use the literal character.

These are the quoting rules of the shell and are unrelated to awk.

  • so if the field separator would not be a special character lets say it was a , one could also just use a command like: awk -F, ...? – nath May 25 '19 at 4:31
  • 2
    Yes, that's right. – Niko Gambt May 25 '19 at 4:37

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