How to use xargs

In this blog post I will show you how to use xargs command line utility.

We will start by creating simple bash script showargs that prints all arguments passed to it on command line:

#!/usr/bin/env bash

# echo -n option prints text without new line
echo -n "[ "
for arg in "$@"; do
    echo -n "{$arg} "
echo "]"

We must make this script executable by running chmod +x showargs. Now we can check how it works:

$ ./showargs 
[ ]

$ ./showargs a b c
[ {a} {b} {c} ]

$ ./showargs "foo bar" '#$%'
[ {foo bar} {#$%} ]

$ ./showargs 1 "foo bar" '()' blah
[ {1} {foo bar} {()} {blah} ]

As you can see invocation of showargs prints single line that starts with [ and ends with ] character and contains all parameters passed to script surrounded by { and } braces. This will help us to see if arguments with spaces are properly passed to our script.

How xargs work

When we run xargs cmd in the terminal, xargs first reads all lines from standard input, then concatenates them using space character, then it appends that concatenated input to cmd and finally it executes this extended command in the shell. It may sound a bit complicated but it is really a simple process: How xargs works

Let’s play a bit with xargs in the terminal. We’ll use showargs script to snoop arguments passed by xargs to the command.

$ echo a b c d | xargs ./showargs
[ {a} {b} {c} {d} ]

$ cat example
a b c
e f
$ cat example | xargs ./showargs 
[ {a} {b} {c} {d} {e} {f} ]

As we can see it doesn’t matter for xargs if arguments are on single line or in many lines of input. It also doesn’t matter if arguments are separated by space, newline or tabs:

$ echo -e "foo\nbar\n\n\t\tnyu"


$ echo -e "foo\nbar\n\n\t\tnyu" | xargs ./showargs 
[ {foo} {bar} {nyu} ]

We must also know that xargs properly escapes special shell characters like | or > when it builds command arguments:

$ echo a '>' '|' d
a > | d

$ echo a '>' '|' d | xargs ./showargs 
[ {a} {>} {|} {d} ]

NOTE: Here I used single quotes to escape special characters in echo command, but you may also use backslash e.g. \>.

Custom argument separator (delimiter)

Sometimes it happens that arguments to the program are not separated by spaces but e.g. by commas. By default xargs treats whitespace as argument separators but this can be changed by using -d option:

$ echo foo,bar,nyu | xargs ./showargs 
[ {foo,bar,nyu} ]

$ echo foo,bar,nyu | xargs -d, ./showargs 
[ {foo} {bar} {nyu
} ]

$ echo -n foo,bar,nyu | xargs -d, ./showargs 
[ {foo} {bar} {nyu} ]

$ echo foo,bar,nyu | head -c -1 | xargs -d, ./showargs 
[ {foo} {bar} {nyu} ]

$ echo foo,bar,,nyu | head -c -1 | xargs -d, ./showargs 
[ {foo} {bar} {} {nyu} ]

Now xargs splits arguments on , character but we have encountered another problem. When we split arguments on , the last newline is treated as part of the last argument. We can fix this by preventing echo from printing newline with -n option, but this can be a problem when we get input from a file. If we are sure that file always ends with a newline we may truncate it using head -c -1 command, that will print all characters of standard input except last.

It’s worth to notice that when we use nonstandard separators arguments can contain spaces:

$ echo -n foo,bar a la baz,nya | xargs -d, ./showargs 
[ {foo} {bar a la baz} {nya} ]

Often we want to pass entire line from file as a single argument, we may easily achive this with xargs by using newline as argument separator:

$ cat example 
/foo/bar/file with space
/dir with space/file

$ cat example | xargs -d\\n ./showargs 
[ {/foo/bar/file with space} {/other-file} {/dir with space/file} ]

NOTE: Here we used \\ to escape \ character in the shell, we may also use single quotes as in -d'\n'

WARNING: Filenames in Unix can contain newline characters. Use this trick only when you are sure that filenames in input file will not contain newlines.

Executing command per argument or per line of input

xargs have two modes of operation. We already know one of them: gather all arguments and execute command. The other is to execute command per argument of per line of input, as illustrated below: xargs 2nd mode of operation

We may execute command per fixed number of arguments by using -n option:

$ echo a b c d | xargs -n1 ./showargs 
[ {a} ]
[ {b} ]
[ {c} ]
[ {d} ]

$ echo a b c d | xargs -n2 ./showargs 
[ {a} {b} ]
[ {c} {d} ]

$ echo a b c d | xargs -n3 ./showargs 
[ {a} {b} {c} ]
[ {d} ]

As we can see we may specify number of arguments that are needed by command.

WARNING: There may be not enough arguments for the last command but xargs executes it anyway.

We may also execute command per fixed number of lines of input using -L option:

$ cat example 
arg1 arg2 arg3
arg5 arg6

$ cat example | xargs -L1 ./showargs 
[ {arg1} {arg2} {arg3} ]
[ {arg4} ]
[ {arg5} {arg6} ]

$ cat example | xargs -L2 ./showargs 
[ {arg1} {arg2} {arg3} {arg4} ]
[ {arg5} {arg6} ]

As with -n option we must be careful when we execute command per more than one line of input because last command may not get all needed arguments.

I personally find -L1 option very useful but it doesn’t work well with -d option.

$ cat example 
arg1,"arg2 bar",arg3

$ cat example | xargs -L1 -d, ./showargs 
[ {arg1} ]
[ {"arg2 bar"} ]
[ {arg3
arg5} ]
[ {arg6} ]
[ {arg7
} ]

$ cat example | tr ',' ' ' |  xargs -L1 ./showargs 
[ {arg1} {arg2 bar} {arg3} ]
[ {arg4} ]
[ {arg5} {arg6} {arg7} ]

Here we used tr utility to convert , into spaces so we can avoid using -d, option. As we can see xargs preserved spaces in arguments surrounded by double quotes (this works with single quotes too).

Passing additional argument to the command

Sometimes we need to provide additional arguments to xargs command, we may do this in a very simple way:

$ echo a b c d | xargs ./showargs 
[ {a} {b} {c} {d} ]

$ echo a b c d | xargs ./showargs --long-arg -s
[ {--long-arg} {-s} {a} {b} {c} {d} ]

But what if our command expects arguments in format:

some-command --input input-file --output output-file

To work with command like that we must use xargs -I option:

$ cat example
/file with spaces

$ cat example | xargs -I{} ./showargs --input {} --output {}.processed
[ {--input} {/file1} {--output} {/file1.processed} ]
[ {--input} {/file with spaces} {--output} {/file with spaces.processed} ]
[ {--input} {/file3} {--output} {/file3.processed} ]

After -I we must provide placeholder string that will be replaced by actual command arguments. People usually use {} but we may use any string:

$ cat example | xargs -Ifoo ./showargs --input foo --output foo.processed

-I option is really useful but it doesn’t work with -n option, so if you plan to use -I you must process input line by line.

Other useful options

With -p option xargs will prompt for user approval before executing command:

$ touch file{1..3}

$ echo file{1..3}
file1 file2 file3
$ echo file{1..3} | xargs -n1 -p rm
rm file1 ?...y
rm file2 ?...n
rm file3 ?...y
$ ls file*

-0 or --null option is often used with find command to avoid problems with filenames that contain spaces or other non alphanumeric characters. -0 option tells xargs that \0 character will be used to separate arguments:

$ touch file\ with\ space

$ ls file*
file with space

$ find -type f -name '*with*'
./file with space

$ find -type f -name '*with*' | xargs ./showargs 
[ {./file} {with} {space} ]

$ find -type f -name '*with*' -print0 | xargs -0 ./showargs 
[ {./file with space} ]

TIP: Always use -print0 and -0 options when working with find.

The last option that can be really useful is -P. This can be used to execute commands in parallel:

$ echo {1..9} | tr '[:digit:]' '1'
1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1

# takes 9 seconds
$ echo {1..9} | tr '[:digit:]' '1' | xargs -n1 sleep

# takes 3 seconds
$ echo {1..9} | tr '[:digit:]' '1' | xargs -n1 -P4 sleep

By default commands are executed sequentially (-P1).

I wasn’t able to describe all xargs options, as usually you can find all of them on xargs manual page.

Thanks for reading!


A Programmer, A Geek, A Human