5.2 tail: Output the last part of files

tail prints the last part (10 lines by default) of each file; it reads from standard input if no files are given or when given a file of ‘-’. Synopsis:

tail [option]… [file]…

If more than one file is specified, tail prints a one-line header before the output for each file, consisting of:

==> file name <==

For further processing of tail output, it can be useful to convert the file headers to line prefixes, which can be done like:

tail … |
awk '
  /^==> .* <==$/ {prefix=substr($0,5,length-8)":"; next}
  {print prefix$0}
' | …

GNU tail can output any amount of data (some other versions of tail cannot). It also has no -r option (print in reverse), since reversing a file is really a different job from printing the end of a file; BSD tail (which is the one with -r) can only reverse files that are at most as large as its buffer, which is typically 32 KiB. A more reliable and versatile way to reverse files is the GNU tac command.

The program accepts the following options. Also see Common options.

-c [+]num

Output the last num bytes, instead of final lines. If num is prefixed with a ‘+’, start printing with byte num from the start of each file. For example to skip the first byte use tail -c +2, while to skip all but the last byte use tail -c 1. num may be, or may be an integer optionally followed by, one of the following multiplicative suffixes:

b’  =>            512 ("blocks")
‘KB’ =>           1000 (KiloBytes)
‘K’  =>           1024 (KibiBytes)
‘MB’ =>      1000*1000 (MegaBytes)
‘M’  =>      1024*1024 (MebiBytes)
‘GB’ => 1000*1000*1000 (GigaBytes)
‘G’  => 1024*1024*1024 (GibiBytes)

and so on for ‘T’, ‘P’, ‘E’, ‘Z’, ‘Y’, ‘R’, and ‘Q’. Binary prefixes can be used, too: ‘KiB’=‘K’, ‘MiB’=‘M’, and so on.


Loop forever trying to read more characters at the end of the file, presumably because the file is growing. If more than one file is given, tail prints a header whenever it gets output from a different file, to indicate which file that output is from.

There are two ways to specify how you’d like to track files with this option, but that difference is noticeable only when a followed file is removed or renamed. If you’d like to continue to track the end of a growing file even after it has been unlinked, use --follow=descriptor. This is the default behavior, but it is not useful if you’re tracking a log file that may be rotated (removed or renamed, then reopened). In that case, use --follow=name to track the named file, perhaps by reopening it periodically to see if it has been removed and recreated by some other program. The inotify-based implementation handles this case without the need for any periodic reopening.

No matter which method you use, if the tracked file is determined to have shrunk, tail prints a message saying the file has been truncated and resumes tracking from the start of the file, assuming it has been truncated to 0, which is the usual truncation operation for log files.

When a file is removed, tail’s behavior depends on whether it is following the name or the descriptor. When following by name, tail can detect that a file has been removed and gives a message to that effect, and if --retry has been specified it will continue checking periodically to see if the file reappears. When following a descriptor, tail does not detect that the file has been unlinked or renamed and issues no message; even though the file may no longer be accessible via its original name, it may still be growing.

The option values ‘descriptor’ and ‘name’ may be specified only with the long form of the option, not with -f.

The -f option is ignored if no file operand is specified and standard input is a FIFO or a pipe. Likewise, the -f option has no effect for any operand specified as ‘-’, when standard input is a FIFO or a pipe.

With kernel inotify support, output is triggered by file changes and is generally very prompt. Otherwise, tail sleeps for one second between checks – use --sleep-interval=n to change that default – which can make the output appear slightly less responsive or bursty. When using tail without inotify support, you can make it more responsive by using a sub-second sleep interval, e.g., via an alias like this:

alias tail='tail -s.1'

This option is the same as --follow=name --retry. That is, tail will attempt to reopen a file when it is removed. Should this fail, tail will keep trying until it becomes accessible again.


When tailing a file by name, if there have been n (default n=5) consecutive iterations for which the file has not changed, then open/fstat the file to determine if that file name is still associated with the same device/inode-number pair as before. When following a log file that is rotated, this is approximately the number of seconds between when tail prints the last pre-rotation lines and when it prints the lines that have accumulated in the new log file. This option is meaningful only when polling (i.e., without inotify) and when following by name.

-n [+]num

Output the last num lines. If num is prefixed with a ‘+’, start printing with line num from the start of each file. For example to skip the first line use tail -n +2, while to skip all but the last line use tail -n 1. Size multiplier suffixes are the same as with the -c option.


When following by name or by descriptor, you may specify the process ID, pid, of one or more (by repeating --pid) writers of the file arguments. Then, shortly after all the identified processes terminate, tail will also terminate. This will work properly only if the writers and the tailing process are running on the same machine. For example, to save the output of a build in a file and to watch the file grow, if you invoke make and tail like this then the tail process will stop when your build completes. Without this option, you would have had to kill the tail -f process yourself.

$ make >& makerr & tail --pid=$! -f makerr

If you specify a pid that is not in use or that does not correspond to the process that is writing to the tailed files, then tail may terminate long before any files stop growing or it may not terminate until long after the real writer has terminated. On some systems, --pid is not supported and tail outputs a warning.


Never print file name headers.


Indefinitely try to open the specified file. This option is useful mainly when following (and otherwise issues a warning).

When following by file descriptor (i.e., with --follow=descriptor), this option only affects the initial open of the file, as after a successful open, tail will start following the file descriptor.

When following by name (i.e., with --follow=name), tail infinitely retries to re-open the given files until killed.

Without this option, when tail encounters a file that doesn’t exist or is otherwise inaccessible, it reports that fact and never checks it again.

-s number

Change the number of seconds to wait between iterations (the default is 1.0). During one iteration, every specified file is checked to see if it has changed size. When tail uses inotify, this polling-related option is usually ignored. However, if you also specify --pid=p, tail checks whether process p is alive at least every number seconds. The number must be non-negative and can be a floating-point number in either the current or the C locale. See Floating point numbers.


Always print file name headers.


Delimit items with a zero byte rather than a newline (ASCII LF). I.e., treat input as items separated by ASCII NUL and terminate output items with ASCII NUL. This option can be useful in conjunction with ‘perl -0’ or ‘find -print0’ and ‘xargs -0’ which do the same in order to reliably handle arbitrary file names (even those containing blanks or other special characters).

For compatibility tail also supports an obsolete usage ‘tail -[num][bcl][f] [file]’, which is recognized only if it does not conflict with the usage described above. This obsolete form uses exactly one option and at most one file. In the option, num is an optional decimal number optionally followed by a size letter (‘b’, ‘c’, ‘l’) to mean count by 512-byte blocks, bytes, or lines, optionally followed by ‘f’ which has the same meaning as -f.

On systems not conforming to POSIX 1003.1-2001, the leading ‘-’ can be replaced by ‘+’ in the traditional option syntax with the same meaning as in counts, and on obsolete systems predating POSIX 1003.1-2001 traditional usage overrides normal usage when the two conflict. This behavior can be controlled with the _POSIX2_VERSION environment variable (see Standards conformance).

Scripts intended for use on standard hosts should avoid traditional syntax and should use -c num[b], -n num, and/or -f instead. If your script must also run on hosts that support only the traditional syntax, you can often rewrite it to avoid problematic usages, e.g., by using ‘sed -n '$p'’ rather than ‘tail -1’. If that’s not possible, the script can use a test like ‘if tail -c +1 </dev/null >/dev/null 2>&1; then …’ to decide which syntax to use.

Even if your script assumes the standard behavior, you should still beware usages whose behaviors differ depending on the POSIX version. For example, avoid ‘tail - main.c’, since it might be interpreted as either ‘tail main.c’ or as ‘tail -- - main.c’; avoid ‘tail -c 4’, since it might mean either ‘tail -c4’ or ‘tail -c 10 4’; and avoid ‘tail +4’, since it might mean either ‘tail ./+4’ or ‘tail -n +4’.

An exit status of zero indicates success, and a nonzero value indicates failure.