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4.8 Multiple-Line Records

In some databases, a single line cannot conveniently hold all the information in one entry. In such cases, you can use multiline records. The first step in doing this is to choose your data format.

One technique is to use an unusual character or string to separate records. For example, you could use the formfeed character (written ‘\f’ in awk, as in C) to separate them, making each record a page of the file. To do this, just set the variable RS to "\f" (a string containing the formfeed character). Any other character could equally well be used, as long as it won't be part of the data in a record.

Another technique is to have blank lines separate records. By a special dispensation, an empty string as the value of RS indicates that records are separated by one or more blank lines. When RS is set to the empty string, each record always ends at the first blank line encountered. The next record doesn't start until the first nonblank line that follows. No matter how many blank lines appear in a row, they all act as one record separator. (Blank lines must be completely empty; lines that contain only whitespace do not count.)

You can achieve the same effect as ‘RS = ""’ by assigning the string "\n\n+" to RS. This regexp matches the newline at the end of the record and one or more blank lines after the record. In addition, a regular expression always matches the longest possible sequence when there is a choice (see Leftmost Longest). So the next record doesn't start until the first nonblank line that follows—no matter how many blank lines appear in a row, they are considered one record separator.

There is an important difference between ‘RS = ""’ and ‘RS = "\n\n+"’. In the first case, leading newlines in the input data file are ignored, and if a file ends without extra blank lines after the last record, the final newline is removed from the record. In the second case, this special processing is not done. (d.c.)

Now that the input is separated into records, the second step is to separate the fields in the record. One way to do this is to divide each of the lines into fields in the normal manner. This happens by default as the result of a special feature. When RS is set to the empty string, and FS is set to a single character, the newline character always acts as a field separator. This is in addition to whatever field separations result from FS.1

The original motivation for this special exception was probably to provide useful behavior in the default case (i.e., FS is equal to " "). This feature can be a problem if you really don't want the newline character to separate fields, because there is no way to prevent it. However, you can work around this by using the split() function to break up the record manually (see String Functions). If you have a single character field separator, you can work around the special feature in a different way, by making FS into a regexp for that single character. For example, if the field separator is a percent character, instead of ‘FS = "%"’, use ‘FS = "[%]"’.

Another way to separate fields is to put each field on a separate line: to do this, just set the variable FS to the string "\n". (This single character separator matches a single newline.) A practical example of a data file organized this way might be a mailing list, where each entry is separated by blank lines. Consider a mailing list in a file named addresses, which looks like this:

     Jane Doe
     123 Main Street
     Anywhere, SE 12345-6789
     
     John Smith
     456 Tree-lined Avenue
     Smallville, MW 98765-4321
     ...

A simple program to process this file is as follows:

     # addrs.awk --- simple mailing list program
     
     # Records are separated by blank lines.
     # Each line is one field.
     BEGIN { RS = "" ; FS = "\n" }
     
     {
           print "Name is:", $1
           print "Address is:", $2
           print "City and State are:", $3
           print ""
     }

Running the program produces the following output:

     $ awk -f addrs.awk addresses
     -| Name is: Jane Doe
     -| Address is: 123 Main Street
     -| City and State are: Anywhere, SE 12345-6789
     -|
     -| Name is: John Smith
     -| Address is: 456 Tree-lined Avenue
     -| City and State are: Smallville, MW 98765-4321
     -|
     ...

See Labels Program, for a more realistic program that deals with address lists. The following table summarizes how records are split, based on the value of RS:

RS == "\n"
Records are separated by the newline character (‘\n’). In effect, every line in the data file is a separate record, including blank lines. This is the default.
RS == any single character
Records are separated by each occurrence of the character. Multiple successive occurrences delimit empty records.
RS == ""
Records are separated by runs of blank lines. When FS is a single character, then the newline character always serves as a field separator, in addition to whatever value FS may have. Leading and trailing newlines in a file are ignored.
RS == regexp
Records are separated by occurrences of characters that match regexp. Leading and trailing matches of regexp delimit empty records. (This is a gawk extension; it is not specified by the POSIX standard.)

In all cases, gawk sets RT to the input text that matched the value specified by RS. But if the input file ended without any text that matches RS, then gawk sets RT to the null string.


Footnotes

[1] When FS is the null string ("") or a regexp, this special feature of RS does not apply. It does apply to the default field separator of a single space: ‘FS = " "’.