4.1.2 Record Splitting with gawk

When using gawk, the value of RS is not limited to a one-character string. If it contains more than one character, it is treated as a regular expression (see Regular Expressions). (c.e.) In general, each record ends at the next string that matches the regular expression; the next record starts at the end of the matching string. This general rule is actually at work in the usual case, where RS contains just a newline: a record ends at the beginning of the next matching string (the next newline in the input), and the following record starts just after the end of this string (at the first character of the following line). The newline, because it matches RS, is not part of either record.

When RS is a single character, RT contains the same single character. However, when RS is a regular expression, RT contains the actual input text that matched the regular expression.

If the input file ends without any text matching RS, gawk sets RT to the null string.

The following example illustrates both of these features. It sets RS equal to a regular expression that matches either a newline or a series of one or more uppercase letters with optional leading and/or trailing whitespace:

$ echo record 1 AAAA record 2 BBBB record 3 |
> gawk 'BEGIN { RS = "\n|( *[[:upper:]]+ *)" }
>             { print "Record =", $0,"and RT = [" RT "]" }'
-| Record = record 1 and RT = [ AAAA ]
-| Record = record 2 and RT = [ BBBB ]
-| Record = record 3 and RT = [
-| ]

The square brackets delineate the contents of RT, letting you see the leading and trailing whitespace. The final value of RT is a newline. See A Simple Stream Editor for a more useful example of RS as a regexp and RT.

If you set RS to a regular expression that allows optional trailing text, such as ‘RS = "abc(XYZ)?"’, it is possible, due to implementation constraints, that gawk may match the leading part of the regular expression, but not the trailing part, particularly if the input text that could match the trailing part is fairly long. gawk attempts to avoid this problem, but currently, there’s no guarantee that this will never happen.

Caveats When Using Regular Expressions for RS

Remember that in awk, the ‘^’ and ‘$’ anchor metacharacters match the beginning and end of a string, and not the beginning and end of a line. As a result, something like ‘RS = "^[[:upper:]]"’ can only match at the beginning of a file. This is because gawk views the input file as one long string that happens to contain newline characters. It is thus best to avoid anchor metacharacters in the value of RS.

Record splitting with regular expressions works differently than regexp matching with the sub(), gsub(), and gensub() (see String-Manipulation Functions). Those functions allow a regexp to match the empty string; record splitting does not. Thus, for example ‘RS = "()"’ does not split records between characters.

The use of RS as a regular expression and the RT variable are gawk extensions; they are not available in compatibility mode (see Command-Line Options). In compatibility mode, only the first character of the value of RS determines the end of the record.

mawk has allowed RS to be a regexp for decades. As of October, 2019, BWK awk also supports it. Neither version supplies RT, however.

RS = "\0" Is Not Portable

There are times when you might want to treat an entire data file as a single record. The only way to make this happen is to give RS a value that you know doesn’t occur in the input file. This is hard to do in a general way, such that a program always works for arbitrary input files.

You might think that for text files, the NUL character, which consists of a character with all bits equal to zero, is a good value to use for RS in this case:

BEGIN { RS = "\0" }  # whole file becomes one record?

gawk in fact accepts this, and uses the NUL character for the record separator. This works for certain special files, such as /proc/environ on GNU/Linux systems, where the NUL character is in fact the record separator. However, this usage is not portable to most other awk implementations.

Almost all other awk implementations21 store strings internally as C-style strings. C strings use the NUL character as the string terminator. In effect, this means that ‘RS = "\0"’ is the same as ‘RS = ""’. (d.c.)

It happens that recent versions of mawk can use the NUL character as a record separator. However, this is a special case: mawk does not allow embedded NUL characters in strings. (This may change in a future version of mawk.)

See Reading a Whole File at Once for an interesting way to read whole files. If you are using gawk, see Reading an Entire File for another option.



At least that we know about.