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11.15 Limitations of Usual Tools

The small set of tools you can expect to find on any machine can still include some limitations you should be aware of.


Don’t leave white space before the opening parenthesis in a user function call. Posix does not allow this and GNU Awk rejects it:

$ gawk 'function die () { print "Aaaaarg!"  }
        BEGIN { die () }'
gawk: cmd. line:2:         BEGIN { die () }
gawk: cmd. line:2:                      ^ parse error
$ gawk 'function die () { print "Aaaaarg!"  }
        BEGIN { die() }'

Posix says that if a program contains only ‘BEGIN’ actions, and contains no instances of getline, then the program merely executes the actions without reading input. However, traditional Awk implementations (such as Solaris 10 awk) read and discard input in this case. Portable scripts can redirect input from /dev/null to work around the problem. For example:

awk 'BEGIN {print "hello world"}' </dev/null

Posix says that in an ‘END’ action, ‘$NF’ (and presumably, ‘$1’) retain their value from the last record read, if no intervening ‘getline’ occurred. However, some implementations (such as Solaris 10 ‘/usr/bin/awk’, ‘nawk’, or Darwin ‘awk’) reset these variables. A workaround is to use an intermediate variable prior to the ‘END’ block. For example:

$ cat end.awk
{ tmp = $1 }
END { print "a", $1, $NF, "b", tmp }
$ echo 1 | awk -f end.awk
a   b 1
$ echo 1 | gawk -f end.awk
a 1 1 b 1

If you want your program to be deterministic, don’t depend on for on arrays:

$ cat for.awk
  arr["foo"] = 1
  arr["bar"] = 1
  for (i in arr)
    print i
$ gawk -f for.awk </dev/null
$ nawk -f for.awk </dev/null

Some Awk implementations, such as HP-UX 11.0’s native one, mishandle anchors:

$ echo xfoo | $AWK '/foo|^bar/ { print }'
$ echo bar | $AWK '/foo|^bar/ { print }'
$ echo xfoo | $AWK '/^bar|foo/ { print }'
$ echo bar | $AWK '/^bar|foo/ { print }'

Either do not depend on such patterns (i.e., use ‘/^(.*foo|bar)/’, or use a simple test to reject such implementations.

On ‘ia64-hp-hpux11.23’, Awk mishandles printf conversions after %u:

$ awk 'BEGIN { printf "%u %d\n", 0, -1 }'
0 0

AIX version 5.2 has an arbitrary limit of 399 on the length of regular expressions and literal strings in an Awk program.

Traditional Awk implementations derived from Unix version 7, such as Solaris /bin/awk, have many limitations and do not conform to Posix. Nowadays AC_PROG_AWK (see Particular Programs) finds you an Awk that doesn’t have these problems, but if for some reason you prefer not to use AC_PROG_AWK you may need to address them. For more detailed descriptions, see awk language history in GNU Awk User’s Guide.

Traditional Awk does not support multidimensional arrays or user-defined functions.

Traditional Awk does not support the -v option. You can use assignments after the program instead, e.g., $AWK '{print v $1}' v=x; however, don’t forget that such assignments are not evaluated until they are encountered (e.g., after any BEGIN action).

Traditional Awk does not support the keywords delete or do.

Traditional Awk does not support the expressions a?b:c, !a, a^b, or a^=b.

Traditional Awk does not support the predefined CONVFMT or ENVIRON variables.

Traditional Awk supports only the predefined functions exp, index, int, length, log, split, sprintf, sqrt, and substr.

Traditional Awk getline is not at all compatible with Posix; avoid it.

Traditional Awk has for (i in a) … but no other uses of the in keyword. For example, it lacks if (i in a) ….

In code portable to both traditional and modern Awk, FS must be a string containing just one ordinary character, and similarly for the field-separator argument to split.

Traditional Awk has a limit of 99 fields in a record. Since some Awk implementations, like Tru64’s, split the input even if you don’t refer to any field in the script, to circumvent this problem, set ‘FS’ to an unusual character and use split.

Traditional Awk has a limit of at most 99 bytes in a number formatted by OFMT; for example, OFMT="%.300e"; print 0.1; typically dumps core.

The original version of Awk had a limit of at most 99 bytes per split field, 99 bytes per substr substring, and 99 bytes per run of non-special characters in a printf format, but these bugs have been fixed on all practical hosts that we know of.

HP-UX 11.00 and IRIX 6.5 Awk require that input files have a line length of at most 3070 bytes.


Not all hosts have a working basename. You can use expr instead.


Don’t rely on any option.


The command ‘cc -c foo.c’ traditionally produces an object file named foo.o. Most compilers allow -c to be combined with -o to specify a different object file name, but Posix does not require this combination and a few compilers lack support for it. See C Compiler, for how GNU Make tests for this feature with AC_PROG_CC_C_O.

When a compilation such as ‘cc -o foo foo.c’ fails, some compilers (such as CDS on Reliant Unix) leave a foo.o.

HP-UX cc doesn’t accept .S files to preprocess and assemble. ‘cc -c foo.S’ appears to succeed, but in fact does nothing.

The default executable, produced by ‘cc foo.c’, can be

The C compiler’s traditional name is cc, but other names like gcc are common. Posix 1003.1-2001 and 1003.1-2008 specify the name c99, but older Posix editions specified c89, future POSIX standards will likely specify c11, and anyway these standard names are rarely used in practice. Typically the C compiler is invoked from makefiles that use ‘$(CC)’, so the value of the ‘CC’ make variable selects the compiler name.


It is not portable to change a file’s group to a group that the owner does not belong to.


Avoid usages like ‘chmod -w file’; use ‘chmod a-w file’ instead, for two reasons. First, plain -w does not necessarily make the file unwritable, since it does not affect mode bits that correspond to bits in the file mode creation mask. Second, Posix says that the -w might be interpreted as an implementation-specific option, not as a mode; Posix suggests using ‘chmod -- -w file’ to avoid this confusion, but unfortunately ‘--’ does not work on some older hosts.


cmp performs a raw data comparison of two files, while diff compares two text files. Therefore, if you might compare DOS files, even if only checking whether two files are different, use diff to avoid spurious differences due to differences of newline encoding.


Avoid the -r option, since Posix 1003.1-2004 marks it as obsolescent and its behavior on special files is implementation-defined. Use -R instead. On GNU hosts the two options are equivalent, but on Solaris hosts (for example) cp -r reads from pipes instead of replicating them. AIX 5.3 cp -R may corrupt its own memory with some directory hierarchies and error out or dump core:

mkdir -p 12345678/12345678/12345678/12345678
touch 12345678/12345678/x
cp -R 12345678 t
cp: 0653-440 12345678/12345678/: name too long.

Some cp implementations (e.g., BSD/OS 4.2) do not allow trailing slashes at the end of nonexistent destination directories. To avoid this problem, omit the trailing slashes. For example, use ‘cp -R source /tmp/newdir’ rather than ‘cp -R source /tmp/newdir/’ if /tmp/newdir does not exist.

The -f option is portable nowadays.

Traditionally, file timestamps had 1-second resolution, and ‘cp -p’ copied the timestamps exactly. However, many modern file systems have timestamps with 1-nanosecond resolution. Unfortunately, some older ‘cp -p’ implementations truncate timestamps when copying files, which can cause the destination file to appear to be older than the source. The exact amount of truncation depends on the resolution of the system calls that cp uses. Traditionally this was utime, which has 1-second resolution. Less-ancient cp implementations such as GNU Core Utilities 5.0.91 (2003) use utimes, which has 1-microsecond resolution. Modern implementations such as GNU Core Utilities 6.12 (2008) can set timestamps to the full nanosecond resolution, using the modern system calls futimens and utimensat when they are available. As of 2011, though, many platforms do not yet fully support these new system calls.

Bob Proulx notes that ‘cp -p’ always tries to copy ownerships. But whether it actually does copy ownerships or not is a system dependent policy decision implemented by the kernel. If the kernel allows it then it happens. If the kernel does not allow it then it does not happen. It is not something cp itself has control over.

In Unix System V any user can chown files to any other user, and System V also has a non-sticky /tmp. That probably derives from the heritage of System V in a business environment without hostile users. BSD changed this to be a more secure model where only root can chown files and a sticky /tmp is used. That undoubtedly derives from the heritage of BSD in a campus environment.

GNU/Linux and Solaris by default follow BSD, but can be configured to allow a System V style chown. On the other hand, HP-UX follows System V, but can be configured to use the modern security model and disallow chown. Since it is an administrator-configurable parameter you can’t use the name of the kernel as an indicator of the behavior.


Some versions of date do not recognize special ‘%’ directives, and unfortunately, instead of complaining, they just pass them through, and exit with success:

$ uname -a
OSF1 V5.1 732 alpha
$ date "+%s"

Option -u is nonportable.

Some implementations, such as Tru64’s, fail when comparing to /dev/null. Use an empty file instead.


Not all hosts have a working dirname, and you should instead use AS_DIRNAME (see Programming in M4sh). For example:

dir=`dirname "$file"`       # This is not portable.
dir=`AS_DIRNAME(["$file"])` # This is more portable.

Posix 1003.1-2001 no longer requires egrep, but many hosts do not yet support the Posix replacement grep -E. Also, some traditional implementations do not work on long input lines. To work around these problems, invoke AC_PROG_EGREP and then use $EGREP.

Portable extended regular expressions should use ‘\’ only to escape characters in the string ‘$()*+.?[\^{|’. For example, ‘\}’ is not portable, even though it typically matches ‘}’.

The empty alternative is not portable. Use ‘?’ instead. For instance with Digital Unix v5.0:

> printf "foo\n|foo\n" | $EGREP '^(|foo|bar)$'
> printf "bar\nbar|\n" | $EGREP '^(foo|bar|)$'
> printf "foo\nfoo|\n|bar\nbar\n" | $EGREP '^(foo||bar)$'

$EGREP also suffers the limitations of grep (see Limitations of Usual Tools).


Not all implementations obey the Posix rule that ‘--’ separates options from arguments; likewise, not all implementations provide the extension to Posix that the first argument can be treated as part of a valid expression rather than an invalid option if it begins with ‘-’. When performing arithmetic, use ‘expr 0 + $var’ if ‘$var’ might be a negative number, to keep expr from interpreting it as an option.

No expr keyword starts with ‘X’, so use ‘expr X"word" : 'Xregex'’ to keep expr from misinterpreting word.

Don’t use length, substr, match and index.

expr (‘|’)

You can use ‘|’. Although Posix does require that ‘expr ''’ return the empty string, it does not specify the result when you ‘|’ together the empty string (or zero) with the empty string. For example:

expr '' \| ''

Posix 1003.2-1992 returns the empty string for this case, but traditional Unix returns ‘0’ (Solaris is one such example). In Posix 1003.1-2001, the specification was changed to match traditional Unix’s behavior (which is bizarre, but it’s too late to fix this). Please note that the same problem does arise when the empty string results from a computation, as in:

expr bar : foo \| foo : bar

Avoid this portability problem by avoiding the empty string.

expr (‘:’)

Portable expr regular expressions should use ‘\’ to escape only characters in the string ‘$()*.0123456789[\^n{}’. For example, alternation, ‘\|’, is common but Posix does not require its support, so it should be avoided in portable scripts. Similarly, ‘\+’ and ‘\?’ should be avoided.

Portable expr regular expressions should not begin with ‘^’. Patterns are automatically anchored so leading ‘^’ is not needed anyway.

On the other hand, the behavior of the ‘$’ anchor is not portable on multi-line strings. Posix is ambiguous whether the anchor applies to each line, as was done in older versions of the GNU Core Utilities, or whether it applies only to the end of the overall string, as in Coreutils 6.0 and most other implementations.

$ baz='foo
> bar'
$ expr "X$baz" : 'X\(foo\)$'

$ expr-5.97 "X$baz" : 'X\(foo\)$'

The Posix standard is ambiguous as to whether ‘expr 'a' : '\(b\)'’ outputs ‘0’ or the empty string. In practice, it outputs the empty string on most platforms, but portable scripts should not assume this. For instance, the QNX 4.25 native expr returns ‘0’.

One might think that a way to get a uniform behavior would be to use the empty string as a default value:

expr a : '\(b\)' \| ''

Unfortunately this behaves exactly as the original expression; see the expr (‘|’) entry for more information.

Some ancient expr implementations (e.g., SunOS 4 expr and Solaris 8 /usr/ucb/expr) have a silly length limit that causes expr to fail if the matched substring is longer than 120 bytes. In this case, you might want to fall back on ‘echo|sed’ if expr fails. Nowadays this is of practical importance only for the rare installer who mistakenly puts /usr/ucb before /usr/bin in PATH.

On Mac OS X 10.4, expr mishandles the pattern ‘[^-]’ in some cases. For example, the command

expr Xpowerpc-apple-darwin8.1.0 : 'X[^-]*-[^-]*-\(.*\)'

outputs ‘apple-darwin8.1.0’ rather than the correct ‘darwin8.1.0’. This particular case can be worked around by substituting ‘[^--]’ for ‘[^-]’.

Don’t leave, there is some more!

The QNX 4.25 expr, in addition of preferring ‘0’ to the empty string, has a funny behavior in its exit status: it’s always 1 when parentheses are used!

$ val=`expr 'a' : 'a'`; echo "$?: $val"
0: 1
$ val=`expr 'a' : 'b'`; echo "$?: $val"
1: 0

$ val=`expr 'a' : '\(a\)'`; echo "?: $val"
1: a
$ val=`expr 'a' : '\(b\)'`; echo "?: $val"
1: 0

In practice this can be a big problem if you are ready to catch failures of expr programs with some other method (such as using sed), since you may get twice the result. For instance

$ expr 'a' : '\(a\)' || echo 'a' | sed 's/^\(a\)$/\1/'

outputs ‘a’ on most hosts, but ‘aa’ on QNX 4.25. A simple workaround consists of testing expr and using a variable set to expr or to false according to the result.

Tru64 expr incorrectly treats the result as a number, if it can be interpreted that way:

$ expr 00001 : '.*\(...\)'

On HP-UX 11, expr only supports a single sub-expression.

$ expr 'Xfoo' : 'X\(f\(oo\)*\)$'
expr: More than one '\(' was used.

Posix 1003.1-2001 no longer requires fgrep, but many hosts do not yet support the Posix replacement grep -F. Also, some traditional implementations do not work on long input lines. To work around these problems, invoke AC_PROG_FGREP and then use $FGREP.

Tru64/OSF 5.1 fgrep does not match an empty pattern.


The -maxdepth option seems to be GNU specific. Tru64 v5.1, NetBSD 1.5 and Solaris find commands do not understand it.

The replacement of ‘{}’ is guaranteed only if the argument is exactly {}, not if it’s only a part of an argument. For instance on DU, and HP-UX 10.20 and HP-UX 11:

$ touch foo
$ find . -name foo -exec echo "{}-{}" \;

while GNU find reports ‘./foo-./foo’.


Portable scripts can rely on the grep options -c, -l, -n, and -v, but should avoid other options. For example, don’t use -w, as Posix does not require it and Irix 6.5.16m’s grep does not support it. Also, portable scripts should not combine -c with -l, as Posix does not allow this.

Some of the options required by Posix are not portable in practice. Don’t use ‘grep -q’ to suppress output, because many grep implementations (e.g., Solaris) do not support -q. Don’t use ‘grep -s’ to suppress output either, because Posix says -s does not suppress output, only some error messages; also, the -s option of traditional grep behaved like -q does in most modern implementations. Instead, redirect the standard output and standard error (in case the file doesn’t exist) of grep to /dev/null. Check the exit status of grep to determine whether it found a match.

The QNX4 implementation fails to count lines with grep -c '$', but works with grep -c '^'. Other alternatives for counting lines are to use sed -n '$=' or wc -l.

Some traditional grep implementations do not work on long input lines. On AIX the default grep silently truncates long lines on the input before matching.

Also, many implementations do not support multiple regexps with -e: they either reject -e entirely (e.g., Solaris) or honor only the last pattern (e.g., IRIX 6.5 and NeXT). To work around these problems, invoke AC_PROG_GREP and then use $GREP.

Another possible workaround for the multiple -e problem is to separate the patterns by newlines, for example:

grep 'foo
bar' in.txt

except that this fails with traditional grep implementations and with OpenBSD 3.8 grep.

Traditional grep implementations (e.g., Solaris) do not support the -E or -F options. To work around these problems, invoke AC_PROG_EGREP and then use $EGREP, and similarly for AC_PROG_FGREP and $FGREP. Even if you are willing to require support for Posix grep, your script should not use both -E and -F, since Posix does not allow this combination.

Portable grep regular expressions should use ‘\’ only to escape characters in the string ‘$()*.0123456789[\^{}’. For example, alternation, ‘\|’, is common but Posix does not require its support in basic regular expressions, so it should be avoided in portable scripts. Solaris and HP-UX grep do not support it. Similarly, the following escape sequences should also be avoided: ‘\<’, ‘\>’, ‘\+’, ‘\?’, ‘\`’, ‘\'’, ‘\B’, ‘\b’, ‘\S’, ‘\s’, ‘\W’, and ‘\w’.

Posix does not specify the behavior of grep on binary files. An example where this matters is using BSD grep to search text that includes embedded ANSI escape sequences for colored output to terminals (‘\033[m’ is the sequence to restore normal output); the behavior depends on whether input is seekable:

$ printf 'esc\033[mape\n' > sample
$ grep . sample
Binary file sample matches
$ cat sample | grep .

Solaris 8 join has bugs when the second operand is standard input, and when standard input is a pipe. For example, the following shell script causes Solaris 8 join to loop forever:

cat >file <<'EOF'
1 x
2 y
cat file | join file -

Use ‘join - file’ instead.

On NetBSD, join -a 1 file1 file2 mistakenly behaves like join -a 1 -a 2 1 file1 file2, resulting in a usage warning; the workaround is to use join -a1 file1 file2 instead.


The -f option is portable nowadays.

Symbolic links are not available on some systems; use ‘$(LN_S)’ as a portable substitute.

For versions of the DJGPP before 2.04, ln emulates symbolic links to executables by generating a stub that in turn calls the real program. This feature also works with nonexistent files like in the Posix spec. So ‘ln -s file link’ generates link.exe, which attempts to call file.exe if run. But this feature only works for executables, so ‘cp -p’ is used instead for these systems. DJGPP versions 2.04 and later have full support for symbolic links.


The portable options are -acdilrtu. Current practice is for -l to output both owner and group, even though ancient versions of ls omitted the group.

On ancient hosts, ‘ls foo’ sent the diagnostic ‘foo not found’ to standard output if foo did not exist. Hence a shell command like ‘sources=`ls *.c 2>/dev/null`’ did not always work, since it was equivalent to ‘sources='*.c not found'’ in the absence of ‘.c’ files. This is no longer a practical problem, since current ls implementations send diagnostics to standard error.

The behavior of ls on a directory that is being concurrently modified is not always predictable, because of a data race where cached information returned by readdir does not match the current directory state. In fact, MacOS 10.5 has an intermittent bug where readdir, and thus ls, sometimes lists a file more than once if other files were added or removed from the directory immediately prior to the ls call. Since ls already sorts its output, the duplicate entries can be avoided by piping the results through uniq.


No mkdir option is portable to older systems. Instead of ‘mkdir -p file-name’, you should use AS_MKDIR_P(file-name) (see Programming in M4sh) or AC_PROG_MKDIR_P (see Particular Programs).

Combining the -m and -p options, as in ‘mkdir -m go-w -p dir’, often leads to trouble. FreeBSD mkdir incorrectly attempts to change the permissions of dir even if it already exists. HP-UX 11.23 and IRIX 6.5 mkdir often assign the wrong permissions to any newly-created parents of dir.

Posix does not clearly specify whether ‘mkdir -p foo’ should succeed when foo is a symbolic link to an already-existing directory. The GNU Core Utilities 5.1.0 mkdir succeeds, but Solaris mkdir fails.

Traditional mkdir -p implementations suffer from race conditions. For example, if you invoke mkdir -p a/b and mkdir -p a/c at the same time, both processes might detect that a is missing, one might create a, then the other might try to create a and fail with a File exists diagnostic. The GNU Core Utilities (‘fileutils’ version 4.1), FreeBSD 5.0, NetBSD 2.0.2, and OpenBSD 2.4 are known to be race-free when two processes invoke mkdir -p simultaneously, but earlier versions are vulnerable. Solaris mkdir is still vulnerable as of Solaris 10, and other traditional Unix systems are probably vulnerable too. This possible race is harmful in parallel builds when several Make rules call mkdir -p to construct directories. You may use install-sh -d as a safe replacement, provided this script is recent enough; the copy shipped with Autoconf 2.60 and Automake 1.10 is OK, but copies from older versions are vulnerable.


The GNU Coding Standards state that mknod is safe to use on platforms where it has been tested to exist; but it is generally portable only for creating named FIFOs, since device numbers are platform-specific. Autotest uses mkfifo to implement parallel testsuites. Posix states that behavior is unspecified when opening a named FIFO for both reading and writing; on at least Cygwin, this results in failure on any attempt to read or write to that file descriptor.


Shell scripts can use temporary files safely with mktemp, but it does not exist on all systems. A portable way to create a safe temporary file name is to create a temporary directory with mode 700 and use a file inside this directory. Both methods prevent attackers from gaining control, though mktemp is far less likely to fail gratuitously under attack.

Here is sample code to create a new temporary directory ‘$dir’ safely:

# Create a temporary directory $dir in $TMPDIR (default /tmp).
# Use mktemp if possible; otherwise fall back on mkdir,
# with $RANDOM to make collisions less likely.
: "${TMPDIR:=/tmp}"
    (umask 077 && mktemp -d "$TMPDIR/fooXXXXXX") 2>/dev/null
  ` &&
  test -d "$dir"
} || {
  (umask 077 && mkdir "$dir")
} || exit $?

The only portable options are -f and -i.

Moving individual files between file systems is portable (it was in Unix version 6), but it is not always atomic: when doing ‘mv new existing’, there’s a critical section where neither the old nor the new version of existing actually exists.

On some systems moving files from /tmp can sometimes cause undesirable (but perfectly valid) warnings, even if you created these files. This is because /tmp belongs to a group that ordinary users are not members of, and files created in /tmp inherit the group of /tmp. When the file is copied, mv issues a diagnostic without failing:

$ touch /tmp/foo
$ mv /tmp/foo .
error→mv: ./foo: set owner/group (was: 100/0): Operation not permitted
$ echo $?
$ ls foo

This annoying behavior conforms to Posix, unfortunately.

Moving directories across mount points is not portable, use cp and rm.

DOS variants cannot rename or remove open files, and do not support commands like ‘mv foo bar >foo’, even though this is perfectly portable among Posix hosts.


In Mac OS X 10.3, od does not support the standard Posix options -A, -j, -N, or -t, or the XSI option, -s. The only supported Posix option is -v, and the only supported XSI options are those in -bcdox. The BSD hexdump program can be used instead.

This problem no longer exists in Mac OS X 10.4.3.


The -f and -r options are portable.

It is not portable to invoke rm without options or operands. On the other hand, Posix now requires rm -f to silently succeed when there are no operands (useful for constructs like rm -rf $filelist without first checking if ‘$filelist’ was empty). But this was not always portable; at least NetBSD rm built before 2008 would fail with a diagnostic.

A file might not be removed even if its parent directory is writable and searchable. Many Posix hosts cannot remove a mount point, a named stream, a working directory, or a last link to a file that is being executed.

DOS variants cannot rename or remove open files, and do not support commands like ‘rm foo >foo’, even though this is perfectly portable among Posix hosts.


Just as with rm, some platforms refuse to remove a working directory.


Patterns should not include the separator (unless escaped), even as part of a character class. In conformance with Posix, the Cray sed rejects ‘s/[^/]*$//’: use ‘s%[^/]*$%%’. Even when escaped, patterns should not include separators that are also used as sed metacharacters. For example, GNU sed 4.0.9 rejects ‘s,x\{1\,\},,’, while sed 4.1 strips the backslash before the comma before evaluating the basic regular expression.

Avoid empty patterns within parentheses (i.e., ‘\(\)’). Posix does not require support for empty patterns, and Unicos 9 sed rejects them.

Unicos 9 sed loops endlessly on patterns like ‘.*\n.*’.

Sed scripts should not use branch labels longer than 7 characters and should not contain comments; AIX 5.3 sed rejects indented comments. HP-UX sed has a limit of 99 commands (not counting ‘:’ commands) and 48 labels, which cannot be circumvented by using more than one script file. It can execute up to 19 reads with the ‘r’ command per cycle. Solaris /usr/ucb/sed rejects usages that exceed a limit of about 6000 bytes for the internal representation of commands.

Avoid redundant ‘;’, as some sed implementations, such as NetBSD 1.4.2’s, incorrectly try to interpret the second ‘;’ as a command:

$ echo a | sed 's/x/x/;;s/x/x/'
sed: 1: "s/x/x/;;s/x/x/": invalid command code ;

Some sed implementations have a buffer limited to 4000 bytes, and this limits the size of input lines, output lines, and internal buffers that can be processed portably. Likewise, not all sed implementations can handle embedded NUL or a missing trailing newline.

Remember that ranges within a bracket expression of a regular expression are only well-defined in the ‘C’ (or ‘POSIX’) locale. Meanwhile, support for character classes like ‘[[:upper:]]’ is not yet universal, so if you cannot guarantee the setting of LC_ALL, it is better to spell out a range ‘[ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ]’ than to rely on ‘[A-Z]’.

Additionally, Posix states that regular expressions are only well-defined on characters. Unfortunately, there exist platforms such as MacOS X 10.5 where not all 8-bit byte values are valid characters, even though that platform has a single-byte ‘C’ locale. And Posix allows the existence of a multi-byte ‘C’ locale, although that does not yet appear to be a common implementation. At any rate, it means that not all bytes will be matched by the regular expression ‘.’:

$ printf '\200\n' | LC_ALL=C sed -n /./p | wc -l
$ printf '\200\n' | LC_ALL=en_US.ISO8859-1 sed -n /./p | wc -l

Portable sed regular expressions should use ‘\’ only to escape characters in the string ‘$()*.0123456789[\^n{}’. For example, alternation, ‘\|’, is common but Posix does not require its support, so it should be avoided in portable scripts. Solaris sed does not support alternation; e.g., ‘sed '/a\|b/d'’ deletes only lines that contain the literal string ‘a|b’. Similarly, ‘\+’ and ‘\?’ should be avoided.

Anchors (‘^’ and ‘$’) inside groups are not portable.

Nested parentheses in patterns (e.g., ‘\(\(a*\)b*)\)’) are quite portable to current hosts, but was not supported by some ancient sed implementations like SVR3.

Some sed implementations, e.g., Solaris, restrict the special role of the asterisk ‘*’ to one-character regular expressions and back-references, and the special role of interval expressions ‘\{m\}’, ‘\{m,\}’, or ‘\{m,n\}’ to one-character regular expressions. This may lead to unexpected behavior:

$ echo '1*23*4' | /usr/bin/sed 's/\(.\)*/x/g'
$ echo '1*23*4' | /usr/xpg4/bin/sed 's/\(.\)*/x/g'

The -e option is mostly portable. However, its argument cannot start with ‘a’, ‘c’, or ‘i’, as this runs afoul of a Tru64 5.1 bug. Also, its argument cannot be empty, as this fails on AIX 5.3. Some people prefer to use ‘-e’:

sed -e 'command-1' \
    -e 'command-2'

as opposed to the equivalent:

sed '

The following usage is sometimes equivalent:

sed 'command-1;command-2'

but Posix says that this use of a semicolon has undefined effect if command-1’s verb is ‘{’, ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’, ‘i’, ‘r’, ‘t’, ‘w’, ‘:’, or ‘#’, so you should use semicolon only with simple scripts that do not use these verbs.

Posix up to the 2008 revision requires the argument of the -e option to be a syntactically complete script. GNU sed allows to pass multiple script fragments, each as argument of a separate -e option, that are then combined, with newlines between the fragments, and a future Posix revision may allow this as well. This approach is not portable with script fragments ending in backslash; for example, the sed programs on Solaris 10, HP-UX 11, and AIX don’t allow splitting in this case:

$ echo a | sed -n -e 'i\
$ echo a | sed -n -e 'i\' -e 0
Unrecognized command: 0

In practice, however, this technique of joining fragments through -e works for multiple sed functions within ‘{’ and ‘}’, even if that is not specified by Posix:

$ echo a | sed -n -e '/a/{' -e s/a/b/ -e p -e '}'

Commands inside { } brackets are further restricted. Posix 2008 says that they cannot be preceded by addresses, ‘!’, or ‘;’, and that each command must be followed immediately by a newline, without any intervening blanks or semicolons. The closing bracket must be alone on a line, other than white space preceding or following it. However, a future version of Posix may standardize the use of addresses within brackets.

Contrary to yet another urban legend, you may portably use ‘&’ in the replacement part of the s command to mean “what was matched”. All descendants of Unix version 7 sed (at least; we don’t have first hand experience with older sed implementations) have supported it.

Posix requires that you must not have any white space between ‘!’ and the following command. It is OK to have blanks between the address and the ‘!’. For instance, on Solaris:

$ echo "foo" | sed -n '/bar/ ! p'
error→Unrecognized command: /bar/ ! p
$ echo "foo" | sed -n '/bar/! p'
error→Unrecognized command: /bar/! p
$ echo "foo" | sed -n '/bar/ !p'

Posix also says that you should not combine ‘!’ and ‘;’. If you use ‘!’, it is best to put it on a command that is delimited by newlines rather than ‘;’.

Also note that Posix requires that the ‘b’, ‘t’, ‘r’, and ‘w’ commands be followed by exactly one space before their argument. On the other hand, no white space is allowed between ‘:’ and the subsequent label name.

If a sed script is specified on the command line and ends in an ‘a’, ‘c’, or ‘i’ command, the last line of inserted text should be followed by a newline. Otherwise some sed implementations (e.g., OpenBSD 3.9) do not append a newline to the inserted text.

Many sed implementations (e.g., MacOS X 10.4, OpenBSD 3.9, Solaris 10 /usr/ucb/sed) strip leading white space from the text of ‘a’, ‘c’, and ‘i’ commands. Prepend a backslash to work around this incompatibility with Posix:

$ echo flushleft | sed 'a\
>    indented
> '
$ echo foo | sed 'a\
> \   indented
> '

Posix requires that with an empty regular expression, the last non-empty regular expression from either an address specification or substitution command is applied. However, busybox 1.6.1 complains when using a substitution command with a replacement containing a back-reference to an empty regular expression; the workaround is repeating the regular expression.

$ echo abc | busybox sed '/a\(b\)c/ s//\1/'
sed: No previous regexp.
$ echo abc | busybox sed '/a\(b\)c/ s/a\(b\)c/\1/'

Portable scripts should be aware of the inconsistencies and options for handling word boundaries, as these are not specified by POSIX.

                \<      \b      [[:<:]]
Solaris 10      yes     no      no
Solaris XPG4    yes     no      error
NetBSD 5.1      no      no      yes
FreeBSD 9.1     no      no      yes
GNU             yes     yes     error
busybox         yes     yes     error
sed (‘t’)

Some old systems have sed that “forget” to reset their ‘t’ flag when starting a new cycle. For instance on MIPS RISC/OS, and on IRIX 5.3, if you run the following sed script (the line numbers are not actual part of the texts):

s/keep me/kept/g  # a
t end             # b
s/.*/deleted/g    # c
:end              # d


delete me         # 1
delete me         # 2
keep me           # 3
delete me         # 4

you get

delete me

instead of


Why? When processing line 1, (c) matches, therefore sets the ‘t’ flag, and the output is produced. When processing line 2, the ‘t’ flag is still set (this is the bug). Command (a) fails to match, but sed is not supposed to clear the ‘t’ flag when a substitution fails. Command (b) sees that the flag is set, therefore it clears it, and jumps to (d), hence you get ‘delete me’ instead of ‘deleted’. When processing line (3), ‘t’ is clear, (a) matches, so the flag is set, hence (b) clears the flags and jumps. Finally, since the flag is clear, line 4 is processed properly.

There are two things one should remember about ‘t’ in sed. Firstly, always remember that ‘t’ jumps if some substitution succeeded, not only the immediately preceding substitution. Therefore, always use a fake ‘t clear’ followed by a ‘:clear’ on the next line, to reset the ‘t’ flag where needed.

Secondly, you cannot rely on sed to clear the flag at each new cycle.

One portable implementation of the script above is:

t clear
s/keep me/kept/g
t end

Using sleep is generally portable. However, remember that adding a sleep to work around timestamp issues, with a minimum granularity of one second, doesn’t scale well for parallel builds on modern machines with sub-second process completion.


Remember that sort order is influenced by the current locale. Inside configure, the C locale is in effect, but in Makefile snippets, you may need to specify LC_ALL=C sort.


There are multiple file formats for tar; if you use Automake, the macro AM_INIT_AUTOMAKE has some options controlling which level of portability to use.


If you specify the desired timestamp (e.g., with the -r option), older touch implementations use the utime or utimes system call, which can result in the same kind of timestamp truncation problems that ‘cp -p’ has.

On ancient BSD systems, touch or any command that results in an empty file does not update the timestamps, so use a command like echo as a workaround. Also, GNU touch 3.16r (and presumably all before that) fails to work on SunOS 4.1.3 when the empty file is on an NFS-mounted 4.2 volume. However, these problems are no longer of practical concern.


Not all versions of tr handle all backslash character escapes. For example, Solaris 10 /usr/ucb/tr falls over, even though Solaris contains more modern tr in other locations. Using octal escapes is more portable for carriage returns, since ‘\015’ is the same for both ASCII and EBCDIC, and since use of literal carriage returns in scripts causes a number of other problems. But for other characters, like newline, using octal escapes ties the operation to ASCII, so it is better to use literal characters.

$ { echo moon; echo light; } | /usr/ucb/tr -d '\n' ; echo
$ { echo moon; echo light; } | /usr/bin/tr -d '\n' ; echo
$ { echo moon; echo light; } | /usr/ucb/tr -d '\012' ; echo
$ nl='
'; { echo moon; echo light; } | /usr/ucb/tr -d "$nl" ; echo

Not all versions of tr recognize direct ranges of characters: at least Solaris /usr/bin/tr still fails to do so. But you can use /usr/xpg4/bin/tr instead, or add brackets (which in Posix transliterate to themselves).

$ echo "Hazy Fantazy" | LC_ALL=C /usr/bin/tr a-z A-Z
$ echo "Hazy Fantazy" | LC_ALL=C /usr/bin/tr '[a-z]' '[A-Z]'
$ echo "Hazy Fantazy" | LC_ALL=C /usr/xpg4/bin/tr a-z A-Z

When providing two arguments, be sure the second string is at least as long as the first.

$ echo abc | /usr/xpg4/bin/tr bc d
$ echo abc | coreutils/tr bc d

Posix requires tr to operate on binary files. But at least Solaris /usr/ucb/tr and /usr/bin/tr silently discard NUL in the input prior to doing any translation. When using tr to process a binary file that may contain NUL bytes, it is necessary to use /usr/xpg4/bin/tr instead, or /usr/xpg6/bin/tr if that is available.

$ printf 'a\0b' | /usr/ucb/tr x x | od -An -tx1
 61 62
$ printf 'a\0b' | /usr/bin/tr x x | od -An -tx1
 61 62
$ printf 'a\0b' | /usr/xpg4/bin/tr x x | od -An -tx1
 61 00 62

Solaris /usr/ucb/tr additionally fails to handle ‘\0’ as the octal escape for NUL.

$ printf 'abc' | /usr/ucb/tr 'bc' '\0d' | od -An -tx1
 61 62 63
$ printf 'abc' | /usr/bin/tr 'bc' '\0d' | od -An -tx1
 61 00 64
$ printf 'abc' | /usr/xpg4/bin/tr 'bc' '\0d' | od -An -tx1
 61 00 64

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