3.2 Escape Sequences

Some characters cannot be included literally in string constants ("foo") or regexp constants (/foo/). Instead, they should be represented with escape sequences, which are character sequences beginning with a backslash (‘\’). One use of an escape sequence is to include a double-quote character in a string constant. Because a plain double quote ends the string, you must use ‘\"’ to represent an actual double-quote character as a part of the string. For example:

$ awk 'BEGIN { print "He said \"hi!\" to her." }'
-| He said "hi!" to her.

The backslash character itself is another character that cannot be included normally; you must write ‘\\’ to put one backslash in the string or regexp. Thus, the string whose contents are the two characters ‘"’ and ‘\’ must be written "\"\\".

Other escape sequences represent unprintable characters such as TAB or newline. There is nothing to stop you from entering most unprintable characters directly in a string constant or regexp constant, but they may look ugly.

The following list presents all the escape sequences used in awk and what they represent. Unless noted otherwise, all these escape sequences apply to both string constants and regexp constants:


A literal backslash, ‘\’.


The “alert” character, Ctrl-g, ASCII code 7 (BEL). (This often makes some sort of audible noise.)


Backspace, Ctrl-h, ASCII code 8 (BS).


Formfeed, Ctrl-l, ASCII code 12 (FF).


Newline, Ctrl-j, ASCII code 10 (LF).


Carriage return, Ctrl-m, ASCII code 13 (CR).


Horizontal TAB, Ctrl-i, ASCII code 9 (HT).


Vertical TAB, Ctrl-k, ASCII code 11 (VT).


The octal value nnn, where nnn stands for 1 to 3 digits between ‘0’ and ‘7’. For example, the code for the ASCII ESC (escape) character is ‘\033’.


The hexadecimal value hh, where hh stands for a sequence of hexadecimal digits (‘0’–‘9’, and either ‘A’–‘F’ or ‘a’–‘f’). A maximum of two digits are allowed after the ‘\x’. Any further hexadecimal digits are treated as simple letters or numbers. (c.e.) (The ‘\x’ escape sequence is not allowed in POSIX awk.)

CAUTION: In ISO C, the escape sequence continues until the first nonhexadecimal digit is seen. For many years, gawk would continue incorporating hexadecimal digits into the value until a non-hexadecimal digit or the end of the string was encountered. However, using more than two hexadecimal digits produced undefined results. As of version 4.2, only two digits are processed.


A literal slash (should be used for regexp constants only). This sequence is used when you want to write a regexp constant that contains a slash (such as /.*:\/home\/[[:alnum:]]+:.*/; the ‘[[:alnum:]]’ notation is discussed in Using Bracket Expressions). Because the regexp is delimited by slashes, you need to escape any slash that is part of the pattern, in order to tell awk to keep processing the rest of the regexp.


A literal double quote (should be used for string constants only). This sequence is used when you want to write a string constant that contains a double quote (such as "He said \"hi!\" to her."). Because the string is delimited by double quotes, you need to escape any quote that is part of the string, in order to tell awk to keep processing the rest of the string.

In gawk, a number of additional two-character sequences that begin with a backslash have special meaning in regexps. See gawk-Specific Regexp Operators.

In a regexp, a backslash before any character that is not in the previous list and not listed in gawk-Specific Regexp Operators means that the next character should be taken literally, even if it would normally be a regexp operator. For example, /a\+b/ matches the three characters ‘a+b’.

For complete portability, do not use a backslash before any character not shown in the previous list or that is not an operator.

Backslash Before Regular Characters

If you place a backslash in a string constant before something that is not one of the characters previously listed, POSIX awk purposely leaves what happens as undefined. There are two choices:

Strip the backslash out

This is what BWK awk and gawk both do. For example, "a\qc" is the same as "aqc". (Because this is such an easy bug both to introduce and to miss, gawk warns you about it.) Consider ‘FS = "[ \t]+\|[ \t]+"’ to use vertical bars surrounded by whitespace as the field separator. There should be two backslashes in the string: ‘FS = "[ \t]+\\|[ \t]+"’.)

Leave the backslash alone

Some other awk implementations do this. In such implementations, typing "a\qc" is the same as typing "a\\qc".

To summarize:

Escape Sequences for Metacharacters

Suppose you use an octal or hexadecimal escape to represent a regexp metacharacter. (See Regular Expression Operators.) Does awk treat the character as a literal character or as a regexp operator?

Historically, such characters were taken literally. (d.c.) However, the POSIX standard indicates that they should be treated as real metacharacters, which is what gawk does. In compatibility mode (see Command-Line Options), gawk treats the characters represented by octal and hexadecimal escape sequences literally when used in regexp constants. Thus, /a\52b/ is equivalent to /a\*b/.