1.1.6 Shell Quoting Issues

For short to medium-length awk programs, it is most convenient to enter the program on the awk command line. This is best done by enclosing the entire program in single quotes. This is true whether you are entering the program interactively at the shell prompt, or writing it as part of a larger shell script:

awk 'program text' input-file1 input-file2 ...

Once you are working with the shell, it is helpful to have a basic knowledge of shell quoting rules. The following rules apply only to POSIX-compliant, Bourne-style shells (such as Bash, the GNU Bourne-Again Shell). If you use the C shell, you’re on your own.

Before diving into the rules, we introduce a concept that appears throughout this Web page, which is that of the null, or empty, string.

The null string is character data that has no value. In other words, it is empty. It is written in awk programs like this: "". In the shell, it can be written using single or double quotes: "" or ''. Although the null string has no characters in it, it does exist. For example, consider this command:

$ echo ""

Here, the echo utility receives a single argument, even though that argument has no characters in it. In the rest of this Web page, we use the terms null string and empty string interchangeably. Now, on to the quoting rules:

Mixing single and double quotes is difficult. You have to resort to shell quoting tricks, like this:

$ awk 'BEGIN { print "Here is a single quote <'"'"'>" }'
-| Here is a single quote <'>

This program consists of three concatenated quoted strings. The first and the third are single-quoted, and the second is double-quoted.

This can be “simplified” to:

$ awk 'BEGIN { print "Here is a single quote <'\''>" }'
-| Here is a single quote <'>

Judge for yourself which of these two is the more readable.

Another option is to use double quotes, escaping the embedded, awk-level double quotes:

$ awk "BEGIN { print \"Here is a single quote <'>\" }"
-| Here is a single quote <'>

This option is also painful, because double quotes, backslashes, and dollar signs are very common in more advanced awk programs.

A third option is to use the octal escape sequence equivalents (see Escape Sequences) for the single- and double-quote characters, like so:

$ awk 'BEGIN { print "Here is a single quote <\47>" }'
-| Here is a single quote <'>
$ awk 'BEGIN { print "Here is a double quote <\42>" }'
-| Here is a double quote <">

This works nicely, but you should comment clearly what the escape sequences mean.

A fourth option is to use command-line variable assignment, like this:

$ awk -v sq="'" 'BEGIN { print "Here is a single quote <" sq ">" }'
-| Here is a single quote <'>

(Here, the two string constants and the value of sq are concatenated into a single string that is printed by print.)

If you really need both single and double quotes in your awk program, it is probably best to move it into a separate file, where the shell won’t be part of the picture and you can say what you mean.