SortIf you do your development work in Linux, there are certain commands that you owe it to yourself to master fully. There are a number of these with the main ones being grep, find and sort. Just about everyone has at least a passing familiarity with these commands, but with most people the knowledge is superficial, they don’t even realise how powerful those commands can be. So, if you really put in the effort to master them, not only will you make your own life much easier, but you will also be able to impress all you friends with your elite Linux skills when you pair with them :). I will cover grep and find (as well as other valuable commands) in subsequent posts – here we will concentrate on sort

Note: I am using bash, so your mileage might vary if you’re using a different shell.

Sorting is a fundamental task when it comes to programming, if you have a decent knowledge of various sorting algorithms, their advantages and disadvantages, you will be a better software developer for it. However, often enough you just don’t need to draw on this deeper knowledge. Whether you’re answering an interview question about sorting or simply need to quickly sort some data in you day to day work – the Linux sort command is your friend.

The extent of most people’s knowledge ends with:

sort some_file.txt

Which is fair enough, you rarely need to dig deeper, the default behaviour will usually do what you need and when it doesn’t – we have Ruby or Perl, we can hack something together. Well I hope that we’re somewhat more curious than your average developer :). As much is we like hacking things together, if a tool can already do all the work for us, we want to know about it. We can look at the man page for sort and discover all sorts of interesting bits, but even the man page is not really clear on the more advanced aspects of sort usage. It helps to have examples to truly grok the kinds of stuff you can do with sort, so let’s have a look.

Sorting Basics

To start with we have the following file:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ cat letters.txt
b
D
c
A
C
B
d
a

We’ll do the most basic sort first:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ sort letters.txt
a
A
b
B
c
C
d
D

Looks good, how about doing it in reverse:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ sort -r letters.txt
D
d
C
c
B
b
A
a

Also easy, but what if we want to be case insensitive? Hang on a sec, according to the output it’s already case insensitive. But the man page has an option for this:

-f, --ignore-case
              fold lower case to upper case characters

If sort is case insensitive by default, what is this option for. We’ll that one is a bit of a gotcha, it looks like GNU sort is case insensitive by default, but the man page also contains the following:

*** WARNING *** The locale specified by the  environment  affects  sort
       order.  Set LC_ALL=C to get the traditional sort order that uses native
       byte values.

What this means that we need to set the LC_ALL environment variable to get the behaviour that we would expect from sort (i.e. capital letters before non-capitals). Let’s try that:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ export LC_ALL=C
[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ sort letters.txt
A
B
C
D
a
b
c
d

That’s better, and now our -f option is actually useful:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ sort -f letters.txt
A
a
B
b
C
c
D
d

That looks ok, but something still seems a little funny, all the capitals appear before all the non-capitals every time. That’s because the sort is not stable, but we can make it stable:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ sort -f -s letters.txt
A
a
b
B
c
C
D
d

Now that’s exactly what we wanted, it’s case insensitive and stable, i.e. if the small letter appeared before the capital when unsorted (and the letters are the same), this order will be the same in the sorted list.

Ok, but what if we have numbers:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ cat numbers.txt
5
4
12
1
3
56

A normal sort is not what we want:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ sort numbers.txt
1
12
3
4
5
56

But we can fix that:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ sort -n numbers.txt
1
3
4
5
12
56

And, if our lines happen to have some leading blanks:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ cat blank_letters.txt
b
D
   c
A
C
    B
d
a

We can easily ignore those and still sort correctly (using the -b flag):

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ sort -f -s -b blank_letters.txt
A
a
b
    B
   c
C
D
d

Of course none of this actually writes the sorted output back to the file, we only get it on standard output. If we want to write it back to the file, we have to redirect the output to a new file and then replace the old file with the new file:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ sort -f -s -b blank_letters2.txt > blank_letters2.sorted
[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ cat blank_letters2.sorted
A
a
b
    B
   c
C
D
d
[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ mv blank_letters2.sorted blank_letters2.txt
[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ cat blank_letters2.txt
A
a
b
    B
   c
C
D
d

As an alternative to redirection, sort also has the -o option:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ sort -f -s -b blank_letters2.txt -o blank_letters2.sorted
[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ cat blank_letters2.sorted
A
a
b
    B
   c
C
D
d

Alright, this is all pretty standard stuff, let’s see how we can do something a little bit more fancy.

Advanced Sort Usage

One of the most common use cases when it comes to sort is to pipe its output to uniq, in order to remove any duplicate lines, but this is often not necessary as sort has a uniq-type option built right in (-u):

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ cat blank_letters.txt
b
D
c
A
C
B
d
a
[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ sort -f -s -u blank_letters.txt
A
b
c
D

It even took into account the fact that we wanted to be case insensitive. Compare that to a case-sensitive sort with a uniq option set:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ sort -s -u blank_letters.txt
A
B
C
D
a
b
c
d

Nothing is removed as there are no duplicate lines.

But what if my lines are a little bit more complicated than just a single letter, what if there are multiple columns and I want to sort by one of those columns (not the first one). This is also possible:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ ls -al | sort -k5
total 36
-rw-r--r-- 1 alan alan   14 May  9 00:12 numbers.txt
-rw-r--r-- 1 alan alan   16 May  9 00:00 letters.txt
-rw-r--r-- 1 alan alan   16 May  9 00:40 blank_letters.txt
-rw-r--r-- 1 alan alan   20 May  9 00:33 blank_letters2.sorted
-rw-r--r-- 1 alan alan   20 May  9 00:33 blank_letters2.txt
-rw-r--r-- 1 alan alan   20 May  9 00:37 blank_letters3.txt
-rw-r--r-- 1 alan alan   84 May  8 23:15 file1.txt
drwxr-xr-x 3 alan alan 4096 May  8 23:13 ..
drwxr-xr-x 2 alan alan 4096 May  9 00:40 .

As you can see we sorted the output of ls by the size (the 5th column). This is what the -k option is for. Basically -k tells sort to start sorting at a particular column given a particular column separator. The column separator is, by default, any blank character. So in the above example, we told sort to sort by the 5th column given the fact that the column separator is blanks.

But we don’t have to be restricted by the default separator, we can specify our own using the -t option. Let’s sort the first 10 lines of my /etc/passwd file (promise you won’t hack my machine since I am giving it away like that :)) by the 4th column – the group id. As you know the /etc/passwd file uses the : (colon) character as the separator (_for more info on the format see here_). Here is the output unsorted:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ cat /etc/passwd | head                 
root❌0:0:root:/root:/bin/bash
daemon❌1:1:daemon:/usr/sbin:/bin/sh
bin❌2:2:bin:/bin:/bin/sh
sys❌3:3:sys:/dev:/bin/sh
sync❌4:65534:sync:/bin:/bin/sync
games❌5:60:games:/usr/games:/bin/sh
man❌6:12👨/var/cache/man:/bin/sh
lp❌7:7:lp:/var/spool/lpd:/bin/sh
mail❌8:8:mail:/var/mail:/bin/sh
news❌9:9:news:/var/spool/news:/bin/sh

There is a group id of 65534 in there which should appear last. Let’s sort it:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ cat /etc/passwd | head | sort -t: -k4 -n
root❌0:0:root:/root:/bin/bash
daemon❌1:1:daemon:/usr/sbin:/bin/sh
bin❌2:2:bin:/bin:/bin/sh
sys❌3:3:sys:/dev:/bin/sh
lp❌7:7:lp:/var/spool/lpd:/bin/sh
mail❌8:8:mail:/var/mail:/bin/sh
news❌9:9:news:/var/spool/news:/bin/sh
man❌6:12👨/var/cache/man:/bin/sh
games❌5:60:games:/usr/games:/bin/sh
sync❌4:65534:sync:/bin:/bin/sync

We had to do a numeric sort since we’re dealing with numbers, and we specified : (colon) as the column separator. The output is sorted correctly with 65534 being on the last line. Pretty cool! But the fun doesn’t stop there, we can sort by multiple columns, one after the other. Consider this list of IP addresses:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ cat ips.txt
192.168.0.25
127.0.0.12
192.168.0.1
127.0.0.3
127.0.0.6
192.168.0.5

Let’s sort it by the first column, so that all the addresses starting with 127 go together, and then sort it by the 4th column, to make sure that the IPs are sorted by the last column within each range.

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ cat ips.txt | sort -t. -k 2,2n -k 4,4n
127.0.0.3
127.0.0.6
127.0.0.12
192.168.0.1
192.168.0.5
192.168.0.25

We specified the dot as the separator. The -k 2,2n syntax has the following meaning. Do a sort by column (-k), start at the beginning of column 2 and go to the end of column 2 (2,2). The n on the end is to indicate that we want to do a numeric sort since we are dealing with numbers. That is some powerful stuff, wouldn’t you agree?

Cool/Useful Stuff

There is still more we can do with the sort command. Have you ever wanted to randomize the lines in a file? It is not a common use case, but does come in handy once in a while (if only for testing purposes, sometimes). Well, the sort command has you covered here also with the -R option (that’s capital R):

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ cat numbers.txt
5
4
12
1
3
56
[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ cat numbers.txt | sort -R
5
4
1
3
12
56
[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ cat numbers.txt | sort -R
3
4
1
56
5
12

We get a different order every time, which is what we would expect from randomizing the lines.

If you give sort multiple files on the command line, it will combine the contents of all the files and sort it as a whole:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ sort -n numbers.txt numbers2.txt
1
1
3
4
4
5
7
8
10
12
22
23
26
56
56
68

This is really handy, but sometimes, the files you have are already sorted, you just want to merge them. Sort provides the** -m** options just for this purpose. The output of using sort on two files will be exactly the same whether you use -m or not, but merging should be faster:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ sort -n -m numbers1.sorted numbers2.sorted
1
1
3
4
4
5
7
8
10
12
22
23
26
56
56
68

Lastly, if you just want to check if a file is sorted or not, without actually performing the sort, you have the -c option:

[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ sort -n -c numbers.txt
sort: numbers.txt:2: disorder: 4
[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$ sort -n -c numbers1.sorted
[email protected]:~/tmp/sort$

There you go, the total awesomeness of the sort command laid bare. If you know any other handy things you can do with sort, do leave a comment. And remember – only use your new-found sort powers for good instead of evil :).

Image by SewPixie (so far behind!)