Linux tutorial: Searching all files of a specific type for a string

Let’s say you want to search all the *.txt files in a given parent directory and all its children for the word “hello”.

Something like grep -rl "hello" *.txt would not work because the shell will expand “*.txt” for the current directory only. The -r flag for recursion would essentially be ignored. For example, if the parent directory contained:


and the child directory contained:

a.txt b.txt c.txt d.txt

grep -rl "hello" *.txt would only search a.txt in the parent directory. This is because the shell will only evaluate the * wildcard for the parent directory from which the command is run.

What we actually want to do is use the find command to recursively list all the text files in the directory and its children, and then pass each of these files as arguments into grep, which will then search each argument for any instances of the string “hello”.

The find command to locate all the text files looks like this:
find ./ -name "*.txt"

In order to pass each file as an argument into grep, we use xargs. The xargs utilities reads in parameters from standard input (the default delimiter is whitespace or newline). For each item read in from standard input, xargs will then execute a given command with each item passed in as an argument.

Essentially what it is doing is this:

foreach item in stdin
execute "[command] [initial arguments] [arg]"

In our example, we want to run xargs grep "hello" (grep being [command] and “hello” being [initial arguments]), with stdin coming from the output of the find command. Putting this all together, we get the following:

find ./ -name "*.txt" | xargs grep "hello"

Combining commands together is the strength of the UNIX design philosophy. The various command line utilities are designed to play well with one another, using the output from one as the input into another. Think of each utility as a puzzle piece that can fit together with any other puzzle piece,combining in interesting ways to solve complex problems. Often times there will be many possible solutions to a given problem; such is the versatility of the platform!

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