Reading Lines From Files


Reading input line by line is something that seems like a basic and banal operation, but it’s not really as basic as some higher level languages make it out.

Let’s look at a couple ways we can do this in Bash and other languages like Python and C.


The syntax of bash always seems a bit awkward.

For this example, assume we have a file called test.txt and we want to echo every line.

while read -r line; do
    echo $line
done < test.txt

piping cat into the while loop works as well

cat file.txt | while read -r line; do
    echo $line

In practice, echoing lines this way is useless, because cat already does that. However it is a perfect demonstration of how working in the shell relies heavily on the redirection of input/output.

Shell Strangeness

It also demonstrates a piece of the strange and fantastic world that is shell scripting. Piping input into a while read loop looks rather odd, but it makes sense in the context of a shell, and how the read builtin works.

Another big thing to note here is that there are some complex rules regarding white-space and the read command. I won’t go into too much detail, but the IFS variable controls what fields the arguments to read are separated by. The default is space, but can be changed to a newline, comma, tab, or anything else. Regular shell escaping with backslashes still applies, so it is recommended to use -r to stop that behavior.


Another way to “read” a file in shell is with xargs, which takes input and runs a command for every field of input. Like read the default field separator is white-space. Some interesting options are -l, which tells xargs to set 1 as the max number of lines. In other words one command per (non-whitespace) line. The -n# option is also good to know, which tells xargs to use a certain number of arguments for a given command.

Tell xargs to run echo on every (non-whitespace) line in test.txt:

xargs -l echo < test.txt

Tell xargs to run echo after every 2 arguments (separated by whitespace) in test.txt:

cat test.txt | xargs -n2 echo

I know these are simple uses for xargs, but this technique can be incredibly useful after filtering some data and feeding it to xargs to turn it into arguments of another command.

Compared to something like command substitution, xargs is more robust and configurable because it was created specifically for splitting and aggregating arguments.

Of course there are times when it is acceptable or even preferred to do things “the shell” way. Knowing a bit about the standard file descriptors and how data passes from one process to another is can save yourself much confusion down the line.

Shell Powers

In Unix shells, the concept of files, and file descriptors (stdin, stdout, and stderr) are often interchangeable.

Using operators such as the pipe |, and redirecting stdin < and stdout > are absolutely vital to understanding how the shell operates. Command substitution $(), file substitution <() and subshells () are great tools for bash scripting as well.

With so many tools at your disposal, the shell is a great place to be creative and find solutions that will get the job done fast and easy, but it can be easy to make some tasks more complicated than need be.

Useless Catting

Some people feel starting a command with cat and piping into other programs is bad practice and extraneous. See Useless Use Of Cat for a good read about bad practices in shell scripts.

On the other hand, some tools do not accept a filename directly, and thus using cat to output a file to stdout is perfectly acceptable. It really depends on the tool, which can be annoying as the behavior of commands is not always the most consistent thing in the world, despite POSIX standards. I feel like in most cases, an extra call to cat is not going to hurt anything, but should probably not be the default way to pass a file to a command if that is the intention.

Shell Downfalls

You may already see why someone would prefer not to script with the shell at all. Inconsistent syntax, weird default behavior, lots of escaping quotes, lack of proper debugging, no libraries, etc,.. These little inconsistencies start to add up with time and complexity, and the inconvenience starts to outweigh the convenience.

Languages like Perl, Ruby, Python, and Node.js and continue to fill the gap between a statically typed, compiled language like C/C++ and shell scripts.


Take the same test.txt file as before, but let’s use python.

#!/usr/bin/env python

with open('test.txt') as f:
    for line in f:
        print(line, end="")

For this example, line is a type “str” and newlines are the default separator Iterating over this file assigns line to a string representing the current line.

Compared to Bash/Shell, Python is much easier to write and understand. Partly because the simpler syntax, but also because of sane defaults. The price that Python pays for having such friendly default abstractions is performance, which granted, is not as much of a priority for the majority of applications.

Digging deeper, we will have to go to a lower level of abstraction, so let’s C.

Disclaimer I am not an expert C Programmer, but I am learning, so if anything sticks out as wrong, please let me know.


Open A File

According to man open.3, the synopsis is as follows:

#include <sys/stat.h>
#include <fcntl.h>

int open(const char *path, int oflag, ...);
int openat(int fd, const char *path, int oflag, ...);

Calling open() gives you a file descriptor and opens up a file description at the path supplied, with the flags supplied. fcntl.h defines all the flags used to open a file and sys/stat.h provides other file access information.

There is a friendlier POSIX wrapper around open called fopen.

The fopen() function opens the file whose name is the string pointed to by pathname and associates a stream with it.
#include <stdio.h>

FILE *fopen(const char *pathname, const char *mode);
FILE *fdopen(int fd, const char *mode);

If you don’t need the file descriptor, and would rather work with pointers to a file (aka file streams), this seems to be the preferred method as far as I can tell. So let’s see a program that reads a file line by line

Reading Characters and Lines

Two functions that are good for this are fgets() and getline().

First lets try it with fgets().

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

int main(int argc, char** argv) {
    // open a file
    FILE *fp;
    fp = fopen("test/file.txt", "r");
    if (fp == NULL)

    // declare line variables
    const size_t line_max = 300;
    char* line_buffer = malloc(line_max);

    // fgets reads a file pointer, stops at a newline and fills the line_buffer until line_max
    // the loop continues until there is a line that is empty or NULL
    while(fgets(line_buffer, line_max, fp) != NULL) {
        printf("%s", line_buffer);

    // free memory and close file

The getline() example in the manpage is similar:

#define _GNU_SOURCE
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

int main(int argc, char *argv[])
   FILE *stream;
   char *line = NULL;
   size_t len = 0;
   ssize_t nread;

   if (argc != 2) {
	   fprintf(stderr, "Usage: %s <file>\n", argv[0]);

   stream = fopen(argv[1], "r");
   if (stream == NULL) {

   while ((nread = getline(&line, &len, stream)) != -1) {
	   printf("Retrieved line of length %zu:\n", nread);
	   fwrite(line, nread, 1, stdout);


This code is slightly different because getline takes:

  1. a pointer to the line – which getline() will set to the the address of the line in memory (NULL in this example)
  2. a pointer to the length – which will be set to the address of the length (0 in this example)
  3. a pointer to a file also known as a file stream (FILE * in this example)

And it returns the number of characters read.

So here’s a quick rundown of what happens inside this example: The variables line and len get passed by reference into getline where they get mutated. line gets allocated a size of len and nread is assigned the return value – the length of chars read from the stream into line.

In addition to having better error handling than our first example, it also uses fwrite() along with printf() to output the line. This works because stdout is a file-like stream.

Notable Differences

  • getline() uses malloc() internally, so there is potential to run out of memory depending on the file.

  • fgets() takes a buffer that has already been allocated with size len and reads a file until len chars, or the end of the line – whatever comes first. This is the safer option, but is less flexible and more work to implement.

As expected with a lower level language, there is more manual work involved in opening a file and reading it. There is more the programmer has to worry about, such as allocating the correct amount of memory, remembering to free it, NULL terminated strings, bounds checking, pointers and tons of issues that come along with that.

Why do this / Why does this matter

Note these are important details about how the program works, but all the nitty gritty details can get in the way of implementing application logic. The syscalls exposed by the kernel and the C Standard Library are great for low level access to hardware and memory.

Although the implementations may differ between platforms (C++ for Win32, POSIX/UNIX for BSD and Linux, Slimmed down stdlibs for Embedded), I believe that understanding how compiled languages and assembly work is a great way to understand how a computer operates and will expose the various layers of abstraction that actually make modern computing possible.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading! I hope this was a decent tour of how files to open and read files at higher and lower level languages. And stay tuned for more posts to come!