Introduction to UNIX Part 2

Manipulating files


Command Action
cp file1 file2 make a copy of file1 and call it file2
mv file1 file2 move or rename file1 to file2
rm file remove or delete a file
rmdir directory remove or delete a directory
cat file dump the contents of a file to the screen
less file display a file 1 page at a time
head file display the first 10 lines of a file
tail file display the last 10 lines of a file
grep 'keyword' file search a file for ‘keyword’
wc file count number of lines, words, or characters in file


Very quickly, lets do the setup for these exercises. Open a terminal and type in the following:

1mkdir -p ~/unixstuff/backups

You are now ready to move on to Copying Files.

Copying Files

cp(1) - copy

cp file1 file2 is the command which makes a copy of file1 in the current working directory and calls it file2

Now what we are going to do, is to take a file stored in an open access area of the file system, and use the cp(1) command to copy it to your unixstuff directory.

First, cd to your unixstuff directory.

1% cd ~/unixstuff

Then at the UNIX prompt, type:

1% cp /etc/services .

Note: Don’t forget the dot ‘.’ at the end. Also, remember that in UNIX, the dot means the current directory.

The copy command means ‘copy the file services to the current directory’, keeping the name the same.

Note: The directory /etc/ is an area where system configuration files are stored.

Exercise 2a

Create a backup of your (copy of the) services file by copying it to a file called services.bak

Moving files

mv(1) - move

mv file1 file2 moves (or renames) file1 to file2

Moving files is very similar to copying files. To move a file from one place to another, use the mv(1) command. This has the effect of moving rather than copying the file, so you end up with only one file rather than two.

It can also be used to rename a file, by moving the file to the same directory, but giving it a different name.

We are now going to move the file services.bak to your backup directory.

First, change directories to your unixstuff directory (do you remember how?). Then, once you are in your unixstuff directory, type:

1% mv services.bak backups/.

Type: ls and ls backups to see if it has worked.

Removing files and directories

rm(1) - remove, rmdir(1) - remove directory

To remove (delete) a file, use the rm command. As an example, we are going to create another copy of the services file (the one we have in our unixstuff directory), and then delete it.

Inside your unixstuff directory, type:

1% cp services tempfile.txt
2% ls
3backups		services	tempfile.txt
4% rm tempfile.txt
5% ls
6backups		services

You can use the rmdir(1) command to remove a directory (make sure it is empty first). Try to remove the backups directory. You will not be able to since UNIX will not let you remove a non-empty directory.

Exercise 2b

Create a directory called tempstuff using mkdir(1), then remove it using the rmdir(1) command.

Displaying the contents of a file

clear(1) - clear screen

Before you start the next section, you may wish to clear the terminal window of the previous commands so the output of the following commands can be (more) clearly understood.

At the prompt, type:

1% clear

This will clear all text and leave you with the % or $ prompt at the top of the window.

cat(1) - concatenate

The command cat(1) can be used to display the contents of a file on the screen. In your unixstuff directory, type:

1% cat services

As you can see, the file is longer than than the height of the window, so it scrolls past making most of the file unreadable. Some terminals offer the ability to scroll up and down, but a better solution that will work everywhere is to use a pagination tool (a tool which displays content one (1) page at a time.


The less(1) command writes the contents of a file onto the screen one (1) page at a time. In your unixstuff directory, type:

1% less services

Press the [space-bar] if you want to see another page, and type q if you want to quit reading. As you can see, less is used in preference to cat for long files (the typical, and default size of a UNIX terminal is 80x25. That means 80 characters wide, and 25 lines tall. If your file is more than 25 lines long, it won’t all fit on the screen at one).


The head(1) command writes the first ten (10) lines of a file to the screen.

Change directories to your unixstuff directory, then clear the screen. Now type:

1% head services

Then type:

1% head -5 services

Exercise 2c

What difference did the -5 do to the head command? With a default UNIX termainal, would you ever want to use head -30?


The tail(1) command writes the last ten (10) lines of a file to the screen.

In your unixstuff directory, clear the screen and type:

1% tail services

Exercise 2d

How can you view the last 15 lines of the file?

Searching the contents of a file

Simple searches using less

Using less, you can search though a text file for a keyword (pattern). For example, to search through the services file for the word ‘http’, change directories to your unixstuff directory and type:

1% less services

then, with out exiting less, type a forward slash / followed by the word you wish to search for (in this example: /http). This will search forwards through the file.

As you can see, less finds and highlights the keyword. Type n to search for the next occurrence of the word. If you wish to search backwards through the file, instead of using a /, use a ?. Using n to move to the next instance of the keyword works the same way.

grep(1) - don’t ask why it is called grep

grep(1) is one of many standard UNIX utilities. It searches files for specified words or patterns. In your unixstuff directory, clear the screen and then type:

1% grep http services

As you can see, grep has printed out each line from the file ‘services’ which contains the word http.

Or has it? Try typing:

1% grep Http services

The grep(1) command is case sensitive; it distinguishes between Http and http (or even HTTP).

To ignore upper/lower case distinctions, use the -i option, i.e. type:

1% grep -i http services

To search for a phrase or pattern, you must enclose it in single quotes (the apostrophe symbol). For example to search for ‘http protocol’, type:

1% grep -i 'http protocol' services

Some of the other commonly used options for grep are:

  • -v display those lines that do NOT match
  • -n precede each matching line with the line number
  • -c print only the total count of matched lines

Try some of them and see the different results. Don’t forget, you can use more than one option at a time. For example, the number of lines without the words http or Http is

1% grep -ivc http services

wc(1) - word count

A handy little utility is the wc(1) command, short for word count. To do a word count on services, type:

1% wc -w services

To find out how many lines the file has, type:

1% wc -l services