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Drop the Linux cat command for bat

Bat, known as "a cat clone with wings," functions similarly to cat, more, sed, and awk, but it does it with a lot more style.
Photo of a brown bat with outstretched wings over a cloudy sky

The cat command on Linux concatenates files together. It's often used to concatenate one file to nothing to print the single file's contents to the terminal. This is a quick way to preview the contents of a text file without having to open the file in a large application.

There's nothing wrong with cat, but similar commands have been developed over the years, and the one with the most features is bat.

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Syntax highlighting

Developers call bat, available under the terms of either the MIT License or the Apache License 2.0 (your choice), a "cat clone with wings." There's probably a healthy debate over what those wings are, but for me, it's the syntax highlighting and line numbering. It's a highly visual feature and can be a great help when scanning through files.

The output of bat features line numbers and colorful syntax highlighting.
(Seth Kenlon, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Because you're likely to use the bat output as the input for a second command, you can deactivate extra data like line numbers with the --plain option. Supported terminals retain syntax highlighting.

The --plain option is an alias for --style=plain, which hints at just how many ways you can customize the command's output. Here are some of my favorite options for the --style option:

  • plain: Include no style that adds extra characters to the output
  • header: Print the file name before the file's contents
  • header-filesize: Print the file size before the file's contents
  • grid: Add grid lines to separate output
  • numbers: Print line numbers

That's not all of the style options, just the ones I use frequently.

[ Keep your favorite Git commands, aliases, and tips close at hand. Download the Git cheat sheet. ]

Git integration

Did I say syntax highlighting was my favorite feature? I meant that Git integration is my favorite feature. The bat command is Git-aware by default. When you're in a Git repository, you can use the --diff option to view just the changes to a file since it was last committed.

For instance, imagine I'm in the Git repository of my zombie apocalypse game. I've recently updated some code, but I can't quite recall the extent of it.

$ bat --diff
1  public class Player {
3  private BufferedImage image;
4+ private Position pos;
5  private Health health;
7  public Zombie() {
8    loadImage();

When a line has been added since the previous commit, a plus sign (+) appears in the margin, and when a line has been changed or removed, a minus sign (-) appears.

The --diff option works only with Git. It's not a general-purpose diff tool.

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Highlight arbitrary lines

You can highlight a range of lines in a file. This isn't syntax highlighting, which bat does automatically. Instead, this marks each line with a solid box, as if to mimic a highlighter you use on paper.

$ bat --highlight-line=20:26

Your results may vary with this effect. On some screens, I have a feeling that instead of highlighting, this effect obfuscates due to a drop in contrast. Still, it's a visual marker that might be useful to some.

The highlight effect changes the background of text.
(Seth Kenlon, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Install bat

There are more features in bat than what I've covered here, but these are the ones I use the most. The bat command isn't strictly essential. Commands like cat and more, and even sed or awk in a pinch, perform basically the same function, but bat consciously does it with a lot more style. And that counts for something, if you like the visual aid of colorful output and a little extra context.

To install bat on Fedora, use the package manager:

$ sudo dnf install bat

On other systems, you can download a binary release from the bat Git repository or build it using the crate command.

Check out these related articles on Enable Sysadmin

Topics:   Linux   Command line utilities  
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Seth Kenlon

Seth Kenlon is a UNIX geek and free software enthusiast. More about me

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