3 surprising things you can do with the Linux wc command
You can use the wc command to count a file's word, line, character, or byte count. But those aren't the only system tasks it can handle.
wc command calculates a file's word, line, character, or byte count. Far from just being a utility for word processing,
wc is a useful tool for a variety of system tasks.
[ Get the Linux commands cheat sheet. ]
For basic usage, all you need is a file with some text in it. Here's my plan for a zombie apocalypse:
$ wc zombie-apocalypse_plan-A.txt 188 581 3591 zombie-apocalypse_plan-A.txt
The default output of
wc is the file's number of lines, words, and characters, followed by its path. (With only 188 lines of text in my plan, it's probably time to work on a Plan B.)
Here are three things you may not know you can do with the
1. Count items in a directory with wc
Many desktop file managers provide a running total of how many items are in a directory.
The terminal doesn't do that. At least, not by default.
-1 (that's the number one, not a lower-case L) option for
ls (list) forces the
ls command to list files in a single column. Pipe that output to
wc with its
--lines option for a count of items:
$ ls -1 ~/Code/Angband-4.2.3 | wc --lines 25
There are a few caveats to keep in mind. I alias my
ls command to include the
--almost-all option, which omits the
.. entries from directory listings. I also have
ls set to ignore files ending in
#, both of which are often used as extensions for backup files. Finally, by default, I don't view hidden files. That means that my report on the directory's contents isn't off by two (
..) but doesn't include any backup files or hidden files.
That's exactly the count I want, but keep those conditions in mind in case you want something different. The
wc command parses the output of your
ls command, so it believes you even when you "lie" to it.
2. Detect hidden characters with wc
I'm involved with some projects that use an XML toolchain, and sometimes users file bugs about a file that breaks the process for them. By the time the report gets to me, it's a verifiable mystery. People have run linters to look for errors or misconfigurations, other people have inspected the file, and nobody can determine the issue.
--char option of
wc shows something suspicious, though:
$ cat hidden.txt ab $ wc --char hidden.txt 5
Most files contain some nonvisible characters. For instance,
wc sees newlines as valid countable characters. However, the character count of 5 hardly accounts for the single newline at the end of
ab (the correct count is 3).
In practice, this is of limited use if you don't know where in a file to look for those hidden characters. After all, a report that a file has 758 characters isn't much good unless you manually count how many characters you can see. However, if your toolchain provides an error for where in a file the problem occurred, then it's trivial to copy and paste a section from the document into a
For the record, here's an example of the fix (the problem was a "soft hyphen" that wasn't visible in the users' text editors):
$ sed 's/\o302\xAD//' hidden.txt > fixed.txt wc --char fixed.txt 3
3. Get the size of a file with wc
There are lots of ways to get the size of a file. There's
du, of course, and
ls -l requires some parsing). Add
wc to the list.
$ wc --bytes ~/pixel.png 258 pixel.png $ du --bytes ~/pixel.png 258 pixel.png
I haven't yet encountered a system that has
wc and not
du, but I have encountered implementations of
du that don't provide the
--bytes option. So far, the
wc command has been consistent in its ability to count bytes (although in some implementations, there's only the
-c short option).
$ du -h B ~/pixel.png 512B pixel.png $ wc -c ~/pixel.png 258 pixel.png
[ Get the guide to installing applications on Linux. ]
Count on wc
wc command is a simple counter. It doesn't have any special features and it's not a particularly great demo of what's great about Linux. However, it's a reliable and predictable command that does one thing and does it well. Put it to good use.
Create a home lab to experiment and learn—critical tasks for pursuing Linux certifications, learning new work skills, or experimenting with services.
Learning this lightweight text editing tool can help you navigate faster, inside and outside of the text editor.
Discover what you're looking for, find misplaced data, and troubleshoot everyday problems with this handy Linux command.