Mastering Terminal Text Searches with ‘grep’: A Comprehensive Guide

The ‘grep’ command, an abbreviation for ‘Global Regular Expression Print,’ is a powerful tool available on Unix-based operating systems like Linux and macOS. It is used to search text data such as files and command output for lines that match a certain pattern. This guide provides an in-depth look at the ‘grep’ command, its syntax, options, and usage examples.

Basic Syntax of ‘grep’

The general syntax of ‘grep’ is as follows:

grep [options] pattern [file...]
  • Pattern: This is the search term or regular expression you are looking for.
  • File: This is the file, or files, in which you are searching. If no file is specified, ‘grep’ will search the standard input.

Common ‘grep’ Options

Here are a few commonly used ‘grep’ options:

  • -i: Ignores case for matching.
  • -v: Inverts the match; in other words, it matches only lines that do not contain the pattern.
  • -r or -R: Recursively searches files in subdirectories.
  • -l: Displays file names instead of the actual lines that match the pattern.
  • -n: Displays line numbers with output lines.
  • -w: Matches the whole word.

Using ‘grep’

Basic Text Search

The most straightforward use of ‘grep’ is to search for a string of text in a file. For example, to search for the word 'example' in a file named 'testfile.txt', you would use:

grep 'example' testfile.txt

Note: the filename can also be a glob expression.

Case-Insensitive Search

To perform a case-insensitive search, use the -i option. This will match all cases of the pattern:

grep -i 'example' testfile.txt

Inverting the Match

If you want to find lines that do not contain a certain pattern, you can use the -v option to invert the match:

grep -v 'example' testfile.txt

Recursive Search

To search for a pattern recursively in the current directory and its subdirectories, use the -r or -R option:

grep -r 'example' .

Displaying Line Numbers

If you want to know the line numbers where the pattern is found in the file, use the -n option:

grep -n 'example' testfile.txt

Whole Word Match

To match only lines where the pattern forms a whole word (not part of a larger word), use the -w option:

grep -w 'and' testfile.txt

The example ‘and’ will only match ‘and’ but not other words like ‘grand’.

Combining ‘grep’ Options

One of the reasons that ‘grep’ is so powerful is the ability to combine multiple options for more refined searches. By leveraging several options together, you can perform highly specific and efficient searches. Let’s look at some examples of combining ‘grep’ options.

Case-Insensitive Recursive Search

For example, you may want to perform a case-insensitive search (‘-i’) within all files in a directory and its subdirectories (‘-r’):

grep -ri 'example' .

Displaying Line Numbers in Recursive Search

If you want to recursively search for a pattern, and also display the line numbers where each match is found, you can combine the ‘-r’ and ‘-n’ options:

grep -rn 'example' .

Inverting a Case-Insensitive Search

If you want to find all lines that do not contain a certain pattern in a case-insensitive manner, you can combine the ‘-v’ and ‘-i’ options:

grep -vi 'example' testfile.txt

Whole Word Match with Line Numbers

You can also combine the -n and -w options to display line numbers for whole word matches:

grep -wn 'example' testfile.txt

Remember, the order of the options does not matter. -wn is equivalent to -nw.

Search Multiple Patterns

You can also use multiple -e options to search for multiple patterns:

grep -e 'example' -e 'sample' testfile.txt

This command will return lines that match either ‘example’ or ‘sample’.

Searching and Excluding Patterns

In the previous example, if we wanted to exclude any rows with the word ‘testing’, you might think that you can add in -v ‘testing’, but the results won’t be what you expect. Any parameters passed, will be treated as ‘OR’, rather than ‘AND’. We can easily solve this issue by invoking a second grep command.

grep -e ‘example’ -e ‘sample’ testfile.txt | grep -v ‘testing


The ‘grep’ command is a versatile tool for searching text, with a variety of options that allow you to refine your searches. Whether you’re searching a single file, exploring directories recursively, or analyzing the output of other commands, ‘grep’ provides the capabilities you need to find exactly what you’re looking for.

Combining ‘grep’ options allows you to conduct advanced text searches, making it a highly flexible tool for a wide range of tasks. By understanding how to use and combine these options, you’ll be able to quickly and efficiently find the information you’re looking for in your text files and command output.

Remember that ‘grep’ uses regular expressions for pattern matching, so the more you familiarize yourself with regular expressions, the more powerful your ‘grep’ command becomes. Happy grepping!


Whilst building web applications, Daniel also sets up web servers from scratch because he has yet to find the perfect hosting solution. His philosophy is “Why settle, when you can build it better yourself?”

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