Cut Command in Linux

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Linux Cut Command

In Linux and Unix systems, there are many utilities that you can use to process and filter text files. cut is a command-line utility that allows you to cut line parts from specified files or piped data and print the result to standard output. It can be used to cut parts of a line by delimiter, byte position, and character.

This article will show you how to use the cut command through practical examples and detailed explanations of the most common options.

How to Use the cut Command

The syntax for the cut command is as follows:

cut OPTION... [FILE]...

The flags that instruct cut whether to use a delimiter, byte position, or character when cutting out selected portions of the lines are as follows:

  • -f (--fields=LIST) - Select by specifying a field, a set of fields, or a range of fields. This is the most commonly used option.
  • -b (--bytes=LIST) - Select by specifying a byte, a set of bytes, or a range of bytes.
  • -c (--characters=LIST) - Select by specifying a character, a set of characters, or a range of characters.

You can use one and only one of the flags listed above.

Other flags are:

  • -d (--delimiter) - Specify a delimiter that will be used instead of the default “TAB” delimiter.
  • --complement - Complement the selection. When using this option, cut displays all bytes, characters, or fields except the selected ones.
  • -s (--only-delimited) - By default, cut prints the lines that contain no delimiter character. When this option is used, cut doesn’t print lines not containing delimiters.
  • --output-delimiter - The default behavior of cut is to use the input delimiter as the output delimiter. This option allows you to specify a different output delimiter string.

The cut command can accept zero or more input FILE names. If no FILE is specified, or when FILE is -, cut will read from the standard input.

The LIST argument passed to the -f, -b, and -c options can be an integer, multiple integers separated by commas, a range of integers or multiple integer ranges separated by commas. Each range can be one of the following:

  • N the Nth field, byte or character, starting from 1.
  • N- from the Nth field, byte, or character to the end of the line.
  • N-M from the Nth to the Mth field, byte, or character.
  • -M from the first to the Mth field, byte, or character.

How to Cut by Field

To specify the fields that should be cut, invoke the command with the -f option. When not set, the default delimiter is “TAB”.

In the examples below, we will use the following file. The fields are separated by tabs.

245:789 4567    M:4540  Admin   01:10:1980
535:763 4987    M:3476  Sales   11:04:1978

For example, to display the 1st and the 3rd field you would use:

cut test.txt -f 1,3
245:789	M:4540
535:763	M:3476

Or if you want to display from the 1st to the 4th field:

cut test.txt -f -4
245:789	4567	M:4540	Admin
535:763	4987	M:3476	Sales

How to cut based on a delimiter

To cut based on a delimiter, invoke the command with the -d option, followed by the delimiter you want to use.

For example, to display the 1st and 3rd fields using “:” as a delimiter, you would type:

cut test.txt -d ':' -f 1,3
245:4540	Admin	01
535:3476	Sales	11

You can use any single character as a delimiter. In the following example, we are using the space character as a delimiter and printing the 2nd field:

echo "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet" | cut -d ' ' -f 2

How to complement the selection

To complement the selection field list, use the --complement option. This will print only those fields that are not selected with the -f option.

The following command will print all fields except the 1st and 3rd:

cut test.txt -f 1,3 --complement
4567	Admin	01:10:1980
4987	Sales	11:04:1978

How to specify an output delimiter

To specify the output delimiter, use the --output-delimiter option. For example, to set the output delimiter to _, you would use:

cut test.txt -f 1,3 --output-delimiter='_'

How to Cut by Bytes and Characters

Before going any further, let’s make a distinction between bytes and characters.

One byte is 8 bits and can represent 256 different values. When the ASCII standard was established, it took into account all of the letters, numbers, and symbols necessary to work with English. The ASCII character table has 128 characters, and each one is represented by one byte. When computers became globally accessible, tech companies introduced new character encodings for different languages. For languages with more than 256 characters, a simple 1 to 1 mapping was not possible. This led to many problems, such as sharing documents or browsing websites, and a new Unicode standard that could handle most of the world’s writing systems was needed. UTF-8 was created to solve these problems. In UTF-8, not all characters are represented with 1 byte. Characters can be represented with 1 byte to 4 bytes.

The -b (--bytes) option tells the command to cut sections from each line specified by given byte positions.

In the following examples, we are using the ü character that takes 2 bytes.

Select the 5th byte:

echo 'drüberspringen' | cut -b 5

Select the 5th, 9th, and 13th bytes:

echo 'drüberspringen' | cut -b 5,9,13

Select the range from 1st to 5th byte:

echo 'drüberspringen' | cut -b 1-5

At the time of writing this article, the version of cut bundled in GNU coreutils doesn’t have an option to cut by characters. When using the -c option, cut behaves the same as when using the -b option.

Cut Examples

The cut command is usually used in combination with other commands through piping. Here are a few examples:

Get a list of all users

The output of the getent passwd command is passed to cut, which prints the 1st field using : as a delimiter.

getent passwd | cut -d ':' -f1

The output shows a list of all system users .

View 10 most frequently used commands

In the following example, cut is used to strip the first 8 bytes from each line of the history command output.

history | cut -c8- | sort | uniq -c | sort -rn | head


cut command is used to display selected fields from each line of given files or the standard input.

Although very useful, cut has some limitations. It doesn’t support specifying more than one character as a delimiter and it doesn’t support multiple delimiters.

If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to comment.