What’s GNU in Old Utilities, Part Five: sort

For decades, sort has been extended over and over again to make it more and more useful. Here’s the fifth in an ongoing series about new features in familiar utilities.
This month, in the fifth article of a series on new features added to utilities by GNU programmers and others, let’s look at sort. What’s new? There are new ways to sort that aren’t just lexicographic. For example, you can sort on month abbreviations (jan, jun) and general numeric formats. You can also handle NUL-terminated records — great for sorting filenames to pass to xargs. (All examples are based on GNU sort version 5.2.1 from the Debian stable distribution.

Forget What You Know

If you learned to use sort quite a while ago, you may not recognize its most recent incarnations. Some command-line options have changed, and the GNU version no longer truncates long lines of data — a longstanding bug in early utilities. Additionally, GNU sort now follows POSIX rules, which are mostly the same as the older System V rules, but fairly different than the old BSD rules. Now, for instance, your LC_COLLATE locale setting affects sorting order, while the older versions of sort assumed native byte order.
To get the old sort order, set the LC_ALL environment variable to C. Listing One shows an example: the first command shows an unsorted file; the second command temporarily sets LC_ALL to C and sorts the file in the old native byte order; and the third command sorts the file with the system default, here en_US, ISO-8859-1.
Listing One: The effects of changing locale

$ cat sortme1
Baby
Apple
baby
apple
$ LC_ALL=C sort sortme1
Apple
Baby
apple
baby
$ sort sortme1
apple
Apple
baby
Baby

Playing the “Field”

By default, sort reorders data by comparing entire lines, where a “line” is the text between two newline (ASCII Linefeed) characters. (The newlines don’t participate in the comparison.) However, sort has always been able to sort lines by choosing one or more of the fields in each line as the sort key.
By default (unless you use the –t or ––field-separator option), the field separator is the empty string between a non-blank character and a blank character. (The keyword blank in the LC_CTYPE locale lists the characters that are “blank.” The default characters are Space and Tab.) This imaginary point isn’t actually part of the data, but thinking of it as real can help clarify what’s going on.
Hence, it’s possible for a field to start with a number of blanks — especially in a file that uses Space or Tab characters to make columns. For instance, in the first line of sample data below, the first field starts with two blanks and the third field starts with eight:
   99        Smith  N 
100 Appleton Y
Whether those blanks affect the sort depends on what the other (non-blank) data is and on the collation order in your locale. (This new reality, that spaces won’t necessarily sort before letters, can be hard for some long-time users and a certain Linux Magazine columnist to remember.) As always, the –b option tells sort to ignore leading blanks and not to include them in field comparisons.
In the old version of sort, the numeric-sort option –n would automatically set –b. The POSIX version doesn’t do this, though; you have to specify –b explicitly.

Choosing the Sort Key (s)

Command-line options like +mn told old sort not to sort on the entire line, but to start a sort key at field m and end it just before field n. The first field on a line was numbered 0. So, sort+0 –1 told sort to sort on only the first field — that is, the sort key starts at field zero and ends just before field one.
Newer versions use the options –k m[,n] or ––key= m[,n] instead. In this new scheme, the key is the part of the line between the start of the field m and the end of the field n. Put a comma (,) before the second field in the list. The first field is numbered 1. So, –k 1,1 sorts on only the first field — that is, starting at field 1 and ending at field 1.
On both the old and new systems, omitting the ending field tells sort to compare all fields from the first field specified through the last field on the line (not including the newline character). So, the old sort+2 or the new sort –k 3 sorts on all fields from the third to the last.
In both the old and the new versions, you can specify which character positions in a field are part of the sort key by adding a period and a number to the end of a field specification. But, again, the old and new systems have differences. Here are the old and new ways to sort file with the sort key as the second non-blank character of the second field, respectively:
$ sort +1.1b –1 .2b file 
$ sort –k 2.2b,2.2b file
As always, you can add flags like –b or –f (but without the hyphen) after a field specification to apply the flag just to the specified fields. (See the example in Listing Three.)

Playing the Numbers

Plain sort sorts fields containing numbers, but not always well. The sort isn’t exactly “numeric,” because, by default, sort doesn’t know the difference between digit characters and other characters. For instance, 62 can sort before 6.2 and 6 before –6.
Old sort had the –n option to control this, but it assumed that everyone used a dot (.) between the whole and fractional parts of a number. (A European who wrote six and a half as 6,5 would have been out of luck.) Now sort finds the thousands separator and the decimal-point characters from the LC_NUMERIC locale.
The GNU version, at least, uses a clever trick to speed sorting and also to avoid rounding errors on floating-point numbers. The info page describes it:
Rather than first converting each string to the C `double’ type and then comparing those values, sort aligns the decimal-point characters in the two strings and compares the strings a character at a time. One benefit of using this approach is its speed: in practice this is much more efficient than performing the two corresponding string-to-double(or even string-to-integer)conversions and then comparing doubles. In addition, there is no corresponding loss of precision. Converting each string to a double before comparison would limit precision to about 16 digits on most systems.
As was mentioned already, the –b option to ignore leading blanks isn’t automatic anymore when you use –n. You have to give it explicitly.
Numbers in hex or scientific notation, like 0×1234 or 6.5e-10, were hard or impossible to sort with older versions of sort. Nowadays, though, your version probably has the –g option to do a general numeric sort. This converts numbers to a double float representation using strtod(). It understands upper and lowercase inf or infinity, as well as nan or NAN (“not a number”) followed by an optional string in parentheses.
Unfortunately, unlike strtod (3), sort doesn’t report overflow, underflow, or conversion errors. Also remember that conversion to a double means that small differences can be lost due to rounding errors.
Output sorted by –g begins with lines that don’t start with numbers, then nan’s, minus infinity, finite numbers, and plus infinity. Listing Two shows a general numeric sort.
Listing Two: Example of general numeric sort

$ cat sortme2
1.65e-12
-1.65e-12
+1.65e-12
0xFF
23
9E1
9.99e99
9.99e-99
$ sort –g sortme2
-1.65e-12
9.99e-99
+1.65e-12
1.65e-12
23
9E1
0xFF
9.99e99

Sorting Dates

The –M flag sorts by month name abbreviation. Jan (for January) comes before Feb, and so on. This works for non-English languages if the LC_TIME locale category is set properly. Upper- and lowercase compare equally, and leading blanks are ignored.
Listing Three has an extended example that also demonstrates –k. The shell prompts are numbered.
Command 1 shows the file; it holds a jumbled personnel record. Command 2 sorts the third field, the year. The records for 2005 are wrong, so command 3 includes a second sort key, the month (field 1). Putting M at the end of the field specification means the month sort happens only in this field. Next, with command 4, we try to sort the day of the month, specifying the b flag, so the initial spaces will be ignored (some days have more leading spaces than others). That doesn’t do the job because 13 sorts before 3 lexicographically. To specify a numeric sort for the day, use nb instead of just b.
Listing Three: Sorting by date

1$ cat sortme3
Jun 3 2005 Rehired
Jun 13 2005 Fired
Mar 15 2005 Fired
Mar 16 2003 Hired
Mar 6 2004 Promoted
2$ sort –k 3,3 sortme3
Mar 16 2003 Hired
Mar 6 2004 Promoted
Jun 13 2005 Fired
Jun 3 2005 Rehired
Mar 15 2005 Fired
3$ sort –k 3,3 –k 1,1M sortme3
Mar 16 2003 Hired
Mar 6 2004 Promoted
Mar 15 2005 Fired
Jun 13 2005 Fired
Jun 3 2005 Rehired
4$ sort –k 3,3 –k 1,1M –k 2,2b sortme3
Mar 16 2003 Hired
Mar 6 2004 Promoted
Mar 15 2005 Fired
Jun 13 2005 Fired
Jun 3 2005 Rehired
5$ sort –k 3,3 –k 1,1M –k 2,2nb sortme3
Mar 16 2003 Hired
Mar 6 2004 Promoted
Mar 15 2005 Fired
Jun 3 2005 Rehired
Jun 13 2005 Fired

Here’s another way to describe the effect of multiple sort keys. First, sort by year (field 3). A tie in the year (on any records that have the same year) is broken by sorting on the month (field 1). A tie in the year and month is broken by sorting on the date (field 2).

NUL field and record separators

Last but not least is a very handy technique for sorting arbitrary data. GNU sort can handle NUL (all-zero) bytes. NUL bytes aren’t common in textual data and they’re illegal in Linux filenames. That makes NUL bytes a reliable way to delimit fields and records. (Several other GNU utilities can output NULs between fields or records.)
For instance, if you have a NUL-separated list of pathnames from sort –print0, using sort –z tells sort to use a NUL record (line) separator. To specify NUL field separators, use sort ––field-separator=’\0’ or sort –t’\0’.

Jerry Peek is a freelance writer and instructor who has used Unix and Linux for 25 years. He’s happy to hear from readers; see http://www.jpeek.com/contact.html.

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