The man page reading club: ed(1)

This post is part of a series

I enjoyed writing a little introduction at the beginning of every post of this series, but I am running out of ideas. I am not much of fiction writer. I’ll skip this time, maybe I’ll get back to doing it in the future.

For this episode I chose to explore ed, the standard editor. This little piece of software first appeared in the very first version of UNIX, in the late ‘60s. Back then, the most common way to interact with a computer was via a teletype. This meant that, in order to edit a file, you could not simply show a screenful of text and modify it interactively.

As we will see in this post, the way you modify your text files with ed is by running commands, as you would in your usual shell. You might wonder why in the world you should be interested in using this over a more human-friendly text editor. There are at least a couple of reasons:

  1. You find yourself in a very limited environment (e.g. some ebedded OS) where ed is the only editor available.
  2. You want to edit a text file as part of a shell script - you can find an example in my last blog entry.


Follow along at

The first section explains a few fundamental things.

First of all, ed can be invoked with a file as an argument. The given file is copied into a buffer, and changes are written to it only when the user issues a w command.

ed reads every line the user inputs and tries to interpret it as a command. The general form for an ed command is


Where the (optional) addresses specify a range of lines over which the command has to operate. See the Line addressing section below for more info.

Some commands allow you to switch to input mode, where ed reads text without trying to interpret it as a command - usually for the purpose of inserting it in your file - until a line with a single dot . character is read.

There are only two command line options for ed: -s to suppress diagnostic messages and -p prompt to specify a prompt string for its command line.

Line addressing

Every command operates on one or more lines. The default is the current line, which is usually set to be the last line affected by the last command. For example, after opening a file, the current line is set to its last line.

You can specify the line(s) on which a command shall operate by prepending one or two addresses separated by a comma or a semicolon. The difference is the following:

     Each address in a comma-delimited range is interpreted relative to the
     current address.  In a semi-colon-delimited range, the first address is
     used to set the current address, and the second address is interpreted
     relative to the first.

For example, let’s say you are on line 3. Then the address range 5,+4 selects the lines from 5 to 7 (3+4), while 5;+4 selects 5 to 9 (5+4).

But what is a valid address, actually? Besides simply specifying a line number, there are a variety of ways to address line: For example, . refers to the current line and $ to the last line of the file. As we have seen, you can also specify relative addresses in the form -n or +n. You can also search for a line containing a specific patern:

     /re/    The next line containing the regular expression re.  The search
         wraps to the beginning of the buffer and continues down to the
         current line, if necessary.  The second slash can be omitted if
         it ends a line.  "//" repeats the last search.

For more infor about regular expressions, see re_format(7) (or perhaps my next blog entry?). Using question marks instead of slashes (like this: ?re?) searches backwards.


ed offers a lot of commands to manipulate text. If you are familiar with other UNIX editors such as vi or sed, you may recognize many of them.

As usual, they are listed in alphabetic order in the manual page, so I took the liberty of re-arranging them into groups. I’ll have to skip or just briefly mention some of them, otherwise I might just as well copy the whole manual page here.

Address-only commands

Specifying an address only, without a command, changes the current line to the (last) addressed line and it prints it. The default is the next line, i.e. if you just press enter ed prints out the next line and sets it as the current line.

Printing lines

The command p prints the addressed line. The command n does the same, but it also prints line numbers. l is the same as p, but special characters (e.g. new lines) are made visible.

Most commands accept a print suffix p, l or n that instructs ed to print the last line affected by the command. Thus, the three printing commands can be also seen as an address-only command followed by a print suffix.

Basic editing

The commands a and i toggle input mode to let you insert text after (append) or before (insert) the last line addressed. Usually you want to address a single line, often the current line, when using one of these commands.

The commands d and c can be used to delete or change the addressed lines. The latter is equivalent to d followed by an a command.

Copying, moving and joining lines.

The commands t and m operate on a range and take an extra single address (which can be 0) as a parameter, and copy (transfer) or move the addressed lines to that location. For example the command 2,4t0 will copy the 2nd, 3rd and 4th lines to the beginning of the file.

If you want to join multiple lines in one you can use the j command.

Text substitution

The s command is one of the most powerful ed offers, but also one of the most complex. It allows you to replace a piece of text, or any arbitrary pattern defined by a regular expression, with whatever you like.

It comes in three variants:


Where pattern is a regular expression and text is simple text. The first form replaces only the first occurrence of pattern in each selected line, while the second replaces every occurrence. In the last form, n must be a number, and only the n-th occurrence is replaced.

There are some special characters that can be used: for example, a single & in text is equivalent to the currently matched text. If text consists of a single %, the text argument of the last s command issued is used.

You may escape any character in text, including newlines, by prepending a backaslash. To avoid escaping slashes to death, keep in mind that you can use any other character, for example a |, instead of / in the s command.

Finally, a simple s command, without pattern or text, repeats the last substitution issued.

Let’s put this all together with a single example. We have a file that looks like this:

This is the first line
Another line, called the second line
/A third line, with boundaries/
Let's make it four

And run the following ed commands:


The result is:

TThis is TThe first lline
Another llline, called the second line
|A third lline, with boundaries|
Let's make it four

Understanding why you get this is left as an exercise for the reader ;-)

Multiple commands on selected lines

The commands g and G are also quite powerful. With


you can specify a list of commands to be executed on every line matching the regular expression pattern. The commands in the list are each on their own line, ended with a backslash. The command G is essentially an interactive version of g. Check the man page for more details!


You can mark a line with a single lowercase letter (say x) using the command [address]kx. What for, you might ask? Well, when talking about addresses I omitted to tell you that you can also refer to a marked line using 'x. You only have 26 marks at your disposal, and one is only deleted when the line it marks is modified, so use them wisely!

Reading files and commands

You can use the r command to insert the content of a file (with r filename) or the output of a command (with r !command) after the current line. This is the same as the r command of vi, which I have discussed in a previous blog entry.


Use the u command to undo the last command. Using u twice undoes the undo. No editing history for you, sorry.

File management

From inside ed, you can use e filename to open a new file (edit), w to save your changes to the current file (write) and q to quit. These commands have an upper-case variant (E, W, and Q) that can be used to ignore errors (e.g. quit without saving).

The command wq can be used as a shortcut for saving and closing.


ed is infamously terse with its error messages. Indeed, whatever error you make, you are going to be faced with the following informative line:


But don’t worry: the command h shows a more verbose description of the last error. You can use the H command to toggle verbose error messages for the whole session.

An example session

Let’s write an Hello world text file using ed!

Let’s start by calling ed with a reasonable prompt, to make our life easier.

$ ed -p 'ed > ' hellow.txt

And let’s open a (new) file:

ed > e hellow.txt

Don’t worry about the (unusually verbose!) error message. The file does not exist yet, but it will be created when we save our work with w. Now let’s add a line of text:

ed > a
Hello, wolrd!

Wait, why is ed still open? And why is it not showing the ed > prompt? Oh right, we forgot to end the input mode by entering a single dot!

ed >

Ok, now we are back in business. But we have to remove the wq line we entered by mistake:

ed > /wq/d

Let’s check that we have written what we intended to by printing the content of the file:

ed > 1,$n
1       Hello, wolrd!

Oh no, there is a typo! No big deal, we can fix it:

ed > 1s/lr/rl/

And now that we are done, we can close our file:

ed > q

Wait, what’s going on? Let’s check:

ed > h
warning: file modified

Oh right, we need to save.

ed > wq

And now we are done!

I/O redirection magic

As all other basic UNIX utilities, ed can be used non-interactively by using input / output redirection. As an example, consider the interactive session above. The input we fed to ed was:

e hellow.txt
Hello, wolrd!

If we save (a stripped down version of) the text above in a file called edcommands.txt

Hello, wolrd!

and run

$ ed -s hellow2.txt < edcommands.txt

We should obtain a file hellow2.txt identical to hellow.txt. I say “should” because apparently there is a little caveat: when used non-interactively, ed exits on the first error it encounters. This also happens with the No such file or directory error that we get at the beginning, if a file hellow2.txt does not exist yet. We just have to create one in advance, for example with touch hellow2.txt, and run again the ed command above.


ed was designed in a time when the computer-human interaction was a bit different from now, and it shows. However, its language is pleasantly consistent: every action you want to perform is expressed in the address-command-parameters form. This makes it easy to learn and boring, which is a good thing. Such consistency is much harder to achieve in the 2D graphical world - which includes TUIs.

At the beginning of the post I have mentioned two use cases for a software like ed in the present day: being forced into a limited environment and using it in non-interactive mode. But there is at least another one: for visually impaired users, modern computer interfaces are largely inaccessible, as they can’t look at a wall of text and pictures to figure out where the stuff they want to work on is. On the other hand, an editor like ed does not overwhelm users with visual output and does not require them to keep in mind more than one line at the time. If you are interest in this topic I highly suggest reading the article The command line philosophy by Karl Dahlke, the author of edbrowse.

Next in the series: dc(1)