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When I run a program (for example grep or ls) without a pager, its output is colored. However when I run it piping its output to less, no colors are shown.

For example, this command outputs colored output:

grep -r something

but this doesn't:

grep -r something | less

Why? How can I see colors through less?

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grep --color=always "search string" * | less -R but I tend to use most nowadays instead of less. ALSO: is a color highlighter (less works too) – Rinzwind Jun 13 '14 at 14:08
@alex have you installed python-pygments? – souravc Jun 13 '14 at 14:09
@souravc no I did not install that – lion Jun 13 '14 at 14:11
@ales ignoring me are we? >:-D – Rinzwind Jun 13 '14 at 14:21
@Rinzwind no no thanks – lion Jun 13 '14 at 16:00
up vote 17 down vote accepted

There are two problems here:

  • Commands like ls —which auto-detect the colour support— don't find support from pipes
  • less is set to just display colour codes by default.

Both can be overcome but it's a bit clunky:

ls --color=always | less -R

This isn't ls specific. Many commands that support colour also have an override argument.

A slightly more in-depth answer is that ls is checking whether or not its STDOUT belongs to a real terminal or not. When you pipe things around, the STDOUT is set to the STDIN of the next command.

You can see this at work in the ls source code. It's using the isatty command (a core POSIX interface) to work out what the situation is:

  • Are colours on by default:

        print_with_color = (i == color_always
                            || (i == color_if_tty
                                && isatty (STDOUT_FILENO)));
  • Do we try to output in multiple columns:

    if (format == long_format)
      format = (isatty (STDOUT_FILENO) ? many_per_line : one_per_line);
    if (isatty (STDOUT_FILENO))
        format = many_per_line;
        set_quoting_style (NULL, shell_escape_quoting_style);
        qmark_funny_chars = true;
        format = one_per_line;
        qmark_funny_chars = false;

grep does a very similar thing, unless explicitly overridden, it'll detect colour support, with isatty:

color_option = isatty (STDOUT_FILENO) && should_colorize ();
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My last upvote (reached the limit) for today to support you for 100k. But me and Rinzwind want cake when that happens. – hakermania Jun 13 '14 at 14:53
I downloaded a program with name was ack-grep. when type ack-grep foo , it will search for foo on the all sub directories.So I did ack-grep foo | less, and the colors gone. But seems this program does not support "--color=always", whatever thanks for help – lion Jun 13 '14 at 15:02
@alex ack has a --color argument: ack-grep -i select --color | less -R – Oli Jun 13 '14 at 15:07
@Oli .........Oh my God........ the only thing that I can say about your knowledge and help and also power of linux – lion Jun 13 '14 at 15:53
@B1KMusic I agree. I agree so much that I found how how it works and updated the answer. You can force columns with a -C argument. – Oli Nov 19 '15 at 9:47

If you're interested in colors in less more generally, you might want to look at See, for example, is an input filter for the pager less as described in less's man page. The script runs under a ksh-compatible shell (e.g. bash, zsh) and allows you to use less to view files with binary content, compressed files, archives, and files contained in archives.

It will also colorize shell scripts, perl scripts, etc. similarly to a text editor, but without the use of any "preprocessing" program to do the colorizing.

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