I am trying to write a shell script. The idea is to select a single line at random from text file and display it as an Ubuntu desktop notification.

But I want different lines to be selected each time I execute the script. Is there any solution to do this? I don't want the entire script. Just that simple thing only.


8 Answers 8


You can use shuf utility to print random lines from file

$ shuf -n 1 filename

-n : number of lines to print


$ shuf -n 1 /etc/passwd

git:x:998:998:git daemon user:/:/bin/bash

$ shuf -n 2 /etc/passwd

  • But by using this, I have to change the value of n manually right? I want that shell to automatically chose another line in random. Not exactly needed to be in random. But some other line. Sep 18, 2014 at 13:25
  • 4
    @AnanduMDas No you don't have to n denotes the number of lines to print. (ie whether you want only one line or two line). Not the line number(ie first line 2nd line).
    – aneeshep
    Sep 18, 2014 at 13:29
  • @AnanduMDas: I have added some examples to my answer. Hope its clear now.
    – aneeshep
    Sep 18, 2014 at 13:32
  • 1
    Thank u its clear now :) I also found another algorithm,its like, store the current time(second only, by date +%S ) into a variable x, and then select that xth line using the head and tail commands from the text file. Anyway your method is more easier. Thanks Sep 18, 2014 at 14:07
  • 2
    +1: shuf is in coreutils so it is available by default. Note: it loads the input file into memory. There is an efficient algorithm that doesn't require it.
    – jfs
    Sep 24, 2014 at 6:51

You can also use sort command to get random line from the file.

sort -R filename | head -n1
  • note: sort -R produces different result than shuf -n1 or select-random if there are duplicate lines in the input. See @EliahKagan's comment.
    – jfs
    Sep 24, 2014 at 16:37
  • I think that could be solved with sort -uR
    – ibitebyt3s
    Apr 22, 2020 at 21:26
  • Works on Mac too (where shuf is not installed by default)
    – crmpicco
    Aug 7, 2020 at 2:35

Just for fun, here is a pure bash solution which doesn't use shuf, sort, wc, sed, head, tail or any other external tools.

The only advantage over the shuf variant is that it's slightly faster, since it's pure bash. On my machine, for a file of 1000 lines the shuf variant takes about 0.1 seconds, while the following script takes about 0.01 seconds ;) So while shuf is the easiest and shortest variant, this is faster.

In all honesty I would still go for the shuf solution, unless high efficiency is an important concern.



# get line count for $FILE (simulate 'wc -l')
while read -r line; do
done < $FILE

# get a random number between 1 and $lc
let "rnd %= $lc"

# traverse file and find line number $rnd
while read -r line; do
 [ $i -eq $rnd ] && break
done < $FILE

# output random line
printf '%s\n' "$line"
  • @EliahKagan Thanks for the suggestions and good points. I'll admit there are quite a few corner cases I hadn't really given too much thought to. I wrote this really more for the fun of it. Using shuf is much better anyway. Thinking of it, I don't believe that pure bash is actually more efficient than using shuf, as I previously wrote. There may be the tiniest (constant) overhead when firing up an external tool, but then it will run mach faster than interpreted bash. So shuf certainly scales better. So let's say the script serves an educational purpose: It's nice to see it can be done ;) Sep 18, 2014 at 20:35
  • GNU/Linux/Un*x has a lot of very well road-tested wheels I wouldn't want to re-invent, not unless it was a purely academic exercise. The "shell" was intended to be used to assemble lots of little existing parts that could be (re-)assembled in various ways via input/output & plenty o' options. Anything else is bad form, unless it's for sport (e.g, codegolf.stackexchange.com/tour), in which case, play on...!
    – michael
    Sep 19, 2014 at 6:51
  • 2
    @michael_n Though a "pure bash" way is mainly useful for teaching and to modify for other tasks, this is a more reasonable "for real" implementation than it may seem. Bash is widely available, but shuf's GNU Coreutils – specific (e.g., not in FreeBSD 10.0). sort -R is portable, but solves a different (related) problem: strings appearing as multiple lines have probability equal to those appearing only once. (Of course, wc and other utilities could still be used.) I think the main limitation here is this never picks anything after the 32768th line (and becomes less random somewhat sooner). Sep 19, 2014 at 14:59
  • 2
    Malte Skoruppa: I see you've moved the bash PRNG question to U&L. Cool. Hint: $((RANDOM<<15|RANDOM)) is in 0..2^30-1. @J.F.Sebastian It's shuf, not sort -R, that skews toward more frequent inputs. Put shuf -n 1 in place of sort -R | head -n1 and compare. (Btw 10^3 iterations is quicker than 10^6 and still quite enough to show the difference.) See also a rougher, more visual demo and this bit of silliness showing it works on big inputs where all strings are high frequency. Sep 24, 2014 at 14:35
  • 1
    @J.F.Sebastian In that command, the input to dieharder seems to be all zeros. Assuming this is not merely some strange mistake on my part, that certainly would explain why it's not random! Do you get good-looking data if you run while echo $(( RANDOM << 17 | RANDOM << 2 | RANDOM >> 13 )); do :; done | perl -ne 'print pack "I>"' > out for a while and then examine the contents of out with a hex editor? (Or view it however else you like.) I get all zeros, and RANDOM isn't the culprit: I get all zeros when I replace $(( RANDOM << 17 | RANDOM << 2 | RANDOM >> 13 )) with 100, too. Sep 26, 2014 at 14:23

Say you have file notifications.txt. We need to count total number of lines, to determine range of random generator:

$ cat notifications.txt | wc -l

Lets write to variable:

$ LINES=$(cat notifications.txt | wc -l)

Now to generate number from 0 to $LINE we will use RANDOM variable.

$ echo $[ $RANDOM % LINES]

Lets write it to variable:


Now we only need to print this line number:

$ sed -n "${R_LINE}p" notifications.txt


   RANDOM Each time this parameter is referenced, a random integer between
          0 and 32767 is generated.  The sequence of random numbers may be
          initialized by assigning a value to RANDOM.  If RANDOM is unset,
          it  loses  its  special  properties,  even if it is subsequently

Be sure your file have less then 32767 line numbers. See this if you need bigger random generator that works out of the box.


$ od -A n -t d -N 3 /dev/urandom | tr -d ' '

Here's a Python script that selects a random line from input files or stdin:

#!/usr/bin/env python
"""Usage: select-random [<file>]..."""
import random

def select_random(iterable, default=None, random=random):
    """Select a random element from iterable.

    Return default if iterable is empty.
    If iterable is a sequence then random.choice() is used for efficiency instead.
    If iterable is an iterator; it is exhausted.
    O(n)-time, O(1)-space algorithm.
        return random.choice(iterable) # O(1) time and space
    except IndexError: # empty sequence
        return default
    except TypeError: # not a sequence
        return select_random_it(iter(iterable), default, random.randrange)

def select_random_it(iterator, default=None, randrange=random.randrange):
    """Return a random element from iterator.

    Return default if iterator is empty.
    iterator is exhausted.
    O(n)-time, O(1)-space algorithm.
    # from https://stackoverflow.com/a/1456750/4279
    # select 1st item with probability 100% (if input is one item, return it)
    # select 2nd item with probability 50% (or 50% the selection stays the 1st)
    # select 3rd item with probability 33.(3)%
    # select nth item with probability 1/n
    selection = default
    for i, item in enumerate(iterator, start=1):
        if randrange(i) == 0: # random [0..i)
            selection = item
    return selection

if __name__ == "__main__":
    import fileinput
    import sys

    random_line = select_random_it(fileinput.input(), '\n')
    if not random_line.endswith('\n'):
        sys.stdout.write('\n') # always append newline at the end

The algorithm is O(n)-time, O(1)-space. It works for files larger than 32767 lines. It doesn't load input files into memory. It reads each input line exactly once i.e., you can pipe arbitrary large (but finite) content into it. Here's an explanation of the algorithm.


I'm impressed by the work that Malte Skoruppa and others did, but here is a much simpler "pure bash" way to do it:

# set field separator to newline only
lines=( $(<test5) )
# slurp entire file into an array
# count the array elements
num=$(( $RANDOM$RANDOM$RANDOM % numlines ))
# get a (more-or-less) random number within the correct range
# select the element corresponding to the random number
echo $line
# display it

As some have noted, $RANDOM is not random. However, the file size limit of 32767 lines is overcome by stringing $RANDOMs together as needed.

awk 'BEGIN{srand()}{a[NR]=$0}END{x=int(rand()*NR)+1; print a[x]}' notifications.txt
  • It works perfectly.
    – karel
    Jun 18 at 0:02
awk '
BEGIN { srand() }
1/NR >= rand() { line = $0 }
END { print line }'
  • 4
    Could you add some explanatory details to your answer?
    – andrew.46
    Jun 12 at 1:47

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