When I search for tabs in a file with (e)grep I use the litteral tab (^v + <tab>). I can not utilize \t as a replacement for tabs in regular expressions. With e.g. sed this expression works very well.

So is there any possibility to use a non-litteral replacement for <tab> and what are the backgrounds for a non working / not interpreted \t ?


grep is using regular expressions as defined by POSIX. For whatever reasons POSIX have not defined \t as tab.

You have several alternatives:

  • tell grep to use the regular expressions as defined by perl (perl has \t as tab):

    grep -P "\t" foo.txt

    the man page warns that this is an "experimental" feature. at least \t seems to work fine. but more advanced perl regex features may not.

  • use printf to print a tab character for you:

    grep "$(printf '\t')" foo.txt
  • use the literal tab character:

    grep "^V<tab>" foo.txt

    that is: type grep ", then press ctrl+v, then press tab, then type " foo.txt. pressing ctrl+v in the terminal causes the next key to be taken verbatim. that means the terminal will insert a tab character instead of triggering some function bound to the tab key.

  • use the ansi c quoting feature of bash:

    grep $'\t' foo.txt

    this does not work in all shells.

  • use awk:

    awk '/\t/'
  • use sed:

    sed -n '/\t/p'

See the wikipedia article about regular expressions for an overview of the defined character classes in POSIX and other systems.

| improve this answer | |
  • basing on enzotib's answer let me add the following: grep $'\t' foo.txt (but I would usually write fgrep instead of grep) – Walter Tross Feb 21 '13 at 10:16
  • I needed this, combined with using the value of an environment variable. I used grep "$(printf '\t')${myvar}" foo.txt. It worked fine. With a few tries, I could not get the last form to work. – sancho.s ReinstateMonicaCellio Nov 23 '15 at 22:03
  • 1
    Is there any reason that plain grep couldn't silently interpret \t as tab? Does POSIX require that \t mean something else? Perhaps it's supposed to match only a literal \ followed by a t? – Aaron McDaid Jan 11 '16 at 14:23
  • Perhaps worth noting that BSD (including OSX) grep, lacks the -P option. – TextGeek Feb 8 '18 at 18:43
  • From the man page This is highly experimental and grep -P may warn of unimplemented features. Probably not a good idea to use -P in legacy systems. The printf choice is better – Avindra Goolcharan Apr 10 '18 at 18:57

It is not exactly the answer you would want to hear, but a possible use of escape sequences is provided by bash

command | grep $'\t'

(do not put it into double quotes!).

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    there is no need for the -E (what is searched for is no regex). There is also no need to pipe from a command. That said, thank you for pointing out this quite overlooked feature of bash (single-quoted strings preceded by $) – Walter Tross Feb 21 '13 at 10:29
  • 2
    Indeed, I suggest that @enzotib edit the answer to be simply grep $'\t'. – Teemu Leisti Jun 4 '13 at 12:01
  • It should be stressed that this is a feature of bash and will (silently!) do the wrong thing if executed by some other shell (such as dash, which is the default for shell scripts on Ubuntu and others) – xjcl Aug 26 '17 at 14:00
  • @xjcl I never heard of dash being the default on Ubuntu - my Ubuntu always had bash. Can you back that statement up with any source, please? – jena Sep 30 at 11:51
  • @jena bash is the default for interactive sessions. But non-interactive scripts default to /bin/sh which is a link to dash. You can verify this with ls -la /bin/sh – xjcl Sep 30 at 20:22

awk '/\t/' is my favorite workaround:

printf 'a\t\nb' | awk '/\t/'

Output: a\t.

| improve this answer | |

One can always resort to using ascii hex-code for tab:

$ echo "one"$'\t'"two" > input.txt                                 

$ grep -P "\x9" input.txt                                          
one two

$ grep $'\x9' input.txt                                            
one two
| improve this answer | |

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