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In 2022 I learned about sd, a modern replacement for many of the simplest ways to use sed. Check it out!

I decided to learn a little sed, because I can find it everywhere and it seems like the kind of tool that would make a bunch of everyday things easier and faster.

I started with “Sed - An Introduction and Tutorial by Bruce Barnett” and immediately realized the enormity of the consequences of my choice.

Anyhow, sed is a marvelous utility. Unfortunately, most people never learn its real power. The language is very simple, but the documentation is terrible. The Solaris on-line manual pages for sed are five pages long, and two of those pages describe the 34 different errors you can get. A program that spends as much space documenting the errors as it does documenting the language has a serious learning curve. — “Sed — An Introduction and Tutorial”

If you can read this, then I didn’t abandon ship.

The Essential Command

Evidently, my world in sed will revolve around the command s.

$ echo day | sed "s/day/night/"

That seems reasonable enough. This might even provide as much as I need for my current task.

My Current Task

I have started redesigning this very web site. (You might even be reading this article on the redesigned version of the web site.) As of the end of 2017, I used Jekyll to generate this site. When I started using Jekyll, I took advantage of Jekyll’s built in feature for generating excerpts from articles. Later, when someone taught me about Twitter cards for promoting my articles better, I began needing summaries in addition to excerpts. Now, I realize that I don’t need excerpts at all, really, and so I want to change excerpts to summaries.

This involves changing article metadata, stored in YAML. I need to rename the excerpt property to summary. As far as I can tell, I don’t need to change anything else. This means that it suffices to change the string excerpt to summary, as long as:

  • it occurs at the beginning of a line, and
  • a colon (:) follows it, and
  • it occurs within the YAML front matter, which comes between lines of --- at the beginning of the document

It seems highly unlikely that I’d find the word excerpt at the beginning of a line, followed by a colon, but occurring in the main text of the article, so I can probably very safely ignore the last of these conditions; however, I might as well learn how to handle it with sed.

Since sed works on one line at a time, I need a stateful solution that effectively remembers “I’ve entered the YAML front matter” and “I’ve left the YAML front matter”. Or something like that. Let’s see….

A Simplified Solution

If I permit myself temporarily to ignore the condition of matching text inside the front matter, then I can transform excerpts into summarys in a fairly straightforward way. Doing this will allow me to learn how to operate on a family of files without simultaneously trying to understand more-complicated sed syntax, so let me start there.

I know how to perform a single regex replacement, so I start there.

$ cd $BLOG_PROJECT_ROOT  # Where my Jekyll project resides
$ grep -r "^excerpt" source/**
[A list of article files with excerpts.]
$ cat source/_posts/2010-01-28-not-just-slow-integration-tests-are-a-vortex-of-doom.markdown | sed "s/^excerpt:/summary:/"
[The output of the article, but with "summary:" instead of "excerpt:"]

Next, I’d like to change the file “in place”. Since I have put these files in version control, I can safely change them in place, and then check them out if I accidentally destroy them. For that, I need the -i switch.

$ sed -i "s/^excerpt:/summary:/" source/_posts/2010-01-28-not-just-slow-integration-tests-are-a-vortex-of-doom.markdown
sed: 1: "source/_posts/2010-01-2 ...": bad flag in substitute command: 't'

Nope! Nice try. But wait… why not?!


The GNU version of sed allows you to use “-i” without an argument. The FreeBSD/Mac OS X does not. You must provide an extension for the FreeBSD/Mac OS X version.

Since I find myself on Mac OS X, I have to provide an argument to -i: a “backup” file extension to which sed can rename the file that it changes in place. And since I don’t want to create a backup…

If you want to do in-place editing without creating a backup, you can use sed -i '' 's/^/' *.txt.

Silly, but then, Bruce warned me.

$ sed -i '' "s/^excerpt:/summary:/" source/_posts/2010-01-28-not-just-slow-integration-tests-are-a-vortex-of-doom.markdown
[No output. I assume this means that all went well.]
$ echo $?
0  # an exit code of 0 means that my command threatened to work
$ git diff
[Evidence that only the excerpt metadata property changed. Success!]
$ git reset --hard HEAD   # Let me now try to change all the articles at once!
$ sed -i '' "s/^excerpt:/summary:/" source/_posts/**/*.{markdown,md}
[No output. I don't trust myself just yet.]
$ echo $?
0   # Wow!
$ git diff --stat
[Evidence that I changed 14 files.]
$ grep -r "^excerpt" source/**
[Evidence that no files inside source/ have an excerpt metadata property.]
$ git add -A
$ git commit -m "Articles now provides summaries for Twitter cards, instead of legacy excerpts."

Very nice!

A More-Precise Solution

Now, I can set a timer for 15 minutes and try to learn a more-precise solution, which only matches excerpt inside the YAML front matter, instead of anywhere else in the article. In order to do this, I need to create an article with excerpt: at the beginning of a line in the main body of the article. Since I don’t actually want any such article published to this blog, I create a version control branch that I can easily throw away.

$ git checkout -b learn-advanced-sed HEAD^
$ grep -r "^excerpt" source/** | wc -l
      14   # As I inferred from having changed 14 files in the previous step.

Now, I create an “article” that I can use to challenge my sed-fu.

$ cat source/_posts/
title: "A Stupid Article"
date: 2017-12-22
excerpt: >
  This is an actual excerpt.
excerpt: Don't put "excerpt:" at the beginning of a line in the actual article, you nit!
$ git add -A && git commit -m "We now have an article that can test our sed-fu."

Now, if I try to use my existing solution, I’ll “accidentally” change too many lines.

$ sed -i '' "s/^excerpt:/summary:/" source/_posts/**/*.{markdown,md}
$ git diff --stat | grep -i "a-stupid-article"
 source/_posts/                          | 4 ++--
[Oops. I should have only added 1 line and deleted 1 line.]
$ git reset --hard HEAD

So how do I find a range of lines? According to Bruce’s article, I can use a syntax familiar to vim users: start,stop. I can use regexes for start and stop by using the typical /regex/ syntax. For YAML front matter, I want to look between the first two lines that start with three hyphens, so that means /^---/,/^---/. Does it work?

$ sed -i '' "/^---/,/^---/ s/^excerpt:/summary:/" source/_posts/**/*.{markdown,md}
[No output. I don't trust the silence.]
$ echo $?
$ git diff --stat | grep -i "a-stupid-article"
 source/_posts/                            | 2 +-
[No way! It worked! Did it work everywhere?]
$ git diff --stat | grep "2 +-" | wc -l
[Excellent! Just one last thing to check...]
$ git diff source/_posts/
diff --git a/source/_posts/ b/source/_posts/
index d6863a1..5b51b1c 100644
--- a/source/_posts/
+++ b/source/_posts/
@@ -1,7 +1,7 @@
 title: "A Stupid Article"
 date: 2017-12-22
-excerpt: >
+summary: >
   This is an actual excerpt.
 excerpt: Don't put "excerpt:" at the beginning of a line in the actual article, you nit!

Excellent! It works! And with 1 minute, 32 seconds left on the timer.

The Winning Command

$ sed -i '' "/^---/,/^---/ s/^excerpt:/summary:/" source/_posts/**/*.{markdown,md}

Let me review the salient parts of this command.

  • -i '': change the file “in place”, backing up the original file to “nowhere”. On other operating systems, you might only need to specify -i without an argument.
  • “/^---/,/^---/ [...]”: apply the following command to only the region between the first occurrence of a line starting with --- and the following line starting with ---.
  • “[...] s/^excerpt:/summary:/”: replace excerpt: (only when a line starts with it) with summary:.
  • source/_posts/**/*.{markdown,md}: this part uses zsh to match all the files inside source/_posts, including subfolders, with the extension markdown or md. This has nothing to do with sed.

Some Notes

According to Bruce’s article, my winning command would fail in an article with more than one pair of lines starting with ---. I didn’t bother to test this. Also, Bruce’s tutorial notes that the substitution command applies to the boundary lines themselves, which happens not to affect my winning command.


A nice reader pointed out a mistake in an earlier draft of this article, and then reminded me that I could have used sed to fix the mistake. Even though I had already published a fix for the mistake, I felt that I needed to go back and do it again with sed, so I did. I had forgot to put https:// at the beginning of a URL, which makes Jekyll incorrectly interpret the URL as a URI at the blog’s server address. With sed, this becomes a relatively easy command: sed -i ’’ “s/(www.grymoire/(https://www.grymoire/g” source/_posts/ I chose to include the open parenthesis ( in the search regex in order to narrow down the context. I didn’t need to do that, but it didn’t hurt.

Even better, I might have started a trend:


Bruce Barnett, “Sed - An Introduction and Tutorial”.