Permalink: 2015-12-14 by Daniel S. Standage in blog tags: shell

I've written before about process substitutions in the shell. This has become a core technique I use almost on a daily basis in my data work in the shell. It has many uses, but I want to highlight a particular one here.

Use case

Imagine you have a shell script with the following commands

first_command --arg1=foo --arg2=bar --flag3 infile.txt \
    | second_command one two three \
    | third_command --abc xyz \
    > outfile.txt

Each of these commands will print to stderr in case of a warning or an error. However, second_command prints an irrelevant warning (cannot find "foo") message over and over again, filling up the terminal with thousands of lines of noise and making it more difficult to find warnings or error messages we might actually care about. How can we filter the stderr of second_command so that the cannot find "foo" messages are ignored, but all other messages still show up?


Process substitutions can be used not only as pseudo input files using the <() syntax, but also as pseudo output files using the >() syntax. If we redirect a program's output to a process, we can then filter the data within that process, like so.

some_program > >(sort | uniq -c)

Extending this to stderr requires only two changes. First, we replace > with 2> so that we are redirecting the correct output stream.

some_program 2> >(sort | uniq -c)

Secondly, we add 1>&2 to the end of the process so that its stdout is redirected back to stderr, which is where the data was intended to go in the first place (cue Ghostbusters quote about not crossing the streams).

some_program 2> >(sort | uniq -c 1>&2)

Putting this all together and going back to our original use case, we can remove the unwanted cannot find "foo" messages from our terminal like so.

first_command --arg1=foo --arg2=bar --flag3 infile.txt \
    | second_command one two three 2> >(grep 'cannot find "foo"' 1>&2) \
    | third_command --abc xyz \
    > outfile.txt

That's it!