How To Find Files by Content Under UNIX

last updated in Categories , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I had written lots of code in C for my school work and saved it as source code under /home/user/c/*.c and *.h. How do I find files by content such as string or words (function name such as main() under UNIX shell prompt?

You need to use the following tools:

[a] grep command : print lines matching a pattern.

[b] find command: search for files in a directory hierarchy.

grep Command To Find Files By Content

Type the command as follows:

grep 'string' *.txt
grep 'main(' *.c
grep '#include<example.h>' *.c
grep 'getChar*' *.c
grep -i 'ultra' *.conf
grep -iR 'ultra' *.conf


  • -i : Ignore case distinctions in both the PATTERN (match valid, VALID, ValID string) and the input files (math file.c FILE.c FILE.C filename).
  • -R : Read all files under each directory, recursively

Highlighting searched patterns

You can highlight patterns easily while searching large number of files:
$ grep --color=auto -iR 'getChar();' *.c

Displaying file names and line number for searched patterns

You may also need to display filenames and numbers:
$ grep --color=auto -iRnH 'getChar();' *.c

  • -n : Prefix each line of output with the 1-based line number within its input file.
  • -H Print the file name for each match. This is the default when there is more than one file to search.

$grep --color=auto -nH 'DIR' *
Sample output:

Fig.01: grep command displaying searched pattern
Fig.01: grep command displaying searched pattern

You can also use find command:
$ find . -name "*.c" -print | xargs grep "main("

Further readings:


Posted by: Vivek Gite

The author is the creator of nixCraft and a seasoned sysadmin, DevOps engineer, and a trainer for the Linux operating system/Unix shell scripting. Get the latest tutorials on SysAdmin, Linux/Unix and open source topics via RSS/XML feed or weekly email newsletter.

24 comment

  1. Thanks for the good tip,
    But what a bout PDF files? you mentioned only text type of files which grep can work with them, I need to know the trick for the PDF files :/

  2. Hi and tanks for all your tips!

    I also find useful invoking grep with -nH, so that it also shows the file and the line that contains the pattern.

    Sometimes, -E or -P options come handy too, because they allow me to search for regexp.

    Have a lot of fun…

  3. “ack” is a really better alternative to grep. It is especially useful for programmers because it skips temporary files and version control files by default and searches only on code files. It searches recursively by default. check it out.

  4. @mhernandez,

    Thanks for your post, I’ve update FAQ.


    I will check it out ack and will update faq with it.


    Try offical pdf tool as follows:
    acroread /a search='word' *.pdf

    Appreciate all of your posts.

  5. Hello,
    i was trying to use the find or grep commands to search for the cp command in the ./bin directory but i couldn’t get it. could you teach me how to get it. i know it’s there. just want to try out the find and the grep commands.

  6. when you want to copy all the files which contains the specified function name.,

    find -iname “*.c” -exec grep -l ‘main(‘ {} \; -a -exec cp {} test1/ \;

  7. I prefer using finds -exec option instead of the pipe and xargs, because with this I managed to deal with paths containing spaces, which are not searched by using the simple pipe/xargs combination in this example.

    find . -type f -print -exec grep –color=auto –no-messages -nH “search string” “{}” \;

    1. You can deal with path containing spaces using -print0 and -0 options for find and xargs commands respectively

  8. thanks, didn’t know that. I thought it was possible, but I didn’t know how to achieve this and so the -exec option was easier, since it’s pretty obvious to surround the {} with “.

  9. Tried
    grep -iR ‘fred’ *.c
    only to be told *.c : no such file or directory
    of course a quick look in the sub directories does reveal some *.c files.

    I really would love to know why some people think linux is better than cpm… for heavens sake doesn’t anything actually work with this mess?

  10. Dave -R option means recursive so if you want to search for every *.c file that contains fred keyword you must type: grep -i ‘fred’ DIR/*.c, if exists *.c in DIR/SUBDIR then you must combine find, xargs and grep

    1. Hi. Yoander, I understand Dave … and I don´t understand you :( If I read “-R : Read all files under each directory, recursively” I think that it will walk through the actual directory and if it founds a directory it will walk through it. Yes, I came from MSWindows and I know I am missing some basic concept about what ‘recursive’ is but I can not found it.

      In other way, I don´t grasp the difference between:
      grep -i word *.c
      grep -iR word *.c


      1. I mean that Dave used a wrong syntax in order to find every *.c file that contains the fred word if you want to do that then you must type something like this:
        find . -name ‘*.x’ -print0 | xargs -0 grep fred

  11. i want to list and find the file according some condition. below is the command. it is showing the files correctly. but not in the sort order. i mean in date order.

    find /somelocation/log_output -type f -ctime +40 -exec ls -l {} \;

  12. Looking command to list out specified files out of a directory. For example, in a directory containing 10 files which have names of fruit, I want to do an ls -l and grep for only a specific three and list perms and ownership.

    Directory is /fruit containing 10 fruit file names. i on;y want to ls -l three.

    # ls -l /fruit | grep orange, apple, banana

    Desired output should be something like:

    rwxr–r– 1 root root 392 Mar 24 2009 orange
    rwxr–r– 1 root root 392 Mar 24 2009 apple
    rwxr–r– 1 root root 392 Mar 24 2009 banana

    Unable to find the syntax to do this.

    Any ideas would be appreciated.


  13. This is the best solution ever, because there are only matching lines in the output.

    Still, have a question? Get help on our forum!