The useful tool sed is a CLI (Command Line Interface) allowing you to edit some content line by line. But first, to be sure you have GNU sed installed on your computer, you can run in your terminal sed --version. If you don’t have GNU sed (but BSD for example), I would recommend you to install its GNU counterpart. You’ll have access to many more options making your life in the shell easier.

This article is a summary of these two videos. They are more detailed and they have some exercises to stick the knowledge in your wonderful brain:

The second part:

If you find the videos on my Youtube channel helpful, don’t hesitate to subscribe and to hit the like button. It would then appear to other Youtubers to help even more!

I would also recommend you to:

  1. Download the file nginx.conf. Every example are based on it.
  2. Fire up your beautiful shell.
  3. Try each example you’ll see in this article.

You won’t learn much if you only read (or watch a video) passively.

If you want to dig deeper, I wouldn’t recommend the manual of sed (command man sed), it’s pretty short and not that interesting. Instead, try to run info sed.


This weird name sed means stream editor. It allows you to edit streams of content. Here’s how to use it:

sed '<script>' <input>

The content you give as input will be copied and edited depending on the sed script. It can be divided in three parts:


What’s all of these shenanigans?

  • The address allows you to match the input lines you want to edit.
  • The command determines how the content will be edited. It’s always a single letter.
  • The options are only available for some commands. They modify their default behaviors.

Only the command is required, the rest is optional.

By default, sed will never modify the input you give. Instead, it will:

  1. Copy the line it’s processing in a buffer (called the pattern space)
  2. Edit the line depending on the script (command, address, and option(s))
  3. Output the edited line

This cycle repeat for every line of the input. For example, here’s a very basic sed command:

sed 'd' nginx.conf

The input is the file nginx.conf and the script is only an action, d. It means that you’ll delete every line of the file nginx.conf. Nothing will be output, which make this command useless. How cool is that?

The Address

The address part of a sed script allows you to select the line you want to edit. By default, sed will apply the command on every line of the input if the address is not specified.

This address can be a:

  • Line number
  • Range of lines
  • Every nth line (line where to start followed by a tilda ~ and the repetition)
  • Regex (surrounded by two slashes /)

For example:

  • sed '1d' nginx.conf - Delete the first line
  • sed '1,102d' nginx.conf - Delete a range of line, from line 1 to line 102 (included)
  • sed '/on/d' nginx.conf - Delete each line when part of them match the regex pattern on
  • sed '10,/on/d' nginx.conf - Delete the 10th line if part of it matches the regex pattern on
  • sed '0~2d' nginx.conf - Delete every even line (delete every two lines)
  • sed '1~2d' nginx.conf - Delete every odd line (delete every two lines after the first one)

It’s possible to negate the address using a bang !. It will invert the address. For example:

  • sed '1!d' nginx.conf - Delete every line except the first one.
  • sed '/on/!d' nginx.conf - Delete every line except the ones matching the regex pattern on.

Using Multiple Scripts

You can use more than one script per sed command using a semicolon ;. For example:

sed '1d;/on/d;$d' nginx.conf

There are three scripts executed here:

  • 1d - Delete the first line.
  • /on/d - Delete every line having matching the substring on.
  • $d - Delete the last line.

The Substitute Command

I love to delete stuff to make everything simpler, but it would be nice to be able to perform more operations with sed. Let’s look at THE awesome command everybody’s using: the substitute command.

The Basics

Here’s the general way to use it:


This command will try to match the regular expression <pattern> on each line of your input and replace it with the <replacement>. For example, if you want to replace the string “on;” by “off;” you can do:

sed 's/on;/off;/' nginx.conf

By default, if your pattern match two substrings on the line, only the first one will be substituted. You can try to run this command for example:

sed 's/in/on/' nginx.conf

Only the first in on each line is replaced, not the ones afterward. If you want to replace every in, you need to use the flag g (for global):

sed 's/in/on/g' nginx.conf

No more silly in in our output!

Reusing the Pattern in the Replacement

You can reuse the pattern you’re replacing using the character “&” in your replacement. For example:

sed 's/on;/&off;/' nginx.conf

It will replace every first occurrence of “on;” with “on;off;” on each line.

Changing the Separators

Using the slash / as a separator between your pattern, your replacement, and your flag can bring some problems, especially if you want to replace some URLs. You’ll need to escape every single slashes in the URLs themselves for sed to understand what slashes are separators and what slashes aren’t.

For example, the following won’t work. Our sed is not smart enough to know what slash is used as a separator:

sed 's/' nginx.conf

Instead, you need to escape every slash which are not separators:

sed 's/http:\/\/\/\/ftpserver/' nginx.conf

This becomes painful to write and quite difficult to read. But fear not! There’s a better solution. You can actually use another separator, like % or # for example, as follows:

sed 's#' nginx.conf
sed 's%' nginx.conf

This is a life savior each time I use sed with URLs.

Writing Every Line Substituted in a File

If you want to write everything you substitute in a file, you can use the flag w as follows:

sed 's/on;/&off;/w output_file' nginx.conf

It will create a file output_file with these two lines:

sendfile     on;off;
tcp_nopush   on;off;

Command-Line Options

Let’s see now what option we can use with our new friend sed.

Writing Directly The Input File

As we saw, sed doesn’t modify the input by default. If you want to do that, you can add the option -i for editing your input file in-place. Note that it won’t output anything anymore.

Before trying, I recommend you to copy your file “nginx.conf” (running something like cp nginx.conf nginx2.conf in your shell) to keep the original.

Here’s an example for replacing a file in-place:

sed -i '1d' nginx2.conf

With GNU grep, you can create automatically a backup adding to the option -i the suffix your new file should have. For example:

sed -i.backup '1d' nginx.conf

This command will

  1. Create a copy of “nginx.conf” called “nginx.conf.backup”
  2. Delete the first line of the file nginx.conf

Instead of .backup you can use any string your imagination can create.

Using multiple scripts

We saw already how to use multiple scripts using a semicolon ‘;’. We can do the same with the option -e. For example these two commands are equivalent:

sed -e '1d' -e '/on/d' -e '$d' nginx.conf
sed '1d;/on/d;$d' nginx.conf

I think using the option -e instead of semicolons ; makes the command a bit easier to read.

Scripts From a File

To run a script from a file, you can use the option -f. You can try to run the following for example:

echo "1d;/on/d;$d" > script
sed -f script nginx.conf

It can be handy for long and complex sed scripts.


You’ll have the choice of two regex engines with GNU sed:

  • The basic regex engine (by default)
  • The Extended regex engine (option -E).

The Extended regex engine -E include these metacharacters: ‘?’, ‘+’, ‘()’, ‘{}’, and ‘|’. If you don’t use the option -E, you would need to escape these metacharacters to use them, making the whole regex more difficult to read.

For example, these two commands are equivalent:

sed '/on\|nginx/d' nginx.conf
sed -E '/on|nginx/d' nginx.conf

I always use -E when I want to use regex metacharacters. It makes everything easier.


Don’t worry, I don’t ask you to remain silent. You can make all the noise you want!

With the silent option -n, sed doesn’t output anything anymore. Said like that, it doesn’t look very useful. But you can use the command p (for print) to output exactly what you want.

For example, to output only the first line of your input, you can run:

sed -n "1p" nginx.conf

In a Nutshell: a Mindmap of sed

mindmap of sed

Using sed in Practice

It’s nice to learn all of that, but how can you use sed in real life? Here’s a video showing you a problem I had and I solved nicely using sed and other CLIs: