Archives for category: Linux / UNIX



In a previous post, we used wget to download a Project Gutenberg ebook from the Internet Archive, then cleaned up the file using the sed and tr commands. The code below puts all of the commands we used into a pipeline.

cat stmtn10.txt | tr -d '\r' | sed '2206,2525d' | sed '1,40d' > stmtn10-trimmedlf.txt

Using a pipeline of commands that we have already seen, we can also create a list of words in our ebook, one per line, sorted alphabetically. In English, the command below says “send the stmtn10-trimmedlf.txt file into a pipeline that translates uppercase characters into lowercase, translates hyphens into blank spaces, translates apostrophes into blank spaces, deletes all other punctuation, puts one word per line, sorts the words alphabetically, removes all duplicates and writes the resulting wordlist to a file called stmtn10-wordlist.txt“.

cat stmtn10-trimmedlf.txt | tr [:upper:] [:lower:] | tr '-' ' ' | tr "'" " " | tr -d [:punct:] | tr ' ' '\n' | sort | uniq > stmtn10-wordlist.txt

Note that we have to use double quotes around the tr expression that contains a single quote (i.e., apostrophe), so that the shell does not get confused about the arguments we are providing. Use less to explore stmtn10-wordlist.txt.


Typically when you install Linux, at least one natural language dictionary is installed. Each dictionary is simply a text file that contains an alphabetical listing of ‘words’ in the language, one per line. The dictionaries are used for programs that do spell checking, but they are also a nice resource that can be used for text mining and other tasks. You will find them in the folder /usr/share/dict. I chose American English as my language when I installed Linux, so I have a dictionary called /usr/share/dict/american-english.

Suppose you are reading through a handwritten document and you come across a word that begins with an s, has two or three characters that you can’t make out, and ends in th.  You can use grep to search for the pattern in your dictionary to get some suggestions.

grep -E "^s.{2,3}th$" /usr/share/dict/american-english

The computer responds with the following.


In the statement above, the caret (^) and dollar sign ($) stand for the beginning and end of line respectively. Since each line in the dictionary file consists of a single word, we get words back. The dot (.) stands for a single character, and the pair of numbers in curly braces ({n,m}) say we are trying to match at least n characters and at most m.

Linux actually has a family of grep commands that match common options. There is a command called egrep, for example, which is equivalent to using grep -E, to match an extended set of patterns.  There is a command called fgrep which is a fast way to search for fixed strings (rather than patterns). We will use both egrep and fgrep in examples below. As with any Linux command, you can learn more about command line options with man.

Words in our text that aren’t in the dictionary

One way to use a dictionary for text mining is to get a list of words that appear in the text but are not listed in the dictionary. We can do this using the fgrep command, as show below. In English, the command says “using the file /usr/share/dict/american-english as a source of strings to match (-f option), find all the words (-w option) in stmtn10-wordlist.txt that are not in the list of strings (-v option) and send the results to the file stmtn10-nondictwords.txt“.

fgrep -v -w -f /usr/share/dict/american-english stmtn10-wordlist.txt > stmtn10-nondictwords.txt

Use the less command to explore stmtn10-nondictwords.txt. Note that it contains years (1861, 1865), proper names (alice, andrews, charles), toponyms (america, boston, calcutta) and British / Canadian spellings (centre, fibres). Note that it also includes a lot of specialized vocabulary which gives us some sense of what this text may be about: coccinea (a kind of plant), coraltown, cornfield, ferny, flatheads, goshawk, hepaticas (another plant), pitchy, quercus (yet another plant), seaweeds, and so on. Two interesting ‘words’ in this list are cucuie and ea. Use grep on stmtn10-trimmedlf.txt to figure out what they are.

Matching patterns within and across words

The grep command and its variants are useful for matching patterns both within a word and across a sequence of words. If we wanted to find all of the examples in our original text that contain an apostrophe s, we would use the command below. Note that the –color option colors the portion of the text that matches our pattern.

egrep --color "'s " stmtn10-trimmedlf.txt

If we wanted to find contractions, we could change the pattern to “‘t “, and if we wanted to match both we would use “‘. “ (this would also match abbreviations like discover’d).

We could search for the use of particular kinds of words. Which, for example, contain three vowels in a row?

egrep --color "[aeiou]{3}" stmtn10-trimmedlf.txt

We can also use egrep to search for particular kinds of phrases. For example, we could look for use of the first person pronoun in conjunction with English modal verbs.

egrep --color "I (can|could|dare|may|might|must|need|ought|shall|should|will|would)" stmtn10-trimmedlf.txt

Or we could see which pronouns are used with the word must:

egrep --color "(I|you|he|she|it|they) must" stmtn10-trimmedlf.txt

Spend some time using egrep to search for particular kinds of words and phrases. For example, how would you find regular past tense verbs (ones that end in -ed)? Years? Questions? Quotations?

Keywords in context

If you are interested in studying how particular words are used in a text, it is usually a good idea to build a concordance. At the Linux command line, this can be done easily using the ptx command, which builds a permuted term index. The command below uses the -f option to fold lowercase to uppercase for sorting purposes, and the -w option to set the width of our output to 50 characters.

ptx -f -w 50 stmtn10-trimmedlf.txt > stmtn10-ptx.txt

The output is stored in the file stmtn10-ptx.txt, which you can explore with less or search with grep.

If we want to find the word ‘giant’, for example, we might start with the following command. The -i option tells egrep to ignore case, so we get uppercase, lowercase and mixed case results.

egrep -i "[[:alpha:]]   giant" stmtn10-ptx.txt

Note that the word ‘giant’ occurs in many of the index entries. By preceding it with any alphabetic character, followed by three blank spaces, we see only those entries where ‘giant’ is the keyword in context. (Try grepping stmtn10-ptx.txt for the pattern “giant” to see what I mean.)

As a more detailed example, we might try grepping through our permuted term index to see if the author uses gendered pronouns differently.  Start by creating two files of pronouns in context.

egrep -i "[[:alpha:]]   (he|him|his) " stmtn10-ptx.txt > stmtn10-male.txt
egrep -i "[[:alpha:]]   (she|her|hers) " stmtn10-ptx.txt > stmtn10-female.txt

Now you can use wc -l to count the number of lines in each file, and less to page through them. We can also search both files together for interesting patterns.  If we type in the following command

cat *male* | egrep "   (he|she) .*ed"

we find “she died” and “she needs” versus “he toiled”, “he sighed”, “he flapped”, “he worked”, “he lifted”, “he dared”, “he lived”, “he pushed”, “he wanted” and “he packed”.



In the Linux and Unix operating systems, everything is treated as a file. Whenever possible, those files are stored as human- and machine-readable text files. As a result, Linux contains a large number of tools that are specialized for working with texts. Here we will use a few of these tools to explore a textual source.

Downloading a text

Our first task is to obtain a sample text to analyze. We will be working with a nineteenth-century book from the Internet Archive: Jane Andrews, The Stories Mother Nature Told Her Children (1888, 1894). Since this text is part of the Project Gutenberg collection, it was typed in by humans, rather than being scanned and OCRed by machine. This greatly reduces the number of textual errors we expect to find in it.  To download the file, we will use the wget command, which needs a URL. We don’t want to give the program the URL that we use to read the file in our browser, because if we do the file that we download will have HTML markup tags in it. Instead, we want the raw text file, which is located at

First we download the file with wget, then we use the ls command (list directory contents) to make sure that we have a local copy.


Our first view of the text

The Linux file command allows us to confirm that we have downloaded a text file. When we type

file stmtn10.txt

the computer responds with

stmtn10.txt: C source, ASCII text, with CRLF line terminators

The output of the file command confirms that this is an ASCII text (which we expect), guesses that it is some code in the C programming language (which is incorrect) and tells us that the ends of the lines in the file are coded with both a carriage return and a line feed. This is standard for Windows computers. Linux and OS X expect the ends of lines in an ASCII text file to be coded only with a line feed. If we want to move text files between operating systems, this is one thing we have to pay attention to. Later we will learn one method to convert the line endings from CRLF to LF, but for now we can leave the file as it is.

[UPDATE 2014. The file command no longer mistakenly identifies the file as C code.]

The head and tail commands show us the first few and last few lines of the file respectively.

head stmtn10.txt
The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Stories Mother Nature Told Her Children
by Jane Andrews

Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the
copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing
this or any other Project Gutenberg eBook.

This header should be the first thing seen when viewing this Project
Gutenberg file.  Please do not remove it.  Do not change or edit the
header without written permission.
tail stmtn10.txt

[Portions of this eBook's header and trailer may be reprinted only
when distributed free of all fees.  Copyright (C) 2001, 2002 by
Michael S. Hart.  Project Gutenberg is a TradeMark and may not be
used in any sales of Project Gutenberg eBooks or other materials be
they hardware or software or any other related product without
express permission.]


As we can see, the Project Gutenberg text includes some material in the header and footer which we will probably want to remove so we can analyze the source itself. Before modifying files, it is usually a good idea to make a copy of the original. We can do this with the cp command, then use the ls command to make sure we now have two copies of the file.

cp stmtn10.txt stmtn10-backup.txt

In order to have a look at the whole file, we can use the less command. Once we run the following statement, we will be able to use the arrow keys to move up and down in the file one line at a time (or the j and k keys); the page up and page down keys to jump by pages (or the f and b keys); and the forward slash key to search for something (try typing /giant for example and then press the n key to see the next match). Press the q key to exit from viewing the file with less.

less -N stmtn10.txt

Trimming the header and footer

In the above case, we used the option -N to tell the less command that we wanted it to include line numbers at the beginning of each line. (Try running the less command without that option to see the difference.) Using the line numbers, we can see that the Project Gutenberg header runs from Line 1 to Line 40 inclusive, and that the footer runs from Line 2206 to Line 2525 inclusive. To create a copy of the text that has the header and footer removed, we can use the Linux stream editor sed. We have to start with the footer, because if we removed the header first it would change the line numbering for the rest of the file.

sed '2206,2525d' stmtn10.txt > stmtn10-nofooter.txt

This command tells sed to delete all of the material between lines 2206 and 2525 and output the results to a file called stmtn10-nofooter.txt. You can use less to confirm that this new file still contains the Project Gutenberg header but not the footer. We can now trim the header from this file to create another version with no header or footer. We will call this file stmtn10-trimmed.txt. Use less to confirm that it looks the way it should. While you are using less to view a file, you can use the g key to jump to the top of the file and the shift-g to jump to the bottom.

sed '1,40d' stmtn10-nofooter.txt > stmtn10-trimmed.txt

Use the ls command to confirm that you now have four files, stmtn10-backup.txtstmtn10-nofooter.txtstmtn10-trimmed.txt and stmtn10.txt.

A few basic statistics

We can use the wc command to find out how many lines (-l option) and how many characters (-m) our file has. Running the following shows us that the answer is 2165 lines and 121038 characters.

wc -l stmtn10-trimmed.txt
wc -m stmtn10-trimmed.txt

Finding patterns

Linux has a very powerful pattern-matching command called grep, which we will use frequently. At its most basic, grep returns lines in a file which match a pattern. The command below shows us lines which contain the word giant. The -n option asks grep to include line numbers. Note that this pattern is case sensitive, and will not match Giant.

grep -n "giant" stmtn10-trimmed.txt
1115:Do you believe in giants? No, do you say? Well, listen to my story,
1138:to admit that to do it needed a giant's strength, and so they deserve
1214:giants think of doing. We have not long to wait before we shall see, and

What if we wanted to find both capitalized and lowercase versions of the word? In the following command, we tell grep that we want to use an extended set of possible patterns (the -E option) and show us line numbers (the -n option). The pattern itself says to match something that starts either with a capital G or a lowercase g, followed by lowercase iant.

grep -E -n "(G|g)iant" stmtn10-trimmed.txt

Creating a standardized version of the text

When we are analyzing the words in a text, it is usually convenient to create a standardized version that eliminates whitespace and punctuation and converts all characters to lowercase. We will use the tr command to translate and delete characters of our trimmed text, to create a standardized version. First we delete all punctuation, using the -d option and a special pattern which matches punctuation characters. Note that in this case the tr command requires that we use the redirection operators to specify both the input file (<) and the output file (>). You can use the less command to confirm that the punctuation has been removed.

tr -d [:punct:] < stmtn10-trimmed.txt > stmtn10-nopunct.txt

The next step is to use tr to convert all characters to lowercase. Once again, use the less command to confirm that the changes have been made.

tr [:upper:] [:lower:] < stmtn10-nopunct.txt > stmtn10-lowercase.txt

Finally, we will use the tr command to convert all of the Windows CRLF line endings to the LF line endings that characterize Linux and OS X files. If we don’t do this, the spurious carriage return characters will interfere with our frequency counts.

tr -d '\r' < stmtn10-lowercase.txt > stmtn10-lowercaself.txt

Counting word frequencies

The first step in counting word frequencies is use the tr command to translate each blank space into an end-of-line character (or newline, represented by \n). This gives us a file where each word is on its own line. Confirm this using the less or head command on stmtn10-oneword.txt.

tr ' ' '\n' < stmtn10-lowercaself.txt > stmtn10-oneword.txt

The next step is to sort that file so the words are in alphabetical order, and so that if a given word appears a number of times, these are listed one after another. Once again, use the less command to look at the resulting file. Note that there are many blank lines at the beginning of this file, but if you page down you start to see the words: a lot of copies of a, followed by one copy of abashed, one of ability, and so on.

sort stmtn10-oneword.txt > stmtn10-onewordsort.txt

Now we use the uniq command with the -c option to count the number of repetitions of each line. This will give us a file where the words are listed alphabetically, each preceded by its frequency. We use the head command to look at the first few lines of our word frequency file.

uniq -c stmtn10-onewordsort.txt > stmtn10-wordfreq.txt
head stmtn10-wordfreq.txt
      1 1861
      1 1865
      1 1888
      1 1894
    426 a
      1 abashed
      1 ability
      4 able
     44 about


When using the tr command, we saw that it is possible to tell a Linux command where it is getting its input from and where it is sending its output to. It is also possible to arrange commands in a pipeline so that the output of one stage feeds into the input of the next. To do this, we use the pipe operator (|). For example, we can create a pipeline to go from our lowercase file (with Linux LF endings) to word frequencies directly, as shown below. This way we don’t create a bunch of intermediate files if we don’t want to. You can use the less command to confirm that stmtn10-wordfreq.txt and stmtn10-wordfreq2.txt look the same.

tr ' ' '\n' < stmtn10-lowercaself.txt | sort | uniq -c > stmtn10-wordfreq2.txt

When we use less to look at one of our word frequency files, we can search for a particular term with the forward slash. Trying /giant, for example, shows us that there are sixteen instances of the word giants in our text. Spend some time exploring the original text and the word frequency file with less.

Many digital humanists are probably aware that they could make their research activities faster and more efficient by working at the command line. Many are probably also sympathetic to arguments for open source, open content and open access. Nevertheless, switching to Linux full-time is a big commitment. Virtualization software, like Oracle’s free VirtualBox, allows one to create Linux machines that run inside a window on a Mac or PC. Since these virtual machines can be created from scratch whenever you need one, they make an ideal platform for learning command line techniques. They can also be customized for particular research tasks, as I will show in later posts.

In this post I show how to create a stripped-down Debian Linux virtual machine inside VirtualBox. It does not have a GUI desktop installed, so you have to interact with it through commands entered in a shell (you can add your own GUI later, if you’d like). The screenshots come from a Mac, but the install process should be basically the same for a Windows PC.

To get started, you need to download two things.  The first of these is a disk image file (ISO) for the version of Linux you want to install.  These files are different depending on the processor in your computer.  For a recent Windows or Mac desktop (i.e., a 64-bit Intel machine), the file that you probably want is debian-testing-amd64-CD-1.iso.  For older machines, you may need a different disk image.  Check the Debian distribution page for more details. The other thing that you need to download is the Oracle VirtualBox software for your operating system. Once you have downloaded VirtualBox, install it and then start it.

The image below shows the VirtualBox Manager running on my Mac. I have already created three other Linux virtual machines, but we can ignore these.

00-virtualbox-managerTo create a new virtual machine, click the “New” button in the upper left hand corner of the Manager. Debian Linux comes in three standard flavours, known as “stable,” which is very solid but not very up-to-date, “testing,” which is pretty solid and reasonably up-to-date, and “unstable,” which is just that. The current code name for the testing version is “Wheezy”.  I like to name each of my virtual machines so I know what version of the operating system I am using.  I’m going to call this one “VBDebianWheezy64.”  You can call yours whatever you’d like.

01-create-virtual-machineOnce you click “Continue,” the VirtualBox software will ask you a number of questions. For this installation we can use the default recommendations: a memory size of 384 megabytes of RAM, a virtual hard drive formatted as a VDI (VirtualBox Disk Image), dynamically allocated disk storage, and 8 gigabytes for the virtual machine.






Once we have set all of the options for the virtual machine, we are returned to the VirtualBox Manager.

07-virtualbox-createdNow we choose the virtual machine we just created and click the “Start” button in the Manager. The new machine starts with a message about how the mouse is handled when the cursor is over the virtual machine window.


Once you’ve read and accepted the message, the virtual machine will ask you for a start-up disk.

09-select-startup-diskClick the file icon with the green up arrow on it, and you will be given a dialog that lets you choose the Debian ISO file you downloaded earlier.

10-choosing-iso-fileThe ISO file is now selected.


When you click “start” the Debian Install process will begin in the virtual machine window.


You can move around the installer options with the Up and Down arrows and Tab key. Use the Enter key to select an item. If there are options, you can usually turn them on or off with the Space bar. Here, press Enter to choose the “Install” option.

Next you want to select your language, location and preferred keyboard layout.



15-choose-keyboardThe installer will ask you for a hostname and a domain name. You can set the former to whatever you’d like; leave the latter blank unless you have a reason to set it.


17-blank-domain-nameNext, the installer will ask you for a root password. In Linux and Unix systems, the root account typically has the power to do everything, good and bad. Rather than setting a root password, we are going to leave the root password entry blank. The installer will respond by not creating a root account, but rather by giving the user account (i.e., you) sudo privileges.


19-confirm-blank-root-passwordNow that the root account is disabled, you can enter your own name, username and password, and set the time zone.





24-set-timezoneThe next set of screens ask you to specify how you would like the file system to be set up. As before, we will use the defaults. Later, when you are more familiar with creating virtual machines for specific tasks, you can tweak these as desired. We want guided partitioning, and we are going to use the entire virtual disk (this is the 8Gb dedicated to this particular virtual machine)

25-guided-entire-disk-partitionWe only have one disk to partition, so we choose it.

26-partition-disksWe want all of our files in one partition for now.  Later, if you decide to do a lot of experimentation with Linux you may prefer to put your stuff in separate partitions when you create new virtual machines.

27-all-files-one-partitionWe can finish the partitioning…


and write the changes to disk.

29-write-changes-to-diskNow the install process will ask us if we want to use other disk image files.  We do not.

30-dont-scan-another-diskWe are going to grab install files from the Internet instead of from install disk images. (If you are working in a setting where downloads are expensive, you may not wish to do this.) We set up a network mirror to provide the install files.


Tell the installer what country you are in.

32-choose-mirror-countryThen choose a Debian archive mirror. The default mirror is a good choice.

33-choose-mirrorNow the installer will ask if we want to use a proxy server. Leave this blank unless you have a reason to change it.

34-blank-http-proxyI opt out of the popularity contest.

35-no-popularity-contestDebian gives you a lot of options for pre-installed bundles of software.  On a desktop, I choose only the “Standard system utilities.” If I am on a laptop, I also include the “Laptop” bundle. I leave all of the other ones unchecked.  (You can always install more software later.) The “Debian desktop environment” is the GUI, which is mouse-and-icon based, like Windows and OS X.  I have found it is much easier to get in the habit of using command line tools if you don’t bother with the GUI, at least at first.

36-software-selectionThe final step is to install the Grub bootloader.


Now the virtual machine will reboot when you click “Continue”.

38-finish-installationThis is the login prompt for your new Debian virtual machine.

39-debian-virtual-machine-loginYou can use Linux commands to shutdown the virtual machine if you would like.  You can also save it in such a way that it will resume where you left off when you reload it in VirtualBox. In the VirtualBox Manager, right click on the virtual machine and choose “Close”->”Save State”. That is shown in the next screenshot.

40-close-vmYou can save backups of your virtual machine whenever you reach a crucial point in your work, store VMs in the cloud, and share them with colleagues or students. You can also create different virtual machines for different tasks and use them to try out other Linux distributions. On my Macs, I also have Win XP and Win 7 VMs so I can run Windows-only software.