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Linux and Unix head command tutorial with examples

Tutorial on using head, a UNIX and Linux command for outputting the first part of files. Examples of outputting the first ten lines of a file, limiting the number of lines, limiting the number of bytes, showing multiple files and using pipes.

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

Table of contents

Terminal showing head man page

What is the head command?

The head command is a command-line utility for outputting the first part of files given to it via standard input. It writes results to standard output. By default head returns the first ten lines of each file that it is given.

How to view the first ten lines of a file

To view the first ten lines of a file pass the name of a file to the head command. The first ten lines of the file will be printed to standard output.

head /usr/share/dict/words
A
a
AA
AAA
Aachen
aah
Aaliyah
Aaliyah's
aardvark
aardvark's

How to limit the number of lines to show

To set the number of lines to show with head pass the -n option followed by the number of lines to show.

head -n 1 /usr/share/dict/words
A

How to limit the number of bytes to show

To limit the number of bytes shown with head pass the -c option. Instead of limiting by number of lines this will limit by the number of bytes passed to the -c option. In the following example the output is limited to 16 bytes.

head -c 16 /usr/share/dict/words
A
a
AA
AAA
Aache%

How to show multiple files

To show the first ten lines of multiple files pass more than one filename to the head command. This will output the first ten lines of each file to standard output with a header indicating which file is being shown.

head /usr/share/dict/words /usr/share/dict/french
==> /usr/share/dict/words <==
A
a
AA
AAA
Aachen
aah
Aaliyah
Aaliyah's
aardvark
aardvark's

==> /usr/share/dict/french <==
ça
AAAI
abaissé
abaissa
abaissai
abaissaient
abaissais
abaissait
abaissant
abaissas

To suppress the header line pass the -q option. This can be useful to combine files.

head -q /usr/share/dict/words /usr/share/dict/french
A
a
AA
AAA
Aachen
aah
Aaliyah
Aaliyah's
aardvark
aardvark's
ça
AAAI
abaissé
abaissa
abaissai
abaissaient
abaissais
abaissait
abaissant
abaissas

How to use head with pipes

The head command can be piped to from other commands. In the following example the output of the ls command is piped to head to only show the five most recently modified files or folders.

ls -t /etc | head -n 5
ld.so.cache
ssh
pam.d
shadow
passwd

Further reading

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