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How to Use the xargs Command

How to Use the xargs Command
Reading time: 4 min
Hostman Team
Technical writer

The xargs command is designed to construct argument lists and execute commands from standard input. This is particularly useful when dealing with commands that do not inherently accept input directly from the output of other commands. By reading from standard input and converting this input into command-line arguments, xargs bridges the gap between commands and allows for more complex and efficient workflows.

Common Use Cases for xargs

Let's take a closer look at use cases for xargs.

Handling Large Numbers of Files

One of the primary uses of xargs is to manage and process large sets of files. For instance, if you have a list of files and you need to apply a command to each of them, xargs simplifies this process.

Batch Processing

When dealing with operations that need to be performed on a large number of items, xargs can execute commands in batches, preventing command-line length limitations and enhancing performance.

Parallel Execution

xargs can execute commands in parallel, leveraging multiple CPU cores to speed up processing times for resource-intensive tasks.

Basic xargs Syntax

The basic syntax of xargs is straightforward:

command | xargs [options] [command [initial-arguments]]

Here, command is the command whose output is to be fed into xargs, and [command] is the command to be executed with the arguments constructed by xargs.

Using xargs with Other Commands

xargs can be useful when working with other commands.

Finding and Deleting Files

One of the most common scenarios is using xargs with the find command to delete files:

find /path/to/directory -name "*.log" | xargs rm

This command finds all .log files in the specified directory and removes them.

Copying Files

To copy a list of files from one directory to another:

find /source/directory -type f -name "*.txt" | xargs -I {} cp {} /destination/directory/

Here, the -I {} option tells xargs to replace {} with the input items.

Handling Special Characters with xargs

When dealing with filenames or other input containing special characters or spaces, it's crucial to handle these properly to avoid errors. The -0 option with xargs works well with find to address this issue:

find /path/to/directory -name "*.log" -print0 | xargs -0 rm

The -print0 option in find separates filenames with a null character, which xargs -0 can safely process.

Practical Examples of xargs Usage

For better undestanding how to use xargs, let's look at several examples.

Combining Commands

To compress files and then move them to another directory:

find /source/directory -type f -name "*.txt" | xargs -I {} sh -c 'gzip "{}" && mv "{}.gz" /destination/directory/'

Searching Within Files

To search for a string across multiple files:

find /path/to/directory -type f -name "*.txt" | xargs grep "search_string"

Parallel Execution

To speed up tasks, xargs can run commands in parallel with the -P option:

find /source/directory -type f -name "*.txt" | xargs -P 4 -I {} cp {} /destination/directory/

This runs up to 4 copy operations in parallel.

Advanced xargs Options and Flags

There are a few extra options for more flexible uxage of xargs.

The -n Option

The -n option limits the number of arguments per command invocation:

cat list_of_files.txt | xargs -n 2 cp /backup/directory/

This command copies files in pairs.

The -d Option

The -d option allows specifying a custom delimiter for input items:

echo "file1,file2,file3" | xargs -d ',' rm

This command deletes file1, file2, and file3, using a comma as the delimiter.

The -t Option

The -t option is useful for debugging as it prints the command to be executed before running it:

echo "file1 file2 file3" | xargs -t rm

This helps verify the command before execution.


The xargs command is a powerful addition to any Unix-like system user's toolkit. From managing large numbers of files to parallel execution of commands, xargs streamlines complex tasks and enhances command-line efficiency. By mastering its syntax and options, users can unlock new levels of productivity and command-line prowess.