The Open Group Base Specifications Issue 7
IEEE Std 1003.1, 2013 Edition
Copyright © 2001-2013 The IEEE and The Open Group


xargs - construct argument lists and invoke utility


[XSI] xargs [-ptx] [-E eofstr] [-I replstr|-L number|-n number]
[-s size] [utility [argument...]]


The xargs utility shall construct a command line consisting of the utility and argument operands specified followed by as many arguments read in sequence from standard input as fit in length and number constraints specified by the options. The xargs utility shall then invoke the constructed command line and wait for its completion. This sequence shall be repeated until one of the following occurs:

The application shall ensure that arguments in the standard input are separated by unquoted <blank> characters, unescaped <blank> characters, or <newline> characters. A string of zero or more non-double-quote ( '"' ) characters and non- <newline> characters can be quoted by enclosing them in double-quotes. A string of zero or more non- <apostrophe> ( '\'' ) characters and non- <newline> characters can be quoted by enclosing them in <apostrophe> characters. Any unquoted character can be escaped by preceding it with a <backslash>. The utility named by utility shall be executed one or more times until the end-of-file is reached or the logical end-of file string is found. The results are unspecified if the utility named by utility attempts to read from its standard input.

The generated command line length shall be the sum of the size in bytes of the utility name and each argument treated as strings, including a null byte terminator for each of these strings. The xargs utility shall limit the command line length such that when the command line is invoked, the combined argument and environment lists (see the exec family of functions in the System Interfaces volume of POSIX.1-2008) shall not exceed {ARG_MAX}-2048 bytes. Within this constraint, if neither the -n nor the -s option is specified, the default command line length shall be at least {LINE_MAX}.


The xargs utility shall conform to XBD Utility Syntax Guidelines.

The following options shall be supported:

-E  eofstr
Use eofstr as the logical end-of-file string. If -E is not specified, it is unspecified whether the logical end-of-file string is the <underscore> character ( '_' ) or the end-of-file string capability is disabled. When eofstr is the null string, the logical end-of-file string capability shall be disabled and <underscore> characters shall be taken literally.
-I  replstr
[XSI] [Option Start] Insert mode: utility is executed for each logical line from standard input. Arguments in the standard input shall be separated only by unescaped <newline> characters, not by <blank> characters. Any unquoted unescaped <blank> characters at the beginning of each line shall be ignored. The resulting argument shall be inserted in arguments in place of each occurrence of replstr. At least five arguments in arguments can each contain one or more instances of replstr. Each of these constructed arguments cannot grow larger than an implementation-defined limit greater than or equal to 255 bytes. Option -x shall be forced on. [Option End]
-L  number
[XSI] [Option Start] The utility shall be executed for each non-empty number lines of arguments from standard input. The last invocation of utility shall be with fewer lines of arguments if fewer than number remain. A line is considered to end with the first <newline> unless the last character of the line is a <blank>; a trailing <blank> signals continuation to the next non-empty line, inclusive. [Option End]
-n  number
Invoke utility using as many standard input arguments as possible, up to number (a positive decimal integer) arguments maximum. Fewer arguments shall be used if:
  • The command line length accumulated exceeds the size specified by the -s option (or {LINE_MAX} if there is no -s option).

  • The last iteration has fewer than number, but not zero, operands remaining.

Prompt mode: the user is asked whether to execute utility at each invocation. Trace mode (-t) is turned on to write the command instance to be executed, followed by a prompt to standard error. An affirmative response read from /dev/tty shall execute the command; otherwise, that particular invocation of utility shall be skipped.
-s  size
Invoke utility using as many standard input arguments as possible yielding a command line length less than size (a positive decimal integer) bytes. Fewer arguments shall be used if:
  • The total number of arguments exceeds that specified by the -n option.

  • [XSI] [Option Start] The total number of lines exceeds that specified by the -L option. [Option End]

  • End-of-file is encountered on standard input before size bytes are accumulated.

Values of size up to at least {LINE_MAX} bytes shall be supported, provided that the constraints specified in the DESCRIPTION are met. It shall not be considered an error if a value larger than that supported by the implementation or exceeding the constraints specified in the DESCRIPTION is given; xargs shall use the largest value it supports within the constraints.

Enable trace mode. Each generated command line shall be written to standard error just prior to invocation.
Terminate if a constructed command line will not fit in the implied or specified size (see the -s option above).


The following operands shall be supported:

The name of the utility to be invoked, found by search path using the PATH environment variable, described in XBD Environment Variables. If utility is omitted, the default shall be the echo utility. If the utility operand names any of the special built-in utilities in Special Built-In Utilities, the results are undefined.
An initial option or operand for the invocation of utility.


The standard input shall be a text file. The results are unspecified if an end-of-file condition is detected immediately following an escaped <newline>.


The file /dev/tty shall be used to read responses required by the -p option.


The following environment variables shall affect the execution of xargs:

Provide a default value for the internationalization variables that are unset or null. (See XBD Internationalization Variables for the precedence of internationalization variables used to determine the values of locale categories.)
If set to a non-empty string value, override the values of all the other internationalization variables.

Determine the locale for the behavior of ranges, equivalence classes, and multi-character collating elements used in the extended regular expression defined for the yesexpr locale keyword in the LC_MESSAGES category.
Determine the locale for the interpretation of sequences of bytes of text data as characters (for example, single-byte as opposed to multi-byte characters in arguments and input files) and the behavior of character classes used in the extended regular expression defined for the yesexpr locale keyword in the LC_MESSAGES category.

Determine the locale used to process affirmative responses, and the locale used to affect the format and contents of diagnostic messages and prompts written to standard error.
[XSI] [Option Start] Determine the location of message catalogs for the processing of LC_MESSAGES. [Option End]
Determine the location of utility, as described in XBD Environment Variables.




Not used.


The standard error shall be used for diagnostic messages and the -t and -p options. If the -t option is specified, the utility and its constructed argument list shall be written to standard error, as it will be invoked, prior to invocation. If -p is specified, a prompt of the following format shall be written (in the POSIX locale):


at the end of the line of the output from -t.






The following exit values shall be returned:

All invocations of utility returned exit status zero.
A command line meeting the specified requirements could not be assembled, one or more of the invocations of utility returned a non-zero exit status, or some other error occurred.
The utility specified by utility was found but could not be invoked.
The utility specified by utility could not be found.


If a command line meeting the specified requirements cannot be assembled, the utility cannot be invoked, an invocation of the utility is terminated by a signal, or an invocation of the utility exits with exit status 255, the xargs utility shall write a diagnostic message and exit without processing any remaining input.

The following sections are informative.


The 255 exit status allows a utility being used by xargs to tell xargs to terminate if it knows no further invocations using the current data stream will succeed. Thus, utility should explicitly exit with an appropriate value to avoid accidentally returning with 255.

Note that since input is parsed as lines, <blank> characters separate arguments, and <backslash>, <apostrophe>, and double-quote characters are used for quoting, if xargs is used to bundle the output of commands like find dir -print or ls into commands to be executed, unexpected results are likely if any filenames contain <blank>, <newline>, or quoting characters. This can be solved by using find to call a script that converts each file found into a quoted string that is then piped to xargs, but in most cases it is preferable just to have find do the argument aggregation itself by using -exec with a '+' terminator instead of ';'. Note that the quoting rules used by xargs are not the same as in the shell. They were not made consistent here because existing applications depend on the current rules. An easy (but inefficient) method that can be used to transform input consisting of one argument per line into a quoted form that xargs interprets correctly is to precede each non- <newline> character with a <backslash>. More efficient alternatives are shown in Example 2 and Example 5 below.

On implementations with a large value for {ARG_MAX}, xargs may produce command lines longer than {LINE_MAX}. For invocation of utilities, this is not a problem. If xargs is being used to create a text file, users should explicitly set the maximum command line length with the -s option.

The command, env, nice, nohup, time, and xargs utilities have been specified to use exit code 127 if an error occurs so that applications can distinguish "failure to find a utility" from "invoked utility exited with an error indication". The value 127 was chosen because it is not commonly used for other meanings; most utilities use small values for "normal error conditions'' and the values above 128 can be confused with termination due to receipt of a signal. The value 126 was chosen in a similar manner to indicate that the utility could be found, but not invoked. Some scripts produce meaningful error messages differentiating the 126 and 127 cases. The distinction between exit codes 126 and 127 is based on KornShell practice that uses 127 when all attempts to exec the utility fail with [ENOENT], and uses 126 when any attempt to exec the utility fails for any other reason.


  1. The following command combines the output of the parenthesized commands (minus the <apostrophe> characters) onto one line, which is then appended to the file log. It assumes that the expansion of "$0 $*" does not include any <apostrophe> or <newline> characters.

    (logname; date; printf "'%s'\n" "$0 $*") | xargs -E "" >>log
  2. The following command invokes diff with successive pairs of arguments originally typed as command line arguments. It assumes there are no embedded <newline> characters in the elements of the original argument list.

    printf "%s\n" "$@" | sed 's/[^[:alnum:]]/\\&/g' |
        xargs -E "" -n 2 -x diff
  3. In the following commands, the user is asked which files in the current directory (excluding dotfiles) are to be archived. The files are archived into arch; a, one at a time or b, many at a time. The commands assume that no filenames contain <blank>, <newline>, <backslash>, <apostrophe>, or double-quote characters.

    a. ls | xargs -E "" -p -L 1 ar -r arch
    b. ls | xargs -E "" -p -L 1 | xargs -E "" ar -r arch
  4. The following command invokes command1 one or more times with multiple arguments, stopping if an invocation of command1 has a non-zero exit status.

    xargs -E "" sh -c 'command1 "$@" || exit 255' sh < xargs_input
  5. On XSI-conformant systems, the following command moves all files from directory $1 to directory $2, and echoes each move command just before doing it. It assumes no filenames contain <newline> characters and that neither $1 nor $2 contains the sequence "{}".

    ls -A "$1" | sed -e 's/"/"\\""/g' -e 's/.*/"&"/' |
        xargs -E "" -I {} -t mv "$1"/{} "$2"/{}


The xargs utility was usually found only in System V-based systems; BSD systems included an apply utility that provided functionality similar to xargs -n number. The SVID lists xargs as a software development extension. This volume of POSIX.1-2008 does not share the view that it is used only for development, and therefore it is not optional.

The classic application of the xargs utility is in conjunction with the find utility to reduce the number of processes launched by a simplistic use of the find -exec combination. The xargs utility is also used to enforce an upper limit on memory required to launch a process. With this basis in mind, this volume of POSIX.1-2008 selected only the minimal features required.

Although the 255 exit status is mostly an accident of historical implementations, it allows a utility being used by xargs to tell xargs to terminate if it knows no further invocations using the current data stream shall succeed. Any non-zero exit status from a utility falls into the 1-125 range when xargs exits. There is no statement of how the various non-zero utility exit status codes are accumulated by xargs. The value could be the addition of all codes, their highest value, the last one received, or a single value such as 1. Since no algorithm is arguably better than the others, and since many of the standard utilities say little more (portably) than "pass/fail", no new algorithm was invented.

Several other xargs options were removed because simple alternatives already exist within this volume of POSIX.1-2008. For example, the -i replstr option can be just as efficiently performed using a shell for loop. Since xargs calls an exec function with each input line, the -i option does not usually exploit the grouping capabilities of xargs.

The requirement that xargs never produces command lines such that invocation of utility is within 2048 bytes of hitting the POSIX exec {ARG_MAX} limitations is intended to guarantee that the invoked utility has room to modify its environment variables and command line arguments and still be able to invoke another utility. Note that the minimum {ARG_MAX} allowed by the System Interfaces volume of POSIX.1-2008 is 4096 bytes and the minimum value allowed by this volume of POSIX.1-2008 is 2048 bytes; therefore, the 2048 bytes difference seems reasonable. Note, however, that xargs may never be able to invoke a utility if the environment passed in to xargs comes close to using {ARG_MAX} bytes.

The version of xargs required by this volume of POSIX.1-2008 is required to wait for the completion of the invoked command before invoking another command. This was done because historical scripts using xargs assumed sequential execution. Implementations wanting to provide parallel operation of the invoked utilities are encouraged to add an option enabling parallel invocation, but should still wait for termination of all of the children before xargs terminates normally.

The -e option was omitted from the ISO POSIX-2:1993 standard in the belief that the eofstr option-argument was recognized only when it was on a line by itself and before quote and escape processing were performed, and that the logical end-of-file processing was only enabled if a -e option was specified. In that case, a simple sed script could be used to duplicate the -e functionality. Further investigation revealed that:

To correct this misunderstanding, the -E eofstr option was adopted from the X/Open Portability Guide. Users should note that the description of the -E option matches historical documentation of the -e option (which was not adopted because it did not support the Utility Syntax Guidelines), by saying that if eofstr is the null string, logical end-of-file processing is disabled. Historical implementations of xargs actually did not disable logical end-of-file processing; they treated a null argument found in the input as a logical end-of-file string. (A null string argument could be generated using single or double-quotes ( '' or "" ). Since this behavior was not documented historically, it is considered to be a bug.

The -I, -L, and -n options are mutually-exclusive. Some implementations use the last one specified if more than one is given on a command line; other implementations treat combinations of the options in different ways.




Shell Command Language, diff, echo, find

XBD Environment Variables, Utility Syntax Guidelines

XSH exec


First released in Issue 2.

Issue 5

A second FUTURE DIRECTION is added.

Issue 6

The obsolescent -e, -i, and -l options are removed.

The following new requirements on POSIX implementations derive from alignment with the Single UNIX Specification:

The description of the -E option is aligned with the ISO POSIX-2:1993 standard.

The normative text is reworded to avoid use of the term "must" for application requirements.

Issue 7

Austin Group Interpretation 1003.1-2001 #123 is applied, changing the description of the xargs -I option.

Austin Group Interpretation 1003.1-2001 #126 is applied, changing the description of the LC_MESSAGES environment variable.

SD5-XCU-ERN-68 is applied.

SD5-XCU-ERN-97 is applied, updating the SYNOPSIS.

SD5-XCU-ERN-128 is applied, clarifying the DESCRIPTION of the logical end-of-file string.

SD5-XCU-ERN-132 is applied, updating the EXAMPLES section.

POSIX.1-2008, Technical Corrigendum 1, XCU/TC1-2008/0149 [342] is applied.

End of informative text.


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