Using semicolon (;) vs plus (+) with exec in find

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Top 5 Answer for Using semicolon (;) vs plus (+) with exec in find

vote vote

97

This might be best illustrated with an example. Let's say that find turns up these files:

file1 file2 file3 

Using -exec with a semicolon (find . -exec ls '{}' \;), will execute

ls file1 ls file2 ls file3 

But if you use a plus sign instead (find . -exec ls '{}' \+), as many filenames as possible are passed as arguments to a single command:

ls file1 file2 file3 

The number of filenames is only limited by the system's maximum command line length. If the command exceeds this length, the command will be called multiple times.

vote vote

89

All of the answers so far are correct. I offer this as a clearer (to me) demonstration of the behaviour that is described using echo rather than ls:

With a semicolon, the command echo is called once per file (or other filesystem object) found:

$ find . -name 'test*' -exec echo {} \; ./test.c ./test.cpp ./test.new ./test.php ./test.py ./test.sh 

With a plus, the command echo is called once only. Every file found is passed in as an argument.

$ find . -name 'test*' -exec echo {} \+ ./test.c ./test.cpp ./test.new ./test.php ./test.py ./test.sh 

If find turns up large numbers of results, you may find that the command being called chokes on the number of arguments.

vote vote

79

From man find:

-exec command ;

Execute command; true if 0 status is returned. All following arguments to find are taken to be arguments to the command until an argument consisting of ';' is encountered. The string '{}' is replaced by the current file name being processed everywhere it occurs in the arguments to the command, not just in arguments where it is alone, as in some versions of find. Both of these constructions might need to be escaped (with a '\') or quoted to protect them from expansion by the shell. See the EXAMPLES sec section for examples of the use of the '-exec' option. The specified command is run once for each matched file. The command is executed in the starting directory. There are unavoidable security problems surrounding use of the -exec option; you should use the -execdir option instead.

-exec command {} +

This variant of the -exec option runs the specified command on the selected files, but the command line is built by appending each selected file name at the end; the total number of invocations of the command will be much less than the number of matched files. The command line is built in much the same way that xargs builds its command lines. Only one instance of '{}' is allowed within the command. The command is executed in the starting directory.

So, the way I understand it, \; executes a separate command for each file found by find, whereas \+ appends the files and executes a single command on all of them. The \ is an escape character, so it's:

ls testdir1; ls testdir2  

vs

ls testdir1 testdir2 

Doing the above in my shell mirrored the output in your question.

example of when you would want to use \+

Suppose two files, 1.tmp and 2.tmp:

1.tmp:

1 2 3 

2.tmp:

0 2 3 

With \;:

 find *.tmp -exec diff {} \; > diff: missing operand after `1.tmp' > diff: Try `diff --help' for more information. > diff: missing operand after `2.tmp' > diff: Try `diff --help' for more information. 

Whereas if you use \+ (to concatenate the results of find):

find *.tmp -exec diff {} \+ 1c1,3 < 1 --- > 0 > 2 > 30 

So in this case it's the difference between diff 1.tmp; diff 2.tmp and diff 1.tmp 2.tmp

There are cases where \; is appropriate and \+ will be necessary. Using \+ with rm is one such instance, where if you are removing a large number of files performance (speed) will be superior to \;.

vote vote

69

find has special syntax. You use the {} as they are because they have meaning to find as the pathname of the found file and (most) shells don't interpret them otherwise. You need the backslash \; because the semicolon has meaning to the shell, which eats it up before find can get it. So what find wants to see AFTER the shell is done, in the argument list passed to the C program, is

"-exec", "rm", "{}", ";"

but you need \; on the command line to get a semicolon through the shell to the arguments.

You can get away with \{\} because the shell-quoted interpretation of \{\} is just {}. Similarly, you could use '{}'.

What you cannot do is use

 -exec 'rm {} ;' 

because the shell interprets that as one argument,

"-exec", "rm {} ;"

and rm {} ; isn't the name of a command. (At least unless someone is really screwing around.)

Update

the difference is between

$ ls file1 $ ls file2 

and

$ ls file1 file2 

The + is catenating the names onto a command line.

vote vote

59

The difference between ; (semicolon) or + (plus sign) is how the arguments are passed into find's -exec/-execdir parameter. For example:

  • using ; will execute multiple commands (separately for each argument),

    Example:

    $ find /etc/rc* -exec echo Arg: {} ';' Arg: /etc/rc.common Arg: /etc/rc.common~previous Arg: /etc/rc.local Arg: /etc/rc.netboot 

    All following arguments to find are taken to be arguments to the command.

    The string {} is replaced by the current file name being processed.

  • using + will execute the least possible commands (as the arguments are combined together). It's very similar to how xargs command works, so it will use as many arguments per command as possible to avoid exceeding the maximum limit of arguments per line.

    Example:

    $ find /etc/rc* -exec echo Arg: {} '+' Arg: /etc/rc.common /etc/rc.common~previous /etc/rc.local /etc/rc.netboot 

    The command line is built by appending each selected file name at the end.

    Only one instance of {} is allowed within the command.

See also:

Top 3 video Explaining Using semicolon (;) vs plus (+) with exec in find

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