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Text processing performance,... Perl vs sed

Post first published in nixtip

Here’s the situation:

We have a large file to process, say 897872 lines (72 Mb), a small sample looks like this:

TheWhisperers23Chapter 22    9781442305151    "WHISPERERS"    "CONNOLLY, JOHN" 2010
TheWhisperers23Chapter 22    9781442305151    "WHISPERERS"    "TORRES, FERNANDO" 2010

Our goal is to re-order and re-case the names to:

TheWhisperers23Chapter 22    9781442305151    "WHISPERERS"    "John Connolly" 2010
TheWhisperers23Chapter 22    9781442305151    "WHISPERERS"    "Fernando Torres" 2010


At firs glance Perl seems to be the rigth tool for this purpose.

First we need to find the rigth regexp.

The facts are:

  • Names are enclosed between double quotes.
  • We have a comma as surname – firstname separator.
  • This two creates a unique pattern to search & replace.

Now we have alter the order, and the case of the name-surname.

One one of the approaches is to memorize portions of the pattern to do the right substitution.

So CONNOLLY, JOHN will match a quote, one singular letter ,the rest of the word,some spaces (or not) ,a comma, some spaces (or not), one sigular letter the rest of the letters of the name plus the final quote.

The translation to a Perl regexp could be:


We used four parentheses groups to memorize what whe have to change.

The complete substituion will be:

s/"(\w)(\w*)\s*,\s*(\w)(\w*)"/"$3\L$4 \U$1\L$2"/

Note the use of the upper/lowercase flags and how the order of the words is altered.

In Perl we can use the infile edition, so we can use this one-liner to get the requested result:

perl -pi -e 's/"(\w)(\w*)\s*,\s*(\w)(\w*)"/"$3\L$4 \U$1\L$2"/;' file


It will be pretty much the same, the regexp is:

/"\([A-Z]\)\([A-Z]\{1,\}\) *, *\([A-Z]\)\([A-Z]\{1,\}\)"/

In standard sed we don’t have handy perl word flags \w, so whe have to use the old fashioned way.

The in-file substitution is impossible also.

The complete command will be:

sed -ei 's/"\([A-Z]\)\([A-Z]\{1,\}\) *, *\([A-Z]\)\([A-Z]\{1,\}\)"/"\3\L\4 \U\1\L\2"/' file


Ok, before this experiment I would bet on Perl, but the results are clear ….

It’s a draw (if not a sed winning)

$ time -p perl -pi -e 's/"(\w)(\w*)\s*,\s*(\w)(\w*)"/"$3\L$4 \U$1\L$2"/' file
real 6.71
user 6.38
sys 0.32
$ time -p sed -ei 's/"\([A-Z]\)\([A-Z]\{1,\}\) *, *\([A-Z]\)\([A-Z]\{1,\}\)"/"\3\L\4 \U\1\L\2"/' file
real 6.51
user 6.19
sys 0.31

Perl execution flags NOTES:

-iextension specifies that files processed by the construct are to be edited in-place. It does this by renaming the >input file, opening the output file by the same name, and selecting that output file as the default for >print statements. The extension, if supplied, is added to the name of the old file to make a backup >copy. If no extension is supplied, no backup is made. Saying “perl -p -i.bak -e “s/foo/bar/;” … ” is the >same as using the script:

-p causes perl to assume the following loop around your script, which makes it iterate over filename >arguments somewhat like sed:

while () { … # your script goes here } continue { print; }

Note that the lines are printed automatically. To suppress printing use the -n switch. A -p overrides a ->n switch.

-e commandline may be used to enter one line of script. Multiple -e commands may be given to build up a multi-line >script. If -e is given, perl will not look for a script filename in the argument list.

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© Juan Diego Godoy Robles