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5.2 tail: Output the last part of files

tail prints the last part (10 lines by default) of each file; it reads from standard input if no files are given or when given a file of ‘-’. Synopsis:

tail [option]… [file]…

If more than one file is specified, tail prints a one-line header consisting of:

==> file name <==

before the output for each file.

GNU tail can output any amount of data (some other versions of tail cannot). It also has no ‘-r’ option (print in reverse), since reversing a file is really a different job from printing the end of a file; BSD tail (which is the one with ‘-r’) can only reverse files that are at most as large as its buffer, which is typically 32 KiB. A more reliable and versatile way to reverse files is the GNU tac command.

The program accepts the following options. Also see Common options.

-c bytes

Output the last bytes bytes, instead of final lines. However, if n starts with a ‘+’, start printing with the nth byte from the start of each file, instead of from the end. Appending ‘b’ multiplies bytes by 512, ‘kB’ by 1000, ‘K’ by 1024, ‘MB’ by 1000*1000, ‘M’ by 1024*1024, ‘GB’ by 1000*1000*1000, ‘GB’ by 1024*1024*1024, and so on for ‘T’, ‘P’, ‘E’, ‘Z’, and ‘Y’.


Loop forever trying to read more characters at the end of the file, presumably because the file is growing. If more than one file is given, tail prints a header whenever it gets output from a different file, to indicate which file that output is from.

There are two ways to specify how you'd like to track files with this option, but that difference is noticeable only when a followed file is removed or renamed. If you'd like to continue to track the end of a growing file even after it has been unlinked, use ‘--follow=descriptor’. This is the default behavior, but it is not useful if you're tracking a log file that may be rotated (removed or renamed, then reopened). In that case, use ‘--follow=name’ to track the named file by reopening it periodically to see if it has been removed and recreated by some other program.

No matter which method you use, if the tracked file is determined to have shrunk, tail prints a message saying the file has been truncated and resumes tracking the end of the file from the newly-determined endpoint.

When a file is removed, tail's behavior depends on whether it is following the name or the descriptor. When following by name, tail can detect that a file has been removed and gives a message to that effect, and if ‘--retry’ has been specified it will continue checking periodically to see if the file reappears. When following a descriptor, tail does not detect that the file has been unlinked or renamed and issues no message; even though the file may no longer be accessible via its original name, it may still be growing.

The option values ‘descriptor’ and ‘name’ may be specified only with the long form of the option, not with ‘-f’.

If POSIXLY_CORRECT is set, the ‘-f’ option is ignored if no file operand is specified and standard input is a FIFO or a pipe.


This option is the same as ‘--follow=name --retry’. That is, tail will attempt to reopen a file when it is removed. Should this fail, tail will keep trying until it becomes accessible again.


This option is useful mainly when following by name (i.e., with ‘--follow=name’). Without this option, when tail encounters a file that doesn't exist or is otherwise inaccessible, it reports that fact and never checks it again.


Change the number of seconds to wait between iterations (the default is 1.0). During one iteration, every specified file is checked to see if it has changed size. Historical implementations of tail have required that number be an integer. However, GNU tail accepts an arbitrary floating point number (using a period before any fractional digits).


When following by name or by descriptor, you may specify the process ID, pid, of the sole writer of all file arguments. Then, shortly after that process terminates, tail will also terminate. This will work properly only if the writer and the tailing process are running on the same machine. For example, to save the output of a build in a file and to watch the file grow, if you invoke make and tail like this then the tail process will stop when your build completes. Without this option, you would have had to kill the tail -f process yourself.

$ make >& makerr & tail --pid=$! -f makerr

If you specify a pid that is not in use or that does not correspond to the process that is writing to the tailed files, then tail may terminate long before any files stop growing or it may not terminate until long after the real writer has terminated. Note that ‘--pid’ cannot be supported on some systems; tail will print a warning if this is the case.


When tailing a file by name, if there have been n (default n=5) consecutive iterations for which the file has not changed, then open/fstat the file to determine if that file name is still associated with the same device/inode-number pair as before. When following a log file that is rotated, this is approximately the number of seconds between when tail prints the last pre-rotation lines and when it prints the lines that have accumulated in the new log file. This option is meaningful only when following by name.

-n n

Output the last n lines. However, if n starts with a ‘+’, start printing with the nth line from the start of each file, instead of from the end. Size multiplier suffixes are the same as with the ‘-c’ option.


Never print file name headers.


Always print file name headers.

For compatibility tail also supports an obsolete usage ‘tail -[count][bcl][f] [file]’, which is recognized only if it does not conflict with the usage described above. This obsolete form uses exactly one option and at most one file. In the option, count is an optional decimal number optionally followed by a size letter (‘b’, ‘c’, ‘l’) to mean count by 512-byte blocks, bytes, or lines, optionally followed by ‘f’ which has the same meaning as ‘-f’.

On older systems, the leading ‘-’ can be replaced by ‘+’ in the obsolete option syntax with the same meaning as in counts, and obsolete usage overrides normal usage when the two conflict. This obsolete behavior can be enabled or disabled with the _POSIX2_VERSION environment variable (see section Standards conformance).

Scripts intended for use on standard hosts should avoid obsolete syntax and should use ‘-c count[b]’, ‘-n count’, and/or ‘-f’ instead. If your script must also run on hosts that support only the obsolete syntax, you can often rewrite it to avoid problematic usages, e.g., by using ‘sed -n '$p'’ rather than ‘tail -1’. If that's not possible, the script can use a test like ‘if tail -c +1 </dev/null >/dev/null 2>&1; then …’ to decide which syntax to use.

Even if your script assumes the standard behavior, you should still beware usages whose behaviors differ depending on the POSIX version. For example, avoid ‘tail - main.c’, since it might be interpreted as either ‘tail main.c’ or as ‘tail -- - main.c’; avoid ‘tail -c 4’, since it might mean either ‘tail -c4’ or ‘tail -c 10 4’; and avoid ‘tail +4’, since it might mean either ‘tail ./+4’ or ‘tail -n +4’.

An exit status of zero indicates success, and a nonzero value indicates failure.

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