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8.4 Using Uninitialized Variables as Subscripts

Suppose it’s necessary to write a program to print the input data in reverse order. A reasonable attempt to do so (with some test data) might look like this:

$ echo 'line 1
> line 2
> line 3' | awk '{ l[lines] = $0; ++lines }
> END {
>     for (i = lines-1; i >= 0; --i)
>        print l[i]
> }'
-| line 3
-| line 2

Unfortunately, the very first line of input data did not come out in the output!

Upon first glance, we would think that this program should have worked. The variable lines is uninitialized, and uninitialized variables have the numeric value zero. So, awk should have printed the value of l[0].

The issue here is that subscripts for awk arrays are always strings. Uninitialized variables, when used as strings, have the value "", not zero. Thus, ‘line 1’ ends up stored in l[""]. The following version of the program works correctly:

{ l[lines++] = $0 }
END {
    for (i = lines - 1; i >= 0; --i)
       print l[i]
}

Here, the ‘++’ forces lines to be numeric, thus making the “old value” numeric zero. This is then converted to "0" as the array subscript.

Even though it is somewhat unusual, the null string ("") is a valid array subscript. (d.c.) gawk warns about the use of the null string as a subscript if ‘--lint’ is provided on the command line (see section Command-Line Options).


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