Zeyuan Hu's page

Environment variable substitution using Sed

Suppose we have a text file config.ini looks something like this:




We want to replace all the appearance of INSTHOME with the value we hold in $HOME. Here is what I do initially:

sed -i -e "s/INSTHOME/$HOME/g" config.ini
  • s is used to replace the found expression INSTHOME with $HOME
  • g stands for "global", which means to do this find & replace for the whole line. If you leave off the g and INSTHOME appears twice on the same line, only the first INSTHOME is changed to $HOME
  • -i is used to edit in place on filename
  • -e is to indicate the expression/command to run


I use double quotes " to expand any variable appeard inside ". In this case, $HOME.

However, when I type this in and I got the following error:

sed: -e expression #1, char 13: unknown option to `s'

Why did this error happen? That confused me for a while. Then, I try to simulate what the program will do for the above expression:

sed -i -e "s/INSTHOME//home/iidev20/g" config.ini

Ah! This expansion result doesn't make sense at all because sed expression inside " needs to follow:


So, the first thought comes to me is to escape all / in the expression:

sed -i -e "s/INSTHOME/\/home\/iidev20/g" config.ini

This can work but it has two severe drawbacks:

  • I'm hardcoding the value. If $HOME no longer holds /home/iidev20, then my command breaks again, and this hinders portability.
  • The readability of this code is too bad. Probably okay for Perl programmer but still, not quite friendly.

To address these two issues, I find the following about GNU sed:


(The % may be replaced by any other single character.)

This also matches the regular expression regexp, but allows one to use a different delimiter than /. This is particularly useful if the regexp itself contains a lot of slashes, since it avoids the tedious escaping of every /. If regexp itself includes any delimiter characters, each must be escaped by a backslash ().

Essentially, we don't have to use / as our delimiter for the expression, especially when the pattern itself contains a lot of slashes (i.e. file path in my case).

so, I decide to use | as the delimiter:

sed -i "s|INSTHOME|$HOME|g" config.ini


I can also use single quote ' but the command should be modified like the below by leaving out to-be-expanded variable name outside of single quotes.

sed -i 's|INSTHOME|'$HOME'|g' config.ini

Now, everything works nice and clean.

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