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Hi I want to prepend text to a file. For example I want to add tasks to the beginning of a todo.txt file. I am aware of echo 'task goes here' >> todo.txt but that adds the line to the end of the file (not what I want).

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There if no efficient way to do that for large files:… – Ciro Santilli 巴拿馬文件 六四事件 法轮功 Nov 22 '15 at 19:45
up vote 178 down vote accepted
echo 'task goes here' | cat - todo.txt > temp && mv temp todo.txt


sed -i '1s/^/task goes here\n/' todo.txt


sed -i '1itask goes here' todo.txt
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the first one works great! would you mind explaining the logic? im not particularly sure how to interpret the syntax. – user479534 Feb 18 '11 at 4:24
@user8347: Pipe (|) the message (echo '...') to cat which uses - (standard input) as the first file and todo.txt as the second. cat conCATenates multiple files. Send the output (>) to a file named temp. If there are no errors (&&) from cat then rename (mv) the temp file back to the original file (todo.txt). – Dennis Williamson Feb 18 '11 at 4:51
cat could be a problem if cat encounters \n – itaifrenkel Jan 26 '14 at 8:50
@itaifrenkel: In what way? – Dennis Williamson Jan 26 '14 at 12:16
@Kira: The 1 means do the next command only on line one of the file and the i command is insert. Look in the man page under the "Addresses" section and in the "Zero- or One- address commands" section. – Dennis Williamson Oct 23 '15 at 16:33

A simpler option in my opinion is :

echo -e "task goes here\n$(cat todo.txt)" > todo.txt

This works because the command inside of $(...) is executed before todo.txt is overwritten with > todo.txt

While the other answers work fine, I find this much easier to remember because I use echo and cat every day.

EDIT: This solution is a very bad idea if there are any backslashes in todo.txt, because thanks to the -e flag echo will interpret them. Another, far easier way to get newlines into the preface string is...

echo "task goes here
$(cat todo.txt)" > todo.txt

...simply to use newlines. Sure, it isn't a one-liner anymore, but realistically it wasn't a one-liner before, either. If you're doing this inside a script, and are worried about indenting (e.g. you're executing this inside a function) there are a few workarounds to make this still fit nicely, including but not limited to:

(echo 'task goes here' && cat todo.txt) > todo.txt
echo 'task goes here'$'\n'"$(cat todo.txt)" > todo.txt

Also, if you care about whether a newline gets added to the end of todo.txt, don't use these. Well, except the second-to-last one. That doesn't mess with the end.

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I don't get $(...) executed at all. – SCL Feb 22 '13 at 17:10
That might work better (or at all) with double quotes instead of single… – ℝaphink May 22 '13 at 7:25
Won't the -e also convert escape sequences inside todo.txt? – Mk12 Sep 2 '13 at 21:23
Workarounds yield --> cat: <destination filename>: input file is output file ... – ingyhere Jan 9 '15 at 2:10

The moreutils have a nice tool called sponge:

echo "task goes here" | cat - todo.txt | sponge todo.txt

It'll "soak up" STDIN and then write to the file, which means you don't have to worry about temporary files and moving them around.

You can get moreutils with many Linux distros, through apt-get install moreutils, or on OS X using Homebrew, with brew install moreutils.

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You can create a new, temporary file.

echo "new task" > new_todo.txt
cat todo.txt >> new_todo.txt
rm todo.txt
mv new_todo.txt todo.txt

You might also use sed or awk. But basically the same thing happens.

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Say you're out of disk space so that new_todo.txt gets written only partially. Your solution appears to lose the original file. – NPE Feb 17 '11 at 10:31
Who runs out of disk space? ;-) It's just a simple example. – Keith Feb 17 '11 at 10:33
@Keith Someone working on a VM who didn't expect to need a particularly large virtual drive. Or someone moving a large file. In any case, the real argument against this is directory permissions; if you don't have permission to create new files in the given directory, the only command that will successfully execute in your script is the rm of the original file. – Parthian Shot Jul 1 '14 at 20:23

If the text file is small enough to fit in memory, you don't have to create a temporary file to replace it with. You can load it all into memory and write it back out to the file.

echo "$(echo 'task goes here' | cat - todo.txt)" > todo.txt

It's impossible to add lines to the beginning of the file without over writing the whole file.

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Just to ask the obvious question: Where's the character limit of shell variables? – nixda Jan 9 '13 at 22:59
As far as I'm aware, it's only limited by the amount of memory available. I've filled up variables well over 100MB into memory. text=$(cat file). Be careful to only use text though, because shell variables aren't binary clean – Rucent88 Jan 14 '13 at 1:48

You cannot insert content at the beginning of a file. The only thing you can do is either replace existing content or append bytes after the current end of file.

Any solution to your question then requires a temporary file (or buffer) to be created (on memory or on disk) which will eventually overwrite the original file.

Beware not loosing data by preserving the original file while building the new one, should the file system happen to be full during the process. eg:

cat <(echo task go there) todo.txt > && mv todo.txt
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Downvoters are welcome to explain their motivation. None of the remaining answers, including the accepted one, do contradict anything in my reply. – jlliagre Apr 12 at 13:13

You can use tee:

echo 'task goes here' | cat - todo.txt | tee todo.txt
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No you cannot – Steven Penny Apr 11 at 0:25

You can use Vim in Ex mode:

ex -sc '1i|task goes here' -cx todo.txt
  1. 1 select first line

  2. i insert

  3. x save and close

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