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I use the --colour option of grep a lot, but I often use less as well. How can I pipe grep results to less and still preserve the coloring. (Or is that possible?)

grep "search-string" -R * --colour | less


I'm looking for a direct solution or anything equivalent to this.

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up vote 165 down vote accepted

When you simply run grep --color it implies grep --color=auto which detects whether the output is a terminal and if so enables colors. However, when it detects a pipe it disables coloring. The following command:

grep --color=always -R "search string" * | less

Will always enable coloring and override the automatic detection, and you will get the color highlighting in less.

EDIT: Although using just less works for me, perhaps older version require the -R flag to handle colors, as therefromhere suggested.

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You need to use less -R for the colour encoding to be interpreted by less correctly – therefromhere Sep 4 '09 at 23:24
It worked for me with just less, it may be version dependent. – spatz Sep 5 '09 at 12:14
wow. I thought 'auto' only depended on the terminal type. I may be jumping the gun, but this may revolutionize the way I use linux :P – Jeremy Powell Sep 8 '09 at 14:16
A (hopefully) useful addendum: I needed to exclude some matches but maintain the colouring, so I actually ended up with grep pattern file | grep -v badpattern | grep --colour=always pattern | less -R, which met my needs perfectly. (Thanks again!) – Owen Blacker Mar 6 '12 at 15:35
I can't believe they just implemented the color-handling feature in less and therefore missed the chance to have a special colorless tool. For the name alone it should have been done! I should probably write a patch that invokes -R automatically when the binary is run as colorless. – Christian Jul 10 '13 at 0:42

You can put this in your .bashrc file:

export GREP_OPTIONS="--color=always"

or create an alias like this:

alias grepc="grep --color=always"

and you will need to use the -R option for less, as pointed out by therefromhere

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Warning!: GREP_OPTIONS="--color=always" may break many scripts that use grep (or (e|f)grep). – mctylr Mar 12 '10 at 19:25
Yeah, better to just alias grep. You can always get pure grep with GREP, or override the --color option manually. – asmeurer Jul 18 '11 at 22:51
This doesn't work for me, alias does work though. – saeedgnu Feb 28 '14 at 3:30

In case like this, I prefer to actually create small sh files and put them on /usr/local/bin.
I usually use grep in the recursive way on the pwd, so thats my personal script:

grep --color=always -r "$@" . | less -R

And then I've just copied it as /usr/local/bin/g (yes, I use it a lot)

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Don't alias "grep", better to alias "less" which is never used by shells. In your .bashrc just put: alias less="less -r".

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Not quite right. One needs to use both grep --color=always and less -R. Note that grep only knows it is being piped into some other process and the --color=auto option uses solely this information to decide if will output colors or not. – brandizzi Apr 17 '13 at 18:35
Note that less option -r is different than -R. Probably -R is safer. – Craig McQueen Jan 9 '14 at 0:26
So why down-vote my solution. The OP specifically ask for less with the example already using `--color' option. – user1147688 Jan 9 '14 at 15:58

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