colcrt Command In Linux/Unix: Explained with Examples

Colcrt, short for “columnate and translate,” is a command-line utility that allows you to manipulate the content of files by breaking them into columns and performing character translations. With its various options and arguments, you can easily tailor the output to your specific needs, making it an essential tool for data processing and formatting tasks.

In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the functionalities of the colcrt command, exploring its usage and examples. We’ll walk you through step-by-step instructions to help you leverage this command effectively in your Linux environment. Whether you’re looking to reformat data, convert character encodings, or create visually appealing outputs, the colcrt command has got you covered.

Purpose and usage of colcrt command

The colcrt command is primarily used to format and manipulate the content of files in Linux. It can be used to break text into columns, remove unwanted characters, and perform character translations. This makes it a versatile tool for data processing, especially when dealing with structured data.

To use the colcrt command, you simply need to provide it with the path to the file you want to process. By default, it will break the text into 80-column lines and remove any backspaces, tabs, or form feeds. However, you can customize the behavior of the command using various options and arguments.

One common use case for the colcrt command is formatting text for printing or display purposes. By breaking the text into columns, you can create visually appealing outputs that are easier to read and understand. This can be particularly useful when working with large datasets or log files.

How to install the colcrt command

The colcrt command is part of the bsdmainutils package, which is available in most Linux distributions. To install it, you can use the package manager specific to your distribution. For example, on Ubuntu or Debian-based systems, you can use the following command:

sudo apt-get install bsdmainutils

Once the installation is complete, you can verify that the colcrt command is available by running colcrt –version in the terminal. If the command executes without any errors and displays the version information, then you’re good to go.

Syntax and options of the colcrt command

The syntax of the colcrt command is as follows:

colcrt [options] [file]

Here, [options] refers to the various flags and arguments that can be passed to the command, and [file] is the path to the file you want to process. Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly used options:

  • -b: Preserve backspaces in the output.
  • -f: Preserve form feeds in the output.
  • -t: Preserve tabs in the output.
  • -n: Specify the number of columns to break the text into. By default, it’s set to 80.

For example, if you want to break the text into 100-column lines and preserve tabs in the output, you can use the following command:

colcrt -t -n 100 [file]

Examples of using the colcrt command

Now that we have a basic understanding of the colcrt command, let’s explore some practical examples to see how it can be used in real-world scenarios.

Example 1: Breaking text into columns

One of the most common use cases for the colcrt command is breaking text into columns. This can be particularly useful when working with long lines of text that need to be displayed in a more structured format.

Let’s say we have a file called data.txt that contains a list of names, one per line. By default, the lines are too long to fit comfortably on the screen. We can use the colcrt command to break the lines into columns for better readability:

shell colcrt data.txt

This will break the lines into 80-column segments and display the output on the screen.

Example 2: Removing unwanted characters

Another useful feature of the colcrt command is its ability to remove unwanted characters from the text. This can be handy when working with files that contain special characters or control characters that need to be removed or replaced.

Let’s say we have a file called log.txt that contains log entries with timestamps. However, the timestamps are surrounded by square brackets and we want to remove them. We can use the colcrt command with the -b option to preserve backspaces and the -f option to preserve form feeds:

shell colcrt -b -f log.txt

This will remove the square brackets from the log entries and display the modified output on the screen.

Example 3: Creating visually appealing outputs

The colcrt command can also be used to create visually appealing outputs by customizing the number of columns and preserving tabs. This can be particularly useful when working with data that needs to be presented in a structured format, such as tables or reports.

Let’s say we have a file called sales.csv that contains sales data with columns for date, product, and quantity. We can use the colcrt command to break the data into columns and preserve tabs for better alignment:

shell colcrt -t -n 120 sales.csv

This will break the data into 120-column segments and preserve tabs, creating a visually appealing output that can be easily read and analyzed.

Tips and tricks for using colcrt command effectively

Here are some tips and tricks to help you make the most out of the colcrt command:

  • Experiment with different options: The colcrt command offers various options that can be combined to achieve the desired output. Take some time to experiment with different combinations to find the one that works best for your specific needs.
  • Use redirection: Instead of displaying the output on the screen, you can redirect it to a file for further processing or analysis. For example, you can use the following command to save the modified output to a file called output.txt:
shell colcrt [options] [file] > output.txt
  • Chain commands together: The colcrt command can be combined with other commands in the Linux pipeline to perform more complex operations. For example, you can use the grep command to filter the input before passing it to colcrt, or the sed command to perform additional text transformations.
  • Read the manual: Like any other command-line utility, the colcrt command comes with a comprehensive manual page that provides detailed information about its usage and options. You can access the manual by running man colcrt in the terminal.

Alternative commands for formatting text in Linux

While the colcrt command is a powerful tool for formatting text in Linux, there are also other commands that can achieve similar results. Here are some alternative commands you might find useful:

  • column: The column command is used to format text into columns. It offers more advanced formatting options compared to colcrt, such as specifying the column delimiter and alignment.
  • fold: The fold command is used to wrap text to fit within a specified width. It can be useful when working with long lines of text that need to be displayed in a limited space.
  • fmt: The fmt command is used to format text by adjusting the line breaks and word spacing. It can be handy when working with paragraphs or blocks of text that need to be formatted for readability.
  • pr: The pr command is used to format text for printing purposes. It allows you to specify the page size, margins, and headers/footers.

These commands offer different features and functionalities, so it’s worth exploring them to see which one best suits your needs.

Troubleshooting common issues with colcrt command

While the colcrt command is generally straightforward to use, you may encounter some common issues while working with it. Here are a few troubleshooting tips to help you overcome these issues:

  • Ensure the file exists: Before running the colcrt command, make sure the file you want to process actually exists in the specified location. Double-check the file path and verify the permissions to ensure you have the necessary access.
  • Check for command-line options: If the colcrt command is not behaving as expected, double-check the options and arguments you’ve provided. Make sure you’re using the correct syntax and that the options are compatible with the version of the command you’re using.
  • Verify the file format: The colcrt command expects the input file to be in plain text format. If you’re working with a file that has a different format, such as a binary file or a file with special encoding, you may need to preprocess it before running colcrt.
  • Consult the manual: If you’re still experiencing issues or need more information about the command, don’t hesitate to consult the manual page for colcrt. It provides detailed explanations of the command’s behavior and usage, as well as troubleshooting tips for common issues.

Resources for further learning about colcrt command

If you’re eager to learn more about the colcrt command and expand your knowledge of Linux command-line tools, here are some resources you might find helpful:

  • The official colcrt manual page (man colcrt) provides in-depth information about the command’s usage, options, and examples.
  • Online tutorials and guides: There are numerous online tutorials and guides available that cover the colcrt command and other related topics. These resources often provide step-by-step instructions and practical examples to help you understand and apply the concepts.
  • Linux forums and communities: Engaging with Linux forums and communities is a great way to connect with other Linux enthusiasts and professionals. You can ask questions, seek advice, and share your experiences with using the colcrt command.
  • Linux documentation and books: The Linux documentation project and various Linux books provide comprehensive coverage of Linux command-line tools, including the colcrt command. These resources often go into great detail and can be a valuable reference for both beginners and advanced users.


In this article, we explored the colcrt command in Linux, a powerful tool for copying and converting files. We discussed its purpose and usage, how to install it, and the syntax and options available. We also provided examples of how to use the colcrt command in real-world scenarios and shared tips and tricks for effective usage.

By leveraging the capabilities of the colcrt command, you can enhance your Linux command-line skills and streamline your data processing and formatting tasks. Whether you’re a system administrator, data analyst, or Linux enthusiast, mastering the colcrt command will undoubtedly help you become more efficient and productive in your work.