Modernizing AWK, a 45-year old language, by adding CSV support

May 2022

I recently added proper handling of CSV files to GoAWK, my POSIX-compatible AWK interpreter, and I think it’s a feature that will make AWK significantly more useful for developers and data analysts in our data-heavy world.

Whether it’s producing input for a spreadsheet, analyzing data from a public data source, or writing scripts to process “big data”, CSV and TSV files are ubiquitous today. Whether it’s the best format is up for debate, but like guy said, there are only two kinds of data formats: the ones people complain about and the ones nobody uses.

I’ve been thinking about adding CSV support to GoAWK since a Hacker News comment, shortly after I released GoAWK in 2018:

Ha. I was just thinking how useful it would be to have the awk programming language available in a tool that natively understood csv files. Suddenly that seems a lot more doable!

At the time I replied with a noncommittal response:

Interesting point. I’ve thought that AWK should have a mode where it does proper quote parsing of CSV files. Maybe I’ll add a -csv option for that (or just have it do it automatically when the FS is ‘,’ – though that wouldn’t be backwards compatible).

Well, now we do have such a mode! The command line option ended up being -i csv (“input CSV”), but close enough.

A big thank-you to the library of the University of Antwerp, who sponsored this feature. They’re one of two major teams or projects I know of that use GoAWK – the other one is the Benthos stream processor.

But why?

Why do we need this in the first place? Unfortunately standard AWK doesn’t have a way to handle CSV files with quoted fields, which is very important for processing real-world CSV files.

You can set the field separator to comma (-F, or FS=","), but it’s a total hack, and will break on the first whiff of a quoted field. For example:

$ cat quoted.csv
"Smith, Bob",42
$ awk -F, '{ print $1 }' quoted.csv
"Smith    # you want to print the first field: Smith, Bob

There are currently several workarounds to process CSV using AWK, such as Gawk’s FPAT feature, various CSV extensions for Gawk, or Adam Gordon Bell’s csvquote tool, which you run to transform your input before running awk, and then run csvquote -u to undo the transform afterwards.

There’s also frawk, which is an amazing tool by Eli Rosenthal that natively supports CSV, but unfortunately it deviates somewhat from POSIX-standard AWK. (Frawk inspired some of GoAWK’s CSV support, including the -i and -o command line options.)

So I think there’s a real need for proper CSV support in a POSIX-compatible version of AWK, and GoAWK provides that.

Before we dive in, let’s correct the quoting problem in the example above by using GoAWK’s CSV input mode:

$ goawk -i csv '{ print $1 }' quoted.csv
Smith, Bob    # that's better!


CSV input mode. The -i csv option tells GoAWK to use CSV input mode: in other words, ignore the standard field and record separators (FS and RS), and use CSV parsing instead. There’s also a TSV mode, or you can use a custom separator character.

In addition, if you use the -H option, GoAWK uses the first row of the input as field names and adds a useful @"named-field" syntax that allows you to fetch a field by name instead of number.

For example, if we have a states.csv file whose contents are as follows:


We can output just the state’s abbreviation using this script:

$ goawk -i csv -H '{ print @"Abbreviation" }' states.csv

Or, to count the number of states that have “New” in the name:

$ goawk -i csv -H '@"State" ~ /New/ { n++ } END { print n }' states.csv

The ~ is the regular expression match operator from standard AWK, so this code means: for records where the State field matches the regular expression New, increment n; at the end, print n.

CSV output mode. The -o csv command line argument tells GoAWK to use CSV output mode: this makes print with one or more arguments write its output with proper CSV encoding.

For example, to convert states.csv to TSV, you could use the following (here we’re not using -H, so the header row is included):

$ goawk -i csv -o tsv '{ print $1, $2 }' states.csv
State   Abbreviation
Alabama AL
Alaska  AK
Arizona AZ

Plus, we have all the features of standard AWK, so there’s a lot more you can do.

Read the CSV documentation for full details and many more examples.

Implementation notes

The implementation is about 2000 lines of code, including extensive tests.

There is of course a Go API that allows you to enable CSV input or output mode using the interp.Config struct to configure the options. You can also set the INPUTMODE or OUTPUTMODE special variables in the BEGIN block.

For various reasons, I wasn’t able to use encoding/csv.Reader directly for CSV input mode, but I reused the structure of the standard library code in my csvSplitter and massaged it into a bufio.SplitFunc that parses the fields and provides the entire row as the token.

In addition to many of my own tests, I run the relevant subset of the standard library’s csv.Reader tests on my implementation to make sure I didn’t mess anything up and am still conforming to RFC 4180.

For CSV output mode, I was able to use encoding/csv.Writer directly (though writing CSV is significantly simpler than reading it). See the writeCSV function for details.


I haven’t yet spent much time on performance. I intend to profile it properly at some point, but for now, it’s “good enough”: on a par with using Go’s encoding/csv package directly, and much faster than the csv module in Python. It can read a gigabyte of complex CSV input in about three seconds on my laptop.

Compared to frawk, CSV input speed is significantly slower, though (somewhat surprisingly) CSV output speed is significantly faster.

Below are the results of some simple read and write benchmarks using goawk and frawk as well as plain Python and Go. The output of the write benchmarks is a 1GB, 3.5 million row CSV file with 20 columns (including quoted columns); the input for the read benchmarks uses that same file. Times are in seconds, showing the best of three runs on a 64-bit Linux laptop with an SSD drive:

Test goawk frawk Python Go
Reading 1GB CSV 3.18 1.01 13.4 3.22
Writing 1GB CSV 5.64 13.0 17.0 3.24


Computers are really fast now, so you can use GoAWK to process most CSV datasets, even gigabyte-sized ones, using just your developer laptop or a relatively small virtual machine. Who needs Hadoop anyway?

So please try out GoAWK on your next CSV processing task. AWK is 45 years old and still widely used, and my hope is that this feature will make it even more useful in developers’ data tool kits.

I’d love it if you sponsored me on GitHub – it will motivate me to work on my open source projects and write more good content. Thanks!