Why does the less-than sign not work as a replacement for cat in bash?

I heard about “useless use of cat” and found some suggestions, but the following outputs nothing in my bash shell.

< filename

Using cat works as expected though.
cat filename

I’m using Fedora Core 18 and GNU bash, version 4.2.45(1).

EDIT: Using it in front of a pipe doesn’t work either.

< filename | grep pattern

Whereas using cat works as expected.
cat filename | grep pattern

EDIT2: To clarify, I know that I can use this
grep pattern < filename

but I read here https://stackoverflow.com/questions/11710552/useless-use-of-cat that I can also use it in front of the command. It does not work in front of the command though.


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Method 1

The less than and symbol (<) is opening the file up and attaching it to the standard input device handle of some application/program. But you haven’t given the shell any application to attach the input to.


These 2 examples do essentially the same thing but get their input in 2 slightly different manners.

opens file

$ cat blah.txt 

opens STDIN
$ cat < blah.txt 

Peeking behind the curtain

You can use strace to see what’s going on.

When we read from a file

open("blah.txt", O_RDONLY)              = 3
fstat(3, {st_mode=S_IFREG|0664, st_size=3, ...}) = 0
fadvise64(3, 0, 0, POSIX_FADV_SEQUENTIAL) = 0
read(3, "hin", 65536)                  = 3
write(1, "hin", 3hi
)                     = 3
read(3, "", 65536)                      = 0
close(3)                                = 0
close(1)                                = 0

When we read from STDIN (identified as 0)
read(0, "hin", 65536)                  = 3
write(1, "hin", 3hi
)                     = 3
read(0, "", 65536)                      = 0
close(0)                                = 0
close(1)                                = 0

In the first example we can see that cat opened the file and read from it, blah.txt. In the second we can see that cat reads the contents of the file blah.txt via the STDIN file descriptor, identified as descriptor number 0.
read(0, "hin", 65536)                  = 3

Method 2

The classic useless use of cat is when you use it to give input to programs that are perfectly capable of opening files directly. For example:


cat file | grep foo
cat file | while read line; do echo "$line"; done
cat file | sed 's/a/b/'
cat file | awk '{print $1}'


grep foo file
while read line; do echo "$line"; done < file 
sed 's/a/b/' file
awk '{print $1}' file

Also good (the <file can be on either side of the command)

<file grep foo
 sed 's/a/b/' < file
<file awk '{print $1}'

Method 3

The UUOC is in:

cat somefile | some-cmd

cat < somefile | some-cmd

There, some-cmd is reading the content of somefile from a pipe that is fed by cat which itself reads it from somefile.

some-cmd can read directly from somefile (after the shell has opened it for it on stdin), there’s no need for cat:

some-cmd < somefile

< somefile some-cmd

(redirections can appear anywhere on a simple command line).

All methods was sourced from stackoverflow.com or stackexchange.com, is licensed under cc by-sa 2.5, cc by-sa 3.0 and cc by-sa 4.0

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