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A shell alias for tallying data

Here’s a tiny shell alias that I find useful when going through data on the command line.

Suppose I have a big collection of data, and I’d like to know which items occur most frequently: I want to build a tally. I have this shell alias defined that lets me build such a tally:

alias tally='sort | uniq -c | sort'

Here’s an example of the sort of output returned by piping to tally, a nice tabular format:

$ cat colors.txt | tally
   8 yellow
  45 red
  68 green
 100 blue

(Note: on some Linuxes, sort uses alphabetical sorting, so you’ll want to replace the second sort with sort -h to get a tally that sorts numerically.)

If you want to get the most common items from a tally, that’s just another pipe: send the output from tally to tail -n 5, replacing 5 with the number of most common items you’d like to see.

Another example: let’s see the five most common HTTP status codes in my Apache log. I read the entire log, use awk to extract the status code, and then pass the output to tally:

$ cat access.log | awk '{print $9}' | tally | tail -n5
  15804 302
  31955 204
  39115 301
  88825 404
 952709 200

This is one of the simplest aliases in my shell config, but I still like having it around. Anything that saves me a bit of typing and thinking is usually worthwhile.