Work the Shell - Counting Words and Letters

Count the number of unique words in a document.

I know I have been writing about the basics of working with variables in shell scripts, but I'm going to diverge and address a recent query I received. Okay? (And, hey, write to me.)

“Dear Dave, I seek an edge when I next play Hangman or other word games. I want to know what words are most common in the English language and what letters are most common in written material too. If you can show how to do that as a shell script, it'd be useful for your column, but if not, can you point me to an on-line resource? Thanks, Mike R.”

Okay, I can tell you up front, Mike, that the secret to playing Hangman is to ensure that you have sufficient guesses to get at least 30% of the letters before you're in great peril. Oh, that's not what you seek, is it? The first letter to guess, always, is E, which is the most common letter in the English language. If you have a Scrabble set, you also can figure out the frequency of letters, because the points for individual letters are inversely proportional to their frequency. That is, E is worth one point, while the Q and Z—two very uncommon letters in English—are worth ten points each.

But, let's work on a shell script to verify and prove all this, shall we?

The first step is to find some written material to analyze. That's easily done by going to one of my favorite places on the Web, the Gutenberg Project. You can pop there too at

With thousands and thousands of books available in free, downloadable form, let's grab only three: Dracula by Bram Stoker, History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary Ritter Beard, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. They're all obviously a bit older, but that's okay for our purposes. To make life easy, I'll download them as plain text and leave the geeky introduction to the Gutenberg Project at the top of each file too, just for more word variation and, well, because I'm lazy. Okay with you, dear reader?

Here's a quick heads up on the three:

$ wc *txt
   16624  163798  874627 dracula.txt
   24398  209289 1332539 history-united-states.txt
   13426  124576  717558 pride-prejudice.txt
   54448  497663 2924724 total

Okay, so we have 54,448 lines of text, representing 497,663 words and 2,924,724 characters. That's a lot of text.

Word Frequency

The key to figuring out any of our desired statistics is to realize that the basic strategy we need to use is to break the content down into smaller pieces, sort them, and then use the great uniq -c capability, which de-dupes the input stream, counting frequency as it goes. As a shell pipe, we're talking about sort | uniq -c, coupled with whatever command we need to break down the individual entities.

For this task, I'm going to use tr, like this, to convert spaces to newlines:

$ cat *txt | tr ' ' '\
' | head        

Okay, so what happens when we actually unleash the beast on all 54,448 lines of our combined text?

$ cat *txt | tr ' ' '\
> ' | wc -l

That's strange. Somehow I would expect that breaking down every line by space delimiter should be fairly close to the word count of wc, but most likely the document has punctuation like “the end. The next” where a double space becomes two, not one line. No worries, though, it'll all vanish once we take the next step.

Now that we have the ability to break down our documents into individual words, let's sort and “uniq” it to see what we see:

$ cat *txt | tr ' ' '\
' | sort | uniq | wc -l

But, that's not right. Do you know why?

If you said, “Dude! You need to account for capitalization!”, you'd be on the right track. In fact, we need to transliterate everything to lowercase. We also need to strip out all the punctuation as well, because right now it's counting “cat,” and “cat” as two different words—not good.

First off, transliteration is best done with a character group rather than with a letter range. In tr, it's a bit funky with the [::] notation:

$ echo "Hello" | tr '[:upper:]' '[:lower:]'

Stripping out punctuation is a wee bit trickier, but not much. Again, we can use a character class in tr:

$ echo "this, and? that! for sure." | tr -d '[:punct:]'
this and that for sure

Coolness, eh? I bet you didn't know you could do that! Now, let's put it all together:

$ cat *txt | tr ' ' '\
' | tr '[:upper:]' '[:lower:]' | 
tr -d '[:punct:]' | sort | uniq | wc -l

So, that chops it down from 52,407 to 28,855—makes sense to me. One more transform is needed though. Let's strip out all lines that don't contain alphabetic characters to eliminate digits. That can be done with a simple grep -v '[^a-z]'":

$ cat *txt | tr ' ' '\
' | tr '[:upper:]' '[:lower:]' | 
tr -d '[:punct:]' | grep -v '[^a-z]' | 
sort | uniq | wc -l

If you analyze only Dracula, by the way, it turns out that the entire book has only 9,434 unique words. Useful, eh?

Now, finally, let's tweak things just a bit and see the ten most common words in this corpus:

$ cat *txt | tr ' ' '\
' | tr '[:upper:]' '[:lower:]' | 
tr -d '[:punct:]' | grep -v '[^a-z]' | 
sort | uniq -c | sort -rn | head
29247 the
16995 of
14715 and
13010 to
9293 in
7894 a
6474 i
5724 was
5206 that

And, now you know.

Next month, I'll wrap this up by showing how you can analyze individual letter occurrences too, and finally, I'll offer a way to find some great Hangman words for stumping your friends.

Dave Taylor is a 26-year veteran of UNIX, creator of The Elm Mail System, and most recently author of both the best-selling Wicked Cool Shell Scripts and Teach Yourself Unix in 24 Hours, among his 16 technical books. His main Web site is at, and he also offers up tech support at You also can follow Dave on Twitter through


Dave Taylor has been hacking shell scripts for over thirty years. Really. He's the author of the popular "Wicked Cool Shell Scripts" and can be found on Twitter as @DaveTaylor and more generally at

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