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The GNU Awk User's Guide

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8.11 Sorting Array Values and Indices with gawk

The order in which an array is scanned with a `for (i in array)' loop is essentially arbitrary. In most awk implementations, sorting an array requires writing a sort function. While this can be educational for exploring different sorting algorithms, usually that's not the point of the program. gawk provides the built-in asort function (see section String Manipulation Functions) that sorts an array. For example:

populate the array data
n = asort(data)
for (i = 1; i <= n; i++)
    do something with data[i]

After the call to asort, the array data is indexed from 1 to some number n, the total number of elements in data. (This count is asort's return value.) data[1] &#60;= data[2] &#60;= data[3], and so on. The comparison of array elements is done using gawk's usual comparison rules (see section Variable Typing and Comparison Expressions).

An important side effect of calling asort is that the array's original indices are irrevocably lost. As this isn't always desirable, asort accepts a second argument:

populate the array source
n = asort(source, dest)
for (i = 1; i <= n; i++)
    do something with dest[i]

In this case, gawk copies the source array into the dest array and then sorts dest, destroying its indices. However, the source array is not affected.

Often, what's needed is to sort on the values of the indices instead of the values of the elements. To do this, use a helper array to hold the sorted index values, and then access the original array's elements. It works in the following way:

populate the array data
# copy indices
j = 1
for (i in data) {
    ind[j] = i    # index value becomes element value
n = asort(ind)    # index values are now sorted
for (i = 1; i <= n; i++)
    do something with data[ind[i]]

Sorting the array by replacing the indices provides maximal flexibility. To traverse the elements in decreasing order, use a loop that goes from n down to 1, either over the elements or over the indices.

Copying array indices and elements isn't expensive in terms of memory. Internally, gawk maintains reference counts to data. For example, when asort copies the first array to the second one, there is only one copy of the original array elements' data, even though both arrays use the values. Similarly, when copying the indices from data to ind, there is only one copy of the actual index strings.

As with array subscripts, the value of IGNORECASE does not affect array sorting.

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