expand - Linux


The expand command in Linux is used to convert tabs in each input file or standard input to spaces, writing to standard output. This command helps in achieving consistent spacing in files where indentation matters, such as in programming source files or configuration files that might be viewed on different editors that can render tabs differently.


The basic syntax of the expand command is:

expand [OPTION]... [FILE]...

If no file is specified or if the file is -, expand reads from standard input.


Here are the options available for the expand command:

  • -i, --initial: Do not convert tabs after non-blank characters. Useful for files where only the leading tabs are to be expanded.
  • -t, --tabs=NUM: Set the number of spaces per tab stop (default is 8). Multiple tab stops can be separated by commas.
  • --tabs=LIST: Specify variable tab stops using a comma-separated list. This allows for different spacing beyond initial tabs.
  • -V, --version: Display version information and exit.
  • --help: Display a help message and exit.


  1. Basic Expansion: Convert tabs to spaces in a file with default settings (8 spaces per tab).
    expand file.txt > output.txt
  2. Custom Tab Size: Convert tabs to 4 spaces per tab.
    expand -t 4 file.txt > output.txt
  3. Variable Tab Stops: Set custom tab stops.
    expand --tabs=2,8,10 file.txt > output.txt
  4. Initial Tabs Only: Convert only the leading tabs to spaces.
    expand -i file.txt > output.txt

Common Issues

  • Different Tab Settings: Issues may arise if the expand config or the defaults differ from what is expected in a particular environment or editor.

  • Missing Files: Trying to execute expand without specifying a file and without input from standard input results in no output. Always ensure input is provided.

    Solution: Always check the environment or the editor settings regarding tabs. Use the -t option to set specific tab widths as needed.


expand can be combined with other tools such as sort, cat, or text editors for processing text files:

cat file.txt | expand | sort > sorted_output.txt

This command chain reads a file, expands its tabs to spaces, and then sorts it before writing to an output file.

  • unexpand – Convert spaces to tabs in a file.
  • cat – Concatenate files and print on the standard output.
  • sort – Sort lines of text files.

For more details, refer to the official documentation or man pages (man expand on most Linux systems).