At the command line, the pipe character (|) lets you take the output of one command and use it as the input for another.

Let’s consider how we might pipe the output of the echo command to another command, wc. The echo command does pretty much what its name says: it “echoes” the content contained in the argument to the command.

echo "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog"
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog

In this case, echo simply prints the argument we’ve given it—the text string “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”—to stdout.

With the pipe, we can make this string the argument to another command. For example,

echo "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" | wc -w

What happened? Rather than being printed to stdout, the output of echo was piped to the wc command with the -w option. The wc command counts things—words if we pass -w to it, lines if we pass -l to it, characters (or bytes) if we pass -c to it. What we get at stdout is only the output of the second command. Our text string, says wc, contains 9 words.

Try this for yourself, using either the same string as in the example or a different one, first printing the string to stdout, then piping it to wc with your preferred option.

Remember that you don’t have to type your string twice! After executing echo with your string as argument the first time, simply type ▲ to bring the command up a second time. Your cursor will be waiting for you at the end of the line, where you can add the pipe symbol and your second command before hitting enter again.