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How to flatten hierarchies with awk

Suppose you have a spreadsheet with columns of product category names and numbers. The product hierarchy has two levels, indicated by writing top-level categories without numbers. How do you flatten the hierarchy quickly for insertion into a relational database? My solution is awk. In this article I’ll show you some sample data, demonstrate how to process and reformat it with awk, and explain how to avoid some basic pitfalls.

Sample data

Here is the sample data in the spreadsheet, with header columns removed:

The top-level entries have no identity themselves; it is not possible to place a product into a top-level category. Since I want to insert the categories into a database for an application to use, I don’t want these entries at all. I want to flatten everything out, separating the levels with >. Here is my desired result:

I could do this any number of ways, but since it lends itself well to line-by-line processing, I elected to use awk. Perl would have worked just as well.

Flattening the categories

The basic idea is to examine each line and see if it has a category number. If it doesn’t, it’s a parent category, and I save its name to a variable. If it does, it’s a child category, and I print out the (saved) parent’s name, the angle bracket, and its own name, followed by the category number. Here’s some code to do that:

/\t$/ {
    current = $1 " > ";

/\t.+$/ {
    printf("%s %s\t%d\n", current, $1, $2);

The first block matches anything with a tab at the end of the line, and saves the value of the first column to the variable current. The second block prints out current, the first column, and the second column. I saved it to transform.awk and invoked it like so:

awk -f transform.awk original.csv

Since the CSV file’s fields are surrounded by double quotes, I piped the result through sed to nuke them:

awk -f transform.awk original.csv | sed -e 's/"//g'

More ideas

I can use this general idea in a number of ways. Unfortunately, the original CSV format is slightly hare-brained, so this doesn’t generalize to hierarchies deeper than two levels. One file I transformed did have several levels of hierarchy. The top-level categories were bolded, intermediate were not, and “leaf nodes” had a number. As an Excel spreadsheet, the bolding is fine. Once it’s saved to a CSV file, the bolding disappears. I tried the following script to get me partway there:

/\t$/ {
        level = level + 1;
        if (level == 1) {
                level1 = $1;
                current = $1 " > ";
        if (level == 2) {
                level2 = $1;
                current = level1 " > " $1 " > ";

/\t.+$/ {
        level = 0;
        printf("%s %s\t%d\n", current, $1, $2);

That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s not a complete solution. A quick Vim macro solved the rest of the problem for me. If automating is harder than doing it with a macro, and I won’t be doing it a lot, I’ll just use a macro. If I do it often, I’ll automate (three strikes and you automate!).


  • Watch out for awk printing lines that don’t have a number. If it’s expecting two columns and thinks the second column should be a number, it’ll print a zero. That’s why the second code block doesn’t just print every line.
  • Beware spurious spaces: printf("%s %s \t %d\n", current, $1, $2); will cause every number to have leading, and every category name to have trailing spaces.


I hope this gives you some ideas on using awk for processing files line-by-line. It is built specifically for the job; when you have a file that needs this type of processing, there’s no better tool. For a quick one-off job when you don’t need complex logic saved in a file, you can easily write an awk program right on the command line. For example, to find all non-top-level categories and swap the category and id:

$ awk '/\t.+$/{print $2 "\t" $1}' original.csv
1       Novels
2       Biographies
3       Self-Help
4       Rock
5       Jazz
6       Classical

Posted on Sat, Mar 4, 2006. Approximately 800 Words.