Use fzf and fzy to add fuzzy search tools to the shell

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Article from Issue 260/2022

Fuzzy finders retrieve useful results from data streams even if there are no exact matches.

Today, fuzzy searches are an integral part of everyday IT life. They correct typos, detect similarities, and offer a way to find what you need with reasonable overhead, even in unstructured data. The basic principle is based on the Levenshtein distance [1], word distances defined in the 1960s (see the "Levenshtein" box). Developers have extended and optimized this algorithm more or less from the start.

Having said this, many standard tools ignore fuzzy searches or limit themselves to highly simplified variants up to this day. For example, the grep tool from the coreutils package processes arbitrarily complex regular expressions (patterns), but it does not support fuzzy searching. Fuzzy searching is supported by agrep [2] and ugrep [3] at the command line, and there are several other, less well-known tools. Agrep impresses here with a best-match option.

Fzf [4] and fzy [5] (see the "Little Brother" box) enrich the shell construction kit, adding two new, powerful tools. They act as interactive filters, i.e., by default, they source their data from the standard input and return the results to the standard output. Interactive in this context means that they provide interfaces for entering the search patterns, which allow the search patterns to be adapted and refined at runtime.


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