Why should text files end with a newline?

Because that’s how the POSIX standard defines a line:

3.206 Line
A sequence of zero or more non- <newline> characters plus a terminating <newline> character.

Therefore, lines not ending in a newline character aren’t considered actual lines. That’s why some programs have problems processing the last line of a file if it isn’t newline terminated.

There’s at least one hard advantage to this guideline when working on a terminal emulator: All Unix tools expect this convention and work with it. For instance, when concatenating files with cat, a file terminated by newline will have a different effect than one without:

$ more a.txt
$ more b.txt
bar$ more c.txt
$ cat {a,b,c}.txt

And, as the previous example also demonstrates, when displaying the file on the command line (e.g. via more), a newline-terminated file results in a correct display. An improperly terminated file might be garbled (second line).

For consistency, it’s very helpful to follow this rule – doing otherwise will incur extra work when dealing with the default Unix tools.

Think about it differently: If lines aren’t terminated by newline, making commands such as cat useful is much harder: how do you make a command to concatenate files such that

  1. it puts each file’s start on a new line, which is what you want 95% of the time; but
  2. it allows merging the last and first line of two files, as in the example above between b.txt and c.txt?

Of course this is solvable but you need to make the usage of cat more complex (by adding positional command line arguments, e.g. cat a.txt --no-newline b.txt c.txt), and now the command rather than each individual file controls how it is pasted together with other files. This is almost certainly not convenient.

… Or you need to introduce a special sentinel character to mark a line that is supposed to be continued rather than terminated. Well, now you’re stuck with the same situation as on POSIX, except inverted (line continuation rather than line termination character).

Now, on non POSIX compliant systems (nowadays that’s mostly Windows), the point is moot: files don’t generally end with a newline, and the (informal) definition of a line might for instance be “text that is separated by newlines” (note the emphasis). This is entirely valid. However, for structured data (e.g. programming code) it makes parsing minimally more complicated: it generally means that parsers have to be rewritten. If a parser was originally written with the POSIX definition in mind, then it might be easier to modify the token stream rather than the parser — in other words, add an “artificial newline” token to the end of the input.

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