STklos Reference Manual
5. Regular Expressions


Contents

STklos uses the Philip Hazel's Perl-compatible Regular Expression (PCRE) library for implementing regexps [13]. Consequently, the STklos regular expression syntax is the same as PCRE, and Perl by the way.

The following text is extracted from the PCRE package. However, to make things shorter, some of the original documentation as not been reported here. In particular some possibilities of PCRE have been completely occulted (those whose description was too long and which seems (at least to me), not too important). Read the documentation provided with PCRE for a complete description 1

A regular expression is a pattern that is matched against a subject string from left to right. Most characters stand for themselves in a pattern, and match the corresponding characters in the subject. As a trivial example, the pattern

The quick brown fox

matches a portion of a subject string that is identical to itself. The power of regular expressions comes from the ability to include alternatives and repetitions in the pattern. These are encoded in the pattern by the use of meta-characters, which do not stand for themselves but instead are interpreted in some special way.

There are two different sets of meta-characters: those that are recognized anywhere in the pattern except within square brackets, and those that are recognized in square brackets. Outside square brackets, the meta-characters are as follows:

\ general escape character with several uses
^ assert start of subject (or line, in multiline mode)
$ assert end of subject (or line, in multiline mode)
. match any character except newline (by default)
[ start character class definition
| start of alternative branch
( start subpattern
) end subpattern
? extends the meaning of (
also 0 or 1 quantifier
also quantifier minimizer
* 0 or more quantifier
+ 1 or more quantifier
{ start min/max quantifier

Part of a pattern that is in square brackets is called a "character class". In a character class the only meta-characters are:

\ general escape character
^ negate the class, but only if the first character
- indicates character range
[ POSIX character class (only if followed by POSIX syntax)
] terminates the character class

The following sections describe the use of each of the meta-characters.

5.1 Backslash

The backslash character has several uses. Firstly, if it is followed by a non-alphameric character, it takes away any special meaning that character may have. This use of backslash as an escape character applies both inside and outside character classes.

For example, if you want to match a * character, you write \* in the pattern. This escaping action applies whether or not the following character would otherwise be interpreted as a meta-character, so it is always safe to precede a non-alphameric with backslash to specify that it stands for itself. In particular, if you want to match a backslash, you write \\.

If you want to remove the special meaning from a sequence of characters, you can do so by putting them between \Q and \E. This is different from Perl in that $ and @ are handled as literals in \Q...\E sequences in PCRE, whereas in Perl, $ and @ cause variable interpolation. Note the following examples:

PatternPCRE matchesPerl matches
\Qabc$xyz\Eabc$xyzabc followed by the contents of $xyz
\Qabc\$xyz\Eabc\$xyzabc\$xyz
\Qabc\E\$\Qxyz\Eabc$xyzabc$xyz

The \Q...\E sequence is recognized both inside and outside character classes.

A second use of backslash provides a way of encoding non-printing characters in patterns in a visible manner. There is no restriction on the appearance of non-printing characters, apart from the binary zero that terminates a pattern, but when a pattern is being prepared by text editing, it is usually easier to use one of the following escape sequences than the binary character it represents:

\a alarm, that is, the BEL character (hex 07)
\cx "control-x", where x is any character
\e escape (hex 1B)
\f formfeed (hex 0C)
\n newline (hex 0A)
\r carriage return (hex 0D)
\t tab (hex 09)
\ddd character with octal code ddd, or backreference
\xhh character with hex code hh

The precise effect of \cx is as follows: if x is a lower case letter, it is converted to upper case. Then bit 6 of the character (hex 40) is inverted. Thus \cz becomes hex 1A, but \c{ becomes hex 3B, while \c; becomes hex 7B.

The handling of a backslash followed by a digit other than 0 is complicated. Outside a character class, PCRE reads it and any following digits as a decimal number. If the number is less than 10, or if there have been at least that many previous capturing left parentheses in the expression, the entire sequence is taken as a back reference. A description of how this works is given later, following the discussion of parenthesized subpatterns.

The third use of backslash is for specifying generic character types:

\d any decimal digit
\D any character that is not a decimal digit
\s any whitespace character
\S any character that is not a whitespace character
\w any "word" character
\W any "non-word" character

Each pair of escape sequences partitions the complete set of characters into two disjoint sets. Any given character matches one, and only one, of each pair.

For compatibility with Perl, \s does not match the VT character (code 11). This makes it different from the the POSIX "space" class. The \s characters are HT (9), LF (10), FF (12), CR (13), and space (32).

A "word" character is any letter or digit or the underscore character, that is, any character which can be part of a Perl "word". The definition of letters and digits is controlled by PCRE's character tables, and may vary if locale-specific matching is taking place. For example, in the "fr" (French) locale, some character codes greater than 128 are used for accented letters, and these are matched by \w.

These character type sequences can appear both inside and outside character classes. They each match one character of the appropriate type. If the current matching point is at the end of the subject string, all of them fail, since there is no character to match.

The fourth use of backslash is for certain simple assertions. An assertion specifies a condition that has to be met at a particular point in a match, without consuming any characters from the subject string. The use of subpatterns for more complicated assertions is described below. The backslashed assertions are

\b matches at a word boundary
\B matches when not at a word boundary
\A matches at start of subject
\Z matches at end of subject or before newline at end
\z matches at end of subject
\G matches at first matching position in subject

These assertions may not appear in character classes (but note that \b has a different meaning, namely the backspace character, inside a character class).

A word boundary is a position in the subject string where the current character and the previous character do not both match \w or \W (i.e. one matches \w and the other matches \W), or the start or end of the string if the first or last character matches \w, respectively.

The \A, \Z, and \z assertions differ from the traditional circumflex and dollar (described below) in that they only ever match at the very start and end of the subject string, whatever options are set. Thus, they are independent of multiline mode.

The backslash character has several uses. Firstly, if it is followed by a non-alphameric character, it takes away any special meaning that character may have. This use of backslash as an escape character applies both inside and outside character classes.

For example, if you want to match a "*" character, you write "\*" in the pattern. This applies whether or not the following character would otherwise be interpreted as a meta-character, so it is always safe to precede a non-alphameric with "\" to specify that it stands for itself. In particular, if you want to match a backslash, you write "\\".

Another use of backslash is for specifying generic character types:

\d any decimal digit
\D any character that is not a decimal digit
\s any whitespace character
\S any character that is not a whitespace character
\w any "word" character
\W any "non-word" character

Each pair of escape sequences partitions the complete set of characters into two disjoint sets. Any given character matches one, and only one, of each pair.

A "word" character is any letter or digit or the underscore character, that is, any character which can be part of a "word".

These character type sequences can appear both inside and outside character classes. They each match one character of the appropriate type. If the current matching point is at the end of the subject string, all of them fail, since there is no character to match.

5.2 Circumflex and Dollar

Outside a character class, in the default matching mode, the circumflex character is an assertion which is true only if the current matching point is at the start of the subject string. Inside a character class, circumflex has an entirely different meaning (see below).

Circumflex need not be the first character of the pattern if a number of alternatives are involved, but it should be the first thing in each alternative in which it appears if the pattern is ever to match that branch. If all possible alternatives start with a circumflex, that is, if the pattern is constrained to match only at the start of the subject, it is said to be an "anchored" pattern. (There are also other constructs that can cause a pattern to be anchored.)

A dollar character is an assertion which is true only if the current matching point is at the end of the subject string, or immediately before a newline character that is the last character in the string (by default). Dollar need not be the last character of the pattern if a number of alternatives are involved, but it should be the last item in any branch in which it appears. Dollar has no special meaning in a character class.

The meanings of the circumflex and dollar characters are changed if the multiline option is set. When this is the case, they match immediately after and immediately before an internal newline character, respectively, in addition to matching at the start and end of the subject string. For example, the pattern ^abc$ matches the subject string "def\nabc" in multiline mode, but not otherwise.

Note that the sequences \A, \Z, and \z can be used to match the start and end of the subject in both modes, and if all branches of a pattern start with \A it is always anchored, whether multiline is set or not.

5.3 Full Stop (period, dot)

Outside a character class, a dot in the pattern matches any one character in the subject, including a non-printing character, but not (by default) newline. If the dotall option is set, dots match newlines as well. The handling of dot is entirely independent of the handling of circumflex and dollar, the only relationship being that they both involve newline characters. Dot has no special meaning in a character class.

5.4 Square Brackets

An opening square bracket introduces a character class, terminated by a closing square bracket. A closing square bracket on its own is not special. If a closing square bracket is required as a member of the class, it should be the first data character in the class (after an initial circumflex, if present) or escaped with a backslash.

A character class matches a single character in the subject. A matched character must be in the set of characters defined by the class, unless the first character in the class definition is a circumflex, in which case the subject character must not be in the set defined by the class. If a circumflex is actually required as a member of the class, ensure it is not the first character, or escape it with a backslash.

For example, the character class [aeiou] matches any lower case vowel, while [^aeiou] matches any character that is not a lower case vowel. Note that a circumflex is just a convenient notation for specifying the characters which are in the class by enumerating those that are not. It is not an assertion: it still consumes a character from the subject string, and fails if the current pointer is at the end of the string.

When caseless matching is set, any letters in a class represent both their upper case and lower case versions, so for example, a caseless [aeiou] matches "A" as well as "a", and a caseless [^aeiou] does not match "A", whereas a caseful version would.

The newline character is never treated in any special way in character classes, whatever the setting of the dotall or multiline options is. A class such as [^a] will always match a newline.

The minus (hyphen) character can be used to specify a range of characters in a character class. For example, [d-m] matches any letter between d and m, inclusive. If a minus character is required in a class, it must be escaped with a backslash or appear in a position where it cannot be interpreted as indicating a range, typically as the first or last character in the class.

It is not possible to have the literal character "]" as the end character of a range. A pattern such as [W-]46] is interpreted as a class of two characters ("W" and "-") followed by a literal string "46]", so it would match "W46]" or "-46]". However, if the "]" is escaped with a backslash it is interpreted as the end of range, so `(W-\]46) is interpreted as a single class containing a range followed by two separate characters. The octal or hexadecimal representation of "]" can also be used to end a range.

Ranges operate in the collating sequence of character values. They can also be used for characters specified numerically, for example [\000-\037].

If a range that includes letters is used when caseless matching is set, it matches the letters in either case. For example, [W-c] is equivalent to [][\^_`wxyzabc], matched caselessly, and if character tables for the "fr" locale are in use, [\xc8-\xcb] matches accented E characters in both cases.

The character types \d, \D, \s, \S, \w, and \W may also appear in a character class, and add the characters that they match to the class. For example, [\dABCDEF] matches any hexadecimal digit. A circumflex can conveniently be used with the upper case character types to specify a more restricted set of characters than the matching lower case type. For example, the class [^\W_] matches any letter or digit, but not underscore.

All non-alphameric characters other than \, -, ^ (at the start) and the terminating ] are non-special in character classes, but it does no harm if they are escaped.

5.5 POSIX character classes

Perl supports the POSIX notation for character classes, which uses names enclosed by [: and :] within the enclosing square brackets. STklos , thanks to PCRE, also supports this notation. For example,

[01[:alpha:]%]

matches "0", "1", any alphabetic character, or "%". The supported class names are

alnumletters and digits
alphaletters
asciicharacter codes 0 - 127
blankspace or tab only
cntrlcontrol characters
digitdecimal digits (same as \d)
graphprinting characters, excluding space
lowerlower case letters
printprinting characters, including space
punctprinting characters, excluding letters and digits
spacewhite space (not quite the same as \s)
upperupper case letters
word"word" characters (same as \w)
xdigithexadecimal digits

The "space" characters are HT (9), LF (10), VT (11), FF (12), CR (13), and space (32). Notice that this list includes the VT character (code 11). This makes "space" different to \s, which does not include VT (for Perl compatibility).

The name "word" is a Perl extension, and "blank" is a GNU extension from Perl 5.8. Another Perl extension is negation, which is indicated by a ^ character after the colon. For example,

[12[:^digit:]]

matches "1", "2", or any non-digit. STklos (and Perl) also recognize the POSIX syntax [.ch.] and [=ch=] where "ch" is a "collating element", but these are not supported, and an error is given if they are encountered.

5.6 Vertical Bar

Vertical bar characters are used to separate alternative patterns. For example, the pattern

gilbert|sullivan

matches either "gilbert" or "sullivan". Any number of alternatives may appear, and an empty alternative is permitted (matching the empty string). The matching process tries each alternative in turn, from left to right, and the first one that succeeds is used. If the alternatives are within a subpattern (defined below), "succeeds" means matching the rest of the main pattern as well as the alternative in the subpattern.

5.7 Internal Option Setting

The settings of the caseless, multiline, dotall, and EXTENDED options can be changed from within the pattern by a sequence of Perl option letters enclosed between "(?" and ")". The option letters are

ifor caseless
mfor multiline
sfor dotall
xfor extended

For example, (?im) sets caseless, multiline matching. It is also possible to unset these options by preceding the letter with a hyphen, and a combined setting and unsetting such as (?im-sx), which sets caseless and multiline while unsetting dotall and extended, is also permitted. If a letter appears both before and after the hyphen, the option is unset.

When an option change occurs at top level (that is, not inside subpattern parentheses), the change applies to the remainder of the pattern that follows. If the change is placed right at the start of a pattern, PCRE extracts it into the global options

An option change within a subpattern affects only that part of the current pattern that follows it, so

(a(?i)b)c

matches abc and aBc and no other strings (assuming caseless is not used).By this means, options can be made to have different settings in different parts of the pattern. Any changes made in one alternative do carry on into subsequent branches within the same subpattern. For example,

(a(?i)b|c)

matches "ab", "aB", "c", and "C", even though when matching "C" the first branch is abandoned before the option setting. This is because the effects of option settings happen at compile time. There would be some very weird behaviour otherwise.

The PCRE-specific options ungreedy and extra can be changed in the same way as the Perl-compatible options by using the characters U and X respectively. The (?X) flag setting is special in that it must always occur earlier in the pattern than any of the additional features it turns on, even when it is at top level. It is best put at the start.

5.8 Subpatterns

Subpatterns are delimited by parentheses (round brackets), which can be nested. Marking part of a pattern as a subpattern does two things:

  1. It localizes a set of alternatives. For example, the pattern
    cat(aract|erpillar|)
    
    matches one of the words "cat", "cataract", or "caterpillar". Without the parentheses, it would match "cataract", "erpillar" or the empty string.
  2. It sets up the subpattern as a capturing subpattern (as defined above). When the whole pattern matches, that portion of the subject string that matched the subpattern is set so that it can be used in the regexp-replace or regexp-replace-all functions. Opening parentheses are counted from left to right (starting from 1) to obtain the numbers of the capturing subpatterns.

For example, if the string "the red king" is matched against the pattern

the ((red|white) (king|queen))

the captured substrings are "red king", "red", and "king", and are numbered 1, 2, and 3, respectively.

The fact that plain parentheses fulfil two functions is not always helpful. There are often times when a grouping subpattern is required without a capturing requirement. If an opening parenthesis is followed by a question mark and a colon, the subpattern does not do any capturing, and is not counted when computing the number of any subsequent capturing subpatterns. For example, if the string "the white queen" is matched against the pattern

the ((?:red|white) (king|queen))

the captured substrings are "white queen" and "queen", and are numbered 1 and 2. The maximum number of capturing subpatterns is 65535, and the maximum depth of nesting of all subpatterns, both capturing and non-capturing, is 200.

As a convenient shorthand, if any option settings are required at the start of a non-capturing subpattern, the option letters may appear between the "?" and the ":". Thus the two patterns

(?i:saturday|sunday)

and

(?:(?i)saturday|sunday)

match exactly the same set of strings. Because alternative branches are tried from left to right, and options are not reset until the end of the subpattern is reached, an option setting in one branch does affect subsequent branches, so the above patterns match "SUNDAY" as well as "Saturday".

5.9 Named Subpatterns

Identifying capturing parentheses by number is simple, but it can be very hard to keep track of the numbers in complicated regular expressions. Furthermore, if an expression is modified, the numbers may change. To help with the difficulty, PCRE supports the naming of subpatterns, something that Perl does not provide. The Python syntax (?P<name>...) is used. Names consist of alphanumeric characters and underscores, and must be unique within a pattern.

5.10 Repetition

Repetition is specified by quantifiers, which can follow any of the following items:

  • a literal data character
  • the . metacharacter
  • the \C escape sequence
  • escapes such as \d that match single characters
  • a character class
  • a back reference (see next section)
  • a parenthesized subpattern (unless it is an assertion)

The general repetition quantifier specifies a minimum and maximum number of permitted matches, by giving the two numbers in curly brackets (braces), separated by a comma. The numbers must be less than 65536, and the first must be less than or equal to the second. For example:

z{2,4}

matches "zz", "zzz", or "zzzz". A closing brace on its own is not a special character. If the second number is omitted, but the comma is present, there is no upper limit; if the second number and the comma are both omitted, the quantifier specifies an exact number of required matches. Thus

[aeiou]{3,}

matches at least 3 successive vowels, but may match many more, while

\d{8}

matches exactly 8 digits. An opening curly bracket that appears in a position where a quantifier is not allowed, or one that does not match the syntax of a quantifier, is taken as a literal character. For example, {,6} is not a quantifier, but a literal string of four characters.

The quantifier {0} is permitted, causing the expression to behave as if the previous item and the quantifier were not present.

For convenience (and historical compatibility) the three most common quantifiers have single-character abbreviations:

  • * is equivalent to {0,}
  • + is equivalent to {1,}
  • ? is equivalent to {0,1}

It is possible to construct infinite loops by following a subpattern that can match no characters with a quantifier that has no upper limit, for example:

(a?)*

Earlier versions of Perl and PCRE used to give an error at compile time for such patterns. However, because there are cases where this can be useful, such patterns are now accepted, but if any repetition of the subpattern does in fact match no characters, the loop is forcibly broken.

By default, the quantifiers are "greedy", that is, they match as much as possible (up to the maximum number of permitted times), without causing the rest of the pattern to fail. The classic example of where this gives problems is in trying to match comments in C programs. These appear between the sequences /* and */ and within the sequence, individual * and / characters may appear. An attempt to match C comments by applying the pattern

/\*.*\*/

to the string

/* first command */  not comment  /* second comment */

fails, because it matches the entire string owing to the greediness of the .* item.

However, if a quantifier is followed by a question mark, it ceases to be greedy, and instead matches the minimum number of times possible, so the pattern

/\*.*?\*/

does the right thing with the C comments. The meaning of the various quantifiers is not otherwise changed, just the preferred number of matches. Do not confuse this use of question mark with its use as a quantifier in its own right. Because it has two uses, it can sometimes appear doubled, as in

\d??\d

which matches one digit by preference, but can match two if that is the only way the rest of the pattern matches.

If the ungreedy option is set (an option which is not available in Perl), the quantifiers are not greedy by default, but individual ones can be made greedy by following them with a question mark. In other words, it inverts the default behaviour.

When a parenthesized subpattern is quantified with a minimum repeat count that is greater than 1 or with a limited maximum, more store is required for the compiled pattern, in proportion to the size of the minimum or maximum.

If a pattern starts with .* or .{0,} and the dotall option (equivalent to Perl's /s) is set, thus allowing the . to match newlines, the pattern is implicitly anchored, because whatever follows will be tried against every character position in the subject string, so there is no point in retrying the overall match at any position after the first. PCRE normally treats such a pattern as though it were preceded by \A.

In cases where it is known that the subject string contains no newlines, it is worth setting dotall in order to obtain this optimization, or alternatively using ^ to indicate anchoring explicitly.

However, there is one situation where the optimization cannot be used. When .* is inside capturing parentheses that are the subject of a backreference elsewhere in the pattern, a match at the start may fail, and a later one succeed. Consider, for example:

(.*)abc\1

If the subject is "xyz123abc123" the match point is the fourth character. For this reason, such a pattern is not implicitly anchored.

When a capturing subpattern is repeated, the value captured is the substring that matched the final iteration. For example, after

(tweedle[dume]{3}\s*)+

has matched "tweedledum tweedledee" the value of the captured substring is "tweedledee". However, if there are nested capturing subpatterns, the corresponding captured values may have been set in previous iterations. For example, after

(a|(b))+

matches "aba" the value of the second captured substring is "b".

5.11 Atomic Grouping And Possessive Quantifiers

With both maximizing and minimizing repetition, failure of what follows normally causes the repeated item to be re-evaluated to see if a different number of repeats allows the rest of the pattern to match. Sometimes it is useful to prevent this, either to change the nature of the match, or to cause it fail earlier than it otherwise might, when the author of the pattern knows there is no point in carrying on.

Consider, for example, the pattern \d+foo when applied to the subject line

123456bar

After matching all 6 digits and then failing to match "foo", the normal action of the matcher is to try again with only 5 digits matching the \d+ item, and then with 4, and so on, before ultimately failing. "Atomic grouping" (a term taken from Jeffrey Friedl's book) provides the means for specifying that once a subpattern has matched, it is not to be re-evaluated in this way.

If we use atomic grouping for the previous example, the matcher would give up immediately on failing to match "foo" the first time. The notation is a kind of special parenthesis, starting with (?> as in this example:)

(?>\d+)foo

This kind of parenthesis "locks up" the part of the pattern it contains once it has matched, and a failure further into the pattern is prevented from backtracking into it. Backtracking past it to previous items, however, works as normal.

An alternative description is that a subpattern of this type matches the string of characters that an identical standalone pattern would match, if anchored at the current point in the subject string.

Atomic grouping subpatterns are not capturing subpatterns. Simple cases such as the above example can be thought of as a maximizing repeat that must swallow everything it can. So, while both \d+ and \d+? are prepared to adjust the number of digits they match in order to make the rest of the pattern match, (?>\d+) can only match an entire sequence of digits.

Atomic groups in general can of course contain arbitrarily complicated subpatterns, and can be nested. However, when the subpattern for an atomic group is just a single repeated item, as in the example above, a simpler notation, called a "possessive quantifier" can be used. This consists of an additional + character following a quantifier. Using this notation, the previous example can be rewritten as

\d++bar

Possessive quantifiers are always greedy; the setting of the ungreedy option is ignored. They are a convenient notation for the simpler forms of atomic group. However, there is no difference in the meaning or processing of a possessive quantifier and the equivalent atomic group.

The possessive quantifier syntax is an extension to the Perl syntax. It originates in Sun's Java package.

When a pattern contains an unlimited repeat inside a subpattern that can itself be repeated an unlimited number of times, the use of an atomic group is the only way to avoid some failing matches taking a very long time indeed. The pattern

(\D+|<\d+>)*[!?]

matches an unlimited number of substrings that either consist of non-digits, or digits enclosed in <>, followed by either ! or ?. When it matches, it runs quickly. However, if it is applied to

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

it takes a long time before reporting failure. This is because the string can be divided between the two repeats in a large number of ways, and all have to be tried. (The example used [!?] rather than a single character at the end, because both PCRE and Perl have an optimization that allows for fast failure when a single character is used. They remember the last single character that is required for a match, and fail early if it is not present in the string.) If the pattern is changed to

((?>\D+)|<\d+>)*[!?]

sequences of non-digits cannot be broken, and failure happens quickly.

5.12 Back References

Outside a character class, a backslash followed by a digit greater than 0 (and possibly further digits) is a back reference to a capturing subpattern earlier (that is, to its left) in the pattern, provided there have been that many previous capturing left parentheses.

However, if the decimal number following the backslash is less than 10, it is always taken as a back reference, and causes an error only if there are not that many capturing left parentheses in the entire pattern. In other words, the parentheses that are referenced need not be to the left of the reference for numbers less than 10. See the section entitled "Backslash" above for further details of the handling of digits following a backslash.

A back reference matches whatever actually matched the capturing subpattern in the current subject string, rather than anything matching the subpattern itself (see Subpatterns As Subroutines below for a way of doing that). So the pattern

(sens|respons)e and \1ibility

matches "sense and sensibility" and "response and responsibility", but not "sense and responsibility". If caseful matching is in force at the time of the back reference, the case of letters is relevant. For example,

((?i)rah)\s+\1

matches "rah rah" and "RAH RAH", but not "RAH rah", even though the original capturing subpattern is matched caselessly.

Back references to named subpatterns use the Python syntax (?P=name). We could rewrite the above example as follows:

(?<p1>(?i)rah)\s+(?P=p1)

There may be more than one back reference to the same subpattern. If a subpattern has not actually been used in a particular match, any back references to it always fail. For example, the pattern

(a|(bc))\2

always fails if it starts to match "a" rather than "bc". Because there may be many capturing parentheses in a pattern, all digits following the backslash are taken as part of a potential back reference number. If the pattern continues with a digit character, some delimiter must be used to terminate the back reference. If the extended option is set, this can be whitespace. Otherwise an empty comment can be used.

A back reference that occurs inside the parentheses to which it refers fails when the subpattern is first used, so, for example, (a\1) never matches. However, such references can be useful inside repeated subpatterns. For example, the pattern

(a|b\1)+

matches any number of "a"s and also "aba", "ababbaa" etc. At each iteration of the subpattern, the back reference matches the character string corresponding to the previous iteration. In order for this to work, the pattern must be such that the first iteration does not need to match the back reference. This can be done using alternation, as in the example above, or by a quantifier with a minimum of zero.

5.13 Assertions

An assertion is a test on the characters following or preceding the current matching point that does not actually consume any characters. The simple assertions coded as \b, \B, \A, \G, \Z, \z, ^ and $ are described above. More complicated assertions are coded as subpatterns. There are two kinds: those that look ahead of the current position in the subject string, and those that look behind it.

An assertion subpattern is matched in the normal way, except that it does not cause the current matching position to be changed. Lookahead assertions start with (?= for positive assertions and (?! for negative assertions. For example,

\w+(?=;)

matches a word followed by a semicolon, but does not include the semicolon in the match, and

foo(?!bar)

matches any occurrence of "foo" that is not followed by "bar". Note that the apparently similar pattern

(?!foo)bar

does not find an occurrence of "bar" that is preceded by something other than "foo"; it finds any occurrence of "bar" whatsoever, because the assertion (?!foo) is always true when the next three characters are "bar". A lookbehind assertion is needed to achieve this effect.

If you want to force a matching failure at some point in a pattern, the most convenient way to do it is with (?!) because an empty string always matches, so an assertion that requires there not to be an empty string must always fail.

Lookbehind assertions start with (?<= for positive assertions and (?<! for negative assertions. For example,

(?<!foo)bar

does find an occurrence of "bar" that is not preceded by "foo". The contents of a lookbehind assertion are restricted such that all the strings it matches must have a fixed length. However, if there are several alternatives, they do not all have to have the same fixed length. Thus

(?<=bullock|donkey)

is permitted, but

(?<!dogs?|cats?)

causes an error at compile time. Branches that match different length strings are permitted only at the top level of a lookbehind assertion. This is an extension compared with Perl (at least for 5.8), which requires all branches to match the same length of string. An assertion such as

(?<=ab(c|de))

is not permitted, because its single top-level branch can match two different lengths, but it is acceptable if rewritten to use two top-level branches:

(?<=abc|abde)

The implementation of lookbehind assertions is, for each alternative, to temporarily move the current position back by the fixed width and then try to match. If there are insufficient characters before the current position, the match is deemed to fail.

Atomic groups can be used in conjunction with lookbehind assertions to specify efficient matching at the end of the subject string. Consider a simple pattern such as

abcd$

when applied to a long string that does not match. Because matching proceeds from left to right, PCRE will look for each "a" in the subject and then see if what follows matches the rest of the pattern. If the pattern is specified as

^.*abcd$

the initial .* matches the entire string at first, but when this fails (because there is no following "a"), it backtracks to match all but the last character, then all but the last two characters, and so on. Once again the search for "a" covers the entire string, from right to left, so we are no better off. However, if the pattern is written as

^(?>.*)(?<=abcd)

or, equivalently,

^.*+(?<=abcd)

there can be no backtracking for the .* item; it can match only the entire string. The subsequent lookbehind assertion does a single test on the last four characters. If it fails, the match fails immediately. For long strings, this approach makes a significant difference to the processing time.

Several assertions (of any sort) may occur in succession. For example,

(?<=\d{3})(?<!999)foo

matches "foo" preceded by three digits that are not "999". Notice that each of the assertions is applied independently at the same point in the subject string. First there is a check that the previous three characters are all digits, and then there is a check that the same three characters are not "999". This pattern does fInotfR match "foo" preceded by six characters, the first of which are digits and the last three of which are not "999". For example, it doesn't match "123abcfoo". A pattern to do that is

(?<=\d{3}...)(?<!999)foo

This time the first assertion looks at the preceding six characters, checking that the first three are digits, and then the second assertion checks that the preceding three characters are not "999".

Assertions can be nested in any combination. For example,

(?<=(?<!foo)bar)baz

matches an occurrence of "baz" that is preceded by "bar" which in turn is not preceded by "foo", while

(?<=\d{3}(?!999)...)foo

is another pattern which matches "foo" preceded by three digits and any three characters that are not "999".

Assertion subpatterns are not capturing subpatterns, and may not be repeated, because it makes no sense to assert the same thing several times. If any kind of assertion contains capturing subpatterns within it, these are counted for the purposes of numbering the capturing subpatterns in the whole pattern. However, substring capturing is carried out only for positive assertions, because it does not make sense for negative assertions.

5.14 Conditional Subpatterns

It is possible to cause the matching process to obey a subpattern conditionally or to choose between two alternative subpatterns, depending on the result of an assertion, or whether a previous capturing subpattern matched or not. The two possible forms of conditional subpattern are

(?(condition)yes-pattern)
(?(condition)yes-pattern|no-pattern)

If the condition is satisfied, the yes-pattern is used; otherwise the no-pattern (if present) is used. If there are more than two alternatives in the subpattern, a compile-time error occurs.

There are three kinds of condition. If the text between the parentheses consists of a sequence of digits, the condition is satisfied if the capturing subpattern of that number has previously matched. The number must be greater than zero. Consider the following pattern, which contains non-significant white space to make it more readable (assume the extended option) and to divide it into three parts for ease of discussion:

( \( )?    [^()]+    (?(1) \) )

The first part matches an optional opening parenthesis, and if that character is present, sets it as the first captured substring. The second part matches one or more characters that are not parentheses. The third part is a conditional subpattern that tests whether the first set of parentheses matched or not. If they did, that is, if subject started with an opening parenthesis, the condition is true, and so the yes-pattern is executed and a closing parenthesis is required. Otherwise, since no-pattern is not present, the subpattern matches nothing. In other words, this pattern matches a sequence of non-parentheses, optionally enclosed in parentheses.

If the condition is the string (R), it is satisfied if a recursive call to the pattern or subpattern has been made. At "top level", the condition is false. This is a PCRE extension. See PCRE documentation for recursive patterns.

If the condition is not a sequence of digits or (R), it must be an assertion. This may be a positive or negative lookahead or lookbehind assertion. Consider this pattern, again containing non-significant white space, and with the two alternatives on the second line:

(?(?=`(^a-z)*`(a-z))
\d{2}-`(a-z){3}-\d{2}  |  \d{2}-\d{2}-\d{2} )

The condition is a positive lookahead assertion that matches an optional sequence of non-letters followed by a letter. In other words, it tests for the presence of at least one letter in the subject. If a letter is found, the subject is matched against the first alternative; otherwise it is matched against the second. This pattern matches strings in one of the two forms dd-aaa-dd or dd-dd-dd, where aaa are letters and dd are digits.

5.15 Comments

The sequence (?# marks the start of a comment which continues up to the next closing parenthesis. Nested parentheses are not permitted. The characters that make up a comment play no part in the pattern matching at all.

If the extended option is set, an unescaped # character outside a character class introduces a comment that continues up to the next newline character in the pattern.

5.16 Subpatterns As Subroutines

If the syntax for a recursive subpattern reference (either by number or by name) is used outside the parentheses to which it refers, it operates like a subroutine in a programming language. An earlier example pointed out that the pattern

(sens|respons)e and \1ibility

matches "sense and sensibility" and "response and responsibility", but not "sense and responsibility". If instead the pattern

(sens|respons)e and (?1)ibility

is used, it does match "sense and responsibility" as well as the other two strings. Such references must, however, follow the subpattern to which they refer.

5.17 Regexp Procedures

This section lists the Scheme functions that can use PCRE regexpr described before


(string->regexp string)STklos procedure

String->regexp takes a string representation of a regular expression and compiles it into a regexp value. Other regular expression procedures accept either a string or a regexp value as the matching pattern. If a regular expression string is used multiple times, it is faster to compile the string once to a regexp value and use it for repeated matches instead of using the string each time.

(regexp? obj)STklos procedure

Regexp returns #t if obj is a regexp value created by the regexp, otherwise regexp returns #f.

(regexp-match pattern str)STklos procedure
(regexp-match-positions pattern str)

These functions attempt to match pattern (a string or a regexp value) to str. If the match fails, #f is returned. If the match succeeds, a list (containing strings for regexp-match and positions for regexp-match-positions is returned. The first string (or positions) in this list is the portion of string that matched pattern. If two portions of string can match pattern, then the earliest and longest match is found, by default. Additional strings or positions are returned in the list if pattern contains parenthesized sub-expressions; matches for the sub-expressions are provided in the order of the opening parentheses in pattern.
(regexp-match-positions "ca" "abracadabra")
                 ⇒ ((4 6))
(regexp-match-positions "CA" "abracadabra")
                 ⇒ #f
(regexp-match-positions "(?i)CA" "abracadabra")
                 ⇒ ((4 6))
(regexp-match "(a*)(b*)(c*)" "abc")
                 ⇒ ("abc" "a" "b" "c")
(regexp-match-positions "(a*)(b*)(c*)" "abc")
                 ⇒ ((0 3) (0 1) (1 2) (2 3))
(regexp-match-positions "(a*)(b*)(c*)" "c")
                 ⇒ ((0 1) (0 0) (0 0) (0 1))
(regexp-match-positions "(?<=\\d{3})(?<!999)foo"
                        "999foo and 123foo")
     ⇒ ((14 17))

(regexp-replace pattern string substitution)STklos procedure
(regexp-replace-all pattern string substitution)

Regexp-replace matches the regular expression pattern against string. If there is a match, the portion of string which matches pattern is replaced by the substitution string. If there is no match, regexp-replace returns string unmodified. Note that the given pattern could be here either a string or a regular expression.
If pattern contains \n where n is a digit between 1 and 9, then it is replaced in the substitution with the portion of string that matched the n-th parenthesized subexpression of pattern. If n is equal to 0, then it is replaced in substitution with the portion of string that matched pattern.
Regexp-replace replaces the first occurrence of pattern in string. To replace all the occurrences of pattern, use regexp-replace-all.
(regexp-replace "a*b" "aaabbcccc" "X")
                   ⇒ "Xbcccc"
(regexp-replace (string->regexp "a*b") "aaabbcccc" "X")
                   ⇒ "Xbcccc"
(regexp-replace "(a*)b" "aaabbcccc" "X\\1Y")
                   ⇒ "XaaaYbcccc"
(regexp-replace "f(.*)r" "foobar" "\\1 \\1")
                   ⇒ "ooba ooba"
(regexp-replace "f(.*)r" "foobar" "\\0 \\0")
                   ⇒ "foobar foobar"

(regexp-replace "a*b" "aaabbcccc" "X")
                   ⇒ "Xbcccc"
(regexp-replace-all "a*b" "aaabbcccc" "X")
                   ⇒ "XXcccc"

(regexp-quote str)STklos procedure

Takes an arbitrary string and returns a string where characters of str that could serve as regexp metacharacters are escaped with a backslash, so that they safely match only themselves.
(regexp-quote "cons")       ⇒ "cons"
(regexp-quote "list?")      ⇒ "list\\?"
regexp-quote is useful when building a composite regexp from a mix of regexp strings and verbatim strings.



1: The latest release of PCRE is available from http://www.pcre.org/

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Last update Sat Dec 31 15:49:33 2011