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Regular Expressions Explained

This article will give you an introduction to the world of regular expressions. I'll start off with explaining what regular expressions are and introduce their syntax, then some examples with varying complexity.


A regular expression is a text pattern consisting of a combination of alphanumeric characters and special characters known as metacharacters. A close relative is in fact the wildcard expression which are often used in file management. The pattern is used to match against text strings. The result of a match is either successful or not, however when a match is successful not all of the pattern must match, this is explained later in the article.

You'll find that regular expressions are used in three different ways: Regular text match, search and replace and splitting. The latter is basically the same as the reverse match i.e. everything the regular expression did not match.

Regular expressions are often simply called regexps or RE, but for consistency I'll be referring to it with its full name.

Due to the versatility of the regular expression it is widely used in text processing and parsing. UNIX users are probably familiar with them through the use of the programs, grep, sed, awk and ed. Text editors such as (X)Emacs and vi also use them heavily. Probably the most known use of regular expressions are in the programming language Perl; you'll find that Perl sports the most advanced regular expression implementation to this day.


Now you're probably wondering why you should bother to learn regular expressions. Well if you're a normal computer user your benefits from using them are somewhat small, however if you're either a developer or a system administrator you'll find that knowing regular expressions will make your (professional) life so much better.

Developers can use them to parse text files, fix up code and other wonders. System administrators can use them to search through logs, automate boring tasks and sniff the network traffic for unauthorized activity.

Actually I would go so far as to say it's a crime for a System Administrator not to have any knowledge of regular expressions.


The contents of an expression are, as explained earlier, a combination of alphanumeric characters and metacharacters. An alphanumeric character is either a letter from the alphabet:


or a number:


Actually in the world of regular expressions any character which is not a metacharacter will match itself (often called literal characters), however a lot of the time you're mostly concerned with the alphanumeric characters. A very special character is the backslash \, as this turns any metacharacters into literal characters, and alphanumeric characters into a sort of metacharacter or sequence. The metacharacters are:

\ | ( ) [ { ^ $ * + ? . < >

With that said normal characters don't sound too interesting so let's jump to our very first metacharacters.

The punctuation mark, or dot, . needs explaining first since it often leads to confusion. This character will not, as many might think, match the punctuation in a line. It is instead a special metacharacter which matches any character. Using this where you wanted to find the end of the line, or the decimal in a floating number, will lead to strange results. As explained above, you need to backslashify it to get the literal meaning. For instance take this expression:


will match the number 1.23 in a text as you might have guessed, but it will also match these next lines:

1 23

to make the expression only match the floating number we change it to:


Remember this, it's very important. Now with that said we can get the show going.

Two heavily recurring metacharacters are:

* and +

They are called quantifiers and tell the engine to look for several occurrences of a character; the quantifier always precedes the character at hand. The * character matches zero or more occurrences of the character in a row, the + character is similar but matches one or more.

So if you decided to find words which had the character c in it you might be tempted to write:


What might come as a surprise to you is that you will find an enormous amount of matches, even words with no c in them will match. "How is this so?" you ask. Well, the answer is simple. Recall that the * character matches zero or more characters, and that's exactly what you matched, zero characters.

You see, in regular expressions you have the possibility to match what is called the empty string, which is simply a string with zero size. This empty string can actually be found in all texts. For instance the word:


contains three empty strings. They are contained at the position right before the g, in between the g and the o and after the o. And an empty string contains exactly one empty string. At first this might seem like a really silly thing to do, but you'll learn later on how this is used in more complex expressions.

So with this knowledge we might want to change our expression to:


and voila we get only words with c in them.

The next metacharacter you'll learn is:


This simply tells the engine to either match the character or not (zero or one). For instance the expression:


will match any of these lines:


These three metacharacters are simply a specialized scenario for the more generalized quantifier:


the n and m are respectively the minimum and maximum size for the quantifier. For instance:


means match one or up to five characters. You can also skip m to allow for infinite match:


which matches one or more characters. This is exactly what the + character does. So now you see the connection, * is equal to {0,}, + is equal to {1,} and ? is equal to {0,1}.

The last thing you can do with the quantifier is to also skip the comma:


which means to match 5 characters, no more, no less.


The next type of metacharacters is assertions. These will match if a given assertion is true. The first pair of assertions are:

^ and $

which match the beginning of the line, and the end of the line, respectively. Note that some regular expression implementations allows you to change their behavior so that they will instead match the beginning of the text and the end of the text. These assertions always match a zero length string, or in other words, they match a position. For instance, if you wrote this expression:


it would match any line which began with the word The.

The next assertion characters match at the beginning and end of a word; they are:

< and >

they come in handy when you want to match a word precisely. For instance:


would match any of the following words:


A small change to the expression:


and you'll only match the word cow in the text.

One last thing to be said is that all literal characters are in fact assertions themselves. The difference between them and the ones above is that literal characters have a size. So for cleanliness sake we only use the word "assertions" for those that are zero-width.

Groups and Alternation

One thing you might have noticed when we explained quantifiers is that they only worked on the character to the left. Since this pretty much limits our expressions I'll explain other uses for quantifiers. Quantifiers can also be used on metacharacters; using them on assertions is silly since assertions are zero-width and matching one, two, three or more of them doesn't do any good. However the grouping and sequence metacharacters are perfect for being quantified. Let's first start with grouping.

You can form groups, or subexpressions as they are frequently called, by using the begin and end parenthesis characters:

( and )

The ( starts the subexpression and the ) ends it. It is also possible to have one or more subexpressions inside a subexpressions. The subexpression will match if the contents match. So mixing this with quantifiers and assertions you can do:

( ?ho)+

which matches all of the following lines:

ho ho
ho ho ho

Another use for subexpressions are to extract a portion of the match if it matches. This is often used in conjunction with sequences, which are discussed later.

You can also use the result of a subexpression for what is called a back reference. A back reference is given by using a backslashified digit, a single non-zero digit. This leaves you with nine back references (0 through 9). The back reference matches whatever the corresponding subexpression actually matched (except that {article_contents_1} matches a null character). To find the number of the subexpression, count the open parentheses from the left.

The uses for back references are somewhat limited, especially since you only have nine of them, but on some rare occasion you might need it. Note some regular expression implementations can use multi-digit numbers as long as they don't start with a 0.

Next are alternations, which allow you to match on any of many words. The alternation character is:


A sample usage is:


would match either Bill, Linus, Steve or Larry. Mixing this with subexpressions and quantifiers we can do:


which matches any of the following words but no others:


I mentioned earlier in the article that not all of the expression must match for the match to be successful. This can happen when you're using subexpressions together with alternations. For example:

((Donald|Dolly) Duck)|(Scrooge McDuck)

As you see only the left or right top subexpression will match, not both. This is sometimes handy when you want to run a complex pattern in one subexpression and if it fails try another one.


Last we have sequences, which define sequences of characters which can match. Sometimes you don't want to match a word directly but rather something that resembles one. The sequence characters are:

[ and ]

Any characters put inside the sequence brackets are treated as literal characters, even metacharacters. The only special characters are - which denotes character ranges, and ^ which is used to negate a sequence. The sequence is somewhat similar to alternation; the similarity is that only one of the items listed will match. For instance:


will match any lowercase characters which are in the English alphabet (a to z). Another common sequence is:


Which matches any lowercase or capital characters in the English alphabet as well as numbers. Sequences are also mixed with quantifiers and assertions to produce more elaborate searches. Example:


matches all whole words. This will match:


but will not match:


Now if you wanted to find anything but words, the expression:


would find any sequences of characters which do not contain the English alphabet or any numbers.

Some implementations of regular expressions allow you to use shorthand versions for commonly used sequences, they are:

\d, a digit ([0-9])
\D, a non-digit ([^0-9])
\w, a word (alphanumeric) ([a-zA-Z0-9])
\W, a non-word ([^a-zA-Z0-9])
\s, a whitespace ([ \t\n\r\f])
\S, a non-whitespace ([^ \t\n\r\f])

For people who have some knowledge with wildcards (also known as file globs or file globbing), I'll give a brief explanation on how to convert them to regular expressions. After reading this article, you probably have seen the similarities with wildcards. For instance:


matches any text which end with .jpg. You can also specify brackets with characters, as in:


matches any text which ends in .cpp or .hpp. Altogether very similar to regular expressions.

The * means match zero or more of anything in wildcards. As we learned, we do this is regular expression with the punctuation mark and the * quantifier. This gives:


Also remember to convert any punctuation marks from wildcards to be backslashified.

The ? means match any character but do match something. This is exactly what the punctuation mark does.

Square brackets can be used untouched since they have the same meaning going from wildcards to regular expressions.

These leaves us with:



would be converted to:



would convert to:


or alternatively:


Example Regular Expressions

To really get to know regular expressions I've left some commonly used expressions on this page. Study them, experiment and try to understand exactly what they are doing.

Email validity: will only match email addresses which are valid, such as "":


Email validity #2: matches email addresses with a name in front, like "John Doe <>":

("?[a-zA-Z]+"?[ \t]*)+\<[a-z0-9_-]+(\.[a-z0-9_-]+)*@[a-z0-9_-]+(\.[a-z0-9_-]+)+\>

Protocol validity: matches web based protocols such as "htpp://", "ftp://" or "https://":


C/C++ includes: matches valid include statements in C/C++ files:

^#include[ \t]+[<"][^>"]+[">]

C++ end of line comments:


C/C++ span line comments (it has one flaw, can you spot it?):


Floating point numbers: matches simple floating point numbers of the kind 1.2 and 0.5:


Hexadecimal numbers: matches C/C++ style hex numbers, e.g. 0xcafebabe: