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Regular Expressions

Perl-compatible Regular Expressions

This is an excerpt from the file RegularExpressions.txt that is supplied as part of the MUSHclient distribution.

If you enable regular expressions for things such as triggers, aliases, "recall" window, "find" command, and so on, this is the syntax that is used.

Note that Lua regular expressions use a different syntax, see the help page for "Lua String functions".

The syntax and semantics of the regular expressions supported by PCRE are described below. Regular expressions are also described in the Perl documentation and in a number of other books, some of which have copious examples. Jeffrey Friedl's "Mastering Regular Expressions", published by O'Reilly (ISBN 1-56592-257), covers them in great detail. The description here is intended as reference documentation.

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
  ]      terminates the character class

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


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 "\\".

If a pattern is compiled with the PCRE_EXTENDED option, whitespace in the pattern (other than in a character class) and characters between a "#" outside a character class and the next newline character are ignored. An escaping backslash can be used to include a whitespace or "#" character as part of the pattern.

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)
  \xhh   character with hex code hh
  \ddd   character with octal code ddd, or backreference

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.
After "\x", up to two hexadecimal digits are read (letters can be in upper or lower case).

After "\0" up to two further octal digits are read. In both cases, if there are fewer than two digits, just those that are present are used. Thus the sequence "\0\x\07" specifies two binary zeros followed by a BEL character. Make sure you supply two digits after the initial zero if the character that follows is itself an octal digit.

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.

Inside a character class, or if the decimal number is greater than 9 and there have not been that many capturing subpatterns, PCRE re-reads up to three octal digits following the backslash, and generates a single byte from the least significant 8 bits of the value. Any subsequent digits stand for themselves. For example:

  \040   is another way of writing a space
  \40    is the same, provided there are fewer than 40 previous capturing subpatterns
  \7     is always a back reference
  \11    might be a back reference, or another way of writing a tab
  \011   is always a tab
  \0113  is a tab followed by the character "3"
  \113   is the character with octal code 113 (since there can be no more than 99 back references)
  \377   is a byte consisting entirely of 1 bits
  \81    is either a back reference, or a binary zero followed by the two characters "8" and "1"

Note that octal values of 100 or greater must not be introduced by a leading zero, because no more than three octal digits are ever read.

All the sequences that define a single byte value can be used both inside and outside character classes. In addition, inside a character class, the sequence "\b" is interpreted as the backspace character (hex 08). Outside a character class it has a different meaning (see below).

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.

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 (see "Locale support" above). 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     word boundary
  \B     not a word boundary
  \A     start of subject (independent of multiline mode)
  \Z     end of subject or newline at  end  (independent  of multiline mode)
  \z     end of subject (independent of multiline mode)

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. They are not affected by the PCRE_NOTBOL or PCRE_NOTEOL options. If the startoffset argu- ment of pcre_exec() is non-zero, \A can never match. The difference between \Z and \z is that \Z matches before a newline that is the last character of the string as well as at the end of the string, whereas \z matches only at the end.

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. If the startoffset argument of pcre_exec() is non-zero, circumflex can never match. 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 meaning of dollar can be changed so that it matches only at the very end of the string, by setting the PCRE_DOLLAR_ENDONLY option at compile or matching time. This does not affect the \Z assertion.

The meanings of the circumflex and dollar characters are changed if the PCRE_MULTILINE option is set. When this is the case, they match immediately after and immediately before an internal "\n" 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. Consequently, patterns that are anchored in single line mode because all branches start with "^" are not anchored in multiline mode, and a match for circumflex is possible when the startoffset argument of pcre_exec() is non-zero. The PCRE_DOLLAR_ENDONLY option is ignored if PCRE_MULTILINE is set.

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 is it always anchored, whether PCRE_MULTILINE is set or not.

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 PCRE_DOTALL option is set, then 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.

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; the character must be in the set of characters defined by the class, unless the first character in the class 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 PCRE_DOTALL or PCRE_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 ASCII collating sequence. 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.

Posix character classes

Perl 5.6 (not yet released at the time of writing) is going to support the POSIX notation for character classes, which uses names enclosed by [: and :] within the enclosing square brackets. PCRE supports this notation. For example,


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

  alnum    letters and digits
  alpha    letters
  ascii    character codes 0 - 127
  cntrl    control characters
  digit    decimal digits (same as \d)
  graph    printing characters, excluding space
  lower    lower case letters
  print    printing characters, including space
  punct    printing characters, excluding letters and digits
  space    white space (same as \s)
  upper    upper case letters
  word     "word" characters (same as \w)
  xdigit   hexadecimal digits

The names "ascii" and "word" are Perl extensions. Another Perl extension is negation, which is indicated by a ^ character after the colon. For example,


matches "1", "2", or any non-digit. PCRE (and Perl) also recogize 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.

Vertical bar

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


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.


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


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 passed back to the caller via the ovector argument of pcre_exec(). 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.

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 "?:", 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 captured substrings is 99, and the maximum number 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


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".


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

  a single character, possibly escaped
  the . metacharacter
  a character class
  a back reference (see next section)
  a parenthesized subpattern (unless it is  an  assertion - see below)

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:


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


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


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:


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 due to the greediness of the .* item.

However, if a quantifier is followed by a question mark, then 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


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

If the PCRE_UNGREEDY option is set (an option which is not available in Perl) then 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 PCRE_DOTALL option (equivalent to Perl's /s) is set, thus allowing the . to match newlines, then 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 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 PCRE_DOTALL when the pattern begins with .* in order to obtain this optimization, or alternatively using ^ to indicate anchoring explicitly.

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


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


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

More ...

There is more than this to regular expressions, however this is the basic part. See the documentation referred to at the start for more details.


  Philip Hazel <ph10@cam.ac.uk>
  University Computing Service,
  New Museums Site,
  Cambridge CB2 3QG, England.

  Copyright (c) 1997-2000 University of Cambridge.

See Also ...


Lua LPEG library
Lua string functions


Problem parsing regular expression

(Help topic: general=regexp)

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