Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Regular Expression

10/15/2008 11:02:00 AM |

What Regular Expressions Are Exactly - Terminology

Basically, a regular expression is a pattern describing a certain amount of text. Their name comes from the mathematical theory on which they are based. But we will not dig into that. Since most people including myself are lazy to type, you will usually find the name abbreviated to regex or regexp. I prefer regex, because it is easy to pronounce the plural "regexes". On this website, regular expressions are printed as regex. If your browser has proper support for cascading style sheets, the regex should be highlighted in red.

This first example is actually a perfectly valid regex. It is the most basic pattern, simply matching the literal text regex. A "match" is the piece of text, or sequence of bytes or characters that pattern was found to correspond to by the regex processing software. Matches are highlighted in blue on this site.

\b[A-Z0-9._%+-]+@[A-Z0-9.-]+\.[A-Z]{2,4}\b is a more complex pattern. It describes a series of letters, digits, dots, underscores, percentage signs and hyphens, followed by an at sign, followed by another series of letters, digits and hyphens, finally followed by a single dot and between two and four letters. In other words: this pattern describes an email address.

With the above regular expression pattern, you can search through a text file to find email addresses, or verify if a given string looks like an email address. In this tutorial, I will use the term "string" to indicate the text that I am applying the regular expression to. I will highlight them in green. The term "string" or "character string" is used by programmers to indicate a sequence of characters. In practice, you can use regular expressions with whatever data you can access using the application or programming language you are working with.

Learn How to Use and Get The Most out of Regular Expressions

In this tutorial, I will teach you all you need to know to be able to craft powerful time-saving regular expressions. I will start with the most basic concepts, so that you can follow this tutorial even if you know nothing at all about regular expressions yet.

But I will not stop there. I will also explain how a regular expression engine works on the inside, and alert you at the consequences. This will help you to understand quickly why a particular regex does not do what you initially expected. It will save you lots of guesswork and head scratching when you need to write more complex regexes.

Different Regular Expression Engines

A regular expression "engine" is a piece of software that can process regular expressions, trying to match the pattern to the given string. Usually, the engine is part of a larger application and you do not access the engine directly. Rather, the application will invoke it for you when needed, making sure the right regular expression is applied to the right file or data.

As usual in the software world, different regular expression engines are not fully compatible with each other. It is not possible to describe every kind of engine and regular expression syntax (or "flavor") in this tutorial. I will focus on the regex flavor used by Perl 5, for the simple reason that this regex flavor is the most popular one, and deservedly so. Many more recent regex engines are very similar, but not identical, to the one of Perl 5. Examples are the open source PCRE engine (used in many tools and languages like PHP), the .NET regular expression library, and the regular expression package included with version 1.4 and later of the Java JDK. I will point out to you whenever differences in regex flavors are important, and which features are specific to the Perl-derivatives mentioned above.

Give Regexes a First Try

You can easily try the following yourself in a text editor that supports regular expressions, such as EditPad Pro. If you do not have such an editor, you can download the free evaluation version of EditPad Pro to try this out. EditPad Pro's regex engine is fully functional in the demo version. As a quick test, copy and paste the text of this page into EditPad Pro. Then select Search|Show Search Panel from the menu. In the search pane that appears near the bottom, type in regex in the box labeled "Search Text". Mark the "Regular expression" checkbox, and click the Find First button. This is the leftmost button on the search panel. See how EditPad Pro's regex engine finds the first match. Click the Find Next button, which sits next to the Find First button, to find further matches. When there are no further matches, the Find Next button's icon will flash briefly.

Now try to search using the regex reg(ular expressions?|ex(p|es)?) Analyze this regular expression with RegexBuddy. This regex will find all names, singular and plural, I have used on this page to say "regex". If we only had plain text search, we would have needed 5 searches. With regexes, we need just one search. Regexes save you time when using a tool like EditPad Pro. Select Count Matches in the Search menu to see how many times this regular expression can match the file you have open in EditPad Pro.

If you are a programmer, your software will run faster since even a simple regex engine applying the above regex once will outperform a state of the art plain text search algorithm searching through the data five times. Regular expressions also reduce development time. With a regex engine, it takes only one line (e.g. in Perl, PHP, Java or .NET) or a couple of lines (e.g. in C using PCRE) of code to, say, check if the user's input looks like a valid email address.

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