Andy Huang Home Page


The following content is from Andrey V. Sorokin, the author of freeware library TregExpr, with slight modification. If you want to see the original content, please visit .

Typing Course Generator uses TregExpr as the engine of regular expression.

Please be aware that the engine of regular expressions was designed for searching strings, not for searching words.

Syntax of Regular Expressions


Regular Expressions are a widely-used method of specifying patterns of text to search for. Special metacharacters allow You to specify, for instance, that a particular string You are looking for occurs at the beginning or end of a line, or contains n recurrences of a certain character.

Regular expressions look ugly for novices, but really they are very simple (well, usually simple ;) ), handly and powerfull tool.

I recommend You to play with regular expressions using RegExp Studio - it'll help You to understand main conceptions. Moreover, there are many predefined examples with comments included into repository of R.e. visual debugger.

Let's start our learning trip!

Simple matches

Any single character matches itself, unless it is a metacharacter with a special meaning described below.

A series of characters matches that series of characters in the target string, so the pattern "bluh" would match "bluh'' in the target string. Quite simple, eh ?

You can cause characters that normally function as metacharacters or escape sequences to be interpreted literally by 'escaping' them by preceding them with a backslash "\", for instance: metacharacter "^" match beginning of string, but "\^" match character "^", "\\" match "\" and so on.

  foobar          matchs string 'foobar'
  \^FooBarPtr     matchs '^FooBarPtr'

Escape sequences

Characters may be specified using a escape sequences syntax much like that used in C and Perl: "\n'' matches a newline, "\t'' a tab, etc. More generally, \xnn, where nn is a string of hexadecimal digits, matches the character whose ASCII value is nn. If You need wide (Unicode) character code, You can use '\x{nnnn}', where 'nnnn' - one or more hexadecimal digits.

  \xnn     char with hex code nn
  \x{nnnn} char with hex code nnnn (one byte for plain text and two bytes for Unicode)
  \t       tab (HT/TAB), same as \x09
  \n       newline (NL), same as \x0a
  \r       car.return (CR), same as \x0d
  \f       form feed (FF), same as \x0c
  \a       alarm (bell) (BEL), same as \x07
  \e       escape (ESC), same as \x1b

  foo\x20bar   matchs 'foo bar' (note space in the middle)
  \tfoobar     matchs 'foobar' predefined by tab

Character classes

You can specify a character class, by enclosing a list of characters in [], which will match any one character from the list.

If the first character after the "['' is "^'', the class matches any character not in the list.

  foob[aeiou]r   finds strings 'foobar', 'foober' etc. but not 'foobbr', 'foobcr' etc.
  foob[^aeiou]r  find strings 'foobbr', 'foobcr' etc. but not 'foobar', 'foober' etc.

Within a list, the "-'' character is used to specify a range, so that a-z represents all characters between "a'' and "z'', inclusive.

If You want "-'' itself to be a member of a class, put it at the start or end of the list, or escape it with a backslash. If You want ']' you may place it at the start of list or escape it with a backslash.

  [-az]      matchs 'a', 'z' and '-'
  [az-]      matchs 'a', 'z' and '-'
  [a\-z]     matchs 'a', 'z' and '-'
  [a-z]      matchs all twenty six small characters from 'a' to 'z'
  [\n-\x0D]  matchs any of #10,#11,#12,#13.
  [\d-t]     matchs any digit, '-' or 't'.
  []-a]      matchs any char from ']'..'a'.


Metacharacters are special characters which are the essence of Regular Expressions. There are different types of metacharacters, described below.

Metacharacters - line separators

  ^      start of line
  $      end of line
  \A     start of text
  \Z     end of text
  .      any character in line

  ^foobar     matchs string 'foobar' only if it's at the beginning of line
  foobar$     matchs string 'foobar' only if it's at the end of line
  ^foobar$    matchs string 'foobar' only if it's the only string in line
  foob.r      matchs strings like 'foobar', 'foobbr', 'foob1r' and so on

The "^" metacharacter by default is only guaranteed to match at the beginning of the input string/text, the "$" metacharacter only at the end. Embedded line separators will not be matched by "^'' or "$''.
You may, however, wish to treat a string as a multi-line buffer, such that the "^'' will match after any line separator within the string, and "$'' will match before any line separator. You can do this by switching On the modifier /m.
The \A and \Z are just like "^'' and "$'', except that they won't match multiple times when the modifier /m is used, while "^'' and "$'' will match at every internal line separator.

The ".'' metacharacter by default matches any character, but if You switch Off the modifier /s, then '.' won't match embedded line separators.

Metacharacters - predefined classes

  \w     an alphanumeric character (including "_")
  \W     a nonalphanumeric
  \d     a numeric character
  \D     a non-numeric
  \s     any space (same as [ \t\n\r\f])
  \S     a non space

You may use \w, \d and \s within custom character classes.

  foob\dr     matchs strings like 'foob1r', ''foob6r' and so on but not 'foobar', 'foobbr' and so on
  foob[\w\s]r matchs strings like 'foobar', 'foob r', 'foobbr' and so on but not 'foob1r', 'foob=r' and so on

TRegExpr uses properties SpaceChars and WordChars to define character classes \w, \W, \s, \S, so You can easely redefine it.

Metacharacters - word boundaries

  \b     Match a word boundary
  \B     Match a non-(word boundary)

A word boundary (\b) is a spot between two characters that has a \w on one side of it and a \W on the other side of it (in either order), counting the imaginary characters off the beginning and end of the string as matching a \W.

Metacharacters - iterators

Any item of a regular expression may be followed by another type of metacharacters - iterators. Using this metacharacters You can specify number of occurences of previous character, metacharacter or subexpression.

  *      zero or more ("greedy"), similar to {0,}
  +      one or more ("greedy"), similar to {1,}
  ?      zero or one ("greedy"), similar to {0,1}
  {n}    exactly n times ("greedy")
  {n,}   at least n times ("greedy")
  {n,m}  at least n but not more than m times ("greedy")
  *?     zero or more ("non-greedy"), similar to {0,}?
  +?     one or more ("non-greedy"), similar to {1,}?
  ??     zero or one ("non-greedy"), similar to {0,1}?
  {n}?   exactly n times ("non-greedy")
  {n,}?  at least n times ("non-greedy")
  {n,m}? at least n but not more than m times ("non-greedy")

So, digits in curly brackets of the form {n,m}, specify the minimum number of times to match the item n and the maximum m. The form {n} is equivalent to {n,n} and matches exactly n times. The form {n,} matches n or more times. There is no limit to the size of n or m, but large numbers will chew up more memory and slow down r.e. execution.

If a curly bracket occurs in any other context, it is treated as a regular character.

  foob.*r     matchs strings like 'foobar', 'foobalkjdflkj9r' and 'foobr'
  foob.+r     matchs strings like 'foobar', 'foobalkjdflkj9r' but not 'foobr'
  foob.?r     matchs strings like 'foobar', 'foobbr' and 'foobr' but not 'foobalkj9r'
  fooba{2}r   matchs the string 'foobaar'
  fooba{2,}r  matchs strings like 'foobaar', 'foobaaar', 'foobaaaar' etc.
  fooba{2,3}r matchs strings like 'foobaar', or 'foobaaar' but not 'foobaaaar'

A little explanation about "greediness". "Greedy" takes as many as possible, "non-greedy" takes as few as possible. For example, 'b+' and 'b*' applied to string 'abbbbc' return 'bbbb', 'b+?' returns 'b', 'b*?' returns empty string, 'b{2,3}?' returns 'bb', 'b{2,3}' returns 'bbb'.

You can switch all iterators into "non-greedy" mode (see the modifier /g).

Metacharacters - alternatives

You can specify a series of alternatives for a pattern using "|'' to separate them, so that fee|fie|foe will match any of "fee'', "fie'', or "foe'' in the target string (as would f(e|i|o)e). The first alternative includes everything from the last pattern delimiter ("('', "['', or the beginning of the pattern) up to the first "|'', and the last alternative contains everything from the last "|'' to the next pattern delimiter. For this reason, it's common practice to include alternatives in parentheses, to minimize confusion about where they start and end.
Alternatives are tried from left to right, so the first alternative found for which the entire expression matches, is the one that is chosen. This means that alternatives are not necessarily greedy. For example: when matching foo|foot against "barefoot'', only the "foo'' part will match, as that is the first alternative tried, and it successfully matches the target string. (This might not seem important, but it is important when you are capturing matched text using parentheses.)
Also remember that "|'' is interpreted as a literal within square brackets, so if You write [fee|fie|foe] You're really only matching [feio|].

  foo(bar|foo)  matchs strings 'foobar' or 'foofoo'.

Metacharacters - subexpressions

The bracketing construct ( ... ) may also be used for define r.e. subexpressions (after parsing You can find subexpression positions, lengths and actual values in MatchPos, MatchLen and Match properties of TRegExpr, and substitute it in template strings by TRegExpr.Substitute).

Subexpressions are numbered based on the left to right order of their opening parenthesis.
First subexpression has number '1' (whole r.e. match has number '0' - You can substitute it in TRegExpr.Substitute as '$0' or '$&').

  (foobar){8,10}  matchs strings which contain 8, 9 or 10 instances of the 'foobar'
  foob([0-9]|a+)r matchs 'foob0r', 'foob1r' , 'foobar', 'foobaar', 'foobaar' etc.

Metacharacters - backreferences

Metacharacters \1 through \9 are interpreted as backreferences. \<n> matches previously matched subexpression #<n>.

  (.)\1+         matchs 'aaaa' and 'cc'.
  (.+)\1+        also match 'abab' and '123123'
  (['"]?)(\d+)\1 matchs '"13" (in double quotes), or '4' (in single quotes) or 77 (without quotes) etc