Mark Pearl

Two parts of a regex

1) Subject string (the text beig parsed)
2) Regex (group of characters that represent rules for matching / searching text)

Elements of good RegEx Design

  • Whenever Possible, Anchor.
  • When You Know what You Want, Say It.
  • When You Know what You Don’t Want, Say It Too!
  • Contrast is Beautiful—Use It.
  • Want to Be Lazy? Think Twice.
  • A Time for Greed, a Time for Laziness.
  • On the Edges: Really Need Boundaries or Delimiters? Use Them—or Make Your Own!
  • Don’t Give Up what You Can Possess.
  • Don’t Match what Splits Easily.
  • Don’t Split what Matches Nicely.
  • Design to Fail.
  • Trust the Dot-Star to Get You to the End of the Line

Elements of good regex design

Lookaround Expressions

Lookarounds often cause confusion. I believe this confusion promptly disappears if one simple point is firmly grasped. It is that at the end of a lookahead or a lookbehind, the regex engine hasn’t moved on the string. You can chain three more lookaheads after the first, and the regex engine still won’t move. In fact, that’s a useful technique.

For a detailed walkthough

?: Match Everything Inclosed Expression

?: is used to define a sub expression that is not used for the back reference.

This construct is similar to (…), but won’t create a capture group.

Match everything enclosed.

?= Positive lookahead Expression

Starting at the current position in the expression, ensures that the given pattern will match. Does not consume characters.

?! Negative lookahead Expression

Starting at the current position in the expression, ensures that the given pattern will not match. Does not consume characters.


Or Operator

is the or operator, in the example below it would return true if your input has the numbers 407 OR 321 in the subject string.

In CSharp, the following would happen…

var result1 = Regex.IsMatch("1240756", "407|321"); // return true  
var result2 = Regex.IsMatch("5555555", "407|321"); // return false  
var result2 = Regex.IsMatch("0000321", "407|321"); // return true  

+ Operator

Repeat the character one or more times until it is no longer matched


The above matches on ar, arr, arrr, arrr… etc.


$ End of line
^ Start of Line
\b Word boundary (useful for matching whole words only)

Character Sets

Use a [] to represent a character set, for example matching all letters in the alphabet could be achieved as follows:



  • A range only works in a character set.
  • A character set represents 1 character in our subject text.
[a-z\s] - matches characters and white space
[0-9] - matches on numbers
[a-z0-9\s] - matches small letters, numbers and whitespace
\d - represents a number meta character and is equivalent to [0-9]  
\w - represents the word meta character and is equivalent to [a-zA-Z0-9]
\s - represents white space

You can use the ^ symbol to repsent negating the preceeding pattern.


It can sometimes be confusing on what the ^ represents because it has different meanings depending on its location.

[^\d] == \D (match every character except numbers
[^\s] == \S (match every character except white space
[^\w] == \W (match every character except words

Matching a specific number of times with internal expressions


The above matches two characters.


The above matches 1-3 characters.


The above matches a minimum of 3 characters and more

Matching multiple characters

You can use the + operator after a character set to represent that it must match one or more characters


You can use the * operate after a character set to represent that it must match zero or more characters



\i - ignore case modifier \m - multi line modifier (changes the anchors so that ^ anchors to the beginning of every line and $ anchors to the end of every line

Matching Case




The above uses the ignore case modifier. Modifiers are language specific, so check documents to make sure you have the correct modifier for a specific language (e.g. ruby, c#, etc).




\ represents … ? represents an optional pattern that will match the pattern 0 to 1 times, matching as few times as possible . representes a wildcard metacharacter that will match any character except the newline character

To use the ‘.’ in as a character you need to escape it


Characters that have a special meaning can be escaped with a backslash to use their literal meaning.


Use prenthesis to create groups.


The () section indicates that any one of these can be in the space.

Non-capturing Groups

?: - is known as a non-capturing group and can be used to cause a match without returning it.


Another example would be below where it finds a match for http or ftp but does not include it in a match.


Capturing Groups

Use a group (), to return a capture group


Returns only whole words matching gold from the sentence below (in this case 3 golds)

gold metal golden wood gold plastic metal stone rubber gold


\s represents spaces, tabs, new lines


Useful Examples

Add a word egg after certain letters (bcd) with a word.

word.replace(/[bcd]/ig, "$&egg")


[] Ranges
{} Multipliers

Check if the first occurance is followed by a pattern

For example: check if first occurance of x is followed by 2 x`s


Matching Any and No Characters

This is a bit of a hack because of special characters…

[\S\s] == any character

Negative Matching

Match any word that isn’t rock



Regex 101 - general regex tool
Verbal Expressions - a js library that helps you construct difficult regex expressions
Regex Query Analyzer
Rubular - ruby regex tool Regular Expressions - python regex resources
Ruby Regular Expressions - ruby regular expression resources
Oracle Regex Pocket Reference - regex for DB’s
Regular Expression Part VI

Match first letter of each word

/\b(\w)/g    // Joe Blogs => J B


Learn RegEx the Hard Way
Regular Expression for Javascript

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