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5.30.1 Regular Expression Syntax

The syntax of a regular expression is as follows (this is adapted from the manual page):

A regular expression is zero or more branches, separated by ‘|’. It matches anything that matches one of the branches.

A branch is zero or more pieces, concatenated. It matches a match for the first, followed by a match for the second, etc.

A piece is an atom possibly followed by ‘*’, ‘+’, or ‘?’. An atom followed by ‘*’ matches a sequence of 0 or more matches of the atom. An atom followed by ‘+’ matches a sequence of 1 or more matches of the atom. An atom followed by ‘?’ matches a match of the atom, or the null string.

An atom is a regular expression in parentheses (matching a match for the regular expression), a range (see below), ‘.’ (matching any single character), ‘^’ (matching the null string at the beginning of the input string), ‘$’ (matching the null string at the end of the input string), one of the strings ‘\s’, ‘\S’, ‘\w’, ‘\W’, ‘\d’, ‘\D’, ‘\b’, ‘\B’, or a ‘\’ followed by a single character (matching that character), or a single character with no other significance (matching that character).

A range is a sequence of characters enclosed in ‘[]’. It normally matches any single character from the sequence. If the sequence begins with ‘^’, it matches any single character not from the rest of the sequence. If two characters in the sequence are separated by ‘-’, this is shorthand for the full list of ASCII characters between them (e.g. ‘[0-9]’ matches any decimal digit). To include a literal ‘]’ in the sequence, make it the first character (following a possible ‘^’). To include a literal ‘-’, make it the first or last character.

Also, any of the ‘*’, ‘+’ or ‘?’ operators can be suffixed by a ‘?’ character (i.e. ‘*?’, ‘+?’, ‘??’). The meaning of the operator remains the same but it becomes non-greedy. This means that it will match the smallest number of characters satisfying the regular expression, instead of the default behaviour which is to match the largest.

The backslash-introduced atoms have the following meanings:


Match any whitespace character.


Match any non-whitespace character.


Match any alphanumeric or underscore character.


Match any non-(alphanumeric or underscore) character.


Match any numeric character.


Match any non-numeric character.


Match the null string between two adjacent ‘\w’ and ‘\W’ characters (in any order).


Match the null string that is not between two adjacent ‘\w’ and ‘\W’ characters.

Some example legal regular expressions could be:


Matches an ‘a’ followed by zero or more ‘b’ characters, followed by one or more ‘a’ characters, followed by a ‘b’. For example, ‘aaab’, ‘abbbab’, etc…


Matches ‘one_three’ or ‘two_three’.


Matches ‘cmd_’ followed by one or more digits, it must start at the beginning of the line.

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