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How to write Regular Expressions?

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A regular expression (regex) is a sequence of characters that define a search pattern. Here’s how to write regular expressions:

  1. Start by understanding the special characters used in regex, such as “.”, “*”, “+”, “?”, and more.
  2. Choose a programming language or tool that supports regex, such as Python, Perl, or grep.
  3. Write your pattern using the special characters and literal characters.
  4. Use the appropriate function or method to search for the pattern in a string.

Examples:

  1. To match a sequence of literal characters, simply write those characters in the pattern.
  2. To match a single character from a set of possibilities, use square brackets, e.g. [0123456789] matches any digit.
  3. To match zero or more occurrences of the preceding expression, use the star (*) symbol.
  4. To match one or more occurrences of the preceding expression, use the plus (+) symbol.
  5. It is important to note that regex can be complex and difficult to read, so it is recommended to use tools like regex testers to debug and optimize your patterns.

A regular expression (sometimes called a rational expression) is a sequence of characters that define a search pattern, mainly for use in pattern matching with strings, or string matching, i.e. “find and replace” like operations. Regular expressions are a generalized way to match patterns with sequences of characters. It is used in every programming language like C++, Java and Python. 

What is a regular expression and what makes it so important? 

Regex is used in Google Analytics in URL matching in supporting search and replaces in most popular editors like Sublime, Notepad++, Brackets, Google Docs, and Microsoft Word.

Example :  Regular expression for an email address :
^([a-zA-Z0-9_\-\.]+)@([a-zA-Z0-9_\-\.]+)\.([a-zA-Z]{2,5})$ 

The above regular expression can be used for checking if a given set of characters is an email address or not. 

How to write regular expressions?

There are certain elements  used to write regular expressions as mentioned below:

1. Repeaters (  *, +, and { } )  

These symbols act as repeaters and tell the computer that the preceding character is to be used for more than just one time.

2. The asterisk symbol ( * )

It tells the computer to match the preceding character (or set of characters) for 0 or more times (upto infinite).

Example : The regular expression ab*c will give ac, abc, abbc, abbbc….and so on 

3. The Plus symbol ( + ) 

It tells the computer to repeat the preceding character (or set of characters) at atleast one or more times(up to infinite).

Example : The regular expression ab+c will give abc, abbc,
abbc, … and so on.

4. The curly braces { … } 

It tells the computer to repeat the preceding character (or set of characters) for as many times as the value inside this bracket.

Example : {2} means that the preceding character is to be repeated 2 
times, {min,} means the preceding character is matches min or  more 
times. {min,max} means that the preceding character is repeated at
least min & at most max times.

5. Wildcard ( . ) 

The dot symbol can take the place of any other symbol, that is why it is called the wildcard character.

Example : 
The Regular expression .* will tell the computer that any character
can be used any number of times.

6. Optional character ( ? ) 

This symbol tells the computer that the preceding character may or may not be present in the string to be matched.

Example : 
We may write the format for document file as – “docx?”
The ‘?’ tells the computer that x may or may not be 
present in the name of file format.

7. The caret ( ^ ) symbol ( Setting position for the match )

The caret symbol tells the computer that the match must start at the beginning of the string or line.

Example : ^\d{3} will match with patterns like "901" in "901-333-".

8.  The dollar ( $ ) symbol 

It tells the computer that the match must occur at the end of the string or before \n at the end of the line or string.

Example : -\d{3}$  will match with patterns like "-333" in "-901-333".

9. Character Classes 

A character class matches any one of a set of characters. It is used to match the most basic element of a language like a letter, a digit, a space, a symbol, etc. 

\s: matches any whitespace characters such as space and tab.
\S: matches any non-whitespace characters.
\d: matches any digit character.
\D: matches any non-digit characters.
\w : matches any word character (basically alpha-numeric)
\W: matches any non-word character.
\b: matches any word boundary (this would include spaces, dashes, commas, semi-colons, etc.
[set_of_characters]: Matches any single character in set_of_characters. By default, the match is case-sensitive.

Example : [abc] will match characters a,b and c in any string.

10. [^set_of_characters] Negation: 

Matches any single character that is not in set_of_characters. By default, the match is case-sensitive.

Example : [^abc] will match any character except a,b,c .

11. [first-last] Character range: 

Matches any single character in the range from first to last.

Example : [a-zA-z] will match any character from a to z or A to Z.

12. The Escape Symbol (  \  ) 

If you want to match for the actual ‘+’, ‘.’ etc characters, add a backslash( \ ) before that character. This will tell the computer to treat the following character as a search character and consider it for a matching pattern.

Example : \d+[\+-x\*]\d+ will match patterns like "2+2"
and "3*9" in "(2+2) * 3*9".

13. Grouping Characters ( ) 

A set of different symbols of a regular expression can be grouped together to act as a single unit and behave as a block, for this, you need to wrap the regular expression in the parenthesis( ).

Example : ([A-Z]\w+) contains two different elements of the regular 
expression combined together. This expression will match any pattern 
containing uppercase letter followed by any character.

14. Vertical Bar (  |  ) 

Matches any one element separated by the vertical bar (|) character.

Example :  th(e|is|at) will match words - the, this and that.

15. \number 

Backreference: allows a previously matched sub-expression(expression captured or enclosed within circular brackets ) to be identified subsequently in the same regular expression. \n means that group enclosed within the n-th bracket will be repeated at current position.

Example : ([a-z])\1 will match “ee” in Geek because the character 
at second position is same as character at position 1 of the match.

16. Comment ( ?# comment ) 

Inline comment: The comment ends at the first closing parenthesis.

Example : \bA(?#This is an inline comment)\w+\b

17. # [to end of line] 

X-mode comment. The comment starts at an unescaped # and continues to the end of the line.

Example :  (?x)\bA\w+\b#Matches words starting with A
Last Updated : 30 May, 2023
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