perlre - Perl regular expressions


This page describes the syntax of regular expressions in Perl. For a description of how to use regular expressions in matching operations, plus various examples of the same, see m// and s/// in the perlop manpage.

The matching operations can have various modifiers, some of which relate to the interpretation of the regular expression inside. These are:

Do case-insensitive pattern matching.

If use locale is in effect, the case map is taken from the current locale. See the perllocale manpage.

Treat string as multiple lines. That is, change ``^'' and ``$'' from matching at only the very start or end of the string to the start or end of any line anywhere within the string,

Treat string as single line. That is, change ``.'' to match any character whatsoever, even a newline, which it normally would not match.

Extend your pattern's legibility by permitting whitespace and comments.

These are usually written as ``the /x modifier'', even though the delimiter in question might not actually be a slash. In fact, any of these modifiers may also be embedded within the regular expression itself using the new construct. See below.

The /x modifier itself needs a little more explanation. It tells the regular expression parser to ignore whitespace that is neither backslashed nor within a character class. You can use this to break up your regular expression into (slightly) more readable parts. The # character is also treated as a meta-character introducing a comment, just as in ordinary Perl code. This also means that if you want real whitespace or # characters in the pattern that you'll have to either escape them or encode them using octal or hex escapes. Taken together, these features go a long way towards making Perl's regular expressions more readable. See the C comment deletion code in the perlop manpage.

Regular Expressions

The patterns used in pattern matching are regular expressions such as those supplied in the Version 8 regexp routines. (In fact, the routines are derived (distantly) from Henry Spencer's freely redistributable reimplementation of the V8 routines.) See Version 8 Regular Expressions for details.

In particular the following metacharacters have their standard egrep-ish meanings:

    \	Quote the next meta-character
    ^	Match the beginning of the line
    .	Match any character (except newline)
    $	Match the end of the line (or before newline at the end)
    |	Alternation
    ()	Grouping
    []	Character class

By default, the ``^'' character is guaranteed to match at only the beginning of the string, the ``$'' character at only the end (or before the newline at the end) and Perl does certain optimizations with the assumption that the string contains only one line. Embedded newlines will not be matched by ``^'' or ``$''. You may, however, wish to treat a string as a multi-line buffer, such that the ``^'' will match after any newline within the string, and ``$'' will match before any newline. At the cost of a little more overhead, you can do this by using the /m modifier on the pattern match operator. (Older programs did this by setting $*, but this practice is now deprecated.)

To facilitate multi-line substitutions, the ``.'' character never matches a newline unless you use the /s modifier, which in effect tells Perl to pretend the string is a single line--even if it isn't. The /s modifier also overrides the setting of $*, in case you have some (badly behaved) older code that sets it in another module.

The following standard quantifiers are recognized:

    *	   Match 0 or more times
    +	   Match 1 or more times
    ?	   Match 1 or 0 times
    {n}    Match exactly n times
    {n,}   Match at least n times
    {n,m}  Match at least n but not more than m times

(If a curly bracket occurs in any other context, it is treated as a regular character.) The ``*'' modifier is equivalent to {0,}, the ``+'' modifier to {1,}, and the ``?'' modifier to {0,1}. n and m are limited to integral values less than 65536.

By default, a quantified sub-pattern is ``greedy'', that is, it will match as many times as possible without causing the rest of the pattern not to match. The standard quantifiers are all ``greedy'', in that they match as many occurrences as possible (given a particular starting location) without causing the pattern to fail. If you want it to match the minimum number of times possible, follow the quantifier with a ``?'' after any of them. Note that the meanings don't change, just the ``gravity'':

    *?	   Match 0 or more times
    +?	   Match 1 or more times
    ??	   Match 0 or 1 time
    {n}?   Match exactly n times
    {n,}?  Match at least n times
    {n,m}? Match at least n but not more than m times

Because patterns are processed as double quoted strings, the following also work:

    \t		tab                   (HT, TAB)
    \n		newline               (LF, NL)
    \r		return                (CR)
    \f		form feed             (FF)
    \a		alarm (bell)          (BEL)
    \e		escape (think troff)  (ESC)
    \033	octal char (think of a PDP-11)
    \x1B	hex char
    \c[		control char
    \l		lowercase next char (think vi)
    \u		uppercase next char (think vi)
    \L		lowercase till \E (think vi)
    \U		uppercase till \E (think vi)
    \E		end case modification (think vi)
    \Q		quote regexp metacharacters till \E

If use locale is in effect, the case map used by \l, \L, \u and < \U> is taken from the current locale. See the perllocale manpage.

In addition, Perl defines the following:

    \w	Match a "word" character (alphanumeric plus "_")
    \W	Match a non-word character
    \s	Match a whitespace character
    \S	Match a non-whitespace character
    \d	Match a digit character
    \D	Match a non-digit character

Note that \w matches a single alphanumeric character, not a whole word. To match a word you'd need to say \w+. If use locale is in effect, the list of alphabetic characters generated by \w is taken from the current locale. See the perllocale manpage. You may use \w, \W, \s, \S, \d, and \D within character classes (though not as either end of a range).

Perl defines the following zero-width assertions:

    \b	Match a word boundary
    \B	Match a non-(word boundary)
    \A	Match at only beginning of string
    \Z	Match at only end of string (or before newline at the end)
    \G	Match only where previous m//g left off

A word boundary (\b) is defined as a spot between two characters that has a \w on one side of it and 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. (Within character classes \b represents backspace rather than a word boundary.) The \A and \Z are just like ``^'' and ``$'' except that they won't match multiple times when the /m modifier is used, while ``^'' and ``$'' will match at every internal line boundary. To match the actual end of the string, not ignoring newline, you can use \Z. The \G assertion can be used to mix global matches (using m//g) and non-global ones, as described in Regexp Quote-Like Operators. It is also useful when writing lex-like scanners, when you have several regexps which you want to match against consequent substrings of your string, see the previous reference. The actual location where \G will match can also be influenced by using pos as an lvalue. See pos.

When the bracketing construct is used, \<digit> matches the digit'th substring. Outside of the pattern, always use ``$'' instead of ``\'' in front of the digit. (While the \<digit> notation can on rare occasion work outside the current pattern, this should not be relied upon. See the WARNING below.) The scope of $ <digit> (and $`, $&, and $') extends to the end of the enclosing BLOCK or eval string, or to the next successful pattern match, whichever comes first. If you want to use parentheses to delimit a subpattern (e.g., a set of alternatives) without saving it as a subpattern, follow the ( with a ?:.

You may have as many parentheses as you wish. If you have more than 9 substrings, the variables $10, $11, ... refer to the corresponding substring. Within the pattern, \10, \11, etc. refer back to substrings if there have been at least that many left parentheses before the backreference. Otherwise (for backward compatibility) \10 is the same as \010, a backspace, and \11 the same as \011, a tab. And so on. (\1 through \9 are always backreferences.)

$+ returns whatever the last bracket match matched. $& returns the entire matched string. ($0 used to return the same thing, but not any more.) $` returns everything before the matched string. $' returns everything after the matched string. Examples:

    s/^([^ ]*) *([^ ]*)/$2 $1/;     # swap first two words

    if (/Time: (..):(..):(..)/) {
	$hours = $1;
	$minutes = $2;
	$seconds = $3;

You will note that all backslashed metacharacters in Perl are alphanumeric, such as \b, \w, \n. Unlike some other regular expression languages, there are no backslashed symbols that aren't alphanumeric. So anything that looks like \\, \(, \), \<, \>, \{, or \} is always interpreted as a literal character, not a meta-character. This makes it simple to quote a string that you want to use for a pattern but that you are afraid might contain metacharacters. Quote simply all the non-alphanumeric characters:

    $pattern =~ s/(\W)/\\$1/g;

You can also use the built-in quotemeta function to do this. An even easier way to quote metacharacters right in the match operator is to say


Perl defines a consistent extension syntax for regular expressions. The syntax is a pair of parentheses with a question mark as the first thing within the parentheses (this was a syntax error in older versions of Perl). The character after the question mark gives the function of the extension. Several extensions are already supported:

A comment. The text is ignored. If the /x switch is used to enable whitespace formatting, a simple # will suffice.

This groups things like ``()'' but doesn't make backreferences like ``()'' does. So


is like


but doesn't spit out extra fields.

A zero-width positive lookahead assertion. For example, /\w+/ matches a word followed by a tab, without including the tab in $&.

A zero-width negative lookahead assertion. For example /foo/ matches any occurrence of ``foo'' that isn't followed by ``bar''. Note however that lookahead and lookbehind are NOT the same thing. You cannot use this for lookbehind: /bar/ will not find an occurrence of ``bar'' that is preceded by something which is not ``foo''. That's because the is just saying that the next thing cannot be ``foo''--and it's not, it's a ``bar'', so ``foobar'' will match. You would have to do something like / for that. We say ``like'' because there's the case of your ``bar'' not having three characters before it. You could cover that this way: /(?:...|^..?)bar/. Sometimes it's still easier just to say:

    if (/foo/ && $` =~ /bar$/)

One or more embedded pattern-match modifiers. This is particularly useful for patterns that are specified in a table somewhere, some of which want to be case sensitive, and some of which don't. The case insensitive ones need to include merely at the front of the pattern. For example:

    $pattern = "foobar";
    if ( /$pattern/i )

    # more flexible:

    $pattern = "(?i)foobar";
    if ( /$pattern/ )

The specific choice of question mark for this and the new minimal matching construct was because 1) question mark is pretty rare in older regular expressions, and 2) whenever you see one, you should stop and ``question'' exactly what is going on. That's psychology...


A fundamental feature of regular expression matching involves the notion called backtracking. which is used (when needed) by all regular expression quantifiers, namely *, *?, +, +?, {n,m}, and {n,m}?.

For a regular expression to match, the entire regular expression must match, not just part of it. So if the beginning of a pattern containing a quantifier succeeds in a way that causes later parts in the pattern to fail, the matching engine backs up and recalculates the beginning part--that's why it's called backtracking.

Here is an example of backtracking: Let's say you want to find the word following ``foo'' in the string ``Food is on the foo table.'':

    $_ = "Food is on the foo table.";
    if ( /\b(foo)\s+(\w+)/i ) {
	print "$2 follows $1.\n";

When the match runs, the first part of the regular expression (\b) finds a possible match right at the beginning of the string, and loads up $1 with ``Foo''. However, as soon as the matching engine sees that there's no whitespace following the ``Foo'' that it had saved in $1, it realizes its mistake and starts over again one character after where it had had the tentative match. This time it goes all the way until the next occurrence of ``foo''. The complete regular expression matches this time, and you get the expected output of ``table follows foo.''

Sometimes minimal matching can help a lot. Imagine you'd like to match everything between ``foo'' and ``bar''. Initially, you write something like this:

    $_ =  "The food is under the bar in the barn.";
    if ( /foo(.*)bar/ ) {
	print "got <$1>\n";

Which perhaps unexpectedly yields:

  got <d is under the bar in the >

That's because .* was greedy, so you get everything between the first ``foo'' and the last ``bar''. In this case, it's more effective to use minimal matching to make sure you get the text between a ``foo'' and the first ``bar'' thereafter.

    if ( /foo(.*?)bar/ ) { print "got <$1>\n" }
  got <d is under the >

Here's another example: let's say you'd like to match a number at the end of a string, and you also want to keep the preceding part the match. So you write this:

    $_ = "I have 2 numbers: 53147";
    if ( /(.*)(\d*)/ ) {				# Wrong!
	print "Beginning is <$1>, number is <$2>.\n";

That won't work at all, because .* was greedy and gobbled up the whole string. As \d* can match on an empty string the complete regular expression matched successfully.

    Beginning is <I have 2 numbers: 53147>, number is <>.

Here are some variants, most of which don't work:

    $_ = "I have 2 numbers: 53147";
    @pats = qw{

    for $pat (@pats) {
	printf "%-12s ", $pat;
	if ( /$pat/ ) {
	    print "<$1> <$2>\n";
	} else {
	    print "FAIL\n";

That will print out:

    (.*)(\d*)    <I have 2 numbers: 53147> <>
    (.*)(\d+)    <I have 2 numbers: 5314> <7>
    (.*?)(\d*)   <> <>
    (.*?)(\d+)   <I have > <2>
    (.*)(\d+)$   <I have 2 numbers: 5314> <7>
    (.*?)(\d+)$  <I have 2 numbers: > <53147>
    (.*)\b(\d+)$ <I have 2 numbers: > <53147>
    (.*\D)(\d+)$ <I have 2 numbers: > <53147>

As you see, this can be a bit tricky. It's important to realize that a regular expression is merely a set of assertions that gives a definition of success. There may be 0, 1, or several different ways that the definition might succeed against a particular string. And if there are multiple ways it might succeed, you need to understand backtracking to know which variety of success you will achieve.

When using lookahead assertions and negations, this can all get even tricker. Imagine you'd like to find a sequence of non-digits not followed by ``123''. You might try to write that as

	$_ = "ABC123";
	if ( /^\D*(?!123)/ ) {				# Wrong!
	    print "Yup, no 123 in $_\n";

But that isn't going to match; at least, not the way you're hoping. It claims that there is no 123 in the string. Here's a clearer picture of why it that pattern matches, contrary to popular expectations:

    $x = 'ABC123' ;
    $y = 'ABC445' ;

    print "1: got $1\n" if $x =~ /^(ABC)(?!123)/ ;
    print "2: got $1\n" if $y =~ /^(ABC)(?!123)/ ;

    print "3: got $1\n" if $x =~ /^(\D*)(?!123)/ ;
    print "4: got $1\n" if $y =~ /^(\D*)(?!123)/ ;

This prints

    2: got ABC
    3: got AB
    4: got ABC

You might have expected test 3 to fail because it seems to a more general purpose version of test 1. The important difference between them is that test 3 contains a quantifier (\D*) and so can use backtracking, whereas test 1 will not. What's happening is that you've asked ``Is it true that at the start of $x, following 0 or more non-digits, you have something that's not 123?'' If the pattern matcher had let \D* expand to ``ABC'', this would have caused the whole pattern to fail. The search engine will initially match \D* with ``ABC''. Then it will try to match (?!123 with ``123'' which, of course, fails. But because a quantifier (\D*) has been used in the regular expression, the search engine can backtrack and retry the match differently in the hope of matching the complete regular expression.

Well now, the pattern really, really wants to succeed, so it uses the standard regexp back-off-and-retry and lets \D* expand to just ``AB'' this time. Now there's indeed something following ``AB'' that is not ``123''. It's in fact ``C123'', which suffices.

We can deal with this by using both an assertion and a negation. We'll say that the first part in $1 must be followed by a digit, and in fact, it must also be followed by something that's not ``123''. Remember that the lookaheads are zero-width expressions--they only look, but don't consume any of the string in their match. So rewriting this way produces what you'd expect; that is, case 5 will fail, but case 6 succeeds:

    print "5: got $1\n" if $x =~ /^(\D*)(?=\d)(?!123)/ ;
    print "6: got $1\n" if $y =~ /^(\D*)(?=\d)(?!123)/ ;

    6: got ABC

In other words, the two zero-width assertions next to each other work like they're ANDed together, just as you'd use any builtin assertions: /^$/ matches only if you're at the beginning of the line AND the end of the line simultaneously. The deeper underlying truth is that juxtaposition in regular expressions always means AND, except when you write an explicit OR using the vertical bar. /ab/ means match ``a'' AND (then) match ``b'', although the attempted matches are made at different positions because ``a'' is not a zero-width assertion, but a one-width assertion.

One warning: particularly complicated regular expressions can take exponential time to solve due to the immense number of possible ways they can use backtracking to try match. For example this will take a very long time to run


And if you used *'s instead of limiting it to 0 through 5 matches, then it would take literally forever--or until you ran out of stack space.

Version 8 Regular Expressions

In case you're not familiar with the ``regular'' Version 8 regexp routines, here are the pattern-matching rules not described above.

Any single character matches itself, unless it is a meta-character with a special meaning described here or above. You can cause characters which normally function as metacharacters to be interpreted literally by prefixing them with a ``\'' (e.g., ``\.'' matches a ``.'', not any character; ``\\'' matches a ``\''). A series of characters matches that series of characters in the target string, so the pattern blurfl would match ``blurfl'' in the target string.

You can specify a character class, by enclosing a list of characters in [], which will match any one of the characters in the list. If the first character after the ``['' is ``^'', the class matches any character not in the list. Within a list, the ``-'' character is used to specify a range, so that a-z represents all the characters between ``a'' and ``z'', inclusive.

Characters may be specified using a meta-character syntax much like that used in C: ``\n'' matches a newline, ``\t'' a tab, ``\r'' a carriage return, ``\f'' a form feed, etc. More generally, \ nnn, where nnn is a string of octal digits, matches the character whose ASCII value is nnn. Similarly, \xnn, where nn are hexadecimal digits, matches the character whose ASCII value is nn. The expression \cx matches the ASCII character control-x. Finally, the ``.'' meta-character matches any character except ``\n'' (unless you use /s).

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 fe). Note that 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. Note however that ``|'' is interpreted as a literal with square brackets, so if you write [fee|fie|foe] you're really only matching [feio|].

Within a pattern, you may designate sub-patterns for later reference by enclosing them in parentheses, and you may refer back to the nth sub-pattern later in the pattern using the meta-character \n. Sub-patterns are numbered based on the left to right order of their opening parenthesis. Note that a backreference matches whatever actually matched the sub-pattern in the string being examined, not the rules for that sub-pattern. Therefore, \d*\s\1\d* will match ``0x1234 0x4321'',but not ``0x1234 01234'', because sub-pattern 1 actually matched ``0x'', even though the rule 0|0x could potentially match the leading 0 in the second number.

WARNING on \1 vs $1

Some people get too used to writing things like

    $pattern =~ s/(\W)/\\\1/g;

This is grandfathered for the RHS of a substitute to avoid shocking the sed addicts, but it's a dirty habit to get into. That's because in PerlThink, the righthand side of a s/// is a double-quoted string. \1 in the usual double-quoted string means a control-A. The customary Unix meaning of \1 is kludged in for s///. However, if you get into the habit of doing that, you get yourself into trouble if you then add an /e modifier.

    s/(\d+)/ \1 + 1 /eg;

Or if you try to do


You can't disambiguate that by saying \{1}000, whereas you can fix it with ${1}000. Basically, the operation of interpolation should not be confused with the operation of matching a backreference. Certainly they mean two different things on the left side of the s///.