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Regular Expressions


ICU's Regular Expressions package provides applications with the ability to apply regular expression matching to Unicode string data. The regular expression patterns and behavior are based on Perl's regular expressions. The C++ programming API for using ICU regular expressions is loosely based on the JDK 1.4 package java.util.regex, with some extensions to adapt it for use in a C++ environment. A plain C API is also provided.

The ICU Regular expression API supports operations including testing for a pattern match, searching for a pattern match, and replacing matched text. Capture groups allow subranges within an overall match to be identified, and to appear within replacement text.

A Perl-inspired split() function that breaks a string into fields based on a delimiter pattern is also included.

ICU Regular Expressions conform to Unicode Technical Standard #18 , Unicode Regular Expressions, level 1, and in addition include Default Word boundaries and Name Properties from level 2.

A detailed description of regular expression patterns and pattern matching behavior is not included in this user guide. The best reference for this topic is the book "Mastering Regular Expressions, Second Edition" by Jeffrey E. F. Friedl, O'Reilly & Associates; 2nd edition (July 15, 2002). Matching behavior can sometimes be surprising, and this book is highly recommended for anyone doing significant work with regular expressions.

Using ICU Regular Expressions

The ICU C++ Regular Expression API includes two classes, RegexPattern and RegexMatcher, that parallel the classes from the Java JDK package java.util.regex.    A RegexPattern represents a compiled regular expression while RegexMatcher associates a RegexPattern and an input string to be matched, and provides API for the various find, match and replace operations. In most cases, however, only the class RegexMatcher is needed, and the existence of class RegexPattern can safely be ignored.

The first step in using a regular expression is typically the creation of a RegexMatcher object from the source (string) form of the regular expression.

RegexMatcher holds a pre-processed (compiled) pattern and a reference to an input string to be matched, and provides API for the various find, match and replace operations. RegexMatchers can be reset and reused with new input, thus avoiding object creation overhead when performing the same matching operation repeatedly on different strings.

The following code will create a RegexMatcher from a string containing a regular expression, and then perform a simple find() operation.

#include <unicode/regex.h>

UErrorCode        status    = U_ZERO_ERROR;


RegexMatcher *matcher = new RegexMatcher("abc+", 0, status);
if (U_FAILURE(status)) {
    // Handle any syntax errors in the regular expression here

UnicodeString    stringToTest = "Find the abc in this string";

if (matcher->find()) {
   // We found a match.
   int startOfMatch = matcher->start(status);   // string index of start of match.

Several types of matching tests are available

Function Description
matches() True if the pattern matches the entire string. from the start through to the last character.
lookingAt() True if the pattern matches at the start of the string. The match need not include the entire string.
find() True if the pattern matches somewhere within the string. Successive calls to find() will find additional matches, until the string is exhausted.

If additional text is to be checked for a match with the same pattern, there is no need to create a new matcher object; just reuse the existing one.

if (myMatcher->matches(status)) {
   // We have a with the new string.

Note that matching happens directly in the string supplied by the application. This reduces the overhead when resetting a matcher to an absolute minimum – the matcher need only store a reference to the new string – but it does mean that the application must be careful not to modify or delete the string while the matcher is holding a reference to the string.

After finding a match, additional information is available about the range of the input matched, and the contents of any capture groups. Note that, for simplicity, any error parameters have been omitted. See the API reference for complete a complete description of the API.

Function Description
start() Return the index of the start of the matched region in the input string .
end() Return the index of the first character following the match.
group() Return a UnicodeString containing the text that was matched.
start(n) Return the index of the start of the text matched by the nth capture group.
end(n) Return the index of the first character following the text matched by the nth capture group.
group(n) Return a UnicodeString containing the text that was matched by the nth capture group..

Regular Expression Metacharacters

Character outside
of sets
[inside sets] Description
\a Match a BELL, \u0007
Match at the beginning of the input. Differs from ^ in that \A will not match after a new line within the input.
Match if the current position is a word boundary. Boundaries occur at the transitions between word (\w) and non-word (\W) characters, with combining marks ignored. For better word boundaries, see ICU Boundary Analysis .
\B  ✓   Match if the current position is not a word boundary.
\cX  ✓ ✓  Match a control-X character.
\d  ✓ ✓  Match any character with the Unicode General Category of Nd (Number, Decimal Digit.)
\D  ✓ ✓  Match any character that is not a decimal digit.
\e  ✓ ✓  Match an ESCAPE, \u001B.
\E  ✓  ✓ Terminates a \Q ... \E quoted sequence.
\f  ✓ ✓  Match a FORM FEED, \u000C.
\G  ✓   Match if the current position is at the end of the previous match.
\n  ✓ ✓  Match a LINE FEED, \u000A.
\N{UNICODE CHARACTER NAME}  ✓ ✓  Match the named character.
\p{UNICODE PROPERTY NAME}  ✓ ✓  Match any character with the specified Unicode Property.
\P{UNICODE PROPERTY NAME}  ✓ ✓  Match any character not having the specified Unicode Property.
\Q  ✓  ✓ Quotes all following characters until \E.
\r  ✓ ✓  Match a CARRIAGE RETURN, \u000D.
\s  ✓ Match a white space character. White space is defined as [\t\n\f\r\p{Z}].
\S  ✓ ✓  Match a non-white space character.
\t  ✓ ✓  Match a HORIZONTAL TABULATION, \u0009.
\uhhhh  ✓ ✓  Match the character with the hex value hhhh.
\Uhhhhhhhh  ✓ ✓  Match the character with the hex value hhhhhhhh. Exactly eight hex digits must be provided, even though the largest Unicode code point is \U0010ffff.
\w  ✓ ✓  Match a word character. Word characters are [\p{Alphabetic}\p{Mark}\p{Decimal_Number}\p{Connector_Punctuation}\u200c\u200d].
\W  ✓ ✓  Match a non-word character.
\x{hhhh}  ✓ ✓  Match the character with hex value hhhh. From one to six hex digits may be supplied.
\xhh  ✓ ✓  Match the character with two digit hex value hh
\X  ✓   Match a Grapheme Cluster .
\Z  ✓   Match if the current position is at the end of input, but before the final line terminator, if one exists.
\z  ✓   Match if the current position is at the end of input.
\n  ✓   Back Reference. Match whatever the nth capturing group matched. n must be a number > 1 and < total number of capture groups in the pattern.
\0ooo  ✓ ✓  Match an Octal character.  'ooo' is from one to three octal digits.  0377 is the largest allowed Octal character.  The leading zero is required; it distinguishes Octal constants from back references.
[pattern]  ✓ ✓  Match any one character from the set. 
.  ✓   Match any character.
^  ✓   Match at the beginning of a line.
$  ✓   Match at the end of a line.
\  ✓   Quotes the following character. Characters that must be quoted to be treated as literals are * ? + [ ( ) { } ^ $ | \ .
\    ✓ Quotes the following character. Characters that must be quoted to be treated as literals are [ ] \
Characters that may need to be quoted, depending on the context are - &

Regular Expression Operators

Operator Description
| Alternation. A|B matches either A or B.
* Match 0 or more times. Match as many times as possible.
+ Match 1 or more times. Match as many times as possible.
? Match zero or one times. Prefer one.
{n} Match exactly n times
{n,} Match at least n times. Match as many times as possible.
{n,m} Match between n and m times. Match as many times as possible, but not more than m.
*? Match 0 or more times. Match as few times as possible.
+? Match 1 or more times. Match as few times as possible.
?? Match zero or one times. Prefer zero.
{n}? Match exactly n times
{n,}? Match at least n times, but no more than required for an overall pattern match
{n,m}? Match between n and m times. Match as few times as possible, but not less than n.
*+ Match 0 or more times. Match as many times as possible when first encountered, do not retry with fewer even if overall match fails (Possessive Match)
++ Match 1 or more times. Possessive match.
?+ Match zero or one times. Possessive match.
{n}+ Match exactly n times
{n,}+ Match at least n times. Possessive Match.
{n,m}+ Match between n and m times. Possessive Match.
( ... ) Capturing parentheses. Range of input that matched the parenthesized subexpression is available after the match.
(?: ... ) Non-capturing parentheses. Groups the included pattern, but does not provide capturing of matching text. Somewhat more efficient than capturing parentheses.
(?> ... ) Atomic-match parentheses. First match of the parenthesized subexpression is the only one tried; if it does not lead to an overall pattern match, back up the search for a match to a position before the "(?>"
(?# ... ) Free-format comment (?# comment ).
(?= ... ) Look-ahead assertion. True if the parenthesized pattern matches at the current input position, but does not advance the input position.
(?! ... ) Negative look-ahead assertion. True if the parenthesized pattern does not match at the current input position. Does not advance the input position.
(?<= ... ) Look-behind assertion. True if the parenthesized pattern matches text preceding the current input position, with the last character of the match being the input character just before the current position. Does not alter the input position. The length of possible strings matched by the look-behind pattern must not be unbounded (no * or + operators.)
(?<! ... ) Negative Look-behind assertion. True if the parenthesized pattern does not match text preceding the current input position, with the last character of the match being the input character just before the current position. Does not alter the input position. The length of possible strings matched by the look-behind pattern must not be unbounded (no * or + operators.)
(?ismwx-ismwx: ... ) Flag settings. Evaluate the parenthesized expression with the specified flags enabled or -disabled.
(?ismwx-ismwx) Flag settings. Change the flag settings. Changes apply to the portion of the pattern following the setting. For example, (?i) changes to a case insensitive match.

Set Expressions (Character Classes)

Example Description
[abc] Match any of the characters a, b or c
[^abc] Negation - match any character except a, b or c
[A-M] Range - match any character from A to M. The characters to include are determined by Unicode code point ordering.
[\u0000-\U0010ffff] Range - match all characters.
Characters with Unicocde Category = Letter. All forms shown are equivalent.
[\P{Letter}] Negated property. (Upper case \P) Match everything except Letters.
[\p{numeric_value=9}] Match all numbers with a numeric value of 9. Any Unicode Property may be used in set expressions.
[\p{Letter}&&\p{script=cyrillic}] Logical AND or intersection.  Match the set of all Cyrillic letters.
[\p{Letter}--\p{script=latin}]  Subtraction.  Match all non-Latin letters.
Implicit Logical OR or Union of Sets.  The examples match ASCII letters and digits.  The two forms are equivalent.
 Alternate POSIX-like syntax for properties.  Equivalent to \p{script=Greek}

Case Insensitive Matching

Case insensitive matching is specified by the UREGEX_CASE_INSENSITIVE flag during pattern compilation, or by the (?i) flag within a pattern itself.  Unicode case insensitive matching is complicated by the fact that changing the case of a string may change its length.  See for more information on Unicode casing operations.

Full case-insensitive matching handles situations where the number of characters in equal string may differ.  "fußball" compares equal "FUSSBALL", for example.

Simple case insensitive matching operates one character at a time on the strings being compared.    "fußball" does not compare equal to "FUSSBALL"

For ICU regular expression matching, 
  • Anything from a regular expression pattern that looks like a literal string (even of one character) will be matched against the text using full case folding.  The pattern string and the matched text may be of different lengths.

  • Any sequence that is composed by the matching engine from originally separate parts of the pattern will not match with the composition boundary within a case folding expansion of the text being matched.

  • Matching of [set expressions] uses simple matching.  A [set] will match exactly one code point from the text.
  • pattern "fussball" will match "fußball or "fussball"
  • pattern "fu(s)(s)ball" or "fus{2}ball" will match  "fussball" or "FUSSBALL" but not "fußball.
  • pattern "ß" will find occurences of "ss" or "ß"
  • pattern "s+" will not find "ß"
With these rules, a match or capturing sub-match can never begin or end in the interior of an input text character that expanded when case folded.

Replacement Text

The replacement text for find-and-replace operations may contain references to capture-group text from the find. References are of the form $n, where n is the number of the capture group.

Character Descriptions
$n The text of capture group n will be substituted for $n. n must be >= 0 and not greater than the number of capture groups. A $ not followed by a digit has no special meaning, and will appear in the substitution text as itself, a $.
\ Treat the following character as a literal, suppressing any special meaning. Backslash escaping in substitution text is only required for '$' and '\', but may be used on any other character without bad effects.

Flag Options

The following flags control various aspects of regular expression matching. The flag values may be specified at the time that an expression is compiled into a RegexPattern object, or they may be specified within the pattern itself using the (?ismx-ismx) pattern options.

Note The UREGEX_CANON_EQ option is not yet available.
Flag (pattern) Flag (API Constant) Description

UREGEX_CANON_EQ If set, matching will take the canonical equivalence of characters into account. NOTE: this flag is not yet implemented.
i UREGEX_CASE_INSENSITIVE If set, matching will take place in a case-insensitive manner.
x UREGEX_COMMENTS If set, allow use of white space and #comments within patterns
s UREGEX_DOTALL If set, a "." in a pattern will match a line terminator in the input text. By default, it will not. Note that a carriage-return / line-feed pair in text behave as a single line terminator, and will match a single "." in a RE pattern
m UREGEX_MULTILINE Control the behavior of "^" and "$" in a pattern. By default these will only match at the start and end, respectively, of the input text. If this flag is set, "^" and "$" will also match at the start and end of each line within the input text.
w UREGEX_UWORD Controls the behavior of \b in a pattern. If set, word boundaries are found according to the definitions of word found in Unicode UAX 29, Text Boundaries. By default, word boundaries are identified by means of a simple classification of characters as either “word” or “non-word”, which approximates traditional regular expression behavior. The results obtained with the two options can be quite different in runs of spaces and other non-word characters.

Using split()

ICU's split() function is similar in concept to Perl's – it will split a string into fields, with a regular expression match defining the field delimiters and the text between the delimiters being the field content itself.

Suppose you have a string of words separated by spaces

    UnicodeString s = “dog cat   giraffe”;

This code will extract the individual words from the string.

    UErrorCode status = U_ZERO_ERROR;
    RegexMatcher m(“\\s+”, 0, status);
    const int maxWords = 10;
    UnicodeString words[maxWords];    
    int numWords = m.split(s, words, maxWords, status);

After the split(),

Variable value
numWords 3
words[0] “dog”
words[1] “cat”
words[2] “giraffe”
words[3 to 9] “”

The field delimiters, the spaces from the original string, do not appear in the output strings.

Note that, in this example, “words” is a local, or stack array of actual UnicodeString objects. No heap allocation is involved in initializing this array of empty strings (C++ is not Java!). Local UnicodeString arrays like this are a very good fit for use with split(); after extracting the fields, any values that need to be kept in some more permanent way can be copied to their ultimate destination.

If the number of fields in a string being split exceeds the capacity of the destination array, the last destination string will contain all of the input string data that could not be split, including any embedded field delimiters. This is similar to split() in Perl.

If the pattern expression contains capturing parentheses, the captured data ($1, $2, etc.) will also be saved in the destination array, interspersed with the fields themselves.

If, in the “dog cat giraffe” example, the pattern had been “(\s+)” instead of “\s+”, split() would have produced five output strings instead of three. Words[1] and words[3] would have been the spaces.

Find and Replace

Description of AppendReplacement() and AppendTail(). To be added.

Performance Tips

Some regular expression patterns can result in very slow match operations, sometimes so slow that it will appear as though the match has gone into an infinite loop.  The problem is not unique to ICU - it affects any regular expression implementation using a conventional nondeterministic finite automaton (NFA) style matching engine.  This section gives some suggestion on how to avoid problems.

The performance problems tend to show up most commonly on failing matches - when an input string does not match the regexp pattern.  With a complex pattern containing multiple * or + (or similar) operators, the match engine will tediously redistribute the input text between the different pattern terms, in a doomed effort to find some combination that leads to a match (that doesn't exist).

The running time for troublesome patterns is exponential with the length of the input string.  Every added character in the input doubles the (non)matching time.  It doesn't take a particularly long string for the projected running time to exceed the age of the universe.

A simple pattern showing the problem is

matching against the string

The expression can't match - there is no 'B' in the input - but the engine is too dumb to realize that, and will try all possible permutations of rearranging the input between the terms of the expression before failing.

Some suggestions:
  • Avoid, or examine carefully, any expressions with nested repeating quantifiers, like in the example above. They can often be recast in some other way.  Any ambiguity in how input text could be distributed between the terms of the expression will cause problems.

  • Narrow every term in a pattern to match as small a set of characters as possible at each point. Fail as early as possible with bad input, rather than letting broad .* style terms eat intermediate input and relying on later terms in the expression to produce a failure.

  • Use possessive quantifiers when possible - *+ instead of *, ++ instead of +
    These operators prevent backtracking; the initial match of a *+ qualified pattern is either used in its entirety as part of the complete match, or it is not used at all.
  • Follow or surround * or + expressions with terms that the repeated expression can not match. The idea is to have only one possible way to match the input, with no possibility of redistributing the input between adjacent terms of the pattern.
  • Avoid overly long and complex regular expressions. Just because it's possible to do something completely in one large expression doesn't mean that you should. Long expressions are difficult to understand and can be almost impossible to debug when they go wrong. It is no sin to break a parsing problem into pieces and to have some code involved involved in the process.
  • Set a time limit. ICU includes the ability to limit the time spent on a regular expression match. This is a good idea when running untested expressions from users of your application, or as a fail safe for servers or other processes that cannot afford to be hung.

Examples from actual bug reports,

The pattern
and the text
cause an infinite loop.

The problem is in the highlighted area. The [._]? term can be ignored, because it need not match anything. {1,} is the same as +. So we effectively have (?:[A-Za-z0-9]+)+, which is trouble.

The initial part of the expression can be recast as
which matches the same thing.  The nested + and * qualifiers do not cause a problem because the [._] term is not optional and contains no characters that overlap with [A-Za-z0-9], leaving no ambiguity in how input characters can be distributed among terms in the match.

A further note: this expression was intended to parse email addresses, and has a number of other flaws. For common tasks like this there are libraries of freely available regular expressions that have been well debugged. It's worth making a quick search before writing a new expression.

TODO:  add  more examples.

Heap and Stack Usage

ICU keeps its match backtracking state on the heap.  Because badly designed or malicious patterns can result in matches that require large amounts of storage, ICU sets a limit on heap usage by matches.  The default is 8 MB; it can be changed or removed via an API.

Because ICU does not use program recursion to maintain its backtracking state, stack usage during matching operations is minimal, and does not increase with complex patterns or large amounts of backtracking state.  This is worth mentioning only because excessive stack usage, resulting in blown off threads or processes, can be a problem with some regular expression packages.

Differences with Java Regular Expressions

  • ICU does not support UREGEX_CANON_EQ. See

  • The behavior of \cx (Control-X) different from Java when x is outside the range A-Z. See

  • Java allows quantifiers (*, +, etc) on zero length tests. ICU does not. Occurrences of these in patterns are most likely unintended user errors, but it is an incompatibility with Java.

  • ICU recognizes all Unicode properties known to ICU, which is all of them. Java is restricted to just a few.

  • ICU case insensitive matching works with all Unicode characters, and, within string literals, does full Unicode matching (where matching strings may be different lengths.) Java does ASCII.

  • ICU has an extended syntax for set [bracket] expressions, including additional operators. Added for improved compatibility with the original ICU implementation, which was based on ICU UnicodeSet pattern syntax.

  • ICU does not support named capture groups.