Demystifying Regular Expressions

Table of Contents

A workshop aimed at helping to level up on regular expressions.

This session has four parts:

We will learn the JavaScript-flavor of RegExp, but the lessons should be applicable to your favorite language.

The Magic

I don’t expect many of you to appreciate the subtle science and exact art that is the regular expression…

However, for those select few, who possess the predisposition, I can teach you how to bewitch the mind and ensnare the senses. I can tell you how to bottle fame, brew glory, and even put a stopper in parsing US phone codes, like:


Hey Programmer, How would you?

Compare two strings for equality? Easy!

stringA == stringB

Check if a string started with H? That’s easy too:

stringA[0] == 'H'

What if the H may not be capitalized?

stringA[0] == 'H' or stringA[0] == 'h'

What if it starts with the word, hello?


Case insensitive start of the word, hello? Most languages have this option.

How about the word, hello, anywhere in the string?

stringA.index('hello') != nil

But… How would you?

  • Match a field as a valid 5 digit postal code? Loops?
  • Match either hello, world or good-bye?
  • Trim whitespace from end of all lines in a multi-line string?
  • Match a, or an, but only as a stand-alone word?
  • How would you see if a string contained a valid phone number? Credit card number? Email address?

Regular Expressions are Useful

Regular Expressions are Awful

Everyone remembers this famous quote:

Jamie Zawinski wrote on Tue, 12 Aug 1997 13:16:22 -0700:

The notion that regexps are the solution to all problems is equally braindead.

Just like Perl.

Some people, when confronted with a problem, think “I know, I'll use regular expressions.” Now they have two problems.

Your Toolbox

Many indispensable tools are not taught in school:

  1. Mastering an editor
  2. Version Control, ala git
  3. Shell and SSH
  4. Automated Testing
  5. Regular Expressions


Let me answer two questions that everyone has:

  • Why are they so strange looking?
  • Why does every language implement RegExps differently?

History in 7 Parts


History of Regular Expressions

Two take-aways:

  • Like SQL, RegExp has a mathematical basis
  • Diverged as many tried to improve it

Mostly implemented the same, but each language may be missing features.

Let’s Try It

I’ve built an online Regular Expression Exploratorium
Allowing you to type expressions to high-light results in some text.

Go to worksheet only:

Tutorial + Worksheet:

Exploring our Workshop

The top field is the Regular Expression Editor.
Text below that matches the expression will be high-lighted.

Let’s try it. In the top editor field, type: math

The Run button is somewhat optional, if you wait long enough…
Notice the matches highlighted in yellow in the text.

Toggle the Case Insensitive? check box. Notice the change. Most languages have a way to ignore case.

In the top field, type: of math

Why no matches? Toggle the Whitespace? check box.

Normally, a space matches a space. However, to make learning regular expressions easier, our editor ignores whitespace to make our expressions easier to format and read.

Leave Whitespace? selected.

Some Letters are Letters

To search for most letters, just type them.

(This is very similar to the index() function in many languages)

But some times we want to specify something like:

  • Any character
  • Zero or more occurrences of a character
  • Any number (or other types of character)
  • Mark positions like beginning of a line or end of a word

These require some letters to do duty as meta characters.

Type the following: r...r (with three period characters)

The . (period) stands for any other character.

These are called meta characters.

Searching for Meta Characters

What if I want to search for the word mathematics at the end of a sentence?

Type: mathematics\.

The \ character is Kryptonite.

Alternates the behavior of the next character, turning a meta character with super powers, into a regular character.

But what if I want to search for a back-slash character?

Type: \\

(The Kryptonite kryptons the Kryptonite)

That’s it! The rest is just details.


Let’s search for the word student but allowing it to be plural.

Type: languages?

The question mark says: zero or one of the previous character.

In other words, the s is now optional.

The * character says: zero or more of the previous character.

Type: 1.*9

The + character says: one or more of the previous character.

Type: 1.+9

Note: The + and * characters are called quantifiers.


Let’s look for one of two different words.

Type: pronounced|pronunciation

The vertical bar says to search for the expressions on either side.

Type: theory|theorem|theoretical

Specific Characters

Let’s search for phrases like war and wor.

Type: w[ao]r

Characters inside square brackets become a single character that is or’d

Let’s search for years in the twentieth century… in other words, four digits of numbers.

Type: 19[0123456789][0123456789]

Works, but too long. Let’s try again:

Type: 19[0-9][0-9]

Better. Ranges work, but keep them simple, as they are based ordinal-values of each character (ASCII or Unicode).

Character Types

Ranges are seldom what we want. We want types.

If we want four digit numbers (or any year), we can use the krypton-powered \d that represents the number type.

Type: \d\d\d\d

Note: While the backslash removes the power from meta-characters (like the dot we saw earlier), it adds super powers to some regular letters.

Remember how typing of math didn’t work when we selected the check box for Whitespace?

Type: of \s math

The \s turns the s into a super powered meta character to represent all whitespace. Includes:

  • normal white space
  • carriage returns
  • tabs
  • non-breaking spaces
  • any Unicode white space type

Normally written without spaces, of\smath, the phrase is difficult to read, but knowing regular expressions give you nerd cred.

Character Behaviors

To match the as a full word, and not part of words like theoretical

Type: \b the \b

This super b is not an actual character, but specifies a behavior.

Behavior? Matches only at word boundaries, like start and end of a word.

Type: \b a \b

Type: \b an? \b

Let’s find all articles:

Type: \b an? \b | \b the \b

You got this.


Since we want four digit years, just say so:

Type: \d{4}

Works the same as \d\d\d\d. Is that more obvious?

Which do you like better?

Type: 19 \d{2}

Type: 19 \d \d


What if we wanted four digit years, but also year ranges?

Type: \d{4} - \d{2}

We have our range, but not the years. We could use the or symbol.

Type: \d{4} - \d{2} | \d{4}

Or we could make the two digits optional with the question mark.

The question mark says zero or one of the following character.

To make it work with multiple characters, group it with parens.

Type: \d{4} ( - \d{2} )?

The + and the * characters work on groupings too.

Searching for actual parens? Escape them, via: \( and \)

Extracting Groups

Paren’d groups do double duty. You can access them programmatically.

Match a four-digit year, but extract the final two years.

Type: \d{2} ( \d{2} )

To see the grouped value, hover the mouse over any matched string, and you’ll see that the first grouping (labeled $1) is the last two digits.

You could change specific years, like this string:

In 1941, the US retaliated and went to war with Japan.

To this:

In the 1900's, the US retaliated and went to war with Japan.

By using this JavaScript code:

textualString.replace(/(\d{2})\d{2}/, "the $100's")

The Complete List

These are the special symbols supported by JavaScript taken from


. Find a single character, except newline or line terminator
\w Find a word character
\W Find a non-word character
\d Find a digit
\D Find a non-digit character
\s Find a whitespace character
\S Find a non-whitespace character
\b Find a match at the beginning/end of a word
\B Find a match not at the beginning/end of a word
\0 Find a NUL character
\n Find a new line character
\f Find a form feed character
\r Find a carriage return character
\t Find a tab character
\v Find a vertical tab character
\xxx Find the character specified by an octal number xxx
\xdd Find the character specified by a hexadecimal number dd
\uxxxx Find the Unicode character specified by a hexadecimal number xxxx


n+ Matches any string that contains at least one n
n* Matches any string that contains zero or more occurrences of n
n? Matches any string that contains zero or one occurrences of n
n{X} Matches any string that contains a sequence of X n’s
n{X,Y} Matches any string that contains a sequence of X to Y n’s
n{X,} Matches any string that contains a sequence of at least X n’s
n$ Matches any string with n at the end of it
^n Matches any string with n at the beginning of it
?=n Matches any string that is followed by a specific string n
?!n Matches any string that is not followed by a specific string n

Bracket Options

[abc] Find any character between the brackets
[^abc] Find any character NOT between the brackets
[0-9] Find any digit between the brackets
[^0-9] Find any digit NOT between the brackets
(x | y) Find any of the alternatives specified

The Ultimate Magic Spell

Let’s parse the incantation from the first slide:


First, click the Text: pull-down, and select Phone Numbers

Let’s reformat it so we can break it apart:

\b  (1       [-\s]?   )?  # Optional US Code 1 (with dash or space)
\(?                       # Optional Open Paren
    (\d{3})               # Three digit area code
\)?          [-\s\.\/]?   # Optional Close Paren and other separators
    (\d{3})  [-\s\.]?     # Three digit code with various separators
    (\d{4})               # Final four digits

We surrounded the entire expression in \b so that a string of 20 digits wouldn’t be considered a part of a phone number.

Notice that the initial US code is optional, and that it can be a 1 or a 1 followed by either a dash or a space. If set, it will be available as the first group.

The area code may optionally be surrounded with parens, and these need to be escaped with initial backslashes. The area code will be the second group.

The 7 digit phone number is broken into two separate groups, but by now, you should know enough to change it so that it is in only one group.

Extra Credit

You are really good at this by now, so change the Text: pull-down to your favorite programming language (I hope I have a good example), and challenge yourself to highlight various expressions.