This book shows you how to write regular expressions through examples. Its goal is to make learning regular expressions as easy as possible. In fact, this book demonstrates nearly every concept it presents by way of example so you can easily imitate and try them yourself.

Regular expressions help you find patterns in text strings. More precisely, they are specially encoded text strings that match patterns in sets of strings, most often strings that are found in documents or files.

Regular expressions began to emerge when mathematician Stephen Kleene wrote his book Introduction to Metamathematics (New York, Van Nostrand), first published in 1952, though the concepts had been around since the early 1940s. They became more widely available to computer scientists with the advent of the Unix operating system—the work of Brian Kernighan, Dennis Ritchie, Ken Thompson, and others at AT&T Bell Labs—and its utilities, such as sed and grep, in the early 1970s.

The earliest appearance that I can find of regular expressions in a computer application is in the QED editor. QED, short for Quick Editor, was written for the Berkeley Timesharing System, which ran on the Scientific Data Systems SDS 940. Documented in 1970, it was a rewrite by Ken Thompson of a previous editor on MIT’s Compatible Time-Sharing System and yielded one of the earliest if not first practical implementations of regular expressions in computing. (Table A-1 in Appendix A documents the regex features of QED.)

I’ll use a variety of tools to demonstrate the examples. You will, I hope, find most of them usable and useful; others won’t be usable because they are not readily available on your Windows system. You can skip the ones that aren’t practical for you or that aren’t appealing. But I recommend that anyone who is serious about a career in computing learn about regular expressions in a Unix-based environment. I have worked in that environment for 25 years and still learn new things every day.

“Those who don’t understand Unix are condemned to reinvent it, poorly.” —Henry Spencer

Some of the tools I’ll show you are available online via a web browser, which will be the easiest for most readers to use. Others you’ll use from a command or a shell prompt, and a few you’ll run on the desktop. The tools, if you don’t have them, will be easy to download. The majority are free or won’t cost you much money.

This book also goes light on jargon. I’ll share with you what the correct terms are when necessary, but in small doses. I use this approach because over the years, I’ve found that jargon can often create barriers. In other words, I’ll try not to overwhelm you with the dry language that describes regular expressions. That is because the basic philosophy of this book is this: Doing useful things can come before knowing everything about a given subject.

There are lots of different implementations of regular expressions. You will find regular expressions used in Unix command-line tools like vi (vim), grep, and sed, among others. You will find regular expressions in programming languages like Perl (of course), Java, JavaScript, C# or Ruby, and many more, and you will find them in declarative languages like XSLT 2.0. You will also find them in applications like Notepad++, Oxygen, or TextMate, among many others.

Most of these implementations have similarities and differences. I won’t cover all those differences in this book, but I will touch on a good number of them. If I attempted to document all the differences between all implementations, I’d have to be hospitalized. I won’t get bogged down in these kinds of details in this book. You’re expecting an introductory text, as advertised, and that is what you’ll get.

Who Should Read This Book

The audience for this book is people who haven't ever written a regular expression before. If you are new to regular expressions or programming, this book is a good place to start. In other words, I am writing for the reader who has heard of regular expressions and is interested in them but who doesn’t really understand them yet. If that is you, then this book is a good fit.

The order I’ll go in to cover the features of regex is from the simple to the complex. In other words, we’ll go step by simple step.

Now, if you happen to already know something about regular expressions and how to use them, or if you are an experienced programmer, this book may not be where you want to start. This is a beginner’s book, for rank beginners who need some hand-holding. If you have written some regular expressions before, and feel familiar with them, you can start here if you want, but I’m planning to take it slower than you will probably like.

I recommend several books to read after this one. First, try Jeff Friedl’s Mastering Regular Expressions, Third Edition (see Friedl’s book gives regular expressions a thorough going over, and I highly recommend it. I also recommend the Regular Expressions Cookbook (see by Jan Goyvaerts and Steven Levithan. Jan Goyvaerts is the creator of RegexBuddy, a powerful desktop application (see Steven Levithan created RegexPal, an online regular expression processor that you’ll use in the first chapter of this book (see

What You Need to Use This Book

To get the most out of this book, you’ll need access to tools available on Unix or Linux operating systems, such as Darwin on the Mac, a variant of BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) on the Mac, or Cygwin on a Windows PC, which offers many GNU tools in its distribution (see and

There will be plenty of examples for you to try out here. You can just read them if you want, but to really learn, you’ll need to follow as many of them as you can, as the most important kind of learning, I think, always comes from doing, not from standing on the sidelines. You’ll be introduced to websites that will teach you what regular expressions are by highlighting matched results, workhorse command line tools from the Unix world, and desktop applications that analyze regular expressions or use them to perform text search.

You will find examples from this book on Github at You will also find an archive of all the examples and test files in this book for download from It would be best if you create a working directory or folder on your computer and then download these files to that directory before you dive into the book.

Conventions Used in This Book

The following typographical conventions are used in this book:


Indicates new terms, URLs, email addresses, filenames, file extensions, and so forth.

Constant width

Used for program listings, as well as within paragraphs, to refer to program elements such as expressions and command lines or any other programmatic elements.


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Once again, I want to express appreciation to my editor at O’Reilly, Simon St. Laurent, a very patient man without whom this book would never have seen the light of day. Thank you to Seara Patterson Coburn and Roger Zauner for your helpful reviews. And, as always, I want to recognize the love of my life, Cristi, who is my raison d’être.

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