Pattern Matching with Regular Expressions


You want to perform a pattern match rather than a literal comparison.


Use the REGEXP operator and a regular expression pattern, described in this section. Or use a SQL pattern, described in Recipe 4.7.


SQL patterns (see Recipe 4.7) are likely to be implemented by other database systems, so they’re reasonably portable beyond MySQL. On the other hand, they’re somewhat limited. For example, you can easily write a SQL pattern %abc% to find strings that contain abc, but you cannot write a single SQL pattern to identify strings that contain any of the characters a, b, or c. Nor can you match string content based on character types such as letters or digits. For such operations, MySQL supports another type of pattern matching operation based on regular expressions and the REGEXP operator (or NOT REGEXP to reverse the sense of the match).[24] REGEXP matching uses a different set of pattern elements than % and _ (neither of which is special in regular expressions):


What the pattern matches


Beginning of string


End of string


Any single character


Any character listed between the square brackets


Any character not listed between the square brackets


Alternation; matches any of the patterns p1, p2, or p3


Zero or more instances of preceding element


One or more instances of preceding element


n instances of preceding element


m through n instances of preceding element

You may already be familiar with these regular expression pattern characters, because many of them are the same as those used by vi, grep, sed, and other Unix utilities that support regular expressions. Most of them are used also in the regular expressions understood by Perl, PHP, and Python. (For example, Chapter 10 discuss pattern matching in Perl scripts.) For Java, the Jakarta ORO or Regexp class libraries provide matching capabilities that use these characters as well.

The previous section on SQL patterns showed how to match substrings at the beginning or end of a string, or at an arbitrary or specific position within a string. You can do the same things with regular expressions:

  • Strings that begin with a particular substring:

    mysql> SELECT name FROM metal WHERE name REGEXP '^co';
    | name   |
    | copper |
  • Strings that end with a particular substring:

    mysql> SELECT name FROM metal WHERE name REGEXP 'er$';
    | name   |
    | copper |
    | silver |
  • Strings that contain a particular substring at any position:

    mysql> SELECT name FROM metal WHERE name REGEXP 'er';
    | name    |
    | copper  |
    | mercury |
    | silver  |
  • Strings that contain a particular substring at a specific position:

    mysql> SELECT name FROM metal WHERE name REGEXP '^..pp';
    | name   |
    | copper |

In addition, regular expressions have other capabilities and can perform kinds of matches that SQL patterns cannot. For example, regular expressions can contain character classes, which match any character in the class:

  • To write a character class, list the characters you want the class to match inside square brackets. Thus, the pattern [abc] matches either a, b, or c.

  • Classes may indicate ranges of characters by using a dash between the beginning and end of the range. [a-z] matches any letter, [0-9] matches digits, and [a-z0-9] matches letters or digits.

  • To negate a character class (“match any character but these”), begin the list with a ^ character. For example, [^0-9] matches anything but digits.

MySQL’s regular expression capabilities also support POSIX character classes. These match specific character sets, as described in the following table.

POSIX class

What the class matches


Alphabetic and numeric characters


Alphabetic characters


Whitespace (space or tab characters)


Control characters




Graphic (non-blank) characters


Lowercase alphabetic characters


Graphic or space characters


Punctuation characters


Space, tab, newline, carriage return


Uppercase alphabetic characters


Hexadecimal digits (0-9, a-f, A-F)

POSIX classes are intended for use within character classes, so you use them within square brackets. The following expression matches values that contain any hexadecimal digit character:

mysql> SELECT name, name REGEXP '[[:xdigit:]]' FROM metal;
| name     | name REGEXP '[[:xdigit:]]' |
| copper   |                          1 |
| gold     |                          1 |
| iron     |                          0 |
| lead     |                          1 |
| mercury  |                          1 |
| platinum |                          1 |
| silver   |                          1 |
| tin      |                          0 |

Regular expressions can contain alternations. The syntax looks like this:


An alternation is similar to a character class in the sense that it matches if any of the alternatives match. But unlike a character class, the alternatives are not limited to single characters—they can be strings or even patterns. For example, the following alternation matches strings that begin with a vowel or end with er:

mysql> SELECT name FROM metal WHERE name REGEXP '^[aeiou]|er$';
| name   |
| copper |
| iron   |
| silver |

Parentheses may be used to group alternations. For example, if you want to match strings that consist entirely of digits or entirely of letters, you might try this pattern, using an alternation:

mysql> SELECT '0m' REGEXP '^[[:digit:]]+|[[:alpha:]]+$';
| '0m' REGEXP '^[[:digit:]]+|[[:alpha:]]+$' |
|                                         1 |

But as the query result shows, the pattern doesn’t work. That’s because the ^ groups with the first alternative, and the $ groups with the second alternative. So the pattern actually matches strings that begin with one or more digits, or strings that end with one or more letters. However, if you group the alternatives within parentheses, the ^ and $ will apply to both of them and the pattern will act as you expect:

mysql> SELECT '0m' REGEXP '^([[:digit:]]+|[[:alpha:]]+)$';
| '0m' REGEXP '^([[:digit:]]+|[[:alpha:]]+)$' |
|                                           0 |

Unlike SQL pattern matches, which are successful only if the pattern matches the entire comparison value, regular expressions are successful if the pattern matches anywhere within the value. The following two pattern matches are equivalent in the sense that each one succeeds only for strings that contain a b character, but the first is more efficient because the pattern is simpler:

'abc' REGEXP 'b'
'abc' REGEXP '^.*b.*$'

Regular expressions do not match NULL values. This is true both for REGEXP and for NOT REGEXP:

|             NULL |                 NULL |

The fact that a regular expression matches a string if the pattern is found anywhere in the string means you must take care not to inadvertently specify a pattern that matches the empty string. If you do, it will match any non-NULL value at all. For example, the pattern a* matches any number of a characters, even none. If your goal is to match only strings containing nonempty sequences of a characters, use a+ instead. The + requires one or more instances of the preceding pattern element for a match.

As with SQL pattern matches performed using LIKE, regular expression matches performed with REGEXP sometimes are equivalent to substring comparisons. The ^ and $ metacharacters serve much the same purpose as LEFT( ) or RIGHT( ), at least if you’re looking for literal strings:

Pattern match

Substring comparison

str REGEXP '^abc'

LEFT(str,3) = 'abc'

str REGEXP 'abc$'

RIGHT(str,3) = 'abc'

For non-literal strings, it’s typically not possible to construct an equivalent substring comparison. For example, to match strings that begin with any nonempty sequence of digits, you can use this pattern match:

str REGEXP '^[0-9]+'

That is something that LEFT( ) cannot do (and neither can LIKE, for that matter).

[24] RLIKE is a synomym for REGEXP. This is for mSQL (miniSQL) compatibility and may make it easier to port queries from mSQL to MySQL.

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