Ruby User's Guide

Regular expressions

Let's put together a more interesting program. This time we test whether a string fits a description, encoded into a concise pattern.

There are some characters and character combinations that have special meaning in these patterns, including:

[] range specificication (e.g., [a-z] means a letter in the range a to z)
\w word character; same as [0-9A-Za-z_]
\W non-word character
\s space character; same as [ \t\n\r\f]
\S non-space character
\d digit character; same as [0-9]
\D non-digit character
\b backspace (0x08) (only if in a range specification)
\b word boundary (if not in a range specification)
\B non-word boundary
* zero or more repetitions of the preceding
+ one or more repetitions of the preceding
{m,n} at least m and at most n repetitions of the preceding
? at most one repetition of the preceding; same as {0,1}
| either preceding or next expression may match
() grouping

The common term for patterns that use this strange vocabulary is regular expressions. In ruby, as in Perl, they are generally surrounded by forward slashes rather than double quotes. If you have never worked with regular expressions before, they probably look anything but regular, but you would be wise to spend some time getting familiar with them. They have an efficient expressive power that will save you headaches (and many lines of code) whenever you need to do pattern matching, searching, or other manipulations on text strings.

For example, suppose we want to test whether a string fits this description: "Starts with lower case f, which is immediately followed by exactly one upper case letter, and optionally more junk after that, as long as there are no more lower case characters." If you're an experienced C programmer, you've probably already written about a dozen lines of code in your head, right? Admit it; you can hardly help yourself. But in ruby you need only request that your string be tested against the regular expression /^f[A-Z][^a-z]*$/.

How about "Contains a hexadecimal number enclosed in angle brackets"? No problem.

ruby> def chab(s)   # "contains hex in angle brackets"
    |    (s =~ /<0(x|X)(\d|[a-f]|[A-F])+>/) != nil
    | end
  nil
ruby> chab "Not this one."
  false
ruby> chab "Maybe this? {0x35}"    # wrong kind of brackets
  false
ruby> chab "Or this? <0x38z7e>"    # bogus hex digit
  false
ruby> chab "Okay, this: <0xfc0004>."
  true

Though regular expressions can be puzzling at first glance, you will quickly gain satisfaction in being able to express yourself so economically.

Here is a little program to help you experiment with regular expressions. Store it as regx.rb and run it by typing "ruby regx.rb" at the command line.

# Requires an ANSI terminal!

st = "\033[7m"
en = "\033[m"

puts "Enter an empty string at any time to exit."

while true
  print "str> "; STDOUT.flush; str = gets.chop
  break if str.empty?
  print "pat> "; STDOUT.flush; pat = gets.chop
  break if pat.empty?
  re = Regexp.new(pat)
  puts str.gsub(re,"#{st}\\&#{en}")
end

The program requires input twice, once for a string and once for a regular expression. The string is tested against the regular expression, then displayed with all the matching parts highlighted in reverse video. Don't mind details now; an analysis of this code will come soon.

str> foobar
pat> ^fo+
foobar
~~~

What you see above as red text will appear as reverse video in the program output. The "~~~" lines are for the benefit of those using text-based browsers.

Let's try several more inputs.

str> abc012dbcd555
pat> \d
abc012dbcd555
   ~~~    ~~~

If that surprised you, refer to the table at the top of this page: \d has no relationship to the character d, but rather matches a single digit.

What if there is more than one way to correctly match the pattern?

str> foozboozer
pat> f.*z
foozboozer
~~~~~~~~

foozbooz is matched instead of just fooz, since a regular expression matches the longest possible substring.

Here is a pattern to isolate a colon-delimited time field.

str> Wed Feb  7 08:58:04 JST 1996
pat> [0-9]+:[0-9]+(:[0-9]+)?
Wed Feb  7 08:58:04 JST 1996
           ~~~~~~~~

"=~" is a matching operator with respect to regular expressions; it returns the position in a string where a match was found, or nil if the pattern did not match.

ruby> "abcdef" =~ /d/
   3
ruby> "aaaaaa" =~ /d/
   nil

Copyright (c) 2005-2008 Mark Slagell

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.

A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License."