An Introduction To Regular Expressions

Updated on October 27, 2020
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By Shantanu Kulkarni

An Introduction To Regular Expressions


As system administrators, developers, QA engineers, support engineers, etc. one needs to find a particular pattern, like a set of IP addresses belonging to certain range or a range of time-stamps or groups of domain or subdomain names, from files. One might also need to find a word spelled in a particular way or find possible typos in a file. This is where regular expressions come in.

Regular expressions are templates to match patterns (or sometimes not to match patterns). They provide a way to describe and parse text. This tutorial will give an insight to regular expressions without going into particularities of any language. We will simply use egrep to explain the concepts.

Regular Expressions

Regular expressions consists of two types of characters:

  • the regular literal characters and

  • the metacharacters

These metacharacters are the ones which give the power to the regular expressions.

Consider the following country.txt file where the first column is the country name, the the second column is the population of the country, and the third column is the continent.

$ cat country.txt
Argentina,36955182,Latin America
Brazil,172860370,Latin America

Anchor Metacharacters

The first group of “metacharacter” we will discuss are ^ and $. ^ and $ matches the start and end of a pattern respectively and are called anchor metacharacters.

To find out the name of all the countries whose country name starts with I, we use the expression:

$ egrep '^I' country.txt

or to find out all the countries which have continent names ending with e, we do:

$ egrep 'e$' country.txt

The next metacharacter is the dot (.), which matches any one character. To match all the lines in which the country name is exactly 5 characters long:

$ egrep '^.....,' country.txt

How about finding all lines in which country name starts with either I or J and the country name is 5 characters long?

$ egrep '^[IJ]....,' country.txt

[…] is called as a character set or a character class. Inside a character set only one of the given characters is matched.

An ^ inside the character set negates the character set. The following example will match country names five characters long but which do not start with either I or J.

$ egrep '^[^IJ]....,' country.txt

The Grouping Metacharacter and the Alternation

To match all the line containing Asia or Africa:

$ egrep 'Asia|Africa' country.txt

This can be also done by taking A and a common.

$ egrep 'A(si|fric)a' country.txt


Instead of writing

$ egrep '^[IJ]....,' country.txt

we can write

$ egrep '^[IJ].{4},' country.txt

where {} are called as the quantifiers. They determine how many times the character before them should occur.

We can give a range too:

$ egrep '^[IJ].{4,6},' country.txt

This will match country names starting with I or J and having 4 to 6 character after it.

There are some shortcuts available for the quantifiers. For example,

{0,1} is equivalent to ?

$ egrep '^ab{0,1}c$' filename

is the same as

$ egrep '^ab?c' filename

{0,} is equivalent to *

$ egrep '^ab{0,}c$' filename

is the same as

$ egrep '^ab*c' filename

{1,} is equivalent to +

$ egrep '^ab{1,}c$' filename

is the same as

$ egrep '^ab+c' filename

Let us see some examples involving the expressions we have seen so far. Here instead of searching from a file, we search from standard input. The trick we use is that we know grep (or egrep) searches for a pattern, and if a pattern is found, then the entire line containing the pattern is shown.

We would like to find out all the possible ways to spell the sentence the grey colour suit was his favourite.

The expression would be:

$ egrep 'the gr[ea]y colou?r suit was his favou?rite'
the grey color suit was his favourite
the grey color suit was his favourite

the gray colour suit was his favorite
the gray colour suit was his favorite

Looking at the expression above, we can see that:

  • grey can be spelled as grey or gray

  • colour can be written as colour or color, that means u is optional so we use u?

  • similarly favourite or favorite can be written favou?rite

How about matching a US zip code?

$ egrep '^[0-9]{5}(-[0-9]{4})?$'





One more example of matching all valid times in a 24 hour clock.

$ egrep '^([01][0-9]|2[0-3]):[0-5][0-9]:[0-5][0-9]'



In the above example we said that, if the first digit of the hour is either 0 or 1, then the second one will be any from 0 to 9. But if the first digit is 2, then the allowed values for second digit are 0,1, 2 or 3.

Word Boundary

To write a pattern to match the words ending with color such that unicolor, watercolor, multicolor etc. is matched but not colorless or colorful. Try these examples yourself, to get familiar with them:

$ egrep 'color\>'

Next, to match colorless and colorful, but not unicolor, watercolor, multicolor, etc.

$ egrep '\<color'

Thereby to match the exact word color, we do:

$ egrep '\<color\>'


Suppose we want to match all words which were double typed, like the the or before before, we have to use backreferences. Backreferences are used for remembering patterns.

Here’s an example:

$ egrep "\<the\> \1"

Or the generic way:

$ egrep "\<(.*)\> \1"

The above example can be used to find all names in which the first and the last names are the same. In case there are more than one set of parentheses, then the second, third fourth etc. can be referenced with \2, \3, \4 etc.

This is just an introduction to the power of regular expressions.

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About the authors
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Shantanu Kulkarni


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Thanks guys!!

Awesome tutorial, very well explained. Thank you very much and keep writing.

Thanks for the encouragement. Regards, Shantanu

This is a very nice tutorial on regular expression. There have been may more extensive tutorials on which at some point I got confused. Thanks again keep writing your doing an excellent job.

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