Content from Regular Expressions


Last updated on 2023-10-18 | Edit this page

Overview

Questions

  • How can you imagine using regular expressions in your work?

Objectives

  • Identify potential use cases for regular expressions
  • Recognize common regex metacharacters
  • Use regular expressions in searches

Regular expressions


Regular expressions are a concept and an implementation used in many different programming environments for sophisticated pattern matching. They are an incredibly powerful tool that can amplify your capacity to find, manage, and transform data and files.

A regular expression, often abbreviated to regex, is a method of using a sequence of characters to define a search to match strings, i.e. “find and replace”-like operations. In computation, a ‘string’ is a contiguous sequence of symbols or values. For example, a word, a date, a set of numbers (e.g., a phone number), or an alphanumeric value (e.g., an identifier). A string could be any length, ranging from empty (zero characters) to one that spans many lines of text (including line break characters). The terms ‘string’ and ‘line’ are sometimes used interchangeably, even when they are not strictly the same thing.

In library searches, we are most familiar with a small part of regular expressions known as the “wild card character,” but there are many more features to the complete regular expressions syntax. Regular expressions will let you:

  • Match on types of characters (e.g. ‘upper case letters’, ‘digits’, ‘spaces’, etc.).
  • Match patterns that repeat any number of times.
  • Capture the parts of the original string that match your pattern.

Regex can also be useful for daily work. For example, say your organization wants to change the way they display telephone numbers on their website by removing the parentheses around the area code. Rather than search for each specific phone number (that could take forever and be prone to error) or searching for every open parenthesis character (could also take forever and return many false-positives), you could search for the pattern of a phone number. Regular expressions rely on the use of literal characters and metacharacters. A metacharacter is any American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) character that has a special meaning. By using metacharacters and possibly literal characters, you can construct a regex for finding strings or files that match a pattern rather than a specific string.

Since regular expressions defines some ASCII characters as “metacharacters” that have more than their literal meaning, it is also important to be able to “escape” these metacharacters to use them for their normal, literal meaning. For example, the period . means “match any character”, but if you want to match a period then you will need to use a \ in front of it to signal to the regular expression processor that you want to use the period as a plain old period and not a metacharacter. That notation is called “escaping” the special character. The concept of “escaping” special characters is shared across a variety of computational settings, including markdown and Hypertext Markup Language (HTML).

Regex Syntax and interoperability

Most regular expression implementations employ similar syntaxes and metacharacters (generally influenced by the regex syntax of a programming language called Perl), and they behave similarly for most pattern-matching in this lesson. But there are differences, often subtle, in each, so it’s always a good practice to read the application or language’s documentation whenever available, especially when you start using more advanced regex features. Some programs, notably many UNIX command line programs (for more on UNIX see our ‘Shell Lesson’), use an older regex standard (called ‘POSIX regular expressions’) which is less feature-rich and uses different metacharacters than Perl-influenced implementations. For the purposes of our lesson, you do not need to worry too much about all this, but if you want to follow up on this see this detailed syntax comparison.

A very simple use of a regular expression would be to locate the same word spelled two different ways. For example the regular expression organi[sz]e matches both organise and organize. But because it locates all matches for the pattern in the file, not just for that word, it would also match reorganise, reorganize, organises, organizes, organised, organized, etc.

Learning common regex metacharacters

Square brackets can be used to define a list or range of characters to be found. So:

  • [ABC] matches A or B or C.
  • [A-Z] matches any upper case letter.
  • [A-Za-z] matches any upper or lower case letter.
  • [A-Za-z0-9] matches any upper or lower case letter or any digit.

Then there are:

  • . matches any character.
  • \d matches any single digit.
  • \w matches any part of word character (equivalent to [A-Za-z0-9]).
  • \s matches any space, tab, or newline.
  • \ used to escape the following character when that character is a special character. So, for example, a regular expression that found .com would be \.com because . is a special character that matches any character.
  • ^ is an “anchor” which asserts the position at the start of the line. So what you put after the caret will only match if they are the first characters of a line. The caret is also known as a circumflex.
  • $ is an “anchor” which asserts the position at the end of the line. So what you put before it will only match if they are the last characters of a line.
  • \b asserts that the pattern must match at a word boundary. Putting this either side of a word stops the regular expression matching longer variants of words. So:
    • the regular expression mark will match not only mark but also find marking, market, unremarkable, and so on.
    • the regular expression \bword will match word, wordless, and wordlessly.
    • the regular expression comb\b will match comb and honeycomb but not combine.
    • the regular expression \brespect\b will match respect but not respectable or disrespectful.

So, what is ^[Oo]rgani.e\b going to match?

Using special characters in regular expression matches

What will the regular expression ^[Oo]rgani.e\b match?

organise
organize
Organise
Organize
organife
Organike

Or, any other string that starts a line, begins with a letter o in lower or capital case, proceeds with rgani, has any character in the 7th position, and ends with the letter e. See solution visualised on Regexper.com

Other useful special characters are:

  • * matches the preceding element zero or more times. For example, ab*c matches “ac”, “abc”, “abbbc”, etc.
  • + matches the preceding element one or more times. For example, ab+c matches “abc”, “abbbc” but not “ac”.
  • ? matches when the preceding character appears zero or one time.
  • {VALUE} matches the preceding character the number of times defined by VALUE; ranges, say, 1-6, can be specified with the syntax {VALUE,VALUE}, e.g. \d{1,9} will match any number between one and nine digits in length.
  • | means or.
  • /i renders an expression case-insensitive (equivalent to [A-Za-z]).

So, what are these going to match?

^[Oo]rgani.e\w*

What will the regular expression ^[Oo]rgani.e\w* match?

organise
Organize
organifer
Organi2ed111

Or, any other string that starts a line, begins with a letter o in lower or capital case, proceeds with rgani, has any character in the 7th position, follows with letter e and zero or more characters from the range [A-Za-z0-9].

[Oo]rgani.e\w+$

What will the regular expression [Oo]rgani.e\w+$ match?

organiser
Organized
organifer
Organi2ed111

Or, any other string that ends a line, begins with a letter o in lower or capital case, proceeds with rgani, has any character in the 7th position, follows with letter e and at least one or more characters from the range [A-Za-z0-9].

^[Oo]rgani.e\w?\b

What will the regular expression ^[Oo]rgani.e\w?\b match?

organise
Organized
organifer
Organi2ek

Or, any other string that starts a line, begins with a letter o in lower or capital case, proceeds with rgani, has any character in the 7th position, follows with letter e, and ends with zero or one characters from the range [A-Za-z0-9].

^[Oo]rgani.e\w?$

What will the regular expression ^[Oo]rgani.e\w?$ match?

organise
Organized
organifer
Organi2ek

Or, any other string that starts and ends a line, begins with a letter o in lower or capital case, proceeds with rgani, has any character in the 7th position, follows with letter e and zero or one characters from the range [A-Za-z0-9].

\b[Oo]rgani.e\w{2}\b

What will the regular expression \b[Oo]rgani.e\w{2}\b match?

organisers
Organizers
organifers
Organi2ek1

Or, any other string that begins with a letter o in lower or capital case after a word boundary, proceeds with rgani, has any character in the 7th position, follows with letter e, and ends with two characters from the range [A-Za-z0-9].

\b[Oo]rgani.e\b|\b[Oo]rgani.e\w{1}\b

What will the regular expression \b[Oo]rgani.e\b|\b[Oo]rgani.e\w{1}\b match?

organise
Organi1e
Organizer
organifed

Or, any other string that begins with a letter o in lower or capital case after a word boundary, proceeds with rgani, has any character in the 7th position, and end with letter e, or any other string that begins with a letter o in lower or capital case after a word boundary, proceeds with rgani, has any character in the 7th position, follows with letter e, and ends with a single character from the range [A-Za-z0-9].

This logic is useful when you have lots of files in a directory, when those files have logical file names, and when you want to isolate a selection of files. It can be used for looking at cells in spreadsheets for certain values, or for extracting some data from a column of a spreadsheet to make new columns. There are many other contexts in which regex is useful when using a computer to search through a document, spreadsheet, or file structure. Some real-world use cases for regex are included on a ACRL Tech Connect blog post .

To embed this knowledge we will not - however - be using computers. Instead we’ll use pen and paper for now.

Exercise

Work in teams of four to six on the exercises below. When you think you have the right answer, check it against the solution.

When you finish, split your team into two groups and write each other some tests. These should include a) strings you want the other team to write regex for and b) regular expressions you want the other team to work out what they would match.

Then test each other on the answers. If you want to check your logic use regex101, myregexp, regex pal or regexper.com: the first three help you see what text your regular expression will match, the latter visualises the workflow of a regular expression.

Using square brackets

What will the regular expression Fr[ea]nc[eh] match?

French
France
Frence
Franch

Note that the way this regular expression is constructed, it will match misspellings such as Franch and Frence. Lacking an “anchor” such as ^ or \b, this will also find strings where there are characters to either side of the regular expression, such as in French, France's, French-fried.

Using dollar signs

What will the regular expression Fr[ea]nc[eh]$ match?

French
France
Frence
Franch

This will match the pattern only when it appears at the end of a line. It will also find strings with other characters coming before the pattern, for example, in French or faux-French.

Introducing options

What would match the strings French and France that appear at the beginning of a line?

^France|^French

This will also find words where there were characters after French such as Frenchness.

Case insensitivity

How do you match the whole words colour and color (case insensitive)?

\b[Cc]olou?r\b|\bCOLOU?R\b
/colou?r/i

In real life, you should only come across the case insensitive variations colour, color, Colour, Color, COLOUR, and COLOR (rather than, say, coLour). So based on what we know, the logical regular expression is \b[Cc]olou?r\b|\bCOLOU?R\b.

An alternative more elegant option we’ve not discussed is to take advantage of the / delimiters and add an ‘ignore case’ flag. To use these flags, include / delimiters before and after the expression then letters after to raise each flag (where i is ‘ignore case’): so /colou?r/i will match all case insensitive variants of colour and color.

Word boundaries

How would you find the whole word headrest and or head rest but not head  rest (that is, with two spaces between head and rest?

\bhead ?rest\b

Note that although \bhead\s?rest\b does work, it will also match zero or one tabs or newline characters between head and rest. So again, although in most real world cases it will be fine, it isn’t strictly correct.

Matching non-linguistic patterns

How would you find a string that ends with four letters preceded by at least one zero?

0+[A-Za-z]{4}\b

Matching digits

How do you match any four-digit string anywhere?

\d{4}

Note: this will also match four-digit strings within longer strings of numbers and letters.

Matching dates

How would you match the date format dd-MM-yyyy?

\b\d{2}-\d{2}-\d{4}\b

Depending on your data, you may choose to remove the word bounding.

Matching multiple date formats

How would you match the date format dd-MM-yyyy or dd-MM-yy at the end of a line only?

\d{2}-\d{2}-\d{2,4}$

Note this will also find strings such as 31-01-198 at the end of a line, so you may wish to check your data and revise the expression to exclude false positives. Depending on your data, you may choose to add word bounding at the start of the expression.

Matching publication formats

How would you match publication formats such as British Library : London, 2015 and Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1999?

.* ?: .*, \d{4}

Without word boundaries you will find that this matches any text you put before British or Manchester. Nevertheless, the regular expression does a good job on the first look up and may be need to be refined on a second, depending on your data.

Key Points

  • Regular expressions are a language for pattern matching.

Content from Matching & Extracting Strings


Last updated on 2023-10-20 | Edit this page

Overview

Questions

  • How can you use regular expressions to match and extract strings?

Objectives

  • Use regular expressions to match words, email addresses, and phone numbers.
  • Use regular expressions to extract substrings from strings (e.g. addresses).

Exercise Using Regex101.com


For this exercise, open a browser and go to https://regex101.com. Regex101.com is a free regular expression debugger with real time explanation, error detection, and highlighting.

Open the swcCoC.md file, copy the text, and paste that into the test string box.

For a quick test to see if it is working, type the string community into the regular expression box.

If you look in the box on the right of the screen, you see that the expression matches six instances of the string ‘community’ (the instances are also highlighted within the text).

Taking spaces into consideration

Type community. You get three matches. Why not six?

The string ‘community-led’ matches the first search, but drops out of this result because the space does not match the character -.

Taking any character into consideration

If you want to match ‘community-led’ by adding other regex characters to the expression community, what would they be?

For instance, \S+\b. This would match one or more non-space characters followed by a word boundary.

Exploring effect of expressions matching different words

Change the expression to communi and you get 15 full matches of several words. Why?

Because the string ‘communi’ is present in all of those words, including communication and community. Because the expression does not have a word boundary, this expression would also match incommunicado, were it present in this text. If you want to test this, type incommunicado into the text somewhere and see if it is found.

Taking capitalization into consideration

Type the expression [Cc]ommuni. You get 16 matches. Why?

The pattern communi with either a capital C or lowercase c is present in the text 16 times.

Regex characters that indicate location

Type the expression ^[Cc]ommuni. You get no matches. Why?

There is no matching string present at the start of a line. Look at the text and replace the string after the ^ with something that matches a word at the start of a line. Does it find a match?

Finding plurals

Find all of the words starting with Comm or comm that are plural.

[Cc]omm\w+s\b

[Cc] finds capital and lowercase c

omm is straightforward character matches

\w+ matches the preceding element (a word character) one or more times

s is a straightforward character match

\b ensures the ‘s’ is located at the end of the word.

Exercise finding email addresses using regex101.com


For this exercise, open a browser and go to https://regex101.com.

Open the swcCoC.md file, copy it, and paste it into the test string box.

Start with what you know

What character do you know is held in common with all email addresses?

The ‘@’ character.

Add to what you know

The string before the “@” could contain any kind of word character, special character or digit in any combination and length. How would you express this in regex? Hint: often addresses will have a dash (-) or dot (.) in them, and neither of these are included in the word character expression (\w). How do you capture this in the expression?

[\w.-]+@

\w matches any word character (including digits and underscore)

. matches a literal period (when used in between square brackets, . does not mean “any character”, it literally means “.”)

- matches a dash

[] the brackets enclose the boolean string that ‘OR’ the word characters, dot, and dash.

+ matches any word character OR digit OR character OR - repeated 1 or more times

Finish the expression

The string after the “@” could contain any kind of word character, special character or digit in any combination and length as well as the dash. In addition, we know that it will have some characters after a period (.). Most common domain names have two or three characters, but many more are now possible. Find the latest list here. What expression would capture this? Hint: the . is also a metacharacter, so you will have to use the escape \ to express a literal period. Note: for the string after the period, we did not try to match a - character, since those rarely appear in the characters after the period at the end of an email address.

[\w.-]+\.\w{2,3} OR [\w.-]+\.\w+

See the previous exercise for the explanation of the expression up to the +

\. matches the literal period (‘.’) not the regex expression .

\w matches any word (including digits and underscore)

+ matches any word character OR digit OR character OR - repeated 1 or more times.

{2,3} limits the number of word characters and/or digits to a two or three-character string.

[] the brackets enclose the boolean string that ‘OR’ the digits, word characters, characters and dash.

+ matches any word character OR digit OR character OR - repeated 1 or more times

Exercise finding phone numbers, Using regex101.com


Does this Code of Conduct contain a phone number?

What to consider:

  1. It may or may not have a country code, perhaps starting with a “+”.
  2. It will have an area code, potentially enclosed in parentheses.
  3. It may have the sections all separated with a “-”.

Start with what you know: find strings of digits

Start with what we know, which is the most basic format of a phone number: three digits, a dash, and four digits. How would we write a regex expression that matches this?

\d{3}-\d{4}

\d matches digits

{3} matches 3 digits

- matches the character ‘-’

\d matches any digit

{4} matches 4 digits.

This expression should find three matches in the document.

Match a string that includes an area code with a dash

Start with what we know, which is the most basic format of a phone number: three digits, a dash, and four digits. How would we expand the expression to include an area code (three digits and a dash)?

\d{3}-\d{3}-\d{4}

\d matches digits

{3} matches 3 digits

- matches the character ‘-’

\d matches any digit

{4} matches 4 digits.

This expression should find one match in the document

Match a string that includes an area code within parenthesis separated from the rest of the phone number with a space or without a space

Start with what we know, which is the most basic format of a phone number: three digits, a dash, and four digits. How would we expand the expression to include a phone number with an area code in parenthesis, separated from the phone number, with or without a space.

\(\d{3}\) ?\d{3}-\d{4}

\( escape character with the parenthesis as straightforward character match

\d matches digits

{3} matches 3 digits

\) escape character with the parenthesis as a straightforward character match

? matches zero or one spaces

See the previous exercise for the explanation of the rest of the expression.

This expression should find two matches in the document.

Match a phone number containing a country code.

Country codes are preceded by a “+” and can have up to three digits. We also have to consider that there may or may not be a space between the country code and anything appearing next.

\+\d{1,3} ?\(\d{3}\)\s?\d{3}-\d{4}

\+ escape character with the plus sign as straightforward character match

\d matches digits

{1,3} matches 1 to 3 digits

? matches zero or one spaces

See the previous exercise for the explanation of the rest of the expression.

This expression should find one match in the document.

Using regular expressions when working with files and directories

One of the reasons we stress the value of consistent and predictable directory and filenaming conventions is that working in this way enables you to use the computer to select files based on the characteristics of their file names. For example, if you have a bunch of files where the first four digits are the year and you only want to do something with files from ‘2017’, then you can. Or if you have ‘journal’ somewhere in a filename when you have data about journals, you can use the computer to select just those files. Equally, using plain text formats means that you can go further and select files or elements of files based on characteristics of the data within those files. See Workshop Overview: File Naming & Formatting for further background.

Extracting a substring in Google Sheets using regex


Extracting a substring in Google Sheets using regex

  1. Export and unzip the 2017 Public Library Survey (originally from the IMLS data site) as a CSV file.
  2. Upload the CSV file to Google Sheets and open as a Google Sheet if it does not do this by default.
  3. Look in the ADDRESS column and notice that the values contain the latitude and longitude in parenthesis after the library address.
  4. Construct a regular expression to match and extract the latitude and longitude into a new column named ‘latlong’. HINT: Look up the function REGEXEXTRACT in Google Sheets. That function expects the first argument to be a string (a cell in ADDRESS column) and a quoted regular expression in the second.

This is one way to solve this challenge. You might have found others. Inside the cell you can use the below to extract the latitude and longitude into a single cell. You can then copy the formula down to the end of the column.

=REGEXEXTRACT(G2,"-?\d+\.\d+, -?\d+\.\d+")

Latitude and longitude are in decimal degree format and can be positive or negative, so we start with an optional dash for negative values then use \d+ for a one or more digit match followed by a period \.. Note we had to escape the period using \. After the period we look for one or more digits \d+ again followed by a literal comma ,. We then have a literal space match followed by an optional dash - (there are few 0.0 latitude/longitudes that are probably errors, but we’d want to retain so we can deal with them). We then repeat our \d+\.\d+ we used for the latitude match.

Key Points

Content from Multiple Choice Quiz


Last updated on 2023-05-03 | Edit this page

Overview

Questions

  • How do you find and match strings with regular expressions?

Objectives

  • Test knowledge of use of regular expressions.

Multiple Choice Quiz


This multiple choice quiz is designed to embed the regex knowledge you learned during this module. We recommend you work through it sometime after class (within a week or so).

Q1. What is the special character that matches zero or more characters?

    1. ^
    1. #
    1. *

C

Q2. Which of the following matches any space, tab, or newline?

    1. \s
    1. \b
    1. $

A

Q3. How do you match the stringConfidentappearing at the beginning of a line?

    1. $Confident
    1. ^Confident
    1. #Confident

B

Q4. How do you match the wordConfidentialappearing at the beginning of a line?

    1. ^Confidential\d
    1. ^Confidential\b
    1. ^Confidential\w

B

Q5. What does the regular expression[a-z]match?

    1. The characters a and z only
    1. All characters between the ranges a to z and A to Z
    1. All characters between the range a to z

C

Q6. Which of these will match the stringsrevolution,revolutionary, andrevolutionaries?

    1. revolution[a-z]?
    1. revolution[a-z]*
    1. revolution[a-z]+

B

Q7. Which of these will match the stringsrevolution,Revolution, and their plural variants only?

    1. [rR]evolution[s]+
    1. revolution[s]?
    1. [rR]evolution[s]?

C

Q8. What regular expression matches the stringsdogorcat?

    1. dog|cat
    1. dog,cat
    1. dog | cat

A

Q9. What regular expression matches the whole wordsdogorcat?

    1. \bdog|cat\b
    1. \bdog\b | \bcat\b
    1. \bdog\b|\bcat\b

C

Q10. What do we put after a character to match strings where that character appears two to four times in sequence?

    1. {2,4}
    1. {2-4}
    1. [2,4]

A

Q11. The regular expression\d{4}will match what?

    1. Any four character sequence?
    1. Any four digit sequence?
    1. The letterdfour times?

B

Q12. If brackets are used to define a group, what would match the regular expression(,\s[0-9]{1,4}){4},\s[0-9]{1,3}\.[0-9]?

    1. , 135, 1155, 915, 513, 18.8
    1. , 135, 11557, 915, 513, 18.8
    1. , 135, 1155, 915, 513, 188

A

Key Points

  • Regular expressions answers

Content from Exercises


Last updated on 2023-05-03 | Edit this page

Overview

Questions

  • How do you find and match strings with regular expressions?

Objectives

  • Test knowledge of use of regular expressions

Exercises


The exercises are designed to embed the regex knowledge you learned during this module. We recommend you work through it sometime after class (within a week or so).

What doesFr[ea]nc[eh]match?

This matches France, French, in addition to the misspellings Frence, and Franch. It would also find strings where there were characters to either side of the pattern such as France's, in French, or French-fried.

What doesFr[ea]nc[eh]$match?

This matches France, French, Frence, and Franch only at the end of a line. It would also match strings with other characters appearing before the pattern, such as in French or Sino-French.

What would match the stringsFrenchandFranceonly that appear at the beginning of a line?

^France|^French This would also find strings with other characters coming after French, such as Frenchness or France's economy.

How do you match the whole wordscolourandcolor(case insensitive)?

In real life, you should only come across the case insensitive variations colour, color, Colour, Color, COLOUR, and COLOR (rather than, say, coLour. So one option would be \b[Cc]olou?r\b|\bCOLOU?R\b. This can, however, get quickly quite complex. An option we’ve not discussed is to take advantage of the / delimiters and add an ignore case flag: so /colou?r/i will match all case insensitive variants of colour and color.

How would you find the whole-wordheadrestorhead restbut nothead  rest(that is, with two spaces betweenheadandrest?

\bhead ?rest\b. Note that although \bhead\s?rest\b does work, it would also match zero or one tabs or newline characters between head and rest. In most real world cases it should, however, be fine.

How would you find a 4-letter word that ends a string and is preceded by at least one zero?

0+[a-z]{4}\b

How do you match any 4-digit string anywhere?

\d{4}. Note this will match 4 digit strings only but will find them within longer strings of numbers.

How would you match the date formatdd-MM-yyyy?

\b\d{2}-\d{2}-\d{4}\b In most real world situations, you are likely to want word bounding here (but it may depend on your data).

How would you match the date formatdd-MM-yyyyordd-MM-yyat the end of a line only?

\d{2}-\d{2}-\d{2,4}$

How would you match publication formats such asBritish Library : London, 2015andManchester University Press: Manchester, 1999?

.* : .*, \d{4} You will find that this matches any text you put before British or Manchester. In this case, this regular expression does a good job on the first look up and may be need to be refined on a second depending on your real world application.

Key Points

  • Regular expressions answers