PCRE2 is the name used for a revised API for the PCRE library, which is
a set of functions, written in C, that implement regular expression
pattern matching using the same syntax and semantics as Perl, with just
a few differences. After nearly two decades, the limitations of the
original API were making development increasingly difficult. The new
API is more extensible, and it was simplified by abolishing the sepa-
rate "study" optimizing function; in PCRE2, patterns are automatically
optimized where possible. Since forking from PCRE1, the code has been
extensively refactored and new features introduced.
As well as Perl-style regular expression patterns, some features that
appeared in Python and the original PCRE before they appeared in Perl
are available using the Python syntax. There is also some support for
one or two .NET and Oniguruma syntax items, and there are options for
requesting some minor changes that give better ECMAScript (aka
The source code for PCRE2 can be compiled to support 8-bit, 16-bit, or
32-bit code units, which means that up to three separate libraries may
be installed. The original work to extend PCRE to 16-bit and 32-bit
code units was done by Zoltan Herczeg and Christian Persch, respec-
tively. In all three cases, strings can be interpreted either as one
character per code unit, or as UTF-encoded Unicode, with support for
Unicode general category properties. Unicode support is optional at
build time (but is the default). However, processing strings as UTF
code units must be enabled explicitly at run time. The version of Uni-
code in use can be discovered by running
The three libraries contain identical sets of functions, with names
ending in _8, _16, or _32, respectively (for example, pcre2_com-
pile_8()). However, by defining PCRE2_CODE_UNIT_WIDTH to be 8, 16, or
32, a program that uses just one code unit width can be written using
generic names such as pcre2_compile(), and the documentation is written
assuming that this is the case.
In addition to the Perl-compatible matching function, PCRE2 contains an
alternative function that matches the same compiled patterns in a dif-
ferent way. In certain circumstances, the alternative function has some
advantages. For a discussion of the two matching algorithms, see the
Details of exactly which Perl regular expression features are and are
not supported by PCRE2 are given in separate documents. See the
pcre2pattern and pcre2compat pages. There is a syntax summary in the
Some features of PCRE2 can be included, excluded, or changed when the
library is built. The pcre2_config() function makes it possible for a
client to discover which features are available. The features them-
selves are described in the pcre2build page. Documentation about build-
ing PCRE2 for various operating systems can be found in the README and
If you are using PCRE2 in a non-UTF application that permits users to
supply arbitrary patterns for compilation, you should be aware of a
feature that allows users to turn on UTF support from within a pattern.
For example, an 8-bit pattern that begins with "(*UTF)" turns on UTF-8
mode, which interprets patterns and subjects as strings of UTF-8 code
units instead of individual 8-bit characters. This causes both the pat-
tern and any data against which it is matched to be checked for UTF-8
validity. If the data string is very long, such a check might use suf-
ficiently many resources as to cause your application to lose perfor-
One way of guarding against this possibility is to use the pcre2_pat-
tern_info() function to check the compiled pattern's options for
PCRE2_UTF. Alternatively, you can set the PCRE2_NEVER_UTF option when
calling pcre2_compile(). This causes a compile time error if the pat-
tern contains a UTF-setting sequence.
The use of Unicode properties for character types such as \d can also
be enabled from within the pattern, by specifying "(*UCP)". This fea-
ture can be disallowed by setting the PCRE2_NEVER_UCP option.
If your application is one that supports UTF, be aware that validity
checking can take time. If the same data string is to be matched many
times, you can use the PCRE2_NO_UTF_CHECK option for the second and
subsequent matches to avoid running redundant checks.
The use of the \C escape sequence in a UTF-8 or UTF-16 pattern can lead
to problems, because it may leave the current matching point in the
middle of a multi-code-unit character. The PCRE2_NEVER_BACKSLASH_C
option can be used by an application to lock out the use of \C, causing
a compile-time error if it is encountered. It is also possible to build
PCRE2 with the use of \C permanently disabled.
Another way that performance can be hit is by running a pattern that
has a very large search tree against a string that will never match.
Nested unlimited repeats in a pattern are a common example. PCRE2 pro-
vides some protection against this: see the pcre2_set_match_limit()
function in the pcre2api page. There is a similar function called
pcre2_set_depth_limit() that can be used to restrict the amount of mem-
ory that is used.
The user documentation for PCRE2 comprises a number of different sec-
tions. In the "man" format, each of these is a separate "man page". In
the HTML format, each is a separate page, linked from the index page.
In the plain text format, the descriptions of the pcre2grep and
pcre2test programs are in files called pcre2grep.txt and pcre2test.txt,
respectively. The remaining sections, except for the pcre2demo section
(which is a program listing), and the short pages for individual func-
tions, are concatenated in pcre2.txt, for ease of searching. The sec-
tions are as follows:
pcre2 this document
pcre2pattern syntax and semantics of supported regular
pcre2perform discussion of performance issues
pcre2posix the POSIX-compatible C API for the 8-bit library
pcre2sample discussion of the pcre2demo program
pcre2serialize details of pattern serialization
pcre2syntax quick syntax reference
pcre2test description of the pcre2test command
pcre2unicode discussion of Unicode and UTF support
In the "man" and HTML formats, there is also a short page for each C
library function, listing its arguments and results.
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Last updated: 17 September 2018
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