PCREMATCHING(3)            Library Functions Manual            PCREMATCHING(3)

       PCRE - Perl-compatible regular expressions


       This document describes the two different algorithms that are available
       in PCRE for matching a compiled regular expression against a given sub-
       ject  string.  The  "standard"  algorithm  is  the  one provided by the
       pcre_exec(), pcre16_exec() and pcre32_exec() functions. These  work  in
       the  same as as Perl's matching function, and provide a Perl-compatible
       matching operation.  The just-in-time (JIT) optimization  that  is  de-
       scribed  in  the  pcrejit  documentation is compatible with these func-

       An  alternative  algorithm  is   provided   by   the   pcre_dfa_exec(),
       pcre16_dfa_exec()  and  pcre32_dfa_exec()  functions; they operate in a
       different way, and are not Perl-compatible. This alternative has advan-
       tages and disadvantages compared with the standard algorithm, and these
       are described below.

       When there is only one possible way in which a given subject string can
       match  a pattern, the two algorithms give the same answer. A difference
       arises, however, when there are multiple possibilities. For example, if
       the pattern


       is matched against the string

         <something> <something else> <something further>

       there are three possible answers. The standard algorithm finds only one
       of them, whereas the alternative algorithm finds all three.


       The set of strings that are matched by a regular expression can be rep-
       resented  as  a  tree structure. An unlimited repetition in the pattern
       makes the tree of infinite size, but it is still a tree.  Matching  the
       pattern  to a given subject string (from a given starting point) can be
       thought of as a search of the tree.  There are two  ways  to  search  a
       tree:  depth-first  and  breadth-first, and these correspond to the two
       matching algorithms provided by PCRE.


       In the terminology of Jeffrey Friedl's book "Mastering Regular  Expres-
       sions",  the  standard  algorithm  is an "NFA algorithm". It conducts a
       depth-first search of the pattern tree. That is, it  proceeds  along  a
       single path through the tree, checking that the subject matches what is
       required. When there is a mismatch, the algorithm  tries  any  alterna-
       tives  at  the  current point, and if they all fail, it backs up to the
       previous branch point in the  tree,  and  tries  the  next  alternative
       branch  at  that  level.  This often involves backing up (moving to the
       left) in the subject string as well.  The  order  in  which  repetition
       branches  are  tried  is controlled by the greedy or ungreedy nature of
       the quantifier.

       If a leaf node is reached, a matching string has  been  found,  and  at
       that  point the algorithm stops. Thus, if there is more than one possi-
       ble match, this algorithm returns the first one that it finds.  Whether
       this  is the shortest, the longest, or some intermediate length depends
       on the way the greedy and ungreedy repetition quantifiers are specified
       in the pattern.

       Because  it  ends  up  with a single path through the tree, it is rela-
       tively straightforward for this algorithm to keep  track  of  the  sub-
       strings  that  are  matched  by portions of the pattern in parentheses.
       This provides support for capturing parentheses and back references.


       This algorithm conducts a breadth-first search of  the  tree.  Starting
       from  the  first  matching  point  in the subject, it scans the subject
       string from left to right, once, character by character, and as it does
       this,  it remembers all the paths through the tree that represent valid
       matches. In Friedl's terminology, this is a kind  of  "DFA  algorithm",
       though  it is not implemented as a traditional finite state machine (it
       keeps multiple states active simultaneously).

       Although the general principle of this matching algorithm  is  that  it
       scans  the subject string only once, without backtracking, there is one
       exception: when a lookaround assertion is encountered,  the  characters
       following  or  preceding the current point have to be independently in-

       The scan continues until either the end of the subject is  reached,  or
       there  are  no more unterminated paths. At this point, terminated paths
       represent the different matching possibilities (if there are none,  the
       match  has  failed).   Thus,  if there is more than one possible match,
       this algorithm finds all of them, and in particular, it finds the long-
       est.  The  matches are returned in decreasing order of length. There is
       an option to stop the algorithm after the first match (which is  neces-
       sarily the shortest) is found.

       Note that all the matches that are found start at the same point in the
       subject. If the pattern


       is matched against the string "the caterpillar catchment",  the  result
       will  be the three strings "caterpillar", "cater", and "cat" that start
       at the fifth character of the subject. The algorithm does not automati-
       cally move on to find matches that start at later positions.

       PCRE's  "auto-possessification" optimization usually applies to charac-
       ter repeats at the end of a pattern (as well as internally). For  exam-
       ple, the pattern "a\d+" is compiled as if it were "a\d++" because there
       is no point even considering the possibility of backtracking  into  the
       repeated  digits.  For  DFA matching, this means that only one possible
       match is found. If you really do want multiple matches in  such  cases,
       either use an ungreedy repeat ("a\d+?") or set the PCRE_NO_AUTO_POSSESS
       option when compiling.

       There are a number of features of PCRE regular expressions that are not
       supported by the alternative matching algorithm. They are as follows:

       1.  Because the algorithm finds all possible matches, the greedy or un-
       greedy nature of repetition quantifiers is not relevant. Greedy and un-
       greedy  quantifiers  are treated in exactly the same way. However, pos-
       sessive quantifiers can make a difference when what follows could  also
       match what is quantified, for example in a pattern like this:


       This  pattern matches "aaab!" but not "aaa!", which would be matched by
       a non-possessive quantifier. Similarly, if an atomic group is  present,
       it  is matched as if it were a standalone pattern at the current point,
       and the longest match is then "locked in" for the rest of  the  overall

       2. When dealing with multiple paths through the tree simultaneously, it
       is not straightforward to keep track of  captured  substrings  for  the
       different matching possibilities, and PCRE's implementation of this al-
       gorithm does not attempt to do this. This means that no  captured  sub-
       strings are available.

       3.  Because no substrings are captured, back references within the pat-
       tern are not supported, and cause errors if encountered.

       4. For the same reason, conditional expressions that use  a  backrefer-
       ence  as  the  condition or test for a specific group recursion are not

       5. Because many paths through the tree may be active, the \K escape se-
       quence,  which  resets the start of the match when encountered (but may
       be on some paths and not on others), is not supported. It causes an er-
       ror if encountered.

       6.  Callouts  are  supported, but the value of the capture_top field is
       always 1, and the value of the capture_last field is always -1.

       7. The \C escape sequence, which (in  the  standard  algorithm)  always
       matches  a  single data unit, even in UTF-8, UTF-16 or UTF-32 modes, is
       not supported in these modes, because the alternative  algorithm  moves
       through the subject string one character (not data unit) at a time, for
       all active paths through the tree.

       8. Except for (*FAIL), the backtracking control verbs such as  (*PRUNE)
       are  not  supported.  (*FAIL)  is supported, and behaves like a failing
       negative assertion.


       Using the alternative matching algorithm provides the following  advan-

       1. All possible matches (at a single point in the subject) are automat-
       ically found, and in particular, the longest match is  found.  To  find
       more than one match using the standard algorithm, you have to do kludgy
       things with callouts.

       2. Because the alternative algorithm  scans  the  subject  string  just
       once, and never needs to backtrack (except for lookbehinds), it is pos-
       sible to pass very long subject strings to  the  matching  function  in
       several pieces, checking for partial matching each time. Although it is
       possible to do multi-segment matching using the standard  algorithm  by
       retaining  partially  matched  substrings,  it is more complicated. The
       pcrepartial documentation gives details of partial  matching  and  dis-
       cusses multi-segment matching.


       The alternative algorithm suffers from a number of disadvantages:

       1.  It  is  substantially  slower  than the standard algorithm. This is
       partly because it has to search for all possible matches, but  is  also
       because it is less susceptible to optimization.

       2. Capturing parentheses and back references are not supported.

       3. Although atomic groups are supported, their use does not provide the
       performance advantage that it does for the standard algorithm.


       Philip Hazel
       University Computing Service
       Cambridge CB2 3QH, England.


       Last updated: 12 November 2013
       Copyright (c) 1997-2012 University of Cambridge.

PCRE 8.34                      12 November 2013                PCREMATCHING(3)
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