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
described 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
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.
REGULAR EXPRESSIONS AS TREES
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.
THE STANDARD MATCHING ALGORITHM
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 ALTERNATIVE MATCHING ALGORITHM
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
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
ungreedy nature of repetition quantifiers is not relevant. Greedy and
ungreedy 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:
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
sequence, 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
error 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
ADVANTAGES OF THE ALTERNATIVE ALGORITHM
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.
DISADVANTAGES OF THE ALTERNATIVE ALGORITHM
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.
Last updated: 12 November 2013
Copyright (c) 1997-2012 University of Cambridge.
PCRE 8.34 12 November 2013 PCREMATCHING(3)
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