Using Regular Expressions in PHP and JavaScript - Learning PHP, MySQL, and JavaScript

by Robin Nixon

Robin Nixon shows how you can use regular expressions to perform complex searches with a minimum of code.

Learning PHP, MySQL, and JavaScript book cover

This excerpt is from Learning PHP, MySQL, and JavaScript . Discover how the powerful combination of PHP and MySQL provides an easy way to build modern websites complete with dynamic data and user interaction. You'll also learn how to add JavaScript to create rich Internet applications and websites.

buy button


Regular expressions are supported by both JavaScript and PHP, as well as a number of other languages. They make it possible to construct the most powerful of pattern-matching algorithms within a single expression.


Every regular expression must be enclosed in slashes. Within these slashes, certain characters have special meanings; there are called metacharacters. For instance, an asterisk (*) has a meaning similar to what you have seen if you use a shell or Windows Command prompt (but not quite the same). An asterisk means, "the text you're trying to match may have any number of the preceding character—or none at all."


Matching through metacharacters

Let's say you're looking for the name "Le Guin" and know that someone might spell it with or without a space. Because the text is laid out strangely (for instance, someone may have inserted extra spaces to right-justify lines), you could have to search for a line such as:


The   difficulty  of   classifying Le      Guin's    works


So you need to match "LeGuin," as well as "Le" and "Guin" separated by any number of spaces. The solution is to follow a space with an asterisk:


/Le *Guin/


There's a lot more than the name "Le Guin" in the line, but that's OK. As long as the regular expression matches some part of the line, the test function returns a true value. What if it's important to make sure the line contains nothing but "Le Guin"? I'll show how to ensure that later.


Suppose that you know there is always at least one space. In that case, you could use the plus sign (+), because it requires at least one of the preceding character to be present:


/Le +Guin/


Fuzzy character matching

The dot (.) is particularly useful, because it can match anything except a newline. Suppose that you are looking for HTML tags, which start with "<" and end with ">". A simple way to do so is:




The dot matches any character and the * expands it to match zero or more characters, so this is saying, "match anything that lies between < and >, even if there's nothing." You will match <>, <em>, <br /> and so on. But if you don't want to match the empty case, <>, you should use the + sign instead of *, like this:




The plus sign expands the dot to match one or more characters, saying, "match anything that lies between < and > as long as there's at least one character between them." You will match <em> and </em>, <h1> and </h1>, and tags with attributes such as:


<a href="">


Unfortunately, the plus sign keeps on matching up to the last > on the line, so you might end up with:




A lot more than one tag! I'll show a better solution later on.


If you want to match the dot character itself (.), you have to escape it by placing a backslash (\) before it, because otherwise it's a metacharacter and matches anything. As an example, suppose you want to match the floating-point number "5.0". The regular expression is:




The backslash can escape any metacharacter, including another backslash (in case you're trying to match a backslash in text). However, to make things a bit confusing, you'll see later how backslashes sometimes give the following character a special meaning.


We just matched a floating-point number. But perhaps you want to match "5." as well as "5.0", because both mean the same thing as a floating-point number. You also want to match "5.00", "5.000", and so forth—any number of zeros is allowed. You can do this by adding an asterisk, as you've seen:




Grouping through parentheses

Suppose you want to match powers of increments of units, such as kilo, mega, giga, and tera. In other words, you want all the following to match:








The plus sign works here, too, but you need to group the string ",000" so the plus sign matches the whole thing. The regular expression is:


/1(,000)+ /


The parentheses mean "treat this as a group when you apply something such as a plus sign." 1,00,000 and 1,000,00 won't match because the text must have a 1 followed one or more complete groups of a comma followed by three zeroes.


The space after the + character indicates that the match must end when a space is encountered. Without it 1,000,00 would incorrectly match because only the first 1,000 would be taken into account, and the remaining ,00 would be ignored. Requiring a space afterwards ensures matching will continue right through to the end of a number.


Character classes

Sometimes you want to match something fuzzy, but not so broad that you want to use a dot. Fuzziness is the great strength of regular expressions: they allow you to be as precise or vague as you want.


One of the key features supporting fuzzy matching is the pair of square brackets, []. It matches a single character, like a dot, but inside the brackets you put a list of things that can match. If any of those characters appears, the text matches. For instance, if you wanted to match both the American spelling "gray" and the British spelling "grey," you could specify:




After the gr in the text you're matching, there can be either an a or an e. But there must be only one of them: whatever you put inside the brackets matches exactly one character. The group of characters inside the brackets is called a character class.

Indicating a range


Inside the brackets, you can use a hyphen (-) to indicate a range. One very common task is matching a single digit, which you can do with a range as follows:




Digits are such a common item in regular expressions that a single character is provided to represent them: \d. You can use it in the place of the bracketed regular expression to match a digit:





One other important feature of the square brackets is negation of a character class. You can turn the whole character class on its head by placing a caret (^) after the opening bracket. Here it means, "Match any characters except the following." So let's say you want to find instances of "Yahoo" that lack the following exclamation point. (The name of the company officially contains an exclamation point!) You could do it as follows:




The character class consists of a single character—an exclamation point—but it is inverted by the preceding ^. This is actually not a great solution to the problem—for instance, it fails if "Yahoo" is at the end of the line, because then it's not followed by anything, whereas the brackets must match a character. A better solution involves negative look-ahead (matching something that is not followed by anything else), but that's beyond the scope of this book.


Some more complicated examples

With an understanding of character classes and negation, you're ready now to see a better solution to the problem of matching an HTML tag. This solution avoids going past the end of a single tag, but still matches tags such as <em> and </em> as well as tags with attributes such as:


<a href="">


One solution is:




That regular expression may look like I dropped my teacup on the keyboard, but it is perfectly valid and very useful. Let's break it apart. The elements are:


/           Opening slash that indicates this is a regular expression.

<          Opening bracket of an HTML tag. This is matched exactly; it is not a metacharacter.

[^>]     Character class. The embedded ^> means "match anything except a closing angle bracket."

+          Allows any number of characters to match the previous [^>], as long as there is at least one of them.

>          Closing bracket of an HTML tag. This is matched exactly.

/           Closing slash that indicates the end of the regular expression.


We are going to look now at a commonly used regular expression:




There are two other important metacharacters. They "anchor" a regular expression by requiring that it appear in a particular place. If a caret (^) appears at the beginning of the regular expression, the expression has to appear at the beginning of a line of text—otherwise, it doesn't match. Similarly, If a dollar sign ($) appears at the end of the regular expression, the expression has to appear at the end of a line of text.


We'll finish our exploration of regular expression basics by answering a question raised earlier: suppose you want to make sure there is nothing extra on a line besides the regular expression? What if you want a line that has "Le Guin" and nothing else? We can do that by amending the earlier regular expression to anchor the two ends:


/^Le *Guin$/


Summary of metacharacters

The following table hows the metacharacters available in regular expressions.





Begins and ends the regular expression


Matches any single character except the newline


Matches element zero or more times


Matches element one or more times


Matches element zero or one times


Matches a character out of those contained within the brackets


Matches a single character that is not contained within the brackets


Treats the regex as a group for counting or a following *, +, or ?


Matches either left or right


Matches a range of characters between l and r (only within brackets)


Requires match to be at the string's start


Requires match to be at the string's end


Matches a word boundary


Matches where there is not a word boundary


Matches a single digit


Matches a single non-digit


Matches a newline character


Matches a whitespace character


Matches a non-whitespace character


Matches a tab character


Matches a word character (a-z, A-Z, 0-9, and _)


Matches a non-word character (anything but a-z, A-Z, 0-9, and _)


x (useful if x is a metacharacter, but you really want x)


Matches exactly n times


Matches n times or more


Matches at least min and at most max times


Provided with this table, and looking again at the expression /[^a-zA-Z0-9_]/, you can see that it could easily be shortened to /[^\w]/ because the single metacharacter \w (with a lower case w) specifies the characters a-z, A-Z, 0-9, and _.


In fact, we can be cleverer than that, because the metacharacter \W (with an upper case W) specifies all characters except for a-z, A-Z, 0-9, and _. Therefore we could also drop the ^ metacharacter and simply use /[\W]/ for the expression.


To give you more ideas of how this all works the following table shows a range of expressions and the patterns they match.





The first r in The quick brown


Either of receive or receive (but also receeve or reciive)


Either of receive or receive (but also receeve or reciive)


Either of receive or receive (but not receeve or reciive)


The word cat in I like cats and dogs


Either of the words cat or dog in I like cats and dogs


. (the \ is necessary because . is a metacharacter)


5., 5.0, 5.00, 5.000, etc.


Any of the characters a, b, c, d, e or f


Only the final cats in My cats are friendly cats


Only the first my in my cats are my pets


Any two or three digit number (00 through 999)


7,000;7,000,000; 7,000,000,000; 7,000,000,000,000; etc.


Any word of one or more characters


Any five letter word


General modifiers

Some additional modifiers are available for regular expressions:


  • /g enables "global" matching. When using a replace function, specify this modifier to replace all matches, rather than only the first one.
  • /i makes the regular expression match case-insensitive. Thus, instead of /[a-zA-Z]/ you could specify /[a-z]/i or /[A-Z]/i
  • /m enables multi-line mode, in which the caret (^) and dollar ($) match before and after any newlines in the subject string. Normally, in a multi-line string, matches only at the start of the string and $ matches only at the end of the string.


For example, the expression /cats/g will match both occurrences of the word cats in the sentence "I like cats and cats like me". Similarly /dogs/gi will match both occurrences of the word dogs (Dogs and dogs) in the sentence "Dogs like other dogs", because you can use these specifiers together.


Using Regular Expressions in JavaScript

In JavaScript you will use regular expressions mostly in two methods: test (which you have already seen) and replace. Whereas test just tells you whether its argument matches the regular expression, replace takes a second parameter: the string to replace the text that matches. Like most functions, replace generates a new string as a return value; it does not change the input.


To compare the two methods, the following statement just returns true to let us know that the word "cats" appears at least once somewhere within the string:


document.write(/cats/i.test("Cats are fun. I like cats."))


But the following statement replaces both occurrences of the word cats with the word dogs, printing the result. The search has to be global (/g) to find all occurrences, and case-insensitive  (/i) to find the capitalized "Cats":


document.write("Cats are fun. I like cats.".replace(/cats/gi,"dogs"))


If you try out the statement, you'll see a limitation of replace: because it replaces text with exactly the string you tell it to use, the first word "Cats" is replaced by "dogs" instead of "Dogs".


Using Regular Expressions in PHP

The most common regular expression functions that you are likely to use in PHP are preg_match, preg_match_all, and preg_replace.


To test whether the word cats appears anywhere within a string, in any combination of upper- and lowercase, you could use preg_match like this:


$n = preg_match("/cats/i", "Cats are fun. I like cats.");


Because PHP uses 1 for true and 0 for false, the preceding statement sets $n to 1. The first argument is the regular expression and the second is the text to match. But preg_match is actually a good deal more powerful and complicated, because it takes a third argument that shows what text matched:


$n = preg_match("/cats/i", "Cats are fun. I like cats.", $match);

echo "$n Matches: $match[0]";


The third argument is an array (here given the name $match). The function puts the text that matches into the first element, so if the match is successful you can find the text that matched in $match[0]. In this example, the output lets us know that the matched text was capitalized:


1 Matches: Cats


If you wish to locate all matches, you use the preg_match_all function, like this:


$n = preg_match_all("/cats/i", "Cats are fun. I like cats.", $match);

echo "$n Matches: ";

for ($j=0 ; $j < $n ; ++$j) echo $match[0][$j]." ";


As before, $match is passed to the function and the element $match[0] is assigned the matches made, but this time as a sub-array. To display the sub-array, this example iterates through it with a for loop.


When you want to replace part of a string, you can use preg_replace as shown here. This example replaces all occurrences of the word cats with the word dogs, regardless of case:


echo preg_replace("/cats/i", "dogs", "Cats are fun. I like cats.");


About the Author

Robin Nixon is a technical author, specializing in web development, who has written three books. This article is reproduced from his latest book, Learning, PHP, MYSQL and JavaScript, published by O'Reilly, ISBN 0596157134.


If you enjoyed this excerpt, buy a copy of Learning PHP, MySQL, and JavaScript .