Regular Expressions Essentials

Created: 2016-01-16
Updated: 2016-01-16

A regular expression is a sequence of characters that define a search pattern.

Each character in a regular expression is understood to be: a metacharacter or a regular character. Pattern-matches can vary from a precise equality to a very general similarity (controlled by the metacharacters).

If there exists at least one regular expression that matches a particular set then there exists an infinite number of other regular expression that also match it, the specification is not unique.

Regular expressions look a lot like the file matching patters the shell uses. They even act almost the same way.

Meta characters are expanded before the shell passes the arguments to the program. To prevent this expansion, the special characters in a regular expression must be quoted when passed as an option from the shell.


There are three important parts.

  • Anchors - used to specify the position of the pattern in relation to a line of text;
  • Character Sets - match one or more characters in a single position;
  • Modifiers - specify how many times the previous character set is repeated

There are also two types of regular expressions: basic and extended. Few utilities like awk and egrep use the extended expression.


Most Unix text facilities are line oriented. The end of line character is not included in the block of text that is searched. It is a separator.

Regular expressions examine the text between the separators. Anchors are used to search for a pattern that is at one end or at the other.

The character ^ is the starting anchor, and the character $ is the end anchor. The regular expression ^A will match all lines that start with a capital A. The expression A$ will match all lines that end with the capital A.

If an anchor is not used at the proper endo of pattern, then they no longer act as anchors. If you need to match a ^ at the beginning of the line, or a $ at the end of a line, you must escape the special characters with a backslash.

Another anchor is the world boundary \b. This anchor matches a word boundary position such as whitespace, punctuation, or the start/end of a string.

Character Sets

The simplest character set is a character. The regular expression the contains three character sets: t,h and e. It will match any line with the string the inside it.

Some characters have a special meaning in regular expressions. If you want to search for such character, escape it with a backslash.

The character . is one special meta character. By itself it will match any character, except the end of line character that is always used as separator.

To match a specific character set, the square brackets are used. You can use the hyphen (-) between two characters to specify a range. The pattern that will match any line that contains exactly one number is:


Explicit characters can be intermixed with character ranges. This pattern matches a single character that is a letter, a number, or an underscore:


Character sets can be combined by placing them next to each other. For example


Match any word that: start with a capital letter T, is the first word of the line, the second letter is a lower case letter, the third letter is a vowel, and is exactly three characters long.

Like the anchors in places that can’t be considered an anchor, the characters ] and - do not have a special meaning if they directly follow [.

Expression Matches
[0-9-] any number or a -
[]0-9] any number or a ]
[0-9-z] any number or any character between 9 and z
[0-9\-a\]] Any number or a -, a a or a ]


All characters except those in the square brackets are searched by putting a ^ as the first character after the [. To match all characters except vowels use:



Modifiers are used to specify how many times the previous character set should be considered.

* modifier

The special character \* matches zero or more copies of a character set. For example p[a-zA-z]*ers matches any word that starts with a p and ends with ers.

\{ and \} modifiers

To specify the minimum and the maximum number of occurrences of a character set you should include those two numbers between \{ and \}. For example, the regular expression to match 4,5,6,7 or 8 lower case letters is


Any numbers between 0 and 255 can be used, and the second one may be omitted, removing the upper limit. If the comma is also removed, then the pattern must be duplicated the exact number of times specified by the first number.

Remember that modifiers like * and \{min,max\} only act as modifiers if they follow a character set. If they were at the beginning of a pattern, they would not be modifiers.

Expression Matches
* any line with an asterisk
\* any line with an asterisk
\\ any line with a backslash
^* any line starting with an asterisk
^A* any line (starting with 0+ A chars)
^A\* any line starting with an A\*
^AA* any line starting with an A
^AA*B any line starting with one or more As followed by a B
^A\{4,8\}B any line starting with 4 to 8 As followed by a B
^A\{4,\}B any line starting with 4 or more As followed by a B
^A\{4\}B any line starting with AAAAB
\{4,8\} any line with {4,8}

\< and \> modifiers

To match a word one can put spaces before and after the first and the last letter respectively. However, this does not match words at the beginning and at the end of the line. And does not match the case where there is a punctuation mark after the word.

The characters \< and \> are similar to the line anchors, as they don’t occupy a position of a character. As an example the pattern to search for the world the or The would be \<[tT]he\>.


Another pattern that requires a special mechanism is searching for repeated words. The expression [a-z][a-z] will match any two lower case letters.

Part of a pattern can be marked using \( and \). You can recall part of a pattern with \ followed by a single digit. Therefore, to search for two identical letters, use \([a-z]\)\1. You can have 9 different remembered patterns. Each occurrence of \( starts a new pattern. The regular expression that would match a 5 letter palindrome, (e.g. radar) would be