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10.1.5 Specifying Match Position

10.1.5 Specifying Match Position


As described earlier, many elements of a regular expression match a single character in a string. For example, \s matches a single character of whitespace. Other regular expression elements match the positions between characters, instead of actual characters. \b, for example, matches a word boundary—the boundary between a \w (ASCII word character) and a \W (nonword character), or the boundary between an ASCII word character and the beginning or end of a string.2 Elements such as \b do not specify any

2. Except within a character class (square brackets), where \b matches the backspace character.

10.1 Defining Regular Expressions | 257

characters to be used in a matched string; what they do specify, however, are legal positions at which a match can occur. Sometimes these elements are called regular-expression anchors because they anchor the pattern to a specific position in the search string. The most commonly used anchor elements are ^, which ties the pattern to the beginning of the string, and $, which anchors the pattern to the end of the string.

For example, to match the word “JavaScript” on a line by itself, you can use the regular expression /^JavaScript$/. If you want to search for “Java” as a word by itself (not as a prefix, as it is in “JavaScript”), you can try the pattern /\sJava\s/, which requires a space before and after the word. But there are two problems with this solution. First, it does not match “Java” at the beginning or the end of a string, but only if it appears with space on either side. Second, when this pattern does find a match, the matched string it returns has leading and trailing spaces, which is not quite what’s needed. So instead of matching actual space characters with \s, match (or anchor to) word boundaries with \b. The resulting expression is /\bJava\b/. The element \B anchors the match to a location that is not a word boundary. Thus, the pattern /\B[Ss]cript/ matches “JavaScript” and “postscript”, but not “script” or “Scripting”.

You can also use arbitrary regular expressions as anchor conditions. If you include an expression within (?= and ) characters, it is a lookahead assertion, and it specifies that the enclosed characters must match, without actually matching them. For example, to match the name of a common programming language, but only if it is followed by a colon, you could use /[Jj]ava([Ss]cript)?(?=\:)/. This pattern matches the word “JavaScript” in “JavaScript: The Definitive Guide”, but it does not match “Java” in “Java in a Nutshell”, because it is not followed by a colon.

If you instead introduce an assertion with (?!, it is a negative lookahead assertion, which specifies that the following characters must not match. For example, /Java(?! Script)([A-Z]\w*)/ matches “Java” followed by a capital letter and any number of additional ASCII word characters, as long as “Java” is not followed by “Script”. It matches “JavaBeans” but not “Javanese”, and it matches “JavaScrip” but not “Java-Script” or “JavaScripter”.

Table 10-5 summarizes regular-expression anchors.

Table 10-5. Regular-expression anchor characters

Character Meaning
^ Match the beginning of the string and, in multiline searches, the beginning of a line.
$ Match the end of the string and, in multiline searches, the end of a line.
\b Match a word boundary. That is, match the position between a \wcharacter and a \Wcharacter or between a
\wcharacter and the beginning or end of a string. (Note, however, that [\b]matches backspace.)
\B Match a position that is not a word boundary.
(?=p) A positive lookahead assertion. Require that the following characters match the pattern p, but do not include
those characters in the match.
(?!p) A negative lookahead assertion. Require that the following characters do not match the pattern p.

258 | Chapter 10: Pattern Matching with Regular Expressions

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