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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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