Regular Expressions

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ICU's Regular Expressions package provides applications with the ability to apply regular expression matching to Unicode string data. The regular expression patterns and behavior are based on Perl's regular expressions. The C++ programming API for using ICU regular expressions is loosely based on the JDK 1.4 package java.util.regex, with some extensions to adapt it for use in a C++ environment. A plain C API is also provided.

The ICU Regular expression API supports operations including testing for a pattern match, searching for a pattern match, and replacing matched text. Capture groups allow subranges within an overall match to be identified, and to appear within replacement text.

A Perl-inspired split() function that breaks a string into fields based on a delimiter pattern is also included.

ICU Regular Expressions conform to version 19 of the Unicode Technical Standard #18, Unicode Regular Expressions, level 1, and in addition include Default Word boundaries and Name Properties from level 2.

A detailed description of regular expression patterns and pattern matching behavior is not included in this user guide. The best reference for this topic is the book "Mastering Regular Expressions, 3rd Edition" by Jeffrey E. F. Friedl, O'Reilly Media; 3rd edition (August 2006). Matching behavior can sometimes be surprising, and this book is highly recommended for anyone doing significant work with regular expressions.

Using ICU Regular Expressions

The ICU C++ Regular Expression API includes two classes, RegexPattern and RegexMatcher, that parallel the classes from the Java JDK package java.util.regex. A RegexPattern represents a compiled regular expression while RegexMatcher associates a RegexPattern and an input string to be matched, and provides API for the various find, match and replace operations. In most cases, however, only the class RegexMatcher is needed, and the existence of class RegexPattern can safely be ignored.

The first step in using a regular expression is typically the creation of a RegexMatcher object from the source (string) form of the regular expression.

RegexMatcher holds a pre-processed (compiled) pattern and a reference to an input string to be matched, and provides API for the various find, match and replace operations. RegexMatchers can be reset and reused with new input, thus avoiding object creation overhead when performing the same matching operation repeatedly on different strings.

The following code will create a RegexMatcher from a string containing a regular expression, and then perform a simple find() operation.

#include <unicode/regex.h>

UErrorCode status = U_ZERO_ERROR;


RegexMatcher *matcher = new RegexMatcher("abc+", 0, status);

if (U_FAILURE(status)) {

// Handle any syntax errors in the regular expression here



UnicodeString stringToTest = "Find the abc in this string";


if (matcher->find()) {

// We found a match.

int startOfMatch = matcher->start(status); // string index of start of match.



Several types of matching tests are available

If additional text is to be checked for a match with the same pattern, there is no need to create a new matcher object; just reuse the existing one.


if (myMatcher->matches(status)) {

// We have a match with the new string.


Note that matching happens directly in the string supplied by the application. This reduces the overhead when resetting a matcher to an absolute minimum – the matcher need only store a reference to the new string – but it does mean that the application must be careful not to modify or delete the string while the matcher is holding a reference to the string.

After finding a match, additional information is available about the range of the input matched, and the contents of any capture groups. Note that, for simplicity, any error parameters have been omitted. See the API reference for complete a complete description of the API.

Regular Expression Metacharacters

Regular Expression Operators

Set Expressions (Character Classes)

Case Insensitive Matching

Case insensitive matching is specified by the UREGEX_CASE_INSENSITIVE flag during pattern compilation, or by the (?i) flag within a pattern itself. Unicode case insensitive matching is complicated by the fact that changing the case of a string may change its length. See for more information on Unicode casing operations.

Full case-insensitive matching handles situations where the number of characters in equal string may differ. "fußball" compares equal "FUSSBALL", for example.

Simple case insensitive matching operates one character at a time on the strings being compared. "fußball" does not compare equal to "FUSSBALL"

For ICU regular expression matching,

    • Anything from a regular expression pattern that looks like a literal string (even of one character) will be matched against the text using full case folding. The pattern string and the matched text may be of different lengths.

    • Any sequence that is composed by the matching engine from originally separate parts of the pattern will not match with the composition boundary within a case folding expansion of the text being matched.

    • Matching of [set expressions] uses simple matching. A [set] will match exactly one code point from the text.


    • pattern "fussball" will match "fußball or "fussball"

    • pattern "fu(s)(s)ball" or "fus{2}ball" will match "fussball" or "FUSSBALL" but not "fußball.

    • pattern "ß" will find occurences of "ss" or "ß"

    • pattern "s+" will not find "ß"

With these rules, a match or capturing sub-match can never begin or end in the interior of an input text character that expanded when case folded.

Flag Options

The following flags control various aspects of regular expression matching. The flag values may be specified at the time that an expression is compiled into a RegexPattern object, or they may be specified within the pattern itself using the (?ismx-ismx) pattern options.

The UREGEX_CANON_EQ option is not yet available.

Using split()

ICU's split() function is similar in concept to Perl's – it will split a string into fields, with a regular expression match defining the field delimiters and the text between the delimiters being the field content itself.

Suppose you have a string of words separated by spaces

UnicodeString s = “dog cat giraffe”;

This code will extract the individual words from the string.

UErrorCode status = U_ZERO_ERROR;

RegexMatcher m(“\\s+”, 0, status);

const int maxWords = 10;

UnicodeString words[maxWords];

int numWords = m.split(s, words, maxWords, status);

After the split(),

The field delimiters, the spaces from the original string, do not appear in the output strings.

Note that, in this example, “words” is a local, or stack array of actual UnicodeString objects. No heap allocation is involved in initializing this array of empty strings (C++ is not Java!). Local UnicodeString arrays like this are a very good fit for use with split(); after extracting the fields, any values that need to be kept in some more permanent way can be copied to their ultimate destination.

If the number of fields in a string being split exceeds the capacity of the destination array, the last destination string will contain all of the input string data that could not be split, including any embedded field delimiters. This is similar to split() in Perl.

If the pattern expression contains capturing parentheses, the captured data ($1, $2, etc.) will also be saved in the destination array, interspersed with the fields themselves.

If, in the “dog cat giraffe” example, the pattern had been “(\s+)” instead of “\s+”, split() would have produced five output strings instead of three. Words[1] and words[3] would have been the spaces.

Find and Replace

Find and Replace operations are provided with the following functions.

The replacement text for find-and-replace operations may contain references to capture-group text from the find.

Sample code showing the use of appendReplacement()

#include <stdio.h> #include "unicode/regex.h" int main() { UErrorCode status = U_ZERO_ERROR; RegexMatcher m(UnicodeString(" +"), 0, status); UnicodeString text("Here is some text."); m.reset(text); UnicodeString result; UnicodeString replacement("_"); int replacement_count = 0; while (m.find(status) && U_SUCCESS(status)) { m.appendReplacement(result, replacement, status); replacement_count++; } m.appendTail(result); char result_buf[100]; result.extract(0, result.length(), result_buf, sizeof(result_buf)); printf("The result of find & replace is \"%s\"\n", result_buf); printf("The number of replacements is %d\n", replacement_count); }

Running this sample produces the following:

The result of find & replace is "Here_is_some_text." The number of replacements is 3

Performance Tips

Some regular expression patterns can result in very slow match operations, sometimes so slow that it will appear as though the match has gone into an infinite loop. The problem is not unique to ICU - it affects any regular expression implementation using a conventional nondeterministic finite automaton (NFA) style matching engine. This section gives some suggestion on how to avoid problems.

The performance problems tend to show up most commonly on failing matches - when an input string does not match the regexp pattern. With a complex pattern containing multiple * or + (or similar) operators, the match engine will tediously redistribute the input text between the different pattern terms, in a doomed effort to find some combination that leads to a match (that doesn't exist).

The running time for troublesome patterns is exponential with the length of the input string. Every added character in the input doubles the (non)matching time. It doesn't take a particularly long string for the projected running time to exceed the age of the universe.

A simple pattern showing the problem is


matching against the string


The expression can't match - there is no 'B' in the input - but the engine is too dumb to realize that, and will try all possible permutations of rearranging the input between the terms of the expression before failing.

Some suggestions:

    • Avoid, or examine carefully, any expressions with nested repeating quantifiers, like in the example above. They can often be recast in some other way. Any ambiguity in how input text could be distributed between the terms of the expression will cause problems.

    • Narrow every term in a pattern to match as small a set of characters as possible at each point. Fail as early as possible with bad input, rather than letting broad .* style terms eat intermediate input and relying on later terms in the expression to produce a failure.

    • Use possessive quantifiers when possible - *+ instead of *, ++ instead of +

    • These operators prevent backtracking; the initial match of a *+ qualified pattern is either used in its entirety as part of the complete match, or it is not used at all.

    • Follow or surround * or + expressions with terms that the repeated expression can not match. The idea is to have only one possible way to match the input, with no possibility of redistributing the input between adjacent terms of the pattern.

    • Avoid overly long and complex regular expressions. Just because it's possible to do something completely in one large expression doesn't mean that you should. Long expressions are difficult to understand and can be almost impossible to debug when they go wrong. It is no sin to break a parsing problem into pieces and to have some code involved involved in the process.

    • Set a time limit. ICU includes the ability to limit the time spent on a regular expression match. This is a good idea when running untested expressions from users of your application, or as a fail safe for servers or other processes that cannot afford to be hung.

Examples from actual bug reports,

The pattern


and the text


cause an infinite loop.

The problem is in the highlighted area. The [._]? term can be ignored, because it need not match anything. {1,} is the same as +. So we effectively have (?:[A-Za-z0-9]+)+, which is trouble.

The initial part of the expression can be recast as


which matches the same thing. The nested + and * qualifiers do not cause a problem because the [._] term is not optional and contains no characters that overlap with [A-Za-z0-9], leaving no ambiguity in how input characters can be distributed among terms in the match.

A further note: this expression was intended to parse email addresses, and has a number of other flaws. For common tasks like this there are libraries of freely available regular expressions that have been well debugged. It's worth making a quick search before writing a new expression.

TODO: add more examples.

Heap and Stack Usage

ICU keeps its match backtracking state on the heap. Because badly designed or malicious patterns can result in matches that require large amounts of storage, ICU sets a limit on heap usage by matches. The default is 8 MB; it can be changed or removed via an API.

Because ICU does not use program recursion to maintain its backtracking state, stack usage during matching operations is minimal, and does not increase with complex patterns or large amounts of backtracking state. This is worth mentioning only because excessive stack usage, resulting in blown off threads or processes, can be a problem with some regular expression packages.

Differences with Java Regular Expressions

  • ICU does not support UREGEX_CANON_EQ. See

  • The behavior of \cx (Control-X) different from Java when x is outside the range A-Z. See

  • Java allows quantifiers (*, +, etc) on zero length tests. ICU does not. Occurrences of these in patterns are most likely unintended user errors, but it is an incompatibility with Java.

  • ICU recognizes all Unicode properties known to ICU, which is all of them. Java is restricted to just a few.

  • ICU case insensitive matching works with all Unicode characters, and, within string literals, does full Unicode matching (where matching strings may be different lengths.) Java does ASCII only by default, with Unicode aware case folding available as an option.

  • ICU has an extended syntax for set [bracket] expressions, including additional operators. Added for improved compatibility with the original ICU implementation, which was based on ICU UnicodeSet pattern syntax.