Regex Boundaries and Delimiters—Standard and Advanced
Although this page starts with the regex word boundary \b, it aims to go far beyond: it will also introduce less-known boundaries, as well as explain how to make your own—DIY Boundaries.
For easy navigation, here are some jumping points to various sections of the page:
✽ Boundaries vs. Anchors
✽ Word Boundary: \b
✽ Not-a-word-boundary: \B
✽ Left- and Right-of-Word Boundaries
✽ Making Your Own Boundaries
✽ DIY Boundary Workshop: "real word boundary"
✽ DIY Boundary: between a letter and a digit
✽ Double Negative Delimiter: Character, or Beginning of String
Boundaries vs. AnchorsWhy are ^ and $ called anchors while \b is called a boundary?
These tokens have one thing in common: they are assertions about the engine's current position in the string. Therefore, none of them consume characters.
Anchors assert that the current position in the string matches a certain position: the beginning, the end, or in the case of \G the position immediately following the last match. In contrast, boundaries make assertions about what can be matched to the left and right of the current position.
The distinction is blurry. Typically, you would translate ^ as something like "assert that the current position is the beginning of the string". But if you were in a mood to play with logic, you could say:
Imagine that a string is a space between two walls—one to the left and one to the right. All the positions in the string are within that space. Then we could translate the ^ anchor as:
Assert that immediately to the left of the current position, we can find the left wall, while to the right of the current position we cannot find the left wall.
Yep, in that light, our anchor is a boundary—we look left and right. We'll keep anchors and boundaries on separate pages because there's a lot of ground to cover, but just keep that in mind.
Word Boundary: \bThe word boundary \b matches positions where one side is a word character (usually a letter, digit or underscore—but see below for variations across engines) and the other side is not a word character (for instance, it may be the beginning of the string or a space character).
The regex \bcat\b would therefore match cat in a black cat, but it wouldn't match it in catatonic, tomcat or certificate. Removing one of the boundaries, \bcat would match cat in catfish, and cat\b would match cat in tomcat, but not vice-versa. Both, of course, would match cat on its own.
Word boundaries are useful when you want to match a sequence of letters (or digits) on their own, or to ensure that they occur at the beginning or the end of a sequence of characters.
Be aware, though, that \bcat\b will not match cat in _cat or in cat25 because there is no boundary between an underscore and a letter, nor between a letter and a digit: these all belong to what regex defines as word characters. If you want to create a "real word boundary" (where a word is only allowed to have letters), see the recipe below in the section on DYI boundaries.
Difference between Engines
As you can see on the regex cheat sheet, \b behaves differently depending on the engine:
✽ In PCRE (PHP, R…) with the Unicode mode turned on, .NET, Java, Perl, Python 3 and Ruby, it matches a position where only one side is a Unicode letter, digit or underscore.
Not-a-word-boundary: \B\B matches all positions where \b doesn't match. Therefore, it matches:
✽ When neither side is a word character, for instance at any position in the string $=(@-%++) (including the beginning and end of the string)
✽ When both sides are a word character, for instance between the H and the i in Hi!
This may not seem very useful, but sometimes \B is just what you want. For instance,
✽ \Bcat\B will find cat fully surrounded by word characters, as in certificate, but neither on its own nor at the beginning or end of words.
✽ cat\B will find cat both in certificate and catfish, but neither in tomcat nor on its own.
✽ \Bcat will find cat both in certificate and tomcat, but neither in catfish nor on its own.
✽ \Bcat|cat\B will find cat in embedded situation, e.g. in certificate, catfish or tomcat, but not on its own.
Difference between Engines
In all engines that support it, \B matches positions that are not matched by \b. Since \b behaves differently in various engines, see \b engine variations a few paragraphs above.
Left- and Right-of-Word BoundariesThe PCRE (PHP, R, …) version 8.34+ and MySQL engines support the POSIX character classes for the beginning-of-word boundary [[:<:]] and the end-of-word boundary [[:>:]]
✽ [[:<:]]cat matches cat in the word on its own as well as in catfish, but neither in tomcat nor in certificate.
✽ cat[[:<:]] never matches as a word cannot start in the middle of a word.
✽ cat[[:>:]] matches cat in the word on its own as well as in tomcat, but neither in catfish nor in certificate.
✽ [[:>:]]cat never matches as a word cannot end in the middle of a word.
For MySQL, the definition of a word character is an ASCII letter, digit or underscore—and this set of characters drives the interpretation of these "start of word" and "end of word" boundaries.
PCRE offers these boundaries as a convenience for occasions when someone might want to paste POSIX regex into a PCRE-powered language (or, more likely, switch the regex library used by an old C program), but the engine makes the following substitutions before starting the match:
✽ The start of word boundary [[:<:]] is converted to \b(?=\w)
✽ The end of word boundary [[:>:]] is converted to \b(?<=\w)
Therefore, the "start of word" and "end of word" boundaries derive their meaning from the \b boundary. In non-Unicode mode, it matches a position where only one side is an ASCII letter, digit or underscore. In Unicode mode, it matches a position where only one side is a Unicode letter, digit or underscore.
I've never yet encountered a situation where I wished I had one of these boundaries. Most likely, if it ever arises, I automatically solve it by using lookarounds. If you ever want to use these specific boundaries in a language that doesn't support them, one solution among several is to copy the patterns (from two paragraphs above) that PCRE uses to convert the boundaries to regular syntax.
Making Your Own BoundariesFinding a boundary between a word character and a non-word character is convenient, and we can thank \b for that. But there are many other cases where we could use a boundary for which regex does not provide explicit syntax. For instance, how do you match the position between a letter and a digit? We'll make this exact boundary further down, but let's get there at a comfortable pace.
As a first example, let's look at a line in an email reply:
> and then she told him she wouldn't settle for less than a Hawaiian pizza, and
Let's say we want a boundary that finds the position between the > and an ASCII letter.
As a first approach, we could use a lookbehind. Assuming we're in multi-line mode, where the anchor ^ matches at the beginning of any line, the lookbehind (?<=^> ) asserts that what precedes the current position is the beginning of the string, then a "greater-than" symbol > and a space.
Therefore, something like (?<=^> )\w+ would find the first word of the line. This works, but I would not call (?<=^> ) a boundary. Whereas a boundary asserts that there is a difference between what lies to the left and what lies to the right, our lookbehind only looks in one direction. If we used it on its own, it would match after the space character > in > >>>: it doesn't care about what follows. It is what I would call a delimiter, rather than a boundary.
Delimiters are very useful, and they are a major source of business for regex lookarounds. For instance, .*?(?=END) would match an entire line up to—but not including—the word END: the lookahead (?=END) serves as an ending delimiter. Likewise, (?<=START) serves as a beginning delimiter in (?<=START).*, which matches an entire line after—but not including—the word START.
Further down, we will look at a useful technique: double-negative delimiters.
Boundaries: Look Left and Right
To finish our boundary for the position following the start of an email reply line and preceding a letter, we also need to look to the right. We do that by adding a lookahead after the lookbehind:
After asserting that what precedes the current position is a "greater than" and a space, we assert that what follows is a letter. Note that the order of the lookahead and the lookbehind do not matter, as they do not consume any characters: they look to the left and to the right with our feet firmly planted in the same spot in the string. Therefore, the reverse-order boundary
(?=[a-zA-Z])(?<=^> )works equally well.
After either of these patterns, we can confidently use any regex meta-character—such as the dot—and be sure that it will match a letter: they are true boundaries.
Generalizing the idea: home-made word boundary
We can use this technique to construct any boundary we like. The coming sections will show some examples in detail, but to whet our appetite, how would you build a word boundary if your regex engine didn't support \b?
When it matches on the left of word characters, a word boundary is able to check that what follows is a word character but what precedes is not. In lookaround terms, this is (?=\w)(?<!\w).
When it matches on the right of word characters, a word boundary is able to check that what precedes is a word character but what follows is not. In lookaround terms, this is (?<=\w)(?!\w)
A word boundary must match either of these positions. Grouping them together inside an alternation, our homemade word boundary becomes:
Yes, \b is a bit shorter.
DIY Boundary Workshop: "real word boundary"With some variations depending on the engine, regex usually defines a word character as a letter, digit or underscore. A word boundary \bdetects a position where one side is such a character, and the other is not.
In the everyday world, most people would probably say that in the English language, a word character is a letter. Others might allow for hyphens. In some situations, it might therefore be useful to have a "real word boundary" that detects the edge between an ASCII letter and a non-letter. How do we do that?
As a start, with lookarounds you can make a left-side and a right-side boundary:
(?i)(?<=^|[^a-z])cat(?=$|[^a-z])The left side asserts that what precedes is either the beginning of the string or a character that is a non-letter. The right side asserts that what follows is either the end of the string or a non-letter.
Your next step could be to combine the two to form a boundary that can be popped on either side:
(?i)(?<=^|[^a-z])(?=[a-z])|(?<=[a-z])(?=$|[^a-z])On the left side, of the alternation, we have our earlier left boundary, and we add a lookahead to check that what follows is a letter. On the right side of the alternation, we have our earlier right boundary, and we add a lookbehind to check that what precedes us is a letter.
Needless to say, if you need to paste this wherever you want a "real word boundary", this is a bit heavy. With engines that support pre-defined subroutines—Perl, PCRE (PHP, R, …)—you can define the boundary once and for all, then use it wherever you like by referring to its name:
(?x) # free-spacing mode (?(DEFINE) # Define some subroutines (?<alphaB> # Define "alphaB" boundary # This boundary matches when # only one side is a letter (?i)(?<=^|[^a-z])(?=[a-z])|(?<=[a-z])(?=$|[^a-z]) ) # End alphaB definition ) # End DEFINE # The actual regex matching starts here # We can use our "alphaB" boundary wherever we like (?&alphaB)cat(?&alphaB)
This would work really well as a component of a large parsing regex.
DIY Boundary: between a letter and a digitOnce we have this recipe, producing boundaries is simple. For instance, with minor tweaks, we can produce a boundary that matches between ASCII letters and digits. I called this pre-defined boundary by the descriptive name A1.
(?x) # free-spacing mode (?(DEFINE) # Define some subroutines (?<A1> # Define "A1" boundary # This boundary matches when # one side is a letter and # the other is a number (?i)(?<=^|\d)(?=[a-z])|(?<=[a-z])(?=$|\d) ) # End A1 definition ) # End DEFINE # The actual regex matching starts here # We can use our "A1" boundary wherever we like (?&A1)cat(?&A1)
If your engine doesn't support pre-defined subroutines, you would have to paste this monster in your regex:
Double Negative Delimiter: Character, or Edge of StringIn this section I would like to introduce you to a useful family of delimiters that use a fiendish technique: double negative delimiters. Consider the string 0# 1 #2 #3# 4# #5. In this string, we want to match 0, 3 and 5, i.e. digits where each side is either a hash or one of the edges of the string.
One first thought might be to use a capture group: (?:^|#)(\d)(?:$|#). This exactly performs the task specified in the previous paragraph—first matching either the beginning of the string or a hash, then a digit, then either the end of the string or a hash. The desired digits are captured to Group 1.
To get rid of the capture group, you will probably think of using lookarounds: (?<=^|#)\d(?=$|#). This is nearly exactly the same as the first regex, except that the sides are no longer matched, but just checked with a lookbehind and a lookahead. This works in .NET, PCRE (C, PHP, R, …), Java and Ruby (or Python with the regex module), but not in other engines as traditional lookbehind must have a fixed width (see Lookbehind: Fixed-Width / Constrained Width / Infinite Width).
In Perl, you can get around this problem with (?:^|#\K)\d(?=$|#), where we match the left-side hash (if any) then drop it with the \K. This would also work in PCRE and Ruby.
But here is the solution I would like to introduce you to:
This is a bit of a brain twister. On the left side, the negative lookbehind (?<![^#]) asserts that what precedes the current position is not one character that is not a hash. Flipping the double negative back to a positive assertion, this says that if there is a character behind us, it must be a hash. What is allowed behind us is therefore either a hash character or "not a character" (the beginning of the string).
Why the double negative? Isn't that the same as the positive lookbehind (?<=#)? Well, no: this positive lookbehind requires a hash character—whereas we also want to allow the absence of any character on the left.
The negative lookahead at the end of the string follows the same principle: (?![^#]) asserts that what follows is not a character that is not a hash—i.e., if it is a character, it must be a hash.
This technique works for single-line strings. As soon as you move to multiple lines, 0# no longer matches at the beginning of lines 2 and beyond. That is because there is a character before the 0: the \n, and it is not a hash. Likewise, #5 no longer matches at the end of any line but the last, because there is now a line break character—not a hash—after the 5.
To get your eyes accustomed to the technique, let's apply it to other tasks.
To match A, B or E in A0 1B1 2C D3 4E, i.e capital letters that have either a digit or a string-end on each side, you can use this pattern:
To match A, C or F in A -B- C -D -E F, i.e capital letters that have either a space or a string-end on each side, you can use this pattern:
Finally, an unlikely example: to match the tilde, hash or colon in ~A ? 2! _#4 @5 6:, i.e special characters that have either a word character or a string-end on each side, you can use this pattern:
Everything You've Wanted to know about Capture Groups