Context Free Regular Expressions

Context free regular expressions match against an input independent on what come before or after it. For example the regular expression for will match against the letters f, o, and r independent if there was a white space or whatsoever before it or after it. This is the ‘usual’ way to define patterns. More sophisticated techniques are explained in the subsequent section. This sections explains how to define simple chains of characters and operations to combine them into powerful patterns.

Chains of Characters


matches the character ‘x’. That means, characters match simply the character that they represent. This is true, as long as those characters are not part of syntactic operator–as shown below.


matches any character in the current codec except for the buffer limit code and ‘0x0A’ for newline. On systems where newline is coded as ‘0x0D, 0x0A’ this does match the ‘0x0D’ character whenever a newline occurs.


a “character class” or “character set”; in this case, the pattern matches either an x, a y, or a z. The brackets [ and ] are examples for characters acting as operators. If they are to be matched quotes or backslashes have to be used as shown below. Character sets are a form of alternative expressions– for one single character. For more sophisticated alternative expressions see the paragraphs below.


matches a set of characters that result from a character set expression expression. Section <<formal/patterns/character-set-expressions>> discusses this feature in detail. In particular [:alnum:], [:alpha:] and the like are the character sets as defined as POSIX bracket expressions.


a “character class” with a range in it; matches an a, a b, any letter from j through o, or a Z. The minus - determines the range specification. Its left part is the start of the range. Its right part is the end of the range (here j-o means from j to o). The - stands for ‘range from to’ where the character code of the right hand side needs to be greater than the character code of the left hand side.


a “negated character class”, i.e., any character but those in the class. The ^ character indicates negation at this point. This expression matches any character except an uppercase letter or newline.


the literal string: [xyz]"foo. That is, inside quotes the characters which are used as operators for regular expressions can be applied in their original sense. A [ stands for code point 91 (hex. 5B), matches against a [ and does not mean ‘open character set’. Note, than inside strings one can still use the ANSI-C backslash-ed characters \n, \t, etc. as well as the Unicode name property \N. However, general Unicode property expression \P that result in character sets are not dealt with inside strings.

\C{ R } or \C(flags){ R }

Applies case folding for the given regular expression or character set ‘R’. This basically provides a shorthand for writing regular expressions that need to map upper and lower case patterns, i.e.:


matches for example:

"SELECT", "select", "sElEcT", ...

The expression R passed to the case folding operation needs to fit the environment in which it was called. If the case folding is applied in a character set expression, then its content must be a character set expression, i.e.:

[:\C{[:union([a-z], [ffİ]):]}:]   // correct
[:\C{[a-z]}:]                    // correct

and not:

[:\C{union([a-z], [ffİ])}:]       // wrong
[:\C{a-z}:]                      // wrong

The algorithm for case folding follows Unicode Standard Annex #21 “CASE MAPPINGS”, Section 1.3. That is for example, the character ‘k’ is not only folded to ‘k’ (0x6B) and ‘K’ (0x4B) but also to ‘K’ (0x212A). Additionally, unicode defines case foldings to multi character sequences, such as:

ΐ   (0390) --> ι(03B9)̈(0308)́(0301)
ʼn   (0149) --> ʼ(02BC)n(006E)
I   (0049) --> i(0069), İ(0130), ı(0131), i(0069)̇(0307)
ff   (FB00) --> f(0066)f(0066)
ffi   (FB03) --> f(0066)f(0066)i(0069)
ﬗ   (FB17) --> մ(0574)խ(056D)

As a speciality of the Turkish language, the ‘i’ with and without the dot are not the same. That is, a dot-less lowercase ‘i’ is folded to a dot-less uppercase ‘I’ and a dotted ‘i’ is mapped to a dotted uppercase ‘I’. This mapping, though, is mutually exclusive with the ‘normal’ case folding and is not active by default. The following flags can be set in order to control the detailed case folding behavior:


This flag enables simple case folding without the multi-character


The m flag enables the case folding to multi-character sequences. This flag is not available in character set expressions. In this case the result must be a set of characters and not a set of character sequences.


By setting the t flag, the turkish case mapping is enabled. Whenever the turkish case folding is an alternative, it is preferred.

The default behavior corresponds to the flags s and m (\C{R}\C(sm){R}) for patterns and s (\C{R}\C(s){R}) for character sets. Characters that are beyond the scope of the current codec or input character byte width are cut out seamlessly.

\R{ ... }

Reverse the pattern specified in brackets. If for example, it is specified:

"Hello "\R{dlroW} => QUEX_TKN_HELLO_WORD(Lexeme)

then the token HELLO_WORLD would be sent upon the appearance of ‘Hello World’ in the input stream. This feature is mainly useful for definitions of patterns of right-to-left writing systems such as Arabic, Binti and Hebrew. Chinese, Japanese, as well as ancient Greek, ancient Latin, Egyptian, and Etruscan can be written in both directions.


For some reason, it has caused some confusion in the past, that pattern substitution requires an extra pair of curly brackets, i.e. to reverse what has been defined as PATTERN it needs to to be written:


which reads from inside to outside: expand the pattern definition, then reverse expanded pattern. Inside the curly brackets of \R{...} any pattern expression may occur in the well defined manner.


Briefly worded, an anti-pattern of a pattern P matches all lexemes which are caught by a match failure of P.

Let s(L) be a transformation which extracts out ‘shortest’ alternatives. Let Lx be the set of x from L for which there is a second lexeme y in L that starts with x. Then,:

s(L) := L - Lx

As a result it is safe to assume that in s(L) there are no two lexemes x and y so that x is the start of y. For example, the pattern ‘(ab)|(abc)’ is matched by “ab” and “abc”. The latter starts with the former. The transformation s((ab)|(abc)) takes out the longest and matches therefore only “ab”.

Let Q be the set of all lexemes which are not matched by P. Then, the anti-pattern of P is the pattern which matches the set of lexemes given by ‘s(Q)’.

State machine matching the pattern for.


State machine implementing the match of pattern \A{for}.

Figures State machine matching the pattern for. and State machine implementing the match of pattern \A{for}. show the state machines for matching the pattern for and \A{for}. These illustrations demonstrate that the anti-pattern does not match all patterns which are not matched by for. Instead, it matches a ‘shortest subset’.

Anti-patterns are especially useful for post contexts (section Pre- and Post- Conditions) and to implement shortest match behavior with a greedy match analyzer engine (section Pitfalls).


If it is necessary to ensure that only one character is matched in case of failure of all other patterns, then it is best to rely on the ‘.’ specifier–as explained above.


a NULL character (ASCII/Unicode code point 0). This is to be used with extreme caution! The NULL character is also used a buffer delimiter! See section <<sec-formal-command-line-options>> for specifying a different value for the buffer limit code.


the character with hexadecimal value 11A0FF. A maximum of six hexadecimal digits can be specified. Hexadecimal numbers with less than six digits must either be followed by a non-hex-digit, a delimiter such as ", [, or (, or specified with leading zeroes (i.e. use \U00071F, for hexadecimal 71F). The latter choice is probably the best candidate for an ‘established habit’. Hexadecimal digits can contain be uppercase or lowercase letters (from A to F).


the character with hexadecimal value 7A27. A maximum of four hexadecimal digits can be specified. The delimiting rules are are analogous to the rules for U.


the character with hexadecimal value 27. A maximum of two hexadecimal digits can be specified. The delimiting rules are are analogous to the rules for U.


the character with octal value 123, a maximum of three digits less than 8 can follow the backslash. The delimiting rules are analogous to the rules for U.

\a, \b, \f, \n, \r, \t, \r, or \v

the ANSI-C interpretation of the backslash-ed character.

\P{ Unicode Property Expression }

the set of characters for which the Unicode Property Expression holds. Note, that these expressions cannot be used inside quoted strings.


the code of the character with the given Unicode character name. This is a shortcut for \P{Name=UNICODE CHARACTER NAME}. For possible settings of this character see cite{Unicode 5.0}.

\G{ X }

the code of the character with the given General Category cite{}. This is a shortcut for \P{General_Category=X}. Note, that these expressions cannot be used inside quoted strings. For possible settings of the General_Category property, see section <<sec-formal-unicode-properties>>.

\E{ Codec Name }

the subset of unicode characters which is covered by the given codec. Using this is particularly helpful to cut out uncovered characters when a codec engine is used (see Engine Codec).

Any character specified as character code, i.e. using `, `x, X, or U are considered to be unicode code points. For applications in English spoken cultures this is identical to the ASCII encoding. For details about unicode code tables consider the standard cite{Unicode50}. Section <<sec-formal-ucs-properties>> is dedicated to an introduction to Unicode properties.

Two special rules have to appear isolatedly, out of the context of regular expressions. With the following two rules the actions for the incidence of end of file and the failure incidence can be specified:


the incidence of an end-of-file (end of data-stream).


the incidence of failure, i.e. no single pattern matched. Note, this rule is of the ‘lex’ style, but is only available with the quex core engine.

This syntax is more ‘in recognition’ of the traditional lex syntax. In fact the two incidence handlers ‘on_failure‘ and ‘on_end_of_stream‘ are a one-to-one correspondence to what is mentioned above. Possibly some later versions will totally dismiss the lex related engine core, and then also these constructs will disappear in favor of the mentioned two incidence handlers.


The space character (UCS 32) is not allowed except in quotes or in range boundaries. In fact, it is supposed to separate the pattern from subsequent tokens such as =>. Also, it cannot be backslash-ed.

The backslash also does not suppress newline. A pattern must be completely specified in a single line.


Let R and S be regular expressions, i.e. a chain of characters specified in the way mentioned above, or a regular expression as a result from the operations below. Much of the syntax is directly based on POSIX extended regular expressions cite{}.


zero or more occurrences of the regular expression R.


one or more repetition of the regular expression R.


zero or one R. That means, there maybe an R or not.


anywhere from two to five repetitions of the regular expressions R.


two or more repetitions of the regular expression R.


exactly four repetitions of the regular expression R.


match an R; parentheses are used to group operations, i.e. to override precedence, in the same way as the brackets in (a + b) * c override the precedence of multiplication over addition.


the regular expression R followed by the regular expression S. This is usually called a concatenation or a sequence.


either an R or an S, i.e. R and S both match. This is usually called an alternative.


the expansion of the defined pattern “NAME”. Pattern names can be defined in define sections (see section <<sec-practical-patterns>>).