A regular expression (abbreviated “regexp” or sometimes just “re”) is a search-string with wildcards – and more. It is a pattern that is matched against the text to be searched. See Regexps. Examples:


A plain string is a regular expression that matches the string exactly. The above regular expression matches “alex”.


Some characters have special meanings in a regular expression. The question mark, for example, says that the preceding expression (the character “a” in this case) may or may not be present. The above regular expression matches “alex” or “alexa”. S Regexps are important to Emacs users in many ways, including these:

Regular Expression Syntax

Here is the syntax used by Emacs for regular expressions. Any character matches itself, except for the list below.

The following characters are special : . * + ? ^ $ \ [

Between brackets [], the following are special : ] - ^

Many characters are special when they follow a backslash – see below.

  .        any character (but newline)
  *        previous character or group, repeated 0 or more time
  +        previous character or group, repeated 1 or more time
  ?        previous character or group, repeated 0 or 1 time
  ^        start of line
  $        end of line
  [...]    any character between brackets
  [^..]    any character not in the brackets
  [a-z]    any character between a and z
  \        prevents interpretation of following special char
  \|       or
  \w       word constituent
  \b       word boundary
  \sc      character with c syntax (e.g. \s- for whitespace char)
  \( \)    start\end of group
  \< \>    start\end of word (faulty rendering: backslash + less-than and backslash + greater-than)
  \_< \_>  start\end of symbol
  \` \'    start\end of buffer\string
  \1       string matched by the first group
  \n       string matched by the nth group
  \{3\}    previous character or group, repeated 3 times
  \{3,\}   previous character or group, repeated 3 or more times
  \{3,6\}  previous character or group, repeated 3 to 6 times
  \=       match succeeds if it is located at point

*?, +?, and ?? are non-greedy versions of *, +, and ? – see NonGreedyRegexp. Also, \W, \B, and \Sc match any character that does not match \w, \b, and \sc.

Characters are organized by category. Use C-u C-x = to display the category of the character under the cursor.

  \ca      ascii character
  \Ca      non-ascii character (newline included)
  \cl      latin character
  \cg      greek character

Here are some syntax classes, also known as character classes, that can be used between brackets, e.g. [[:upper:]\|[:digit:]\.].

  [:digit:]  a digit, same as [0-9]
  [:alpha:]  a letter (an alphabetic character)
  [:alnum:]  a letter or a digit (an alphanumeric character)
  [:upper:]  a letter in uppercase
  [:lower:]  a letter in lowercase
  [:graph:]  a visible character
  [:print:]  a visible character plus the space character
  [:space:]  a whitespace character, as defined by the syntax table, but typically [ \t\r\n\v\f], which includes the newline character
  [:blank:]  a space or tab character
  [:xdigit:] an hexadecimal digit
  [:cntrl:]  a control character
  [:ascii:]  an ascii character

Syntax classes:

  \s-   whitespace character        \s/   character quote character
  \sw   word constituent            \s$   paired delimiter         
  \s_   symbol constituent          \s'   expression prefix        
  \s.   punctuation character       \s<   comment starter          
  \s(   open delimiter character    \s>   comment ender            
  \s)   close delimiter character   \s!   generic comment delimiter
  \s"   string quote character      \s|   generic string delimiter 
  \s\   escape character            

You can see the current syntax table by typing C-h s. The syntax table depends on the current mode. As expected, letters a..z are listed as word constituents in text-mode. Other word constituents in this mode include A..Z, 0..9, $, %, currency units, accented letters, kanjis. See EmacsSyntaxTable for details.

Idiosyncrasies of Emacs Regular Expressions

                 (setq search-whitespace-regexp nil)
                           John  =>  Harry
                           JOHN  =>  HARRY
                           john  =>  harry
           M-x replace-regexp RET \([0-9]+\)\. RET \1, RET
          (while (re-search-forward "\\([0-9]+\\)\\." nil t)
                        (replace-match "\\1,"))

Some Regexp Examples

 [-+[:digit:]]                     digit or + or - sign
 \(\+\|-\)?[0-9]+\(\.[0-9]+\)?     decimal number (-2 or 1.5 but not .2 or 1.)
 \&lt;\(\w+\) +\1\&gt;                     two consecutive, identical words
 \&lt;[[:upper:]]\w*                  word starting with an uppercase letter
  +$                               trailing whitespaces (note the starting SPC)
 \w\{20,\}                         word with 20 letters or more
 \w+phony\&gt;                        word ending by phony
 \(19\|20\)[0-9]\{2\}              year 1900-2099
 ^.\{6,\}                          at least 6 symbols
 ^[a-zA-Z0-9_]\{3,16\}$            decent string for a user name
 <tag[^> C-q C-j ]*>\(.*?\)</tag>  html tag

Some Emacs Commands that Use Regular Expressions

 C-M-s                   incremental forward search matching regexp
 C-M-r                   incremental backward search matching regexp 
 replace-regexp          replace string matching regexp
 query-replace-regexp    same, but query before each replacement
 align-regexp            align, using strings matching regexp as delimiters
 highlight-regexp        highlight strings matching regexp
 occur                   show lines containing a match
 multi-occur             show lines in all buffers containing a match
 how-many                count the number of strings matching regexp
 keep-lines              delete all lines except those containing matches
 flush-lines             delete lines containing matches
 grep                    call unix grep command and put result in a buffer
 lgrep                   user-friendly interface to the grep command
 rgrep                   recursive grep
 dired-do-copy-regexp    copy files with names matching regexp
 dired-do-rename-regexp  rename files matching regexp 
 find-grep-dired         display files containing matches for regexp with Dired

Note that list-matching-lines is an alias for occur and delete-matching-lines is an alias for flush-lines. The command highlight-regexp is bound to C-x w h. Also query-replace-regexp is bound by default to C-M-%, although some people prefer using an alias, like M-x qrr. Put the following in your InitFile to create such alias.

   (defalias 'qrr 'query-replace-regexp)

See also: IncrementalSearch, ReplaceRegexp, AlignCommands, OccurBuffer, DiredPower

Tools for Constructing Regexps

Study and Practice

Use Icicles to Learn about Regexps

Icicles provides these interactive ways to learn about regexps:



Does Emacs support lookahead/lookbehind?

No, Emacs does not support Perl-style lookahead/lookbehind expressions.

Does Emacs support possessive quantifiers such as ?+, *+, ++ ?

The escape sequence \cC represents any character of category “C”, and according to Emacs documentation invoked by “M-x describe-categories”, \c6 ought to match any digit. Yet the ASCII digits 0-9 are not matched by \c6. Is this an error, or just something on the to-do list?

CategoryRegexp CategoryGlossary