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Regex use vs. Regex abuse

I'm a huge fan of regular expressions; they're the swiss army knife of web-era development tools. I'm always finding new places to use them in my code. Although other developers I work with may be uncomfortable with regular expressions at first, I eventually convert them to the regex religion sooner or later. If you're working with strings in any capacity at all-- and what developer isn't-- it's hard to deny the flexibility of regular expressions. Why use 6 lines of procedural If..Then blocks to process a string when you can do the same thing in a concise, 20 character regex pattern? And if you put that same pattern in a .config file, you can now change the behavior of your app without recompiling. It's less code doing more work.

I have, however, been accused of foisting an unintelligible syntax on unsuspecting developers. To the uninitiated, regular expressions can seem totally indecipherable-- like Q*Bert on crack:

Q*Bert, the original regex ninja

And I can't blame them. Regular expressions are complicated. It's a balancing act. You could say that all regular expressions are WTFs, and I wouldn't necessarily disagree with you. Though you can do some incredibly complex things with regular expressions, usually you don't need to. It's typically much more prosaic:

validating a phone number

"^(*d{3})*( |-)*d{3}( |-)*d{4}$"

getting the trailing folder from a path

"[^]+*$"

extracting the userid from a domainuserid pair

"[^]+$"

These things are easier to implement and maintain with relatively straightforward regular expressions. All developers should learn to use basic regular expressions, because they'll produce better, more flexible, more maintainable code with them.

Used responsibly, regular expressions are a huge net positive. What seperates regex use from regex abuse? Take a gander at this 6.2kb monster for validating RFC822 email addresses:

(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:(?:(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t]
)+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|"(?:[^"r]|.|(?:(?:rn)?[ t]))*"(?:(?:
rn)?[ t])*)(?:.(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(
?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|"(?:[^"r]|.|(?:(?:rn)?[
t]))*"(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*))*@(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-
31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*
](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)(?:.(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+
(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](?:
(?:rn)?[ t])*))*|(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z
|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|"(?:[^"r]|.|(?:(?:rn)?[ t]))*"(?:(?:rn)
?[ t])*)*<(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:@(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:
rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[
t])*)(?:.(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)
?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t]
)*))*(?:,@(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[
t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*
)(?:.(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t]
)+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*))*)
*:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)?(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+
|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|"(?:[^"r]|.|(?:(?:rn)?[ t]))*"(?:(?:r
n)?[ t])*)(?:.(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:
rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|"(?:[^"r]|.|(?:(?:rn)?[ t
]))*"(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*))*@(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31
]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](
?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)(?:.(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?
:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](?:(?
:rn)?[ t])*))*>(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)|(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?
:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|"(?:[^"r]|.|(?:(?:rn)?
[ t]))*"(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)*:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:(?:(?:[^()<>@,;:".[]
00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|"(?:[^"r]|
.|(?:(?:rn)?[ t]))*"(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)(?:.(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>
@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|"
(?:[^"r]|.|(?:(?:rn)?[ t]))*"(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*))*@(?:(?:rn)?[ t]
)*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:
".[]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)(?:.(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?
:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[
]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*))*|(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-
31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|"(?:[^"r]|.|(
?:(?:rn)?[ t]))*"(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)*<(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:@(?:[^()<>@,;
:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|[([
^[]r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)(?:.(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:"
.[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|[([^[
]r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*))*(?:,@(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".
[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|[([^[]
r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)(?:.(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[]
00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|[([^[]r]
|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*))*)*:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)?(?:[^()<>@,;:".[]
00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|"(?:[^"r]|
.|(?:(?:rn)?[ t]))*"(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)(?:.(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,
;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|"(?
:[^"r]|.|(?:(?:rn)?[ t]))*"(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*))*@(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*
(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".
[]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)(?:.(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[
^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]
]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*))*>(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)(?:,s*(
?:(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:
".[]]))|"(?:[^"r]|.|(?:(?:rn)?[ t]))*"(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)(?:.(?:(
?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[
["()<>@,;:".[]]))|"(?:[^"r]|.|(?:(?:rn)?[ t]))*"(?:(?:rn)?[ t
])*))*@(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t
])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)(?
:.(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|
Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*))*|(?:
[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[
]]))|"(?:[^"r]|.|(?:(?:rn)?[ t]))*"(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)*<(?:(?:rn)
?[ t])*(?:@(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["
()<>@,;:".[]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)(?:.(?:(?:rn)
?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>
@,;:".[]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*))*(?:,@(?:(?:rn)?[
t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,
;:".[]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)(?:.(?:(?:rn)?[ t]
)*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:
".[]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*))*)*:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)?
(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".
[]]))|"(?:[^"r]|.|(?:(?:rn)?[ t]))*"(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)(?:.(?:(?:
rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z|(?=[[
"()<>@,;:".[]]))|"(?:[^"r]|.|(?:(?:rn)?[ t]))*"(?:(?:rn)?[ t])
*))*@(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])
+|Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*)(?:
.(?:(?:rn)?[ t])*(?:[^()<>@,;:".[] 00-31]+(?:(?:(?:rn)?[ t])+|Z
|(?=[["()<>@,;:".[]]))|[([^[]r]|.)*](?:(?:rn)?[ t])*))*>(?:(
?:rn)?[ t])*))*)?;s*)

The author comments that [this] somewhat pushes the limits of what it is sensible to do with regular expressions, to which I respond: somewhat? This is a 6,343 character pattern. How many more characters does it take to reach the limit of sensibility? It's abusive. I pity the poor developer who has to troubleshoot this behemoth.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror