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Technical Notes about PCRE

Historical note 1

Many years ago I implemented some regular expression functions to an algorithm
suggested by Martin Richards. These were not Unix-like in form, and were quite
restricted in what they could do by comparison with Perl. The interesting part
about the algorithm was that the amount of space required to hold the compiled
form of an expression was known in advance. The code to apply an expression did
not operate by backtracking, as the original Henry Spencer code and current
Perl code does, but instead checked all possibilities simultaneously by keeping
a list of current states and checking all of them as it advanced through the
subject string. In the terminology of Jeffrey Friedl's book, it was a "DFA
algorithm". When the pattern was all used up, all remaining states were
possible matches, and the one matching the longest subset of the subject string
was chosen. This did not necessarily maximize the individual wild portions of
the pattern, as is expected in Unix and Perl-style regular expressions.

Historical note 2

By contrast, the code originally written by Henry Spencer and subsequently
heavily modified for Perl actually compiles the expression twice: once in a
dummy mode in order to find out how much store will be needed, and then for
real. The execution function operates by backtracking and maximizing (or,
optionally, minimizing in Perl) the amount of the subject that matches
individual wild portions of the pattern. This is an "NFA algorithm" in Friedl's

OK, here's the real stuff

For the set of functions that form the "basic" PCRE library (which are
unrelated to those mentioned above), I tried at first to invent an algorithm
that used an amount of store bounded by a multiple of the number of characters
in the pattern, to save on compiling time. However, because of the greater
complexity in Perl regular expressions, I couldn't do this. In any case, a
first pass through the pattern is needed, for a number of reasons. PCRE works
by running a very degenerate first pass to calculate a maximum store size, and
then a second pass to do the real compile - which may use a bit less than the
predicted amount of store. The idea is that this is going to turn out faster
because the first pass is degenerate and the second pass can just store stuff
straight into the vector, which it knows is big enough. It does make the
compiling functions bigger, of course, but they have got quite big anyway to
handle all the Perl stuff.

Traditional matching function

The "traditional", and original, matching function is called pcre_exec(), and 
it implements an NFA algorithm, similar to the original Henry Spencer algorithm 
and the way that Perl works. Not surprising, since it is intended to be as 
compatible with Perl as possible. This is the function most users of PCRE will 
use most of the time.

Supplementary matching function

From PCRE 6.0, there is also a supplementary matching function called 
pcre_dfa_exec(). This implements a DFA matching algorithm that searches 
simultaneously for all possible matches that start at one point in the subject 
string. (Going back to my roots: see Historical Note 1 above.) This function 
intreprets the same compiled pattern data as pcre_exec(); however, not all the 
facilities are available, and those that are don't always work in quite the 
same way. See the user documentation for details.

Format of compiled patterns

The compiled form of a pattern is a vector of bytes, containing items of
variable length. The first byte in an item is an opcode, and the length of the
item is either implicit in the opcode or contained in the data bytes that
follow it. 

In many cases below "two-byte" data values are specified. This is in fact just
a default. PCRE can be compiled to use 3-byte or 4-byte values (impairing the
performance). This is necessary only when patterns whose compiled length is
greater than 64K are going to be processed. In this description, we assume the 
"normal" compilation options.

A list of all the opcodes follows:

Opcodes with no following data

These items are all just one byte long

  OP_END                 end of pattern
  OP_ANY                 match any character
  OP_ANYBYTE             match any single byte, even in UTF-8 mode
  OP_SOD                 match start of data: \A
  OP_SOM,                start of match (subject + offset): \G
  OP_CIRC                ^ (start of data, or after \n in multiline)
  OP_NOT_DIGIT           \D
  OP_DIGIT               \d
  OP_WHITESPACE          \s
  OP_WORDCHAR            \w
  OP_EODN                match end of data or \n at end: \Z
  OP_EOD                 match end of data: \z
  OP_DOLL                $ (end of data, or before \n in multiline)
  OP_EXTUNI              match an extended Unicode character 

Repeating single characters

The common repeats (*, +, ?) when applied to a single character use the
following opcodes:


In ASCII mode, these are two-byte items; in UTF-8 mode, the length is variable.
Those with "MIN" in their name are the minimizing versions. Each is followed by
the character that is to be repeated. Other repeats make use of


which are followed by a two-byte count (most significant first) and the
repeated character. OP_UPTO matches from 0 to the given number. A repeat with a
non-zero minimum and a fixed maximum is coded as an OP_EXACT followed by an

Repeating character types

Repeats of things like \d are done exactly as for single characters, except
that instead of a character, the opcode for the type is stored in the data
byte. The opcodes are:


Match by Unicode property

OP_PROP and OP_NOTPROP are used for positive and negative matches of a 
character by testing its Unicode property (the \p and \P escape sequences).
Each is followed by a single byte that encodes the desired property value.

Repeats of these items use the OP_TYPESTAR etc. set of opcodes, followed by two 
bytes: OP_PROP or OP_NOTPROP and then the desired property value.

Matching literal characters

The OP_CHAR opcode is followed by a single character that is to be matched 
casefully. For caseless matching, OP_CHARNC is used. In UTF-8 mode, the 
character may be more than one byte long. (Earlier versions of PCRE used 
multi-character strings, but this was changed to allow some new features to be 

Character classes

If there is only one character, OP_CHAR or OP_CHARNC is used for a positive
class, and OP_NOT for a negative one (that is, for something like [^a]).
However, in UTF-8 mode, the use of OP_NOT applies only to characters with
values < 128, because OP_NOT is confined to single bytes.

Another set of repeating opcodes (OP_NOTSTAR etc.) are used for a repeated,
negated, single-character class. The normal ones (OP_STAR etc.) are used for a
repeated positive single-character class.

When there's more than one character in a class and all the characters are less
than 256, OP_CLASS is used for a positive class, and OP_NCLASS for a negative
one. In either case, the opcode is followed by a 32-byte bit map containing a 1
bit for every character that is acceptable. The bits are counted from the least
significant end of each byte.

The reason for having both OP_CLASS and OP_NCLASS is so that, in UTF-8 mode,
subject characters with values greater than 256 can be handled correctly. For
OP_CLASS they don't match, whereas for OP_NCLASS they do.

For classes containing characters with values > 255, OP_XCLASS is used. It
optionally uses a bit map (if any characters lie within it), followed by a list
of pairs and single characters. There is a flag character than indicates
whether it's a positive or a negative class.

Back references

OP_REF is followed by two bytes containing the reference number.

Repeating character classes and back references

Single-character classes are handled specially (see above). This applies to
OP_CLASS and OP_REF. In both cases, the repeat information follows the base
item. The matching code looks at the following opcode to see if it is one of


All but the last two are just single-byte items. The others are followed by
four bytes of data, comprising the minimum and maximum repeat counts.

Brackets and alternation

A pair of non-capturing (round) brackets is wrapped round each expression at
compile time, so alternation always happens in the context of brackets.

Non-capturing brackets use the opcode OP_BRA, while capturing brackets use
OP_BRA+1, OP_BRA+2, etc. [Note for North Americans: "bracket" to some English
speakers, including myself, can be round, square, curly, or pointy. Hence this

Originally PCRE was limited to 99 capturing brackets (so as not to use up all
the opcodes). From release 3.5, there is no limit. What happens is that the
first ones, up to EXTRACT_BASIC_MAX are handled with separate opcodes, as
above. If there are more, the opcode is set to EXTRACT_BASIC_MAX+1, and the
first operation in the bracket is OP_BRANUMBER, followed by a 2-byte bracket
number. This opcode is ignored while matching, but is fished out when handling
the bracket itself. (They could have all been done like this, but I was making
minimal changes.)

A bracket opcode is followed by LINK_SIZE bytes which give the offset to the
next alternative OP_ALT or, if there aren't any branches, to the matching
OP_KET opcode. Each OP_ALT is followed by LINK_SIZE bytes giving the offset to
the next one, or to the OP_KET opcode.

OP_KET is used for subpatterns that do not repeat indefinitely, while
OP_KETRMIN and OP_KETRMAX are used for indefinite repetitions, minimally or
maximally respectively. All three are followed by LINK_SIZE bytes giving (as a
positive number) the offset back to the matching OP_BRA opcode.

If a subpattern is quantified such that it is permitted to match zero times, it
is preceded by one of OP_BRAZERO or OP_BRAMINZERO. These are single-byte
opcodes which tell the matcher that skipping this subpattern entirely is a
valid branch.

A subpattern with an indefinite maximum repetition is replicated in the
compiled data its minimum number of times (or once with OP_BRAZERO if the
minimum is zero), with the final copy terminating with OP_KETRMIN or OP_KETRMAX
as appropriate.

A subpattern with a bounded maximum repetition is replicated in a nested
fashion up to the maximum number of times, with OP_BRAZERO or OP_BRAMINZERO
before each replication after the minimum, so that, for example, (abc){2,5} is
compiled as (abc)(abc)((abc)((abc)(abc)?)?)?.


Forward assertions are just like other subpatterns, but starting with one of
the opcodes OP_ASSERT or OP_ASSERT_NOT. Backward assertions use the opcodes
OP_ASSERTBACK and OP_ASSERTBACK_NOT, and the first opcode inside the assertion
is OP_REVERSE, followed by a two byte count of the number of characters to move
back the pointer in the subject string. When operating in UTF-8 mode, the count
is a character count rather than a byte count. A separate count is present in
each alternative of a lookbehind assertion, allowing them to have different
fixed lengths.

Once-only subpatterns

These are also just like other subpatterns, but they start with the opcode

Conditional subpatterns

These are like other subpatterns, but they start with the opcode OP_COND. If
the condition is a back reference, this is stored at the start of the
subpattern using the opcode OP_CREF followed by two bytes containing the
reference number. If the condition is "in recursion" (coded as "(?(R)"), the
same scheme is used, with a "reference number" of 0xffff. Otherwise, a
conditional subpattern always starts with one of the assertions.


Recursion either matches the current regex, or some subexpression. The opcode
OP_RECURSE is followed by an value which is the offset to the starting bracket
from the start of the whole pattern.


OP_CALLOUT is followed by one byte of data that holds a callout number in the
range 0 to 254 for manual callouts, or 255 for an automatic callout. In both 
cases there follows a two-byte value giving the offset in the pattern to the
start of the following item, and another two-byte item giving the length of the
next item.

Changing options

If any of the /i, /m, or /s options are changed within a pattern, an OP_OPT
opcode is compiled, followed by one byte containing the new settings of these
flags. If there are several alternatives, there is an occurrence of OP_OPT at
the start of all those following the first options change, to set appropriate
options for the start of the alternative. Immediately after the end of the
group there is another such item to reset the flags to their previous values. A
change of flag right at the very start of the pattern can be handled entirely
at compile time, and so does not cause anything to be put into the compiled

Philip Hazel
March 2005