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pcre man page

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This page is part of the PCRE HTML documentation. It was generated automatically from the original man page. If there is any nonsense in it, please consult the man page, in case the conversion went wrong.



The PCRE library is a set of functions that implement regular expression pattern matching using the same syntax and semantics as Perl, with just a few differences. The current implementation of PCRE (release 6.x) corresponds approximately with Perl 5.8, including support for UTF-8 encoded strings and Unicode general category properties. However, this support has to be explicitly enabled; it is not the default.

In addition to the Perl-compatible matching function, PCRE also contains an alternative matching function that matches the same compiled patterns in a different way. In certain circumstances, the alternative function has some advantages. For a discussion of the two matching algorithms, see the pcrematching page.

PCRE is written in C and released as a C library. A number of people have written wrappers and interfaces of various kinds. In particular, Google Inc. have provided a comprehensive C++ wrapper. This is now included as part of the PCRE distribution. The pcrecpp page has details of this interface. Other people's contributions can be found in the Contrib directory at the primary FTP site, which is:

Details of exactly which Perl regular expression features are and are not supported by PCRE are given in separate documents. See the pcrepattern and pcrecompat pages.

Some features of PCRE can be included, excluded, or changed when the library is built. The pcre_config() function makes it possible for a client to discover which features are available. The features themselves are described in the pcrebuild page. Documentation about building PCRE for various operating systems can be found in the README file in the source distribution.

The library contains a number of undocumented internal functions and data tables that are used by more than one of the exported external functions, but which are not intended for use by external callers. Their names all begin with "_pcre_", which hopefully will not provoke any name clashes. In some environments, it is possible to control which external symbols are exported when a shared library is built, and in these cases the undocumented symbols are not exported.


The user documentation for PCRE comprises a number of different sections. In the "man" format, each of these is a separate "man page". In the HTML format, each is a separate page, linked from the index page. In the plain text format, all the sections are concatenated, for ease of searching. The sections are as follows:

  pcre              this document
  pcreapi           details of PCRE's native C API
  pcrebuild         options for building PCRE
  pcrecallout       details of the callout feature
  pcrecompat        discussion of Perl compatibility
  pcrecpp           details of the C++ wrapper
  pcregrep          description of the pcregrep command
  pcrematching      discussion of the two matching algorithms
  pcrepartial       details of the partial matching facility
  pcrepattern       syntax and semantics of supported regular expressions
  pcreperform       discussion of performance issues
  pcreposix         the POSIX-compatible C API
  pcreprecompile    details of saving and re-using precompiled patterns
  pcresample        discussion of the sample program
  pcrestack         discussion of stack usage
  pcretest          description of the pcretest testing command

In addition, in the "man" and HTML formats, there is a short page for each C library function, listing its arguments and results.


There are some size limitations in PCRE but it is hoped that they will never in practice be relevant.

The maximum length of a compiled pattern is 65539 (sic) bytes if PCRE is compiled with the default internal linkage size of 2. If you want to process regular expressions that are truly enormous, you can compile PCRE with an internal linkage size of 3 or 4 (see the README file in the source distribution and the pcrebuild documentation for details). In these cases the limit is substantially larger. However, the speed of execution will be slower.

All values in repeating quantifiers must be less than 65536. The maximum compiled length of subpattern with an explicit repeat count is 30000 bytes. The maximum number of capturing subpatterns is 65535.

There is no limit to the number of non-capturing subpatterns, but the maximum depth of nesting of all kinds of parenthesized subpattern, including capturing subpatterns, assertions, and other types of subpattern, is 200.

The maximum length of name for a named subpattern is 32, and the maximum number of named subpatterns is 10000.

The maximum length of a subject string is the largest positive number that an integer variable can hold. However, when using the traditional matching function, PCRE uses recursion to handle subpatterns and indefinite repetition. This means that the available stack space may limit the size of a subject string that can be processed by certain patterns. For a discussion of stack issues, see the pcrestack documentation.


From release 3.3, PCRE has had some support for character strings encoded in the UTF-8 format. For release 4.0 this was greatly extended to cover most common requirements, and in release 5.0 additional support for Unicode general category properties was added.

In order process UTF-8 strings, you must build PCRE to include UTF-8 support in the code, and, in addition, you must call pcre_compile() with the PCRE_UTF8 option flag. When you do this, both the pattern and any subject strings that are matched against it are treated as UTF-8 strings instead of just strings of bytes.

If you compile PCRE with UTF-8 support, but do not use it at run time, the library will be a bit bigger, but the additional run time overhead is limited to testing the PCRE_UTF8 flag in several places, so should not be very large.

If PCRE is built with Unicode character property support (which implies UTF-8 support), the escape sequences \p{..}, \P{..}, and \X are supported. The available properties that can be tested are limited to the general category properties such as Lu for an upper case letter or Nd for a decimal number, the Unicode script names such as Arabic or Han, and the derived properties Any and L&. A full list is given in the pcrepattern documentation. Only the short names for properties are supported. For example, \p{L} matches a letter. Its Perl synonym, \p{Letter}, is not supported. Furthermore, in Perl, many properties may optionally be prefixed by "Is", for compatibility with Perl 5.6. PCRE does not support this.

The following comments apply when PCRE is running in UTF-8 mode:

1. When you set the PCRE_UTF8 flag, the strings passed as patterns and subjects are checked for validity on entry to the relevant functions. If an invalid UTF-8 string is passed, an error return is given. In some situations, you may already know that your strings are valid, and therefore want to skip these checks in order to improve performance. If you set the PCRE_NO_UTF8_CHECK flag at compile time or at run time, PCRE assumes that the pattern or subject it is given (respectively) contains only valid UTF-8 codes. In this case, it does not diagnose an invalid UTF-8 string. If you pass an invalid UTF-8 string to PCRE when PCRE_NO_UTF8_CHECK is set, the results are undefined. Your program may crash.

2. An unbraced hexadecimal escape sequence (such as \xb3) matches a two-byte UTF-8 character if the value is greater than 127.

3. Octal numbers up to \777 are recognized, and match two-byte UTF-8 characters for values greater than \177.

4. Repeat quantifiers apply to complete UTF-8 characters, not to individual bytes, for example: \x{100}{3}.

5. The dot metacharacter matches one UTF-8 character instead of a single byte.

6. The escape sequence \C can be used to match a single byte in UTF-8 mode, but its use can lead to some strange effects. This facility is not available in the alternative matching function, pcre_dfa_exec().

7. The character escapes \b, \B, \d, \D, \s, \S, \w, and \W correctly test characters of any code value, but the characters that PCRE recognizes as digits, spaces, or word characters remain the same set as before, all with values less than 256. This remains true even when PCRE includes Unicode property support, because to do otherwise would slow down PCRE in many common cases. If you really want to test for a wider sense of, say, "digit", you must use Unicode property tests such as \p{Nd}.

8. Similarly, characters that match the POSIX named character classes are all low-valued characters.

9. Case-insensitive matching applies only to characters whose values are less than 128, unless PCRE is built with Unicode property support. Even when Unicode property support is available, PCRE still uses its own character tables when checking the case of low-valued characters, so as not to degrade performance. The Unicode property information is used only for characters with higher values. Even when Unicode property support is available, PCRE supports case-insensitive matching only when there is a one-to-one mapping between a letter's cases. There are a small number of many-to-one mappings in Unicode; these are not supported by PCRE.


Philip Hazel
University Computing Service,
Cambridge CB2 3QG, England.

Putting an actual email address here seems to have been a spam magnet, so I've taken it away. If you want to email me, use my initial and surname, separated by a dot, at the domain Last updated: 05 June 2006
Copyright © 1997-2006 University of Cambridge.
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