Regular Expressions

A regular expression, also known as a RegEx, is a shorthand descriptor of a pattern to match against text located somewhere within a file. There are many flavors of regular expressions, which can frustrate those new to learning the language. The grep command uses BASIC Regular syntax.

The origins of grep

Ken Thompson, author of grep was using ed at the time (this was before Bill Joy et. al had written ex and later vi), and needed to make a bunch of substitutions, and he kept having to do it. He wanted to edit a bunch of lines (he couldn't see them, because this was the era before text-user interfaces (TUIs) were a thing. So he needed to, before editing some lines at the same time, globally print them first to know what he was matching. He needed globally for his regular expression to print g/re/p.

Character Classes

Character classes are the [ ... ] set of characters

Negation can be specified by prefixing the character class with the ^ character.

Different Flavors, Different Syntax

These are some differences between various flavors. For example, in MacOS, grep supports \d to represent digits, but supposedly GNU's version of grep does not. grep supports using \< and \> to represent word boundaries, but Perl compatible regular expressions use \b to represent a word boundary. Furthermore, Perl compatible regular expressions support capture arguments, but grep does not.

Special Characters

RegEx Meaning
\d digit
\D non-digit
\w alphanumeric
\W non-alphanumeric
\s whitespace
\t tab
\n newline
\r carriage return


The following meta-characters have either been added, or no longer require being escaped to use their special properties. To search for the literal character, prepend them with a backslash.

# [Search for line containing 'this' or 'that']
grep -E 'this|that' file.txt
# [Search for a line containing 'abcabc']
grep -E '(abc){2}' file.text

Luckily, vim, sed, and grep all support the same -E flag to use extended regular expressions.

# [Use ex to replace hello with world on line 1]
vim -E -nsc '1s/this|that/world/e' -cx file.txt
# [Use sed to replace hello with world on line 1]
sed -E -i -e '1/this|that/world/' file.txt


Although lots of documentation will say the following meta-characters are unsupported in grep they work fine in the standard grep for MacOS.

RegEx History


Technically a regex is not a regular expression. It might as well be, as far as everyday use is concerned, but this is the history.

In the 1950s, famous mathematician Stephen Kleene, known today as the father of Regular Expressions, outlined the set of operations that a machine must support in order to be declared as a Deterministic Finite Automaton (DFA).

A DFA is capable of understanding expressions such as "the character A must be matched with 0 or more times". The syntax to declare this regular expression was A* (sound familiar?)

That star is now referred to as a Kleene star, named after the very mathematician who laid the groundwork for regular expressions.

Eventually the functionality of regular expressions was expanded, such by the perl language in the 1980s leading to some modern regular expression programs becoming classified as Non-Deterministic Finite Automatons (NFAs)

RegEx Scrapbook

Here is where I'll be saving regular expressions I wanted to be able to refer back to at some point