Identifying capturing parentheses by number is simple, but it can be very hard to keep track of the numbers in complicated regular expressions. Furthermore, if an expression is modified, the numbers may change. To help with this difficulty, PCRE supports the naming of subpatterns. This feature was not added to Perl until release 5.10. Python had the feature earlier, and PCRE introduced it at release 4.0, using the Python syntax. PCRE now supports both the Perl and the Python syntax. Perl allows identically numbered subpatterns to have different names, but PCRE does not.
In PCRE, a subpattern can be named in one of three ways: (?<name>...) or (?'name'...) as in Perl, or (?P<name>...) as in Python. References to capturing parentheses from other parts of the pattern, such as back references, recursion, and conditions, can be made by name as well as by number.
Names consist of up to 32 alphanumeric characters and underscores, but must start with a non-digit. Named capturing parentheses are still allocated numbers as well as names, exactly as if the names were not present. The PCRE API provides function calls for extracting the name-to-number translation table from a compiled pattern. There is also a convenience function for extracting a captured substring by name.
By default, a name must be unique within a pattern, but it is possible to relax this constraint by setting the PCRE_DUPNAMES option at compile time. (Duplicate names are also always permitted for subpatterns with the same number, set up as described in the previous section.) Duplicate names can be useful for patterns where only one instance of the named parentheses can match. Suppose you want to match the name of a weekday, either as a 3-letter abbreviation or as the full name, and in both cases you want to extract the abbreviation. This pattern (ignoring the line breaks) does the job:
There are five capturing substrings, but only one is ever set after a match. (An alternative way of solving this problem is to use a "branch reset" subpattern, as described in the previous section.)
The convenience function for extracting the data by name returns the substring for the first (and in this example, the only) subpattern of that name that matched. This saves searching to find which numbered subpattern it was.
If you make a back reference to a non-unique named subpattern from elsewhere in the pattern, the subpatterns to which the name refers are checked in the order in which they appear in the overall pattern. The first one that is set is used for the reference. For example, this pattern matches both "foofoo" and "barbar" but not "foobar" or "barfoo":
If you make a subroutine call to a non-unique named subpattern, the one that corresponds to the first occurrence of the name is used. In the absence of duplicate numbers (see the previous section) this is the one with the lowest number.
If you use a named reference in a condition test (see the section about conditions below), either to check whether a subpattern has matched, or to check for recursion, all subpatterns with the same name are tested. If the condition is true for any one of them, the overall condition is true. This is the same behaviour as testing by number.
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Last updated: 12 November 2013
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