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Square brackets and character classes




An opening square bracket introduces a character class, terminated by a closing square bracket. A closing square bracket on its own is not special by default. However, if the PCRE_JAVASCRIPT_COMPAT option is set, a lone closing square bracket causes a compile-time error. If a closing square bracket is required as a member of the class, it should be the first data character in the class (after an initial circumflex, if present) or escaped with a backslash.


A character class matches a single character in the subject. In a UTF mode, the character may be more than one data unit long. A matched character must be in the set of characters defined by the class, unless the first character in the class definition is a circumflex, in which case the subject character must not be in the set defined by the class. If a circumflex is actually required as a member of the class, ensure it is not the first character, or escape it with a backslash.


For example, the character class [aeiou] matches any lower case vowel, while [^aeiou] matches any character that is not a lower case vowel. Note that a circumflex is just a convenient notation for specifying the characters that are in the class by enumerating those that are not. A class that starts with a circumflex is not an assertion; it still consumes a character from the subject string, and therefore it fails if the current pointer is at the end of the string.

In UTF-8 (UTF-16, UTF-32) mode, characters with values greater than 255 (0xffff) can be included in a class as a literal string of data units, or by using the \x{ escaping mechanism.


When caseless matching is set, any letters in a class represent both their upper case and lower case versions, so for example, a caseless [aeiou] matches "A" as well as "a", and a caseless [^aeiou] does not match "A", whereas a caseful version would. In a UTF mode, PCRE always understands the concept of case for characters whose values are less than 128, so caseless matching is always possible. For characters with higher values, the concept of case is supported if PCRE is compiled with Unicode property support, but not otherwise. If you want to use caseless matching in a UTF mode for characters 128 and above, you must ensure that PCRE is compiled with Unicode property support as well as with UTF support.


Characters that might indicate line breaks are never treated in any special way when matching character classes, whatever line-ending sequence is in use, and whatever setting of the PCRE_DOTALL and PCRE_MULTILINE options is used. A class such as [^a] always matches one of these characters.


The minus (hyphen) character can be used to specify a range of characters in a character class. For example, [d-m] matches any letter between d and m, inclusive. If a minus character is required in a class, it must be escaped with a backslash or appear in a position where it cannot be interpreted as indicating a range, typically as the first or last character in the class, or immediately after a range. For example, [b-d-z] matches letters in the range b to d, a hyphen character, or z.


It is not possible to have the literal character "]" as the end character of a range. A pattern such as [W-]46] is interpreted as a class of two characters ("W" and "-") followed by a literal string "46]", so it would match "W46]" or "-46]". However, if the "]" is escaped with a backslash it is interpreted as the end of range, so [W-\]46] is interpreted as a class containing a range followed by two other characters. The octal or hexadecimal representation of "]" can also be used to end a range.


An error is generated if a POSIX character class (see below) or an escape sequence other than one that defines a single character appears at a point where a range ending character is expected. For example, [z-\xff] is valid, but [A-\d] and [A-[:digit:]] are not.


Ranges operate in the collating sequence of character values. They can also be used for characters specified numerically, for example [\000-\037]. Ranges can include any characters that are valid for the current mode.


If a range that includes letters is used when caseless matching is set, it matches the letters in either case. For example, [W-c] is equivalent to [][\\^_`wxyzabc], matched caselessly, and in a non-UTF mode, if character tables for a French locale are in use, [\xc8-\xcb] matches accented E characters in both cases. In UTF modes, PCRE supports the concept of case for characters with values greater than 128 only when it is compiled with Unicode property support.


The character escape sequences \d, \D, \h, \H, \p, \P, \s, \S, \v, \V, \w, and \W may appear in a character class, and add the characters that they match to the class. For example, [\dABCDEF] matches any hexadecimal digit. In UTF modes, the PCRE_UCP option affects the meanings of \d, \s, \w and their upper case partners, just as it does when they appear outside a character class, as described in the section entitled "Generic character types" above. The escape sequence \b has a different meaning inside a character class; it matches the backspace character. The sequences \B, \N, \R, and \X are not special inside a character class. Like any other unrecognized escape sequences, they are treated as the literal characters "B", "N", "R", and "X" by default, but cause an error if the PCRE_EXTRA option is set.


A circumflex can conveniently be used with the upper case character types to specify a more restricted set of characters than the matching lower case type. For example, the class [^\W_] matches any letter or digit, but not underscore, whereas [\w] includes underscore. A positive character class should be read as "something OR something OR ..." and a negative class as "NOT something AND NOT something AND NOT ...".


The only metacharacters that are recognized in character classes are backslash, hyphen (only where it can be interpreted as specifying a range), circumflex (only at the start), opening square bracket (only when it can be interpreted as introducing a POSIX class name, or for a special compatibility feature - see the next two sections), and the terminating closing square bracket. However, escaping other non-alphanumeric characters does no harm.




Philip Hazel

University Computing Service

Cambridge CB2 3QH, England.

Last updated: 12 November 2013

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