Regular expressions are a very powerful tool in any language. They allow patterns to be matched against strings. Actions such as replacement can be performed on the string if the regular expression pattern matches. Python's module for regular expressions is the re module. Open the Python interactive interpreter, and let's take a closer look at regular expressions and the re module:
Let's create a simple string we can use to play around with:
I spoke of matching special patterns with regular expressions, but let's start with matching a simple string just to get used to regular expressions. There are two methods for matching patterns in strings in the re module: search and match. Let's take a look at search first. It works like this:
We can extract the results using the group method:
You're probably wondering about the group method right now and why we pass zero to it. It's simple, and I'll explain. You see, patterns can be organized into groups, like this:
There are two groups surrounded by parenthesis. We can extract them using the group method:
Passing zero to the method returns both of the groups:
The benefit of groups will become more clear once we work our way into actual patterns. First, though, let's take a look at the match function. It works similarly, but there is a crucial difference:
Notice that None was returned, even though “regular” is in the string. If you haven't figured it out, the match method matches patterns at the beginning of the string, and the search function examines the whole string. You might be wondering if it's possible, then, to make the match method match “regular,” since it's not at the beginning of the string. The answer is yes. It's possible to match it, and that brings us into patterns.
The character “.” will match any character. We can get the match method to match “regular” by putting a period for every letter before it. Let's split this up into two groups as well. One will contain the periods, and one will contain “regular”:
Aha! We matched it! However, it's ridiculous to have to type in all those periods. The good news is that we don't have to do that. Take a look at this and remember that there are twenty characters before “regular”:
That's a lot easier. Now let's look at a few more patterns. Here's how you can use brackets in a more advanced way:
By entering two arguments, so to speak, you can match any number of characters in a range. In this case, that range is 10-20. Sometimes, however, this can cause undesired behavior. Take a look at this string:
Let's match a range of characters:
What if we only want “a cat” though? This can be done with appending “?” to the end of the brackets:
Appending a question mark to something makes it match as few characters as possible. A question mark that does that, though, is not to be confused with this pattern:
As you can see with the example, the character before a question mark is optional. Next is the “*” pattern. It matches one or more of the characters it follows, like this:
However, take a look at this:
What if, however, we want to only match the first sentence? If you've been following along closely, you'll know that “?” will, again, do the trick:
As I mentioned earlier, though, “*” doesn't have to match anything:
What if we want to skip past the first two characters? This is possible by using “+”, which is similar to “*”, except that it matches at least one character:
We can also match a range of characters. For example, we can match only the first four letters of the alphabet:
We can also match one of a few patterns using “|”::
Finally, there are a number of special sequences. “\A” matches at the start of a string. “\Z” matches at the end of a string. “\d” matches a digit. “\D” matches anything but a digit. “\s” matches whitespace. “\S” matches anything but whitespace.
We can name our groups:
We can compile patterns to use them multiple times with the re module, too:
Of course, you can do more than match and extract substrings. You can replace things, too:
On a final note, you should not use regular expressions to match or replace simple strings.
Now you have a basic knowledge of string manipulation in Python behind you. As I explained at the very beginning of the article, string manipulation is necessary to many applications, both large and small. It is used frequently, and a basic knowledge of it is critical.
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