The re module

“Some people, when confronted with a problem, think “I know, I’ll use regular expressions.” Now they have two problems”Jamie Zawinski, on comp.lang.emacs [*]

This module provides a set of powerful regular expression facilities. A regular expression is a string pattern written in a compact (and quite cryptic) syntax, and this module allows you to quickly check whether a given string matches a given pattern (using the match function), or contains such a pattern (using the search function).

The match function attempts to match a pattern against the beginning of the given string. If the pattern matches anything at all (including an empty string, if the pattern allows that!), match returns a match object. The group method can be used to find out what matched.

Example: Using the re module to match strings
# File:

import re

text = "The Attila the Hun Show"

# a single character
m = re.match(".", text)
if m: print repr("."), "=>", repr(

# any string of characters
m = re.match(".*", text)
if m: print repr(".*"), "=>", repr(

# a string of letters (at least one)
m = re.match("\w+", text)
if m: print repr("\w+"), "=>", repr(

# a string of digits
m = re.match("\d+", text)
if m: print repr("\d+"), "=>", repr(

'.' => 'T'
'.*' => 'The Attila the Hun Show'
'\\w+' => 'The'

You can use parentheses to mark regions in the pattern. If the pattern matched, the group method can be used to extract the contents of these regions. group(1) returns the contents of the first group, group(2) the contents of the second, etc. If you pass several group numbers to the group function, it returns a tuple.

Example: Using the re module to extract matching substrings
# File:

import re

text ="10/15/99"

m = re.match("(\d{2})/(\d{2})/(\d{2,4})", text)
if m:
    print, 2, 3)

('10', '15', '99')

The search function searches for the pattern inside the string. It basically tries the pattern at every possible characters position, starting from the left, and returns a match object as soon it has found a match. If the pattern doesn’t match anywhere, it returns None.

Example: Using the re module to search for substrings
# File:

import re

text = "Example 3: There is 1 date 10/25/95 in here!"

m ="(\d{1,2})/(\d{1,2})/(\d{2,4})", text)


month, day, year =, 2, 3)
print month, day, year

date =
print date

10 25 95
10 25 95

The sub function can be used to replace patterns with another string.

Example: Using the re module to replace substrings
# File:

import re

text = "you're no fun anymore..."

# literal replace (string.replace is faster)
print re.sub("fun", "entertaining", text)

# collapse all non-letter sequences to a single dash
print re.sub("[^\w]+", "-", text)

# convert all words to beeps
print re.sub("\S+", "-BEEP-", text)

you're no entertaining anymore...

You can also use sub to replace patterns via a callback function. The following example also shows how to pre-compile patterns.

Example: Using the re module to replace substrings via a callback
# File:

import re
import string

text = "a line of text\\012another line of text\\012etc..."

def octal(match):
    # replace octal code with corresponding ASCII character
    return chr(string.atoi(, 8))

octal_pattern = re.compile(r"\\(\d\d\d)")

print text
print octal_pattern.sub(octal, text)

a line of text\012another line of text\012etc...
a line of text
another line of text

If you don’t compile, the re module caches compiled versions for you, so you usually don’t have to compile regular expressions in small scripts. In Python 1.5.2, the cache holds 20 patterns. In 2.0, the cache size has been increased to 100 patterns.

Finally, here’s an example that shows you how to match a string against a list of patterns. The list of patterns are combined into a single pattern, and pre-compiled to save time.

Example: Using the re module to match against one of many patterns
# File:

import re, string

def combined_pattern(patterns):
    p = re.compile(
        string.join(map(lambda x: "("+x+")", patterns), "|")
    def fixup(v, m=p.match, r=range(0,len(patterns))):
            regs = m(v).regs
        except AttributeError:
            return None # no match, so m.regs will fail
            for i in r:
                if regs[i+1] != (-1, -1):
                    return i
    return fixup

# try it out!

patterns = [

p = combined_pattern(patterns)

print p("129391")
print p("abc800")
print p("abc1600")
print p("python")
print p("perl")
print p("tcl")


Note: comp.lang.emacs doesn’t exist, really. The quote was taken from comp.emacs.xemacs. I’m not sure how the erronous attribution ended up in the book, but it’s interesting to see how it has propagated across the net.


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