Leon's Weblog

February 19, 2007

.NET Regular Expressions

Filed under: Software Dev — Leon @ 7:11 pm

Regular Expressions are great for parsing text files. If only all languages used the same conventions… Oh well. Here are some tips and caveats that I’ve picked up from working with Regular Expressions in .NET

  • Comments: If your RegExp is going to be longer than just a few symbols, make sure to include comments. The comments are placed in tags like this: (?# Your Comment Here ). When doing this make sure to set the option to ignore pattern white space. While you are at it, enable multiline support since the file that you are parsing is probably on multiple lines and ignore case to make the pattern simpler. Combine the options using the or operator like so: RegexOptions.Multiline Or RegexOptions.IgnoreCase Or RegexOptions.IgnorePatternWhitespace
  • Named Captures: If you are parsing the file with Regular Expressions then you are looking for tokens to extract. These tokens are saved in the Groups collection of the Match object. By default, you can access the captured values using an index; however, you can greatly improve readability by assigning a name to any matched token like this: (?<Name>(Pattern)).
  • Non-Greedy Matching: Ever wonder why .* sometimes gobbles up your entire file. By default regular expressions are optimistic and match the last possible token that matches. To stop at the first token that matches use the question mark operator like so .*?. As you would expect, this works on other patterns such as .+? and .{4,8}?. At least this behavior is consistent on most platforms that claim to implement regular expressions.
  • Caveat: Did you expect the period operator to match absolutely any character. Well not in .NET. Here, a new line character (which, might I add, is pretty common in text files) will not be matched even the Multiline option is set. If you want to match absolutely anything, use a character class like so [\s\S]. This basically means match anything that is white space or is not white space… i.e. everything.

In my last project, I had to parse an HTML document to extract the path to a particular image and the associated image map (good ol fashioned screen-scraping). Maybe this example will help someone else…

Dim re As New Regex( _
   "<img\\s+                     (?# First find an image ) " & _
   "id=""Chart_Image""\\s+       (?# With this ID ) " & _
   "usemap=                     (?# Then find the image map name ) " & _
   """\\#([\\s\\S]+?)""\\s+         (?# Save the image map name. Use [\s\S] because . does not match \n ) " & _
   "src=""(?<file>([\\s\\S]+?))"" (?# Then get the file path ) " & _
   "[\\s\\S]*?                    (?# Now wait for the image map. Non-Greedy capture ) " & _
   "<map \\s+ name=""\\1"" \\s*>   (?# Capture the image map content with specified name ) " & _
   "(?<imagemap>([\\s\\S]+))      (?# This is the image map content) " & _
   "<\\/map>                     (?# End of Image Map) ", _
   RegexOptions.Multiline Or RegexOptions.IgnoreCase Or RegexOptions.IgnorePatternWhitespace)
Dim myMatch As Match = re.Match(file)

For more .NET specific help on Regular Expressions, check out this Article.


  1. Sounds great! Your blog is one of my most favorite now ;). You have hit the nail on the head, just like you always do.

    Comment by Bull3t — April 11, 2008 @ 1:17 am
  2. Note that if you use the RegexOptions.SingleLine option, then the dot (.) matches any character, even newlines.
    RegexOptions.Multiline actually has noting to do with the dot character, but instead impacts the caret (^) and dollar-sign ($).

    Comment by Rich — May 29, 2012 @ 8:19 pm

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