Meta Regular Expression

As part of JSDuck I needed to write a lexer for JavaScript source code. This consisted mostly of writing regular expressions to recognize various JavaScript tokens: identifiers, numbers, strings, ... and regular expressions. That's of course a meta regular expression - a regular expression to match a regular expression. It turned out to be trickier than I thought.

First off the / character can be the beginning of comment, regex or a division operator. I've already covered this part in an earlier blog post, so I'm going to continue from there, assuming we already know that / is a beginning of regex. So what would a meta-regex look like? Let's take the most naive approach possible:


I'm using special regex delimiters of Ruby %r{ ... } to avoid escaping the / characters, keeping the regex more readable. Thankfully to our lexer the regular expression in JavaScript can only be delimited by /.

This meta-regex probably matches about 80% of regexes in the wild. It even supports optional modifiers. But it fails as soon as the regex contains an escaped / like this one:


Fortunately this is a pretty standard problem. We would stumble upon a similar one when writing a regex to match a string where the delimiters can also be escaped. So here's a solution:


The text between regex delimiters can consist of:

This is quite neat and compact, and one would think that it covers all possible JavaScript regular expressions. And indeed, it's going to probably cover about 99.9% of all regular expressions in the wild. But I wouldn't be talking about this if I hadn't stumbled upon a valid regex that it didn't cover:


That's right, inside a character set [...] the only meta-characters that need to be escaped are ] and \, meaning that the regex delimiter can also be there without needing to be escaped.

Now that's going to get a bit ugly, as we need to use different matching rules between character set delimiters. Here's a regex to match only the character set part of a regex:


This should look familiar, as we repeat the pattern we already used above. The text between charset delimiters can consist of:

It might hurt your eyes, but it's quite simple really.

Now all that's left to do, is merge this into the whole meta-regex:

  /               (?# beginning    )
    [^/\[\\]      (?# any character except \ / [    )
    \\.           (?# an escaping \ followed by any character    )
    \[ ([^\]\\]|\\.)* \]    (?# [...] containing any characters including /    )
                            (?# except \ ] which have to be escaped    )
  /[gim]*         (?# ending + modifiers    )

Here I'm using the x modifier to ignore the whitespace and I'm also documenting the whole thing with comments.

I'm hoping this now finally covers 100% of JavaScript regular expressions. But this meta regular expression is complex, things might go wrong when they aren't simple...

Kirjutatud 19. oktoobril 2011.


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