An introduction to the re2 regular expression library for OCaml

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Hi! I'm Ryan Moore, NBA fan & PhD candidate in Eric Wommack's viral ecology lab @ UD. Follow me on Twitter!

In this tutorial, we will talk about re2, an OCaml library providing bindings to RE2, Google’s regular expression library.

This post is intended for newer OCaml programmers, or those who want to use the re2 library, but could use a couple of examples to help get started. This is not a general introduction to regular expressions, however. If you have never used regular expressions before, read up a little bit on the syntax before tackling this post.



The there are few choices for regular expression libraries available for OCaml on Opam. Some of the most popular include

  • re, a pure OCaml library (installed 7667 times last month),
  • pcre, bindings to the Perl Compatibility Regular Expressions library (PCRE), (installed 1115 times last month), and
  • re2, OCaml bindings for RE2, Google’s regular expression library (installed 114 times last month).

The first two are by far the most popular in terms of raw Opam install counts. However, re2 integrates nicely into the Jane Street Base/Core/Async ecosystem (it’s a Jane Street package after all!), and is covered under the MIT license rather than the LGPL with OCaml linking exception, which may be appealing depending on your situation.

Note: According to this blog post and this GitHub issue, Jane Street is phasing out its use of re2. The re2 GitHub does have recent commits, though, so your mileage may vary.

One issue that newcomers may face when getting started with the re2 library is the slightly terse API documentation. While it is detailed and thorough, it can be hard to get started with if you’re not already used to reading Jane Street mli files and source code.

Note: if you want to follow along, you can paste the examples into the toplevel (or utop). However, don’t paste in lines starting with - :. These lines show the type of the expression as reported by utop.

Creating regular expressions

You create regular expressions with Re2.create and Re2.create_exn. The former returns Re2.t Or_error.t and the latter Re2.t.

let re = Or_error.ok_exn @@ Re2.create "apple";;
let re = Re2.create_exn "apple";;

Matching options

You can control how regular expression matching works by passing the options argument to the create and create_exn functions. If you omit this argument, the default options will be passed. Here they are:

- : Re2.Options.t =
  Re2.Options.case_sensitive = true;
  dot_nl = false;
  encoding = Re2.Options.Encoding.Utf8;
  literal = false;
  log_errors = false;
  longest_match = false;
  max_mem = 8388608;
  never_capture = false;
  never_nl = false;
  one_line = false;
  perl_classes = false;
  posix_syntax = false;
  word_boundary = false;

For a more detailed description of these options, see the re2.h header filer.

By default, re2 uses case-sensitive matching. To create a case-insensitive regex, pass in an options map like so.

let re_i =
  let options = { Re2.Options.default with case_sensitive = false } in
  Re2.create_exn ~options "abc"

Checking for a match

Perhaps the most basic regex task is to check if a string matches a given regular expression. You can use Re2.matches for this.

(* Case sensitive *)
let re = Re2.create_exn "apple" in
assert (Re2.matches re "apple pie");
assert (not (Re2.matches re "Apple pie"));;

(* Case insensitive *)
let re =
  let options = { Re2.Options.default with case_sensitive = false } in
  Re2.create_exn ~options "apple" 
assert (Re2.matches re "apple pie");
assert (Re2.matches re "Apple pie");;

Finding matches

To find all matches of a regular expression in a string, you can use the find_* functions.

Find first match

To return the first match in the query string, use find_first or find_first_exn. These functions return matched string rather than the underlying Re2.Match.t.

let re = Re2.create_exn "apple" in
  Re2.find_first_exn re "apple pie is made from apples";;
- : string = "apple"

let re = Re2.create_exn "[ab]{2}" in
Re2.find_first_exn re "ababa";;
- : string = "ab"

Find all matches

While find_first returns the first match in a query string, find_all and find_all_exn return lists of all non-overlapping matches in the query string.

let re = Re2.create_exn "apple" in
Re2.find_all re "apple pie";;
- : string list Or_error.t = Result.Ok ["apple"]

let re = Re2.create_exn "apple" in
Re2.find_all_exn re "apple pie is made from apples";;
- : string list = ["apple"; "apple"]

Submatches and capturing groups

You can use the sub argument to return submatches defined by capturing groups rather than the whole match.

let re = Re2.create_exn "a([bc])" in
let s = "ab ac ab" in
Re2.find_all_exn ~sub:(` Index 1) re s;;
- : string list = ["b"; "c"; "b"]

Be aware that passing index greater than the amount of capturing groups will raise an error.

let re = Re2.create_exn "a([bc])" in
let s = "ab ac ab" in
Re2.find_all_exn ~sub:(` Index 10) re s;;
Exception: Re2__Regex.Exceptions.Regex_no_such_subpattern(10, 2).

Or_error returning vs. Exception raising

Like most of the functions in the Re2 module, the find functions come in both Or_error.t returning and exception raising versions. If the regular expression doesn’t match, find_all returns a Result.Error.t whereas find_all_exn raises an exception.

let re = Re2.create_exn "apple" in
Re2.find_all re "peach pie";;
- : string list Or_error.t =

let re = Re2.create_exn "apple" in
Re2.find_all_exn re "peach pie";;
Exception: Re2__Regex.Exceptions.Regex_match_failed("apple").
(* ...output omitted... *)

It is important to remember that the find_all functions return non-overlapping matches.

let re = Re2.create_exn "[ab]{2}" in
Re2.find_all_exn re "ababa";;
- : string list = ["ab"; "ab"]

Finding submatches

If you need a bit more control than provided by find_all with the sub argument (e.g., find_all ~sub:(` Index 1)), the you may need to use find_submatches or find_submatches_exn. These return the first match in the query string. The match is returned as a string option array, where the first element is the whole match, and subsequent elements are submatches as defined by any capturing groups.

let re = Re2.create_exn "a([bc])([de])" in
Re2.find_submatches_exn re "abdace";;
- : string option array = [|Some "abd"; Some "b"; Some "d"|]

You may wonder why find_submatches_exn returns a string option array and not simply a string array. find_submatches_exn uses Match.get under-the-hood. Basically, find_submatches_exn processes a Match.t Sequence.t of matches, calling get on each one. And the Match.get function returns a string option.

This little code snippet will hopefully give you an idea of what’s going on.

let re = Re2.create_exn "a([bc])([de])" in
let match_ = Re2.first_match_exn re "abdace" in
  Re2.Match.get match_ ~sub:(` Index 0);
  Re2.Match.get match_ ~sub:(` Index 1);
  Re2.Match.get match_ ~sub:(` Index 2);
  Re2.Match.get match_ ~sub:(` Index 3);
- : string option array = [| Some "abd"; Some "b"; Some "d"; None |]

If the Index you pass to ~sub is higher than the of capturing groups plus one (e.g., the number returned from Re2.num_submatches), None is returned.

More complicated submatch interface

If you want to work with the Re2.Match.t directly, you can use functions from the complicated interface like first_match and get_matches.

If you need to work with submatches of every match in a string rather than just the first, and you need direct access to the Match.t, you will want to use get_matches or get_matches_exn. Let’s try it out with a weird, little example.

Say we have a string made up of chunks. Each chunk is a number followed by an A (for add) or an S (for subtract) (e.g., 50A and 3S). The chunk describes an arithmetic operation: 12A means add 12 to the previous total; 3S means subtract 3 from the previous total.

A full string then might look something like this: 10A5S2S3A, which represents the following sequence of operations: 0 + 10 - 5 - 2 + 3.

One way to solve this little problem using regexes and the get_matches function. Let’s see how it might go.

let total =
  let s = "10A5S2S3A" in
  (* Make the regex *)
  let re = Re2.create_exn "([0-9]*)([AS])" in
  (* Get a Match.t list *)
  let matches = Re2.get_matches_exn re s in
  (* Fold over the matches to get the total. *)
  List.fold matches ~init:0 ~f:(fun total m ->
      (* The first capturing group is the "count". *)
      let number = Int.of_string @@ Re2.Match.get_exn m ~sub:(` Index 1) in
      (* The second capturing group represents the operation. *)
      match Re2.Match.get_exn m ~sub:(` Index 2) with
      | "A" -> total + number
      | "S" -> total - number
      | _ -> assert false)

assert (total = 0 + 10 - 5 - 2 + 3);;

Note: This weird format is actually loosely based on the CIGAR strings found in SAM files describing biological sequence alignments.

Controlling submatches

In the last two examples, we used the sub argument along with a polymorphic variant to select capture groups. Let’s take a closer look at the type used for that.

To select submatches, we use id_t, which looks like this:

type id_t = [ ` Index of int | ` Name of string ]

This type is used to refer to submatches. E.g., ` Index 1 would be the result of first capturing group, ` Index 2 the 2nd, etc. Remember that ` Index 0 refers to the whole match.

In addition to referring to submatches/capturing groups by index, you can refer to them by name.

let re = Re2.create_exn "a(?P<second_letter>[bc])" in
let m = Re2.first_match_exn re "abc" in
let x = Re2.Match.get_exn m ~sub:(` Name "second_letter") in
let y = Re2.Match.get_exn m ~sub:(` Index 1) in
assert String.(x = y);;

When using a complicated regular expression with multiple capturing groups, it is often less error prone to use named submatches rather than numbered ones.

Note: It is not a compile-error to try an access a capturing group that doesn’t exist in the regular expression. Depending on the function, you may get None or raise an exception.

Using id_t to control match efficiency

Many of the regex matching functions take a ?sub:id_t argument.

In some cases, you can increase the efficiency of matching by restricting the number of submatches. If you only care about whether a pattern matches, and not about submatches, you could pass in ~sub:(` Index -1) to many of the above functions.

You can get increasingly more information by increasing the n to the index.

(* Get only the whole match. *)
~sub:(` Index 0)

(* Get the whole match and first submatch. *)
~sub:(` Index 1)

This section of the documentation has more info on how specifying the sub argument can have an impact on regex performance, and which functions are affected by its usage.

Splitting strings

Another common regex task is splitting an input string based on a regular expression pattern. Re2 provides the split function for this purpose.

let re = Re2.create_exn "[.,! ]+" in
Re2.split re "Hello, world! I like pie.";;
- : string list = ["Hello"; "world"; "I"; "like"; "pie"; ""]

If you need to include the actual matches in the output, you can. Passing ~include_matches:true ensures the “separators” are in there with the rest of the output.

let re = Re2.create_exn "[.,! ]+" in
Re2.split ~include_matches:true re "Hello, world! I like pie.";;
- : string list =
["Hello"; ", "; "world"; "! "; "I"; " "; "like"; " "; "pie"; "."; ""]

Just be aware of that final empty string at the end!

You can also limit the number of matches with the max argument. You could use this to get the first value separated from the remaining values in a string of tab-separated values, for example.

let re = Re2.create_exn "\t" in
Re2.split ~max:1 re "apple\tpie\tis\tgood";;
- : string list = ["apple"; "pie\tis\tgood"]

If the regular expression has no matches in the query string, then a one element list is returned.

let re = Re2.create_exn "\t" in
Re2.split ~max:1 re "apple pie is good";;
- : string list = ["apple pie is good"]


Using rewrite

The simpler interface for regex replacement consists of the rewrite and rewrite_exn functions. The template argument defines how you want to replace any matches in the query string. In this case, we replace any matches with a capital A.

let re = Re2.create_exn "a" in
Re2.rewrite_exn re ~template:"A" "apple peach";;
- : string = "Apple peAch"

You can reference the submatches in the template string using the syntax \\n. Check it out.

let re = Re2.create_exn "([ae])" in
Re2.rewrite_exn re ~template:"( \\1 )" "apple peach";;
- : string = "( a )ppl( e ) p( e )( a )ch"

If you have multiple submatches, just keep referring to them in the same way: \\1 ... \\2 ... etc.

If you need to check if your rewrite template is valid before running rewrite, use valid_rewrite_template function.

let re = Re2.create_exn "([ae])([io])([uy])" in
let template = "\\3 - \\2 - \\1" in
Re2.valid_rewrite_template re ~template;;
- : bool = true

Using replace

The re2 library also provides more powerful replacing functions: replace and replace_exn. You can use them if you need direct access to the Match.t.

Here is a silly example that picks a different replacement value depending on the match.

let re = Re2.create_exn "([ae])" in
Re2.replace_exn re "apple peach" ~f:(fun m ->
  match Re2.Match.get_exn m ~sub:(` Index 1) with
  | "a" -> "u"
  | "e" -> "o"
  | _ -> assert false)
- : string = "upplo pouch"

While the replace function is more complicated than rewrite, it gives you more control and has a few other options you may find useful.

Miscellaneous info

Escaping strings for regular expressions

Properly escaping regular expressions can sometimes be tricky, especially if you want to avoid illegal backslash characters in your strings.

Re2 provides a function escape that escapes its input in such a way that if you create a regex from the resulting escaped string, it would match the original string. Here’s how it works.

Re2.escape "Apple. (Pie)!!";;
- : string = "Apple\\.\\ \\(Pie\\)\\!\\!"

  (Re2.create_exn @@ Re2.escape "Apple. (Pie)!!")
  "Apple. (Pie)!!";;
- : bool = true

Depending on how many special characters are in the string you use to build the regex, escaping can be pretty noisy! In these cases, escape is especially useful.

Infix matching operator

If you’re feeling nostalgic for Perl, feel free to use the =~ infix operator!

let re = Re2.create_exn "ab";;

Re2.Infix.("abc" =~ re);;
- : bool = true

(* Let's get crazy and open the module! *)
open Re2.Infix;;

"abc" =~ re;;
- : bool = true

“Precompiling” your regular expressions

Unless you have a good reason not to, you will probably want to create your regular expression outside of the function that will be using it.

To see why, let’s check out this little benchmark program that compares two functions. The first one reuses a regex that is created outside of the function, whereas the second one creates a new regex each time the function is called.

Note: This benchmark program uses Jane Street’s core_bench micro-benchmarking library.

open! Core
open! Core_bench

let re = Re2.create_exn "a([bc])"

let find re s = Re2.find_first_exn re s
let find' s = Re2.find_first_exn (Re2.create_exn "a([bc])") s

let () =
         Bench.Test.create ~name:"outside" (fun () ->
             find re "abcabcabc");
         Bench.Test.create ~name:"inside" (fun () ->
             find' "abcabcabc");
Name Time/Run mWd/Run Percentage
outside 272.60 ns 2.00 w 3.74%
inside 7_281.55 ns 91.00 w 100.00%

As you can see, reusing a regex rather than creating a new one each time a function is called makes a big difference in this benchmark. Keep in mind that this is a micro-benchmark, and that this difference may not be that important to the run time of your program as a whole. That said, if you had the slow version of the above function in a hot loop, it could really be wasting a lot of CPU cycles.

Wrap up

Hopefully this overview helps you get started with using re2!

To get more info about using re2, check out the API docs. Additionally, the re2 source code is quite readable. I encourage you to take a look at how the functions are defined–it may help clear up any additional questions you have!

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