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Ruby Regexp Part 6 - Character class

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Character class

This chapter will discuss how to create your own custom placeholders to match limited set of characters and various metacharacters applicable inside character classes. You'll also learn various predefined character sets.

Custom character sets

Characters enclosed inside [] metacharacters is a character class (or set). It will result in matching any one of those characters once. It is similar to using single character alternations inside a grouping, but without the drawbacks of a capture group. In addition, character classes have their own versions of metacharacters and provide special predefined sets for common use cases. Quantifiers are applicable to character classes as well.

# same as: /cot|cut/ or /c(o|u)t/
>> %w[cute cat cot coat cost scuttle].grep(/c[ou]t/)
=> ["cute", "cot", "scuttle"]

# same as: /(a|e|o)+t/
>> 'meeting cute boat site foot'.gsub(/[aeo]+t/, 'X')
=> "mXing cute bX site fX"
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Range of characters

Character classes have their own metacharacters to help define the sets succinctly. Metacharacters outside of character classes like ^, $, () etc either don't have special meaning or have completely different one inside the character classes. First up, the - metacharacter that helps to define a range of characters instead of having to specify them all individually.

# all digits, same as: scan(/[0123456789]+/)
>> 'Sample123string42with777numbers'.scan(/[0-9]+/)
=> ["123", "42", "777"]

# whole words made up of lowercase alphabets only
>> 'coat Bin food tar12 best'.scan(/\b[a-z]+\b/)
=> ["coat", "food", "best"]

# whole words made up of lowercase alphabets and digits only
>> 'coat Bin food tar12 best'.scan(/\b[a-z0-9]+\b/)
=> ["coat", "food", "tar12", "best"]

# whole words made up of lowercase alphabets, but starting with 'p' to 'z'
>> 'coat tin food put stoop best'.scan(/\b[p-z][a-z]*\b/)
=> ["tin", "put", "stoop"]

# whole words made up of only 'a' to 'f' and 'p' to 't' lowercase alphabets
>> 'coat tin food put stoop best'.scan(/\b[a-fp-t]+\b/)
=> ["best"]
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Negating character sets

Next metacharacter is ^ which has to specified as the first character of the character class. It negates the set of characters, so all characters other than those specified will be matched. As highlighted earlier, handle negative logic with care, you might end up matching more than you wanted. Also, these examples below are all excellent places to use possessive quantifier as there is no backtracking involved.

# all non-digits
>> 'Sample123string42with777numbers'.scan(/[^0-9]+/)
=> ["Sample", "string", "with", "numbers"]

# remove first two columns where : is delimiter
>> 'foo:123:bar:baz'.sub(/\A([^:]+:){2}/, '')
=> "bar:baz"

# deleting characters at end of string based on a delimiter
>> 'foo=42; baz=123'.sub(/=[^=]+\z/, '')
=> "foo=42; baz"

>> dates = '2020/04/25,1986/Mar/02,77/12/31'
# Note that the third character set negates comma as well
# and comma is matched optionally outside the capture groups
>> dates.scan(%r{([^/]+)/([^/]+)/([^/,]+),?})
=> [["2020", "04", "25"], ["1986", "Mar", "02"], ["77", "12", "31"]]
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Sometimes, it is easier to use positive character class and invert the boolean result instead of negating the character class.

>> words = %w[tryst fun glyph pity why]

# words not containing vowel characters
>> words.grep(/\A[^aeiou]+\z/)
=> ["tryst", "glyph", "why"]

# easier to write and maintain
# but this'll match empty strings too unlike the previous solution
>> words.grep_v(/[aeiou]/)
=> ["tryst", "glyph", "why"]
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Set intersection

Using && between two sets of characters will result in matching only the intersection of those two sets. To aid in such definitions, you can use [] in nested fashion.

# [^aeiou] will match any non-vowel character
# which means space is also a valid character to be matched
>> 'tryst glyph pity why'.scan(/\b[^aeiou]+\b/)
=> ["tryst glyph ", " why"]

# [a-z&&[^aeiou]] will be intersection of a-z and non-vowel characters
# this results in positive definition of characters to match
>> 'tryst glyph pity why'.scan(/\b[a-z&&[^aeiou]]+\b/)
=> ["tryst", "glyph", "why"]
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Matching metacharacters literally

Similar to other metacharacters, prefix \ to character class metacharacters to match them literally. Some of them can be achieved by different placement as well.

- should be first or last character or escaped using \.

>> 'ab-cd gh-c 12-423'.scan(/\b[a-z-]{2,}\b/)
=> ["ab-cd", "gh-c"]
>> 'ab-cd gh-c 12-423'.scan(/\b[a-z\-0-9]{2,}\b/)
=> ["ab-cd", "gh-c", "12-423"]
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^ should be other than first character or escaped using \.

>> 'f*(a^b) - 3*(a+b)'.scan(/a[+^]b/)
=> ["a^b", "a+b"]
>> 'f*(a^b) - 3*(a+b)'.scan(/a[\^+]b/)
=> ["a^b", "a+b"]
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[, ] and \ should be escaped using \.

>> 'words[5] = tea'[/[a-z\[\]0-9]+/]
=> "words[5]"

>> puts '5ba\babc2'[/[a\\b]+/]
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Escape sequence character sets

Commonly used character sets have predefined escape sequences:

  • \w is equivalent to [A-Za-z0-9_] for matching word characters (recall the definition for word boundaries)
  • \d is equivalent to [0-9] for matching digit characters
  • \s is equivalent to [ \t\r\n\f\v] for matching whitespace characters
  • \h is equivalent to [0-9a-fA-F] for matching hexadecimal characters

These escape sequences can be used as a standalone pattern or inside a character class.

>> '128A foo1 fe32 34 bar'.scan(/\b\h+\b/)
=> ["128A", "fe32", "34"]
>> '128A foo1 fe32 34 bar'.scan(/\b\h+\b/).map(&:hex)
=> [4746, 65074, 52]

>> 'Sample123string42with777numbers'.split(/\d+/)
=> ["Sample", "string", "with", "numbers"]
>> 'foo=5, bar=3; x=83, y=120'.scan(/\d+/).map(&:to_i)
=> [5, 3, 83, 120]

>> 'sea eat car rat eel tea'.scan(/\b\w/).join
=> "secret"

>> 'tea sea-pit sit-lean bean'.scan(/[\w\s]+/)
=> ["tea sea", "pit sit", "lean bean"]
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And negative logic strikes again. Use \W, \D, \S and \H respectively for their negated sets.

>> 'Sample123string42with777numbers'.gsub(/\D+/, '-')
=> "-123-42-777-"

>> 'foo=5, bar=3; x=83, y=120'.gsub(/\W+/, '')
=> "foo5bar3x83y120"

>> "   1..3  \v\f  foo_baz 42\tzzz   \r\n1-2-3  ".scan(/\S+/)
=> ["1..3", "foo_baz", "42", "zzz", "1-2-3"]
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\R matches line break characters \n, \v, \f, \r, \u0085 (next line), \u2028 (line separator), \u2029 (paragraph separator) or \r\n. Unlike other escapes, \R cannot be used inside a character class.

>> "food\r\ngood"[/d\Rg/]
=> "d\r\ng"
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Named character sets

Ruby also provides named character sets, which are Unicode aware unlike escape sequence sets which are limited only to ASCII characters. A named character set is defined by a name enclosed between [: and :] and has to be used within a character class [], along with any other characters as needed. Using [:^ instead of [: will negate the named set.

Four of the escape sequences presented above have named set equivalents. See ruby-doc: Character Classes for full list and details.

# similar to: /\d+/ or /[0-9]+/
>> 'Sample123string42with777numbers'.split(/[[:digit:]]+/)
=> ["Sample", "string", "with", "numbers"]

# similar to: /\S+/
>> "   1..3  \v\f  foo_baz 42\tzzz   \r\n1-2-3  ".scan(/[[:^space:]]+/)
=> ["1..3", "foo_baz", "42", "zzz", "1-2-3"]

# similar to: /[\w\s]+/
>> 'tea sea-pit sit-lean bean'.scan(/[[:word:][:space:]]+/)
=> ["tea sea", "pit sit", "lean bean"]
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Here's some named character sets which do not have escape sequence versions:

# similar to: /[a-zA-Z]+/
>> 'Sample123string42with777numbers'.scan(/[[:alpha:]]+/)
=> ["Sample", "string", "with", "numbers"]

# remove all punctuation characters
>> ip = '"Hi", there! How *are* you? All fine here.'
>> ip.gsub(/[[:punct:]]+/, '')
=> "Hi there How are you All fine here"
# remove all punctuation characters except . ! and ?
>> ip.gsub(/[[^.!?]&&[:punct:]]+/, '')
=> "Hi there! How are you? All fine here."
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Numeric ranges

Character classes can also be used to construct numeric ranges.

# numbers between 10 to 29
>> '23 154 12 26 98234'.scan(/\b[12]\d\b/)
=> ["23", "12", "26"]

# numbers >= 100
>> '23 154 12 26 98234'.scan(/\b\d{3,}\b/)
=> ["154", "98234"]

# numbers >= 100 if there are leading zeros
>> '0501 035 154 12 26 98234'.scan(/\b0*+\d{3,}\b/)
=> ["0501", "154", "98234"]
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However, it is easy to miss corner cases and some ranges are complicated to design. In such cases, it is better to convert the matched portion to appropriate numeric format first.

# numbers < 350
>> '45 349 651 593 4 204'.scan(/\d++/).filter { |n| n.to_i < 350 }
=> ["45", "349", "4", "204"]

# numbers between 200 and 650
>> '45 349 651 593 4 204'.gsub(/\d++/) { (200..650) === $&.to_i ? 0 : 1 }
=> "1 0 1 0 1 0"
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For practice problems, visit file from this book's repository on GitHub.

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