PCRE - Perl-compatible regular expressions
PARTIAL MATCHING IN PCRE
In normal use of PCRE, if the subject string that is passed to
pcre_exec() or pcre_dfa_exec() matches as far as it goes, but is too
short to match the entire pattern, PCRE_ERROR_NOMATCH is returned.
There are circumstances where it might be helpful to distinguish this
case from other cases in which there is no match.
Consider, for example, an application where a human is required to type
in data for a field with specific formatting requirements. An example
might be a date in the form ddmmmyy, defined by this pattern:
If the application sees the user's keystrokes one by one, and can check
that what has been typed so far is potentially valid, it is able to
raise an error as soon as a mistake is made, by beeping and not
reflecting the character that has been typed, for example. This immedi‐
ate feedback is likely to be a better user interface than a check that
is delayed until the entire string has been entered. Partial matching
can also be useful when the subject string is very long and is not all
available at once.
PCRE supports partial matching by means of the PCRE_PARTIAL_SOFT and
PCRE_PARTIAL_HARD options, which can be set when calling pcre_exec() or
pcre_dfa_exec(). For backwards compatibility, PCRE_PARTIAL is a synonym
for PCRE_PARTIAL_SOFT. The essential difference between the two options
is whether or not a partial match is preferred to an alternative com‐
plete match, though the details differ between the two matching func‐
tions. If both options are set, PCRE_PARTIAL_HARD takes precedence.
Setting a partial matching option disables two of PCRE's optimizations.
PCRE remembers the last literal byte in a pattern, and abandons match‐
ing immediately if such a byte is not present in the subject string.
This optimization cannot be used for a subject string that might match
only partially. If the pattern was studied, PCRE knows the minimum
length of a matching string, and does not bother to run the matching
function on shorter strings. This optimization is also disabled for
PARTIAL MATCHING USING pcre_exec()
A partial match occurs during a call to pcre_exec() when the end of the
subject string is reached successfully, but matching cannot continue
because more characters are needed. However, at least one character in
the subject must have been inspected. This character need not form part
of the final matched string; lookbehind assertions and the \K escape
sequence provide ways of inspecting characters before the start of a
matched substring. The requirement for inspecting at least one charac‐
ter exists because an empty string can always be matched; without such
a restriction there would always be a partial match of an empty string
at the end of the subject.
If there are at least two slots in the offsets vector when pcre_exec()
returns with a partial match, the first slot is set to the offset of
the earliest character that was inspected when the partial match was
found. For convenience, the second offset points to the end of the sub‐
ject so that a substring can easily be identified.
For the majority of patterns, the first offset identifies the start of
the partially matched string. However, for patterns that contain look‐
behind assertions, or \K, or begin with \b or \B, earlier characters
have been inspected while carrying out the match. For example:
This pattern matches "123", but only if it is preceded by "abc". If the
subject string is "xyzabc12", the offsets after a partial match are for
the substring "abc12", because all these characters are needed if
another match is tried with extra characters added to the subject.
What happens when a partial match is identified depends on which of the
two partial matching options are set.
PCRE_PARTIAL_SOFT with pcre_exec()
If PCRE_PARTIAL_SOFT is set when pcre_exec() identifies a partial
match, the partial match is remembered, but matching continues as nor‐
mal, and other alternatives in the pattern are tried. If no complete
match can be found, pcre_exec() returns PCRE_ERROR_PARTIAL instead of
This option is "soft" because it prefers a complete match over a par‐
tial match. All the various matching items in a pattern behave as if
the subject string is potentially complete. For example, \z, \Z, and $
match at the end of the subject, as normal, and for \b and \B the end
of the subject is treated as a non-alphanumeric.
If there is more than one partial match, the first one that was found
provides the data that is returned. Consider this pattern:
If this is matched against the subject string "abc123dog", both alter‐
natives fail to match, but the end of the subject is reached during
matching, so PCRE_ERROR_PARTIAL is returned. The offsets are set to 3
and 9, identifying "123dog" as the first partial match that was found.
(In this example, there are two partial matches, because "dog" on its
own partially matches the second alternative.)
PCRE_PARTIAL_HARD with pcre_exec()
If PCRE_PARTIAL_HARD is set for pcre_exec(), it returns PCRE_ERROR_PAR‐
TIAL as soon as a partial match is found, without continuing to search
for possible complete matches. This option is "hard" because it prefers
an earlier partial match over a later complete match. For this reason,
the assumption is made that the end of the supplied subject string may
not be the true end of the available data, and so, if \z, \Z, \b, \B,
or $ are encountered at the end of the subject, the result is
Setting PCRE_PARTIAL_HARD also affects the way pcre_exec() checks UTF-8
subject strings for validity. Normally, an invalid UTF-8 sequence
causes the error PCRE_ERROR_BADUTF8. However, in the special case of a
truncated UTF-8 character at the end of the subject, PCRE_ERROR_SHORT‐
UTF8 is returned when PCRE_PARTIAL_HARD is set.
Comparing hard and soft partial matching
The difference between the two partial matching options can be illus‐
trated by a pattern such as:
This matches either "dog" or "dogsbody", greedily (that is, it prefers
the longer string if possible). If it is matched against the string
"dog" with PCRE_PARTIAL_SOFT, it yields a complete match for "dog".
However, if PCRE_PARTIAL_HARD is set, the result is PCRE_ERROR_PARTIAL.
On the other hand, if the pattern is made ungreedy the result is dif‐
In this case the result is always a complete match because pcre_exec()
finds that first, and it never continues after finding a match. It
might be easier to follow this explanation by thinking of the two pat‐
terns like this:
/dog(sbody)?/ is the same as /dogsbody|dog/
/dog(sbody)??/ is the same as /dog|dogsbody/
The second pattern will never match "dogsbody" when pcre_exec() is
used, because it will always find the shorter match first.
PARTIAL MATCHING USING pcre_dfa_exec()
The pcre_dfa_exec() function moves along the subject string character
by character, without backtracking, searching for all possible matches
simultaneously. If the end of the subject is reached before the end of
the pattern, there is the possibility of a partial match, again pro‐
vided that at least one character has been inspected.
When PCRE_PARTIAL_SOFT is set, PCRE_ERROR_PARTIAL is returned only if
there have been no complete matches. Otherwise, the complete matches
are returned. However, if PCRE_PARTIAL_HARD is set, a partial match
takes precedence over any complete matches. The portion of the string
that was inspected when the longest partial match was found is set as
the first matching string, provided there are at least two slots in the
Because pcre_dfa_exec() always searches for all possible matches, and
there is no difference between greedy and ungreedy repetition, its be‐
haviour is different from pcre_exec when PCRE_PARTIAL_HARD is set. Con‐
sider the string "dog" matched against the ungreedy pattern shown
Whereas pcre_exec() stops as soon as it finds the complete match for
"dog", pcre_dfa_exec() also finds the partial match for "dogsbody", and
so returns that when PCRE_PARTIAL_HARD is set.
PARTIAL MATCHING AND WORD BOUNDARIES
If a pattern ends with one of sequences \b or \B, which test for word
boundaries, partial matching with PCRE_PARTIAL_SOFT can give counter-
intuitive results. Consider this pattern:
This matches "cat", provided there is a word boundary at either end. If
the subject string is "the cat", the comparison of the final "t" with a
following character cannot take place, so a partial match is found.
However, pcre_exec() carries on with normal matching, which matches \b
at the end of the subject when the last character is a letter, thus
finding a complete match. The result, therefore, is not PCRE_ERROR_PAR‐
TIAL. The same thing happens with pcre_dfa_exec(), because it also
finds the complete match.
Using PCRE_PARTIAL_HARD in this case does yield PCRE_ERROR_PARTIAL,
because then the partial match takes precedence.
FORMERLY RESTRICTED PATTERNS
For releases of PCRE prior to 8.00, because of the way certain internal
optimizations were implemented in the pcre_exec() function, the
PCRE_PARTIAL option (predecessor of PCRE_PARTIAL_SOFT) could not be
used with all patterns. From release 8.00 onwards, the restrictions no
longer apply, and partial matching with pcre_exec() can be requested
for any pattern.
Items that were formerly restricted were repeated single characters and
repeated metasequences. If PCRE_PARTIAL was set for a pattern that did
not conform to the restrictions, pcre_exec() returned the error code
PCRE_ERROR_BADPARTIAL (-13). This error code is no longer in use. The
PCRE_INFO_OKPARTIAL call to pcre_fullinfo() to find out if a compiled
pattern can be used for partial matching now always returns 1.
EXAMPLE OF PARTIAL MATCHING USING PCRETEST
If the escape sequence \P is present in a pcretest data line, the
PCRE_PARTIAL_SOFT option is used for the match. Here is a run of
pcretest that uses the date example quoted above:
Partial match: 23dec3
Partial match: 3ju
The first data string is matched completely, so pcretest shows the
matched substrings. The remaining four strings do not match the com‐
plete pattern, but the first two are partial matches. Similar output is
obtained when pcre_dfa_exec() is used.
If the escape sequence \P is present more than once in a pcretest data
line, the PCRE_PARTIAL_HARD option is set for the match.
MULTI-SEGMENT MATCHING WITH pcre_dfa_exec()
When a partial match has been found using pcre_dfa_exec(), it is possi‐
ble to continue the match by providing additional subject data and
calling pcre_dfa_exec() again with the same compiled regular expres‐
sion, this time setting the PCRE_DFA_RESTART option. You must pass the
same working space as before, because this is where details of the pre‐
vious partial match are stored. Here is an example using pcretest,
using the \R escape sequence to set the PCRE_DFA_RESTART option (\D
specifies the use of pcre_dfa_exec()):
Partial match: 23ja
The first call has "23ja" as the subject, and requests partial match‐
ing; the second call has "n05" as the subject for the continued
(restarted) match. Notice that when the match is complete, only the
last part is shown; PCRE does not retain the previously partially-
matched string. It is up to the calling program to do that if it needs
You can set the PCRE_PARTIAL_SOFT or PCRE_PARTIAL_HARD options with
PCRE_DFA_RESTART to continue partial matching over multiple segments.
This facility can be used to pass very long subject strings to
MULTI-SEGMENT MATCHING WITH pcre_exec()
From release 8.00, pcre_exec() can also be used to do multi-segment
matching. Unlike pcre_dfa_exec(), it is not possible to restart the
previous match with a new segment of data. Instead, new data must be
added to the previous subject string, and the entire match re-run,
starting from the point where the partial match occurred. Earlier data
can be discarded. It is best to use PCRE_PARTIAL_HARD in this situa‐
tion, because it does not treat the end of a segment as the end of the
subject when matching \z, \Z, \b, \B, and $. Consider an unanchored
pattern that matches dates:
data> The date is 23ja\P\P
Partial match: 23ja
At this stage, an application could discard the text preceding "23ja",
add on text from the next segment, and call pcre_exec() again. Unlike
pcre_dfa_exec(), the entire matching string must always be available,
and the complete matching process occurs for each call, so more memory
and more processing time is needed.
Note: If the pattern contains lookbehind assertions, or \K, or starts
with \b or \B, the string that is returned for a partial match will
include characters that precede the partially matched string itself,
because these must be retained when adding on more characters for a
subsequent matching attempt.
ISSUES WITH MULTI-SEGMENT MATCHING
Certain types of pattern may give problems with multi-segment matching,
whichever matching function is used.
1. If the pattern contains a test for the beginning of a line, you need
to pass the PCRE_NOTBOL option when the subject string for any call
does start at the beginning of a line. There is also a PCRE_NOTEOL
option, but in practice when doing multi-segment matching you should be
using PCRE_PARTIAL_HARD, which includes the effect of PCRE_NOTEOL.
2. Lookbehind assertions at the start of a pattern are catered for in
the offsets that are returned for a partial match. However, in theory,
a lookbehind assertion later in the pattern could require even earlier
characters to be inspected, and it might not have been reached when a
partial match occurs. This is probably an extremely unlikely case; you
could guard against it to a certain extent by always including extra
characters at the start.
3. Matching a subject string that is split into multiple segments may
not always produce exactly the same result as matching over one single
long string, especially when PCRE_PARTIAL_SOFT is used. The section
"Partial Matching and Word Boundaries" above describes an issue that
arises if the pattern ends with \b or \B. Another kind of difference
may occur when there are multiple matching possibilities, because (for
PCRE_PARTIAL_SOFT) a partial match result is given only when there are
no completed matches. This means that as soon as the shortest match has
been found, continuation to a new subject segment is no longer possi‐
ble. Consider again this pcretest example:
Partial match: do
The first data line passes the string "dogsb" to pcre_exec(), setting
the PCRE_PARTIAL_SOFT option. Although the string is a partial match
for "dogsbody", the result is not PCRE_ERROR_PARTIAL, because the
shorter string "dog" is a complete match. Similarly, when the subject
is presented to pcre_dfa_exec() in several parts ("do" and "gsb" being
the first two) the match stops when "dog" has been found, and it is not
possible to continue. On the other hand, if "dogsbody" is presented as
a single string, pcre_dfa_exec() finds both matches.
Because of these problems, it is best to use PCRE_PARTIAL_HARD when
matching multi-segment data. The example above then behaves differ‐
Partial match: dogsb
Partial match: do
Partial match: gsb
4. Patterns that contain alternatives at the top level which do not all
start with the same pattern item may not work as expected when
PCRE_DFA_RESTART is used with pcre_dfa_exec(). For example, consider
If the first part of the subject is "ABC123", a partial match of the
first alternative is found at offset 3. There is no partial match for
the second alternative, because such a match does not start at the same
point in the subject string. Attempting to continue with the string
"7890" does not yield a match because only those alternatives that
match at one point in the subject are remembered. The problem arises
because the start of the second alternative matches within the first
alternative. There is no problem with anchored patterns or patterns
where no string can be a partial match for both alternatives. This is
not a problem if pcre_exec() is used, because the entire match has to
be rerun each time:
Partial match: 123
Of course, instead of using PCRE_DFA_RESTART, the same technique of re-
running the entire match can also be used with pcre_dfa_exec(). Another
possibility is to work with two buffers. If a partial match at offset n
in the first buffer is followed by "no match" when PCRE_DFA_RESTART is
used on the second buffer, you can then try a new match starting at
offset n+1 in the first buffer.
University Computing Service
Cambridge CB2 3QH, England.
Last updated: 07 November 2010
Copyright (c) 1997-2010 University of Cambridge.