# Regular Expressions (regex)

Regular expressions (also called "regex" or "regexp") define patterns that can be matched against a string (opens new window). Type ?regex for the official R documentation and see the Regex Docs (opens new window) for more details. The most important 'gotcha' that will not be learned in the SO regex/topics is that most R-regex functions need the use of paired backslashes to escape in a pattern parameter.

# Differences between Perl and POSIX regex

There are two ever-so-slightly different engines of regular expressions implemented in R. The default is called POSIX-consistent; all regex functions in R are also equipped with an option to turn on the latter type: perl = TRUE.

# Look-ahead/look-behind

perl = TRUE enables look-ahead and look-behind in regular expressions.

  • "(?<=A)B" matches an appearance of the letter B only if it's preceded by A, i.e. "ABACADABRA" would be matched, but "abacadabra" and "aBacadabra" would not.

# Validate a date in a "YYYYMMDD" format

It is a common practice to name files using the date as prefix in the following format: YYYYMMDD, for example: 20170101_results.csv. A date in such string format can be verified using the following regular expression:


The above expression considers dates from year: 0000-9999, months between: 01-12 and days 01-31.

For example:

> grepl("\\d{4}(0[1-9]|1[012])(0[1-9]|[12][0-9]|3[01])", "20170101")
[1] TRUE
> grepl("\\d{4}(0[1-9]|1[012])(0[1-9]|[12][0-9]|3[01])", "20171206")
[1] TRUE
> grepl("\\d{4}(0[1-9]|1[012])(0[1-9]|[12][0-9]|3[01])", "29991231")
[1] TRUE

Note: It validates the date syntax, but we can have a wrong date with a valid syntax, for example: 20170229 (2017 it is not a leap year).

> grepl("\\d{4}(0[1-9]|1[012])(0[1-9]|[12][0-9]|3[01])", "20170229")
[1] TRUE

If you want to validate a date, it can be done via this user defined function:

is.Date <- function(x) {return(!is.na(as.Date(as.character(x), format = '%Y%m%d')))}


> is.Date(c("20170229", "20170101", 20170101))

# Validate US States postal abbreviations

The following regex includes 50 states and also Commonwealth/Territory (see www.50states.com (opens new window)):

regex <- "(A[LKSZR])|(C[AOT])|(D[EC])|(F[ML])|(G[AU])|(HI)|(I[DLNA])|(K[SY])|(LA)|(M[EHDAINSOT])|(N[EVHJMYCD])|(MP)|(O[HKR])|(P[WAR])|(RI)|(S[CD])|(T[NX])|(UT)|(V[TIA])|(W[AVIY])"

For example:

> test <- c("AL", "AZ", "AR", "AJ", "AS", "DC", "FM", "GU","PW", "FL", "AJ", "AP")
> grepl(us.states.pattern, test)


If you want to verify only the 50 States, then we recommend to use the R-dataset: state.abb from state, for example:

> data(state)
> test %in% state.abb

We get TRUE only for 50-States abbreviations: AL, AZ, AR, FL.

# Validate US phone numbers

The following regular expression:

us.phones.regex <- "^\\s*(\\+\\s*1(-?|\\s+))*[0-9]{3}\\s*-?\\s*[0-9]{3}\\s*-?\\s*[0-9]{4}$" 

Validates a phone number in the form of: +1-xxx-xxx-xxxx, including optional leading/trailing blanks at the beginning/end of each group of numbers, but not in the middle, for example: +1-xxx-xxx-xx xx is not valid. The - delimiter can be replaced by blanks: xxx xxx xxx or without delimiter: xxxxxxxxxx. The +1 prefix is optional.

Let's check it:

us.phones.regex <- "^\\s*(\\+\\s*1(-?|\\s+))*[0-9]{3}\\s*-?\\s*[0-9]{3}\\s*-?\\s*[0-9]{4}$"

phones.OK <- c("305-123-4567", "305 123 4567", "+1-786-123-4567", 
    "+1 786 123 4567", "7861234567", "786 - 123   4567", "+ 1 786 - 123   4567")

phones.NOK <- c("124-456-78901", "124-456-789", "124-456-78 90", 
    "124-45 6-7890", "12 4-456-7890")

Valid cases:

> grepl(us.phones.regex, phones.OK)

Invalid cases:

> grepl(us.phones.regex, phones.NOK)


  • \\s Matches any space, tab or newline character

# Escaping characters in R regex patterns

Since both R and regex share the escape character ,"\", building correct patterns for grep, sub, gsub or any other function that accepts a pattern argument will often need pairing of backslashes. If you build a three item character vector in which one items has a linefeed, another a tab character and one neither, and hte desire is to turn either the linefeed or the tab into 4-spaces then a single backslash is need for the construction, but tpaired backslashes for matching:

x <- c( "a\nb", "c\td", "e    f")
x  # how it's stored
   #  [1] "a\nb"   "c\td"   "e    f"
cat(x)   # how it will be seen with cat
#b c    d e    f

gsub(patt="\\n|\\t", repl="    ", x)
#[1] "a    b" "c    d" "e    f"

Note that the pattern argument (which is optional if it appears first and only needs partial spelling) is the only argument to require this doubling or pairing. The replacement argument does not require the doubling of characters needing to be escaped. If you wanted all the linefeeds and 4-space occurrences replaces with tabs it would be:

gsub("\\n|    ", "\t", x)
#[1] "a\tb" "c\td" "e\tf"

# Eliminating Whitespace

string <- '    some text on line one; 
and then some text on line two     '

# Trimming Whitespace

"Trimming" whitespace typically refers to removing both leading and trailing whitespace from a string. This may be done using a combination of the previous examples. gsub is used to force the replacement over both the leading and trailing matches.

Prior to R 3.2.0

gsub(pattern = "(^ +| +$)",
     replacement = "",
     x = string)

[1] "some text on line one; \nand then some text on line two"

R 3.2.0 and higher

trimws(x = string)

[1] "some text on line one; \nand then some text on line two"

# Removing Leading Whitespace

Prior to R 3.2.0

sub(pattern = "^ +", 
    replacement = "",
    x = string)

[1] "some text on line one; \nand then some text on line two     "

R 3.2.0 and higher

trimws(x = string,
       which = "left")

[1] "some text on line one; \nand then some text on line two     "

# Removing Trailing Whitespace

Prior to R 3.2.0

sub(pattern = " +$",
    replacement = "",
    x = string)

[1] "    some text on line one; \nand then some text on line two"

R 3.2.0 and higher

trimws(x = string,
       which = "right")

[1] "    some text on line one; \nand then some text on line two"

# Removing All Whitespace

gsub(pattern = "\\s",   
     replacement = "",
     x = string)

[1] "sometextonlineone;andthensometextonlinetwo"

Note that this will also remove white space characterse such as tabs (\t), newlines (\r and \n), and spaces.

# Remarks

# Character classes

  • "[AB]" could be A or B
  • "[[:alpha:]]" could be any letter
  • "[[:lower:]]" stands for any lower-case letter. Note that "[a-z]" is close but doesn't match, e.g., ΓΊ.
  • "[[:upper:]]" stands for any upper-case letter. Note that "[A-Z]" is close but doesn't match, e.g., Ú.
  • "[[:digit:]]" stands for any digit : 0, 1, 2, ..., or 9 and is equivalent to "[0-9]".

# Quantifiers

+, * and ? apply as usual in regex. -- + matches at least once, * matches 0 or more times, and ? matches 0 or 1 time.

# Start and end of line indicators

You can specify the position of the regex in the string :

  • "^..." forces the regular expression to be at the beginning of the string
  • "...$" forces the regular expression to be at the end of the string

# Differences from other languages

Please note that regular expressions in R often look ever-so-slightly different from regular expressions used in other languages.

  • R requires double-backslash escapes (because `"\"` already implies escaping in general in R strings), so, for example, to capture whitespace in most regular expression engines, one simply needs to type `\s`, vs. `\\s` in R.
  • UTF-8 characters in R should be escaped with a capital U, e.g. `[\U{1F600}]` and `[\U1F600]` match πŸ˜€, whereas in, e.g., Ruby, this would be matched with a lower-case u.
  • # Additional Resources

    The following site reg101 (opens new window) is a good place for checking online regex before using it R-script.

    The R Programmming wikibook (opens new window) has a page dedicated to text processing with many examples using regular expressions.