Chapter 06 Regular Expression

6.1 Introduction

Regular expressions are not part of the C++ language and therefore we only briefly introduced it here.

Regular expressions describe a pattern of string matching. The general use of regular expressions is mainly to achieve the following three requirements:

  1. Check if a string contains some form of substring;
  2. Replace the matching substrings;
  3. Take the eligible substring from a string.

Regular expressions are text patterns consisting of ordinary characters (such as a to z) and special characters. A pattern describes one or more strings to match when searching for text. Regular expressions act as a template to match a character pattern to the string being searched.

Ordinary characters

Normal characters include all printable and unprintable characters that are not explicitly specified as metacharacters. This includes all uppercase and lowercase letters, all numbers, all punctuation, and some other symbols.

Special characters

A special character is a character with special meaning in a regular expression and is also the core matching syntax of a regular expression. See the table below:

Symbol Description
$ Matches the end position of the input string.
(,) Marks the start and end of a subexpression. Subexpressions can be obtained for later use.
* Matches the previous subexpression zero or more times.
+ Matches the previous subexpression one or more times.
. Matches any single character except the newline character \n.
[ Marks the beginning of a bracket expression.
? Matches the previous subexpression zero or one time, or indicates a non-greedy qualifier.
\ Marks the next character as either a special character, or a literal character, or a backward reference, or an octal escape character. For example, n Matches the character n. \n matches newline characters. The sequence \\ Matches the '\' character, while \( matches the '(' character.
^ Matches the beginning of the input string, unless it is used in a square bracket expression, at which point it indicates that the set of characters is not accepted.
{ Marks the beginning of a qualifier expression.
| Indicates a choice between the two.


The qualifier is used to specify how many times a given component of a regular expression must appear to satisfy the match. See the table below:

Symbol Description
* matches the previous subexpression zero or more times. For example, foo* matches fo and foooo. * is equivalent to {0,}.
+ matches the previous subexpression one or more times. For example, foo+ matches foo and foooo but does not match fo. + is equivalent to {1,}.
? matches the previous subexpression zero or one time. For example, Your(s)? can match Your in Your or Yours. ? is equivalent to {0,1}.
{n} n is a non-negative integer. Matches the determined n times. For example, o{2} cannot match o in for, but can match two o in foo.
{n,} n is a non-negative integer. Match at least n times. For example, o{2,} cannot match o in for, but matches all o in foooooo. o{1,} is equivalent to o+. o{0,} is equivalent to o*.
{n,m} m and n are non-negative integers, where n is less than or equal to m. Matches at least n times and matches up to m times. For example, o{1,3} will match the first three o in foooooo. o{0,1} is equivalent to o?. Note that there can be no spaces between the comma and the two numbers.

With these two tables, we can usually read almost all regular expressions.

The most common way to match string content is to use regular expressions. Unfortunately, in traditional C++, regular expressions have not been supported by the language level, and are not included in the standard library. C++ is a high-performance language. In the development of background services, the use of regular expressions is also used when judging URL resource links. The most mature and common practice in the industry.

The general solution is to use the regular expression library of boost. C++11 officially incorporates the processing of regular expressions into the standard library, providing standard support from the language level and no longer relying on third parties.

The regular expression library provided by C++11 operates on the std::string object, and the pattern std::regex (essentially std::basic_regex) is initialized and matched by std::regex_match Produces std::smatch (essentially the std::match_results object).

We use a simple example to briefly introduce the use of this library. Consider the following regular expression:

std::regex_match is used to match strings and regular expressions, and there are many different overloaded forms. The simplest form is to pass std::string and a std::regex to match. When the match is successful, it will return true, otherwise, it will return false. For example:

#include <iostream>
#include <string>
#include <regex>

int main() {
std::string fnames[] = {"foo.txt", "bar.txt", "test", "a0.txt", "AAA.txt"};
// In C++, `\` will be used as an escape character in the string.
// In order for `\.` to be passed as a regular expression,
// it is necessary to perform second escaping of `\`, thus we have `\\.`
std::regex txt_regex("[a-z]+\\.txt");
for (const auto &fname: fnames)
std::cout << fname << ": " << std::regex_match(fname, txt_regex) << std::endl;

Another common form is to pass in the three arguments std::string/std::smatch/std::regex. The essence of std::smatch is actually std::match_results. In the standard library, std::smatch is defined as std::match_results<std::string::const_iterator>, which means match_results of a substring iterator type. Use std::smatch to easily get the matching results, for example:

std::regex base_regex("([a-z]+)\\.txt");
std::smatch base_match;
for(const auto &fname: fnames) {
if (std::regex_match(fname, base_match, base_regex)) {
// the first element of std::smatch matches the entire string
// the second element of std::smatch matches the first expression
// with brackets
if (base_match.size() == 2) {
std::string base = base_match[1].str();
std::cout << "sub-match[0]: " << base_match[0].str() << std::endl;
std::cout << fname << " sub-match[1]: " << base << std::endl;

The output of the above two code snippets is:

foo.txt: 1
bar.txt: 1
test: 0
a0.txt: 0
AAA.txt: 0
sub-match[0]: foo.txt
foo.txt sub-match[1]: foo
sub-match[0]: bar.txt
bar.txt sub-match[1]: bar


This section briefly introduces the regular expression itself, and then introduces the use of the regular expression library through a practical example based on the main requirements of using regular expressions.


In web server development, we usually want to serve some routes that satisfy a certain condition. Regular expressions are one of the tools to accomplish this. Given the following request structure:

struct Request {
// request method, POST, GET; path; HTTP version
std::string method, path, http_version;
// use smart pointer for reference counting of content
std::shared_ptr<std::istream> content;
// hash container, key-value dict
std::unordered_map<std::string, std::string> header;
// use regular expression for path match
std::smatch path_match;

Requested resource type:

typedef std::map<
std::string, std::unordered_map<
std::string,std::function<void(std::ostream&, Request&)>>> resource_type;

And server template:

template <typename socket_type>
class ServerBase {
resource_type resource;
resource_type default_resource;

void start() {
Request parse_request(std::istream& stream) const {

Please implement the member functions start() and parse_request. Enable server template users to specify routes as follows:

template<typename SERVER_TYPE>
void start_server(SERVER_TYPE &server) {

// process GET request for /match/[digit+numbers],
// e.g. GET request is /match/abc123, will return abc123
server.resource["fill_your_reg_ex"]["GET"] =
[](ostream& response, Request& request)
string number=request.path_match[1];
response << "HTTP/1.1 200 OK\r\nContent-Length: " << number.length()
<< "\r\n\r\n" << number;

// peocess default GET request;
// anonymous function will be called
// if no other matches response files in folder web/
// default: index.html
server.default_resource["fill_your_reg_ex"]["GET"] =
[](ostream& response, Request& request)
string filename = "www/";

string path = request.path_match[1];

// forbidden use `..` access content outside folder web/
size_t last_pos = path.rfind(".");
size_t current_pos = 0;
size_t pos;
while((pos=path.find('.', current_pos)) != string::npos && pos != last_pos) {
current_pos = pos;
path.erase(pos, 1);

// (...)


An suggested solution can be found here.

Further Readings

  1. Comments from std::regex's author
  2. Library document of Regular Expression