3.6 Using Dynamic Regexps

The righthand side of a ‘~’ or ‘!~’ operator need not be a regexp constant (i.e., a string of characters between slashes). It may be any expression. The expression is evaluated and converted to a string if necessary; the contents of the string are then used as the regexp. A regexp computed in this way is called a dynamic regexp or a computed regexp:

BEGIN { digits_regexp = "[[:digit:]]+" }
$0 ~ digits_regexp    { print }

This sets digits_regexp to a regexp that describes one or more digits, and tests whether the input record matches this regexp.

NOTE: When using the ‘~’ and ‘!~

operators, be aware that there is a difference between a regexp constant enclosed in slashes and a string constant enclosed in double quotes. If you are going to use a string constant, you have to understand that the string is, in essence, scanned twice: the first time when awk reads your program, and the second time when it goes to match the string on the lefthand side of the operator with the pattern on the right. This is true of any string-valued expression (such as digits_regexp, shown in the previous example), not just string constants.

What difference does it make if the string is scanned twice? The answer has to do with escape sequences, and particularly with backslashes. To get a backslash into a regular expression inside a string, you have to type two backslashes.

For example, /\*/ is a regexp constant for a literal ‘*’. Only one backslash is needed. To do the same thing with a string, you have to type "\\*". The first backslash escapes the second one so that the string actually contains the two characters ‘\’ and ‘*’.

Given that you can use both regexp and string constants to describe regular expressions, which should you use? The answer is “regexp constants,” for several reasons:

  • String constants are more complicated to write and more difficult to read. Using regexp constants makes your programs less error-prone. Not understanding the difference between the two kinds of constants is a common source of errors.
  • It is more efficient to use regexp constants. awk can note that you have supplied a regexp and store it internally in a form that makes pattern matching more efficient. When using a string constant, awk must first convert the string into this internal form and then perform the pattern matching.
  • Using regexp constants is better form; it shows clearly that you intend a regexp match.

Using \n in Bracket Expressions of Dynamic Regexps

Some older versions of awk do not allow the newline character to be used inside a bracket expression for a dynamic regexp:

$ awk '$0 ~ "[ \t\n]"'
error→ awk: newline in character class [
error→ ]...
error→  source line number 1
error→  context is
error→        $0 ~ "[ >>>  \t\n]" <<<

But a newline in a regexp constant works with no problem:

$ awk '$0 ~ /[ \t\n]/'
here is a sample line
-| here is a sample line
Ctrl-d

gawk does not have this problem, and it isn’t likely to occur often in practice, but it’s worth noting for future reference.