times - regex optional capture group




What is a non-capturing group? What does(?:) do? (10)

?: is used when you want to group an expression, but you do not want to save it as a matched/captured portion of the string.

An example would be something to match an IP address:

/(?:\d{1,3}\.){3}\d{1,3}/

Note that I don't care about saving the first 3 octets, but the (?:...) grouping allows me to shorten the regex without incurring the overhead of capturing and storing a match.

How ?: is used and what it's good for?


tl;dr non-capturing groups, as the name suggests are the parts of the regex that you do not want to be included in the match and ?: is a way to define a group as being non-capturing.

Let's say you have an email address [email protected]. The following regex will create two groups, the id part and @example.com part. (\p{Alpha}*[a-z])(@example.com). For simplicity's sake, we are extracting the whole domain name including the @ character.

Now let's say, you only need the id part of the address. What you want to do is to grab the first group of the match result, surrounded by () in the regex and the way to do this is to use the non-capturing group syntax, i.e. ?:. So the regex (\p{Alpha}*[a-z])(?:@example.com) will return just the id part of the email.


HISTORICAL MOTIVATION: The existence of non-capturing groups can be explained with the use of parenthesis. Consider the expressions (a|b)c and a|bc, due to priority of concatenation over |, these expressions represent two different languages ({ac, bc} and {a, bc} respectively). However, the parenthesis are also used as a matching group (as explained by the other answers...).

When you want to have parenthesis but not capture the subexpression you use NON-CAPTURING GROUPS. In the example, (?:a|b)c


I cannot comment on the top answers to say this: I would like to add an explicit point which is only implied in the top answers:

The non-capturing group (?...) does not remove any characters from the original full match, it only reorganises the regex visually to the programmer.

To access a specific part of the regex without defined extraneous characters you would always need to use .group(<index>)


In complex regular expressions you may have the situation arise where you wish to use a large number of groups some of which are there for repetition matching and some of which are there to provide back references. By default the text matching each group is loaded into the backreference array. Where we have lots of groups and only need to be able to reference some of them from the backreference array we can override this default behaviour to tell the regular expression that certain groups are there only for repetition handling and do not need to be captured and stored in the backreference array.


It makes the group non-capturing, which means that the substring matched by that group will not be included in the list of captures. An example in ruby to illustrate the difference:

"abc".match(/(.)(.)./).captures #=> ["a","b"]
"abc".match(/(?:.)(.)./).captures #=> ["b"]

Let me try to explain this with an example.

Consider the following text:

http://.com/
https://.com/questions/tagged/regex

Now, if I apply the regex below over it...

(https?|ftp)://([^/\r\n]+)(/[^\r\n]*)?

... I would get the following result:

Match "http://.com/"
     Group 1: "http"
     Group 2: ".com"
     Group 3: "/"

Match "https://.com/questions/tagged/regex"
     Group 1: "https"
     Group 2: ".com"
     Group 3: "/questions/tagged/regex"

But I don't care about the protocol -- I just want the host and path of the URL. So, I change the regex to include the non-capturing group (?:).

(?:https?|ftp)://([^/\r\n]+)(/[^\r\n]*)?

Now, my result looks like this:

Match "http://.com/"
     Group 1: ".com"
     Group 2: "/"

Match "https://.com/questions/tagged/regex"
     Group 1: ".com"
     Group 2: "/questions/tagged/regex"

See? The first group has not been captured. The parser uses it to match the text, but ignores it later, in the final result.


EDIT:

As requested, let me try to explain groups too.

Well, groups serve many purposes. They can help you to extract exact information from a bigger match (which can also be named), they let you rematch a previous matched group, and can be used for substitutions. Let's try some examples, shall we?

Ok, imagine you have some kind of XML or HTML (be aware that regex may not be the best tool for the job, but it is nice as an example). You want to parse the tags, so you could do something like this (I have added spaces to make it easier to understand):

   \<(?<TAG>.+?)\> [^<]*? \</\k<TAG>\>
or
   \<(.+?)\> [^<]*? \</\1\>

The first regex has a named group (TAG), while the second one uses a common group. Both regexes do the same thing: they use the value from the first group (the name of the tag) to match the closing tag. The difference is that the first one uses the name to match the value, and the second one uses the group index (which starts at 1).

Let's try some substitutions now. Consider the following text:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet consectetuer feugiat fames malesuada pretium egestas.

Now, let's use the this dumb regex over it:

\b(\S)(\S)(\S)(\S*)\b

This regex matches words with at least 3 characters, and uses groups to separate the first three letters. The result is this:

Match "Lorem"
     Group 1: "L"
     Group 2: "o"
     Group 3: "r"
     Group 4: "em"
Match "ipsum"
     Group 1: "i"
     Group 2: "p"
     Group 3: "s"
     Group 4: "um"
...

Match "consectetuer"
     Group 1: "c"
     Group 2: "o"
     Group 3: "n"
     Group 4: "sectetuer"
...

So, if we apply the substitution string...

$1_$3$2_$4

... over it, we are trying to use the first group, add an underscore, use the third group, then the second group, add another underscore, and then the fourth group. The resulting string would be like the one below.

L_ro_em i_sp_um d_lo_or s_ti_ a_em_t c_no_sectetuer f_ue_giat f_ma_es m_la_esuada p_er_tium e_eg_stas.

You can use named groups for substitutions too, using ${name}.

To play around with regexes, I recommend http://regex101.com/, which offers a good amount of details on how the regex works; it also offers a few regex engines to choose from.


One interesting thing that I came across is the fact that you can have a capturing group inside a non-capturing group. Have a look at below regex for matching web urls:

var parse_url_regex = /^(?:([A-Za-z]+):)(\/{0,3})([0-9.\-A-Za-z]+)(?::(\d+))?(?:\/([^?#]*))?(?:\?([^#]*))?(?:#(.*))?$/;

Input url string:

var url = "http://www.ora.com:80/goodparts?q#fragment";

The first group in my regex (?:([A-Za-z]+):) is a non-capturing group which matches the protocol scheme and colon : character i.e. http: but when I was running below code, I was seeing the 1st index of the returned array was containing the string http when I was thinking that http and colon : both will not get reported as they are inside a non-capturing group.

console.debug(parse_url_regex.exec(url));

I thought if the first group (?:([A-Za-z]+):) is a non-capturing group then why it is returning http string in the output array.

So if you notice that there is a nested group ([A-Za-z]+) inside the non-capturing group. That nested group ([A-Za-z]+) is a capturing group (not having ?: at the beginning) in itself inside a non-capturing group (?:([A-Za-z]+):). That's why the text http still gets captured but the colon : character which is inside the non-capturing group but outside the capturing group doesn't get reported in the output array.


Well I am a JavaScript developer and will try to explain its significance pertaining to JavaScript.

Consider a scenario where you want to match cat is animal when you would like match cat and animal and both should have a is in between them.

 // this will ignore "is" as that's is what we want
"cat is animal".match(/(cat)(?: is )(animal)/) ;
result ["cat is animal", "cat", "animal"]

 // using lookahead pattern it will match only "cat" we can
 // use lookahead but the problem is we can not give anything
 // at the back of lookahead pattern
"cat is animal".match(/cat(?= is animal)/) ;
result ["cat"]

 //so I gave another grouping parenthesis for animal
 // in lookahead pattern to match animal as well
"cat is animal".match(/(cat)(?= is (animal))/) ;
result ["cat", "cat", "animal"]

 // we got extra cat in above example so removing another grouping
"cat is animal".match(/cat(?= is (animal))/) ;
result ["cat", "animal"]

You can use capturing groups to organize and parse an expression. A non-capturing group has the first benefit, but doesn't have the overhead of the second. You can still say a non-capturing group is optional, for example.

Say you want to match numeric text, but some numbers could be written as 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th,... If you want to capture the numeric part, but not the (optional) suffix you can use a non-capturing group.

([0-9]+)(?:st|nd|rd|th)?

That will match numbers in the form 1, 2, 3... or in the form 1st, 2nd, 3rd,... but it will only capture the numeric part.





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