Recipe 6.17 Matching Nested Patterns

6.17.1 Problem

You want to match a nested set of enclosing delimiters, such as the arguments to a function call.

6.17.2 Solution

Use match-time pattern interpolation, recursively:

my $np;
$np = qr{
              (?> [^( )]+ )    # Non-capture group w/o backtracking
              (??{ $np })     # Group with matching parens

Or use the Text::Balanced module's extract_bracketed function.

6.17.3 Discussion

The $(??{ CODE }) construct runs the code and interpolates the string that the code returns right back into the pattern. A simple, non-recursive example that matches palindromes demonstrates this:

if ($word =~ /^(\w+)\w?(??{reverse $1})$/ ) {
    print "$word is a palindrome.\n";

Consider a word like "reviver", which this pattern correctly reports as a palindrome. The $1 variable contains "rev" partway through the match. The optional word character following catches the "i". Then the code reverse $1 runs and produces "ver", and that result is interpolated into the pattern.

For matching something balanced, you need to recurse, which is a bit tricker. A compiled pattern that uses (??{ CODE }) can refer to itself. The pattern given in the Solution matches a set of nested parentheses, however deep they may go. Given the value of $np in that pattern, you could use it like this to match a function call:

$text = "myfunfun(1,(2*(3+4)),5)";
$funpat = qr/\w+$np/;   # $np as above
$text =~ /^$funpat$/;   # Matches!

You'll find many CPAN modules that help with matching (parsing) nested strings. The Regexp::Common module supplies canned patterns that match many of the tricker strings. For example:

use Regexp::Common;
$text = "myfunfun(1,(2*(3+4)),5)";
if ($text =~ /(\w+\s*$RE{balanced}{-parens=>'( )'})/o) {
  print "Got function call: $1\n";

Other patterns provided by that module match numbers in various notations and quote-delimited strings:


The standard (as of v5.8) Text::Balanced module provides a general solution to this problem.

use Text::Balanced qw/extract_bracketed/;
$text = "myfunfun(1,(2*(3+4)),5)";
if (($before, $found, $after)  = extract_bracketed($text, "(")) {
    print "answer is $found\n";
} else {
    print "FAILED\n";

6.17.4 See Also

The section on "Match-time pattern interpolation" in Chapter 5 of Programming Perl; the documentation for the Regexp::Common CPAN module and the standard Text::Balanced module