PHP RFC: Native Regular Expression

  • Date: 2014-08-13
  • Author: Bishop Bettini, bishop@php.net
  • Status: Draft

FIXME FIXME FIXME Jotting my ideas down here. Move along. Maybe called “first_class_citizens_regex” or something. Consider emulating structure of https://wiki.php.net/rfc/abstract_syntax_tree https://wiki.php.net/rfc/generators


Regular expressions provide powerful string matching capabilities and play a critical role in most software written in PHP. For example, Github reports 10.5 million instances of the ''preg_*()'' family of functions1)2).

In the current engine, regular expressions are plain old strings:

while (preg_match('/^\s*[^#]/', $line[$i++])) {}

The primary disadvantage with string representation comes when the regular expression itself needs to contain a single quote, double quote, or the delimiters bracketing the regular expression. When that happens, the programmer has to make mental shifts to workaround the string representation, sometimes making the regular expression harder to read and maintain. Example:

// match foo in examples: ="foo"   and  ='foo'  and   = "foo"
preg_match_all('(=\s*['."'".'"]([^'."'".'"/]*)['."'".'"])x', $string, $matches);


In some other languages, regular expressions are part of the language itself.

Another problem with regular expressions buried in plain old strings is that syntax highlighting becomes much more difficult.

function getLinesFromFile($fileName) {
    if (!$fileHandle = fopen($fileName, 'r')) {
    while (false !== $line = fgets($fileHandle)) {
        yield $line;
$lines = getLinesFromFile($fileName);
foreach ($lines as $line) {
    // do something with $line

The code looks very similar to the array-based implementation. The main difference is that instead of pushing values into an array the values are yielded.

Generators work by passing control back and forth between the generator and the calling code:

When you first call the generator function ($lines = getLinesFromFile($fileName)) the passed argument is bound, but nothing of the code is actually executed. Instead the function directly returns a Generator object. That Generator object implements the Iterator interface and is what is eventually traversed by the foreach loop:

Whenever the Iterator::next() method is called PHP resumes the execution of the generator function until it hits a yield expression. The value of that yield expression is what Iterator::current() then returns.

Generator methods, together with the IteratorAggregate interface, can be used to easily implement traversable classes too:

class Test implements IteratorAggregate {
    protected $data;
    public function __construct(array $data) {
        $this->data = $data;
    public function getIterator() {
        foreach ($this->data as $key => $value) {
            yield $key => $value;
        // or whatever other traversation logic the class has
$test = new Test(['foo' => 'bar', 'bar' => 'foo']);
foreach ($test as $k => $v) {
    echo $k, ' => ', $v, "\n";

Generators can also be used the other way around, i.e. instead of producing values they can also consume them. When used in this way they are often referred to as enhanced generators, reverse generators or coroutines.

Coroutines are a rather advanced concept, so it very hard to come up with not too contrived an short examples. For an introduction see an example on how to parse streaming XML using coroutines. If you want to know more, I highly recommend checking out a presentation on this subject.

New built-in “re”. BNF is roughly:

syntax := re <fence-post> <regex-chars> <fence-post> <regex-modifiers> <semic>
fence-post := <any character>
regex-chars := whatever is allowed in a regex
regex-modifiers := whatever is valid for modifiers
semic := ';'


$regex = re /^\w+$/i
preg_match($regex, 'whatever');
ereg_match($regex, 'whatever'); // wouldn't work... maybe need $regex->test()


  • Regex are integral to modern info processing
  • Quoting them inside strings is hard: you have the quote character to deal with, plus the fence post
  • Other languages have re built in


  • Reduce effort of code authors to quote regex properly
  • Compile time verification of regex (benefit?)


  • Adding a new regex class, with methods like $re→test('whatever')

Similar implementations


This is a suggested template for PHP Request for Comments (RFCs). Change this template to suit your RFC. Not all RFCs need to be tightly specified. Not all RFCs need all the sections below. Read https://wiki.php.net/rfc/howto carefully!

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Compared with 16 million instances of the explode(), strpos(), and str_replace() related functions.
This RFC does not consider the deprecated POSIX regular expressions to be an active part of PHP and any implementation of this RFC will focus solely upon PCRE regular expressions.
PCRE wizards might rightly scold me for using that example, as it doesn't actually work as described for unbalanced quotation marks or escaped quotation marks, and that a realistic working example would be ([“'])(?:\\?+.)*?\1, thus needing only one single quote escaped. I agree, but I generated this example to illustrate a point.
rfc/native_regular_expressions.txt · Last modified: 2017/09/22 13:28 (external edit)