Verbose Regular Expressions
in JavaScript


Recently, I’ve been writing a lexer for my compiler book in JavaScript. Fortunately, JavaScript regular expressions are a useful tool for writing lexers. However, I’ve been missing one feature that I particularly like from Python: verbose regular expressions.

What are those?

Imagine we wanted to parse a floating-point number. In Python, we could write a regular expression like this:


Or, we could instead supply a VERBOSE flag and write the same regular expression like that:

  (0 | [1-9] [0-9]*)   # Integer part with no leading zeroes
  \.                   # Dot
  [0-9]*               # Fractional part (optional)
  ([eE] [+-]? [0-9]+)? # Exponent part (optional)
""", re.VERBOSE)

See the difference?

JavaScript regexp engine doesn’t have this feature. But when did something like that stopped us before?!

Raw strings

One problem with making verbose regular expressions work in JavaScript is that the usual /slash/-style regexp literals cannot be multiline in JavaScript. However, what can be multiline in JavaScript is the new ES2015 template literals:

let example = `hello

We can use those. The next problem is with escape sequences. Often regexes have a lot of backslashes, like \. for literal dot and \s for whitespace. In JavaScript regexp literals, you can write them raw: /\.\s/, but in a string or a template literal, you need to escape them like this: "\\.\\s". This makes them less convenient for this use case. Python has raw strings with r" prefix and raw multiline strings with r""" prefix, where escapes are not necessary. But JavaScript, again, does not have this feature… Or does it?

Turns out that template literals have a lesser-known feature called tags. Tags allow changing the meaning of a template literal. Here’s the syntax:

let x = tag`hello`;

Which will expand roughly to the following:

let x = tag({raw: ["hello"]});

I’m simplifying a bit: the signature of such a tag function is a bit more complicated (to handle raw and “cooked"/escaped strings and interpolation parameters), but for our use, that’s enough.

Using such tagged templates, we can implement Python’s raw strings as follows:

function r(input) {
  return input.raw[0];

let example = r`\hello`;

console.assert(example === "\\hello");

And like other template literals they work multiline too.

In fact, JavaScript has this “r” function built-in, it is called String.raw:

console.assert(String.raw`\hello` === "\\hello");

let r = String.raw;
console.assert(r`\hello` === "\\hello");

Tagged literals basically allow us to make our own literals, for things like… verbose regular expressions!

And that’s what we’ll do. But first, we need to design them.


I don’t think verbose regular expressions in JavaScript should be exactly like those in Python. I think they should use JavaScript-style comments instead:


To implement verbose regular expressions in JavaScript we’ll use the tagged template literals as well as a regular, ahem, regular expression:

function verboseRegExp(input) {
  if (input.raw.length !== 1) { ❶
    throw Error("verboseRegExp: interpolation is not supported");

  let source = input.raw[0]; ❷
  let regexp = /(?<!\\)\s|[/][/].*|[/][*][\s\S]*[*][/]/g;
  let result = source.replace(regexp, '');

  return new RegExp(result); ❸

We call our tag verboseRegExp. Since it’s already verbose, it doesn’t hurt to be explicit about what this new tag means.

❶ We add a guard that checks that only one string is supplied. That means that the string has no interpolations. It would be interesting to see what string interpolation could give us in this case, but let’s ignore it now.

❷ Next, we extract the raw string from the input parameter. Using a regular expression, we remove the comments and the whitespace (except for whitespace escaped with a backslash). Too bad we can’t use a verbose regular expressions here, as you know, the cobbler’s son has no shoes.

❸ Finally, we construct the regular expression out of the resulting string.


Now, we can finally use it! And, of course, the first example we’ll use will be the regular expression we just used to implement our verbose regular expressions:

let example1 = new RegExp(verboseRegExp`
    (?<!\\) \s             // Ignore whitespace, but not
                           // when escaped with a backslash.
  | [/][/] .*              // Single-line comment.
  | [/][*] [\s\S]* [*][/]  // Multi-line comment.

  // Note: /[\s\S]/ is same as /./s with dot-all flag (s),
  // but we can't use dot-all here since that would break
  // the single-line comment case.
`, "g");

This also gives us a chance to explain well the meaning of that regular expression.

One thing that the new regular expression syntax does not allow us is to specify is flags (such as g for global) directly. But since it’s verbose, it doesn’t hurt to wrap it into another RegExp call and pass "g" explicitly.

Next example covers the parsing of a floating-point number that we discussed in the beginning:

let example2 = verboseRegExp`
  (0 | [1-9] [0-9]*)   // Integer part with no leading zeroes
  \.                   // Dot
  [0-9]*               // Fractional part (optional)
  ([eE] [+-]? [0-9]+)? // Exponent part (optional)


This code, together with some unit tests, is available as a GitHub gist.

I hope that this lightweight technique will make your regular expressions more readable, and I hope you’ve learned a thing or two today!

Did you know about my upcoming book?

Compiling to Assembly
from Scratch

— the book —

Vladimir Keleshev

TypeScript — ARM — Summer 2020