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iphone Programming : Handling Data - Regular Expressions

1/29/2013 4:09:33 PM
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Regular expressions, commonly known as regexes, are a pattern-matching standard for text processing, and are a powerful tool when dealing with strings. With regular expressions, an expression serves as a pattern to compare with the text being searched. You can use regular expressions to search for patterns in a string, replace text, and extract substrings from the original string.

1. Introduction to Regular Expressions

In its simplest form, you can use a regular expression to match a literal string; for example, the regular expression “string” will match the string “this is a string”. Each character in the expression will match itself, unless it is one of the special characters +, ?, ., *, ^, $, (, ), [, {, |, or \. The special meaning of these characters can be escaped by prepending a backslash character, \.

We can also tie our expression to the start of a string (^string) or the end of a string (string$). For the string “this is a string”, ^string will not match the string, while string$ will.

We can also use quantified patterns. Here, * matches zero or more times, ? matches zero or one time, and + matches one or more times. So, the regular expression “23*4” would match “1245”, “12345”, and “123345”, but the expression “23?4” would match “1245” and also “12345”. Finally, the expression “23+4” would match “12345” and “123345” but not “1245”.

Unless told otherwise, regular expressions are always greedy; they will normally match the longest string possible.

While a backslash escapes the meaning of the special characters in an expression, it turns most alphanumeric characters into special characters. Many special characters are available; however, the main ones are:


Matches a numeric character


Matches a nonnumeric character


Matches a whitespace character


Matches a nonwhitespace character


Matches an alphanumeric (or the underscore) character


Matches the inverse of \w

All of these special character expressions can be modified by the quantifier modifiers.

1.1. RegexKitLite

Unfortunately, there is no built-in support for regular expressions in Objective-C, or as part of the Cocoa Touch framework. However, the RegexKitLite library adds regular expression support to the base NSString class. See


RegexKitLite uses the regular expression engine provided by the ICU library. Apple does not officially support linking directly to the libicucore.dylib library. Despite this, many iPhone applications are available on the App Store that use this library, and it is unlikely that Apple will reject your application during the App Store review process for making use of it. However, if you’re worried about using the ICU library, there are alternatives, such as the libregex wrapper GTMRegex provided as part of the Google Toolbox for Mac.

To add RegexKitLite to your own project, download the RegexKitLite-<X.X>.tar.bz2 compressed tarball (X.X will be the current version, such as 3.3), and uncompress and double-click it to extract it. Open the directory and drag and drop the two files, RegexKitLite.h and RegexKitLite.m, into your project. Remember to select the “Copy items into destination group’s folder” checkbox before adding the files.

We’re not done yet; we still need to add the libicucore.dylib library to our project. Double-click on the project icon in the Groups & Files pane in Xcode and go to the Build tab of the Project Info window. In the Linking subsection of the tab, double-click on the Other Linker Flags field and add -licucore to the flags using the pop-up window.

You’ll want to use regular expressions to perform three main tasks: matching strings, replacing strings, and extracting strings. RegexKitLite allows you to do all of these, but remember that when you want to use it, you need to import the RegexKitLite.h file into your class.


Regular expressions use the backslash (\) character to escape characters that have special meaning inside the regular expression. However, since the backslash character is the C escape character, these in turn have to escape any uses of this character inside your regular expression by prepending it with another backslash character. For example, to match a literal ampersand (&) character, you must first prepend it with a backslash to escape it for the regular expression engine, and then prepend it with another backslash to escape this in turn for the compiler—that is, \\&. To match a single literal backslash (\) character with a regular expression therefore requires four backslashes: \\\\.

The RegexKitLite library operates by extending the NSString class via an Objective-C category extension mechanism, making it very easy to use. If you want to match a string, you simply operate directly on the string you want to match. You can create a view-based project and add the following code into the applicationDidFinishLaunching: method. Just be sure to add #import "RegexKitLite.h" to the top of the app delegate’s .m (implementation) file.

NSString *string = @"This is a string";
NSString *match = [string stringByMatching:@"a string$" capture:0];
NSLog(@"%@", match);

If the match fails, the match variable will be set to nil, and if you want to replace a string, it’s almost as easy:

NSString *string2 = @"This is a string";
NSString *regexString = @"a string$";
NSString *replacementString = @"another string";

NSString *newString = nil;
newString = [string2
NSLog(@"%@", newString);

If you run the application, you’ll just get a gray window. Return to Xcode and choose RunConsole to see the output of the NSLog calls.

This will match “a string” in the variable string2, replacing it and creating the string “This is another string” in the variable newString.

1.2. Faking regex support with the built-in NSPredicate

While Cocoa Touch does not provide “real” regular expression support, Core Data does provide the NSPredicate class that allows you to carry out some operations that would normally be done via regular expressions in other languages. For those familiar with SQL, the NSPredicate class operates in a very similar manner to the SQL WHERE statement.

Let’s assume we have an NSArray of NSDictionary objects, structured like this:

NSArray *arrayOfDictionaries = [NSArray arrayWithObjects:
  [NSDictionary dictionaryWithObjectsAndKeys:
     @"Learning iPhone Programming", @"title", @"2010", @"year", nil],
  [NSDictionary dictionaryWithObjectsAndKeys:
     @"Arduino Orbital Lasers", @"title", @"2012", @"year", nil],

We can test whether a given object in the array matches the criteria foo = "bar" AND baz = "qux" as follows:

NSPredicate *predicate =
  [NSPredicate predicateWithFormat:@"year = '2012'"];
for (NSDictionary *dictionary in arrayOfDictionaries) {
   BOOL match = [predicate evaluateWithObject:dictionary];
   if (match) {
     NSLog(@"Found a match!");

Alternatively, we can extract all entries in the array that match the predicate:

NSPredicate *predicate2 =
  [NSPredicate predicateWithFormat:@"year = '2012'"];
NSArray *matches =
  [arrayOfDictionaries filteredArrayUsingPredicate:predicate2];
for (NSDictionary *dictionary in matches) {
   NSLog(@"%@", [dictionary objectForKey: @"title"]);

However, we can also use predicates to test strings against regular expressions. For instance, the following code will test the email string against the regex we provided, returning YES if it is a valid email address:

NSString *email = @"";
NSString *regex = @"^\\b[a-zA-Z0-9._%+-]+@[a-zA-Z0-9.-]+\\.[a-zA-Z]{2,4}\\b$";
NSPredicate *predicate3 =
   [NSPredicate predicateWithFormat:@"SELF MATCHES %@", regex];
BOOL match = [predicate3 evaluateWithObject:email];
if (match) {
   NSLog(@"Found a match!");
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