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Adding Regular Expressions To Your Cocoa Application.

Volume Number: 19 (2003)
Issue Number: 4
Column Tag: Cocoa Development

Adding Regular Expressions To Your Cocoa Application.

Using MOKit to add the ability to match regular expressions in Cocoa.

by Ron Davis

Does your application need to parse data out of a bunch of text, or match strings that can vary some, but have a regular syntax? Do you have a Find command in your text editor? If you do you need to add regular expression matching to your app. Regular Expressions are textual representations of strings match pattern. They go beyond just finding a string and let you do things like find a string that begins and ends with certain characters, but can have anything in the middle. Or a string that contain four numbers followed by a letter.

I've been around the Mac a long time and never really thought about grep or regex or other commands that use regular expressions. But OSX changes that. Every UNIX geek out there knows about grep and it various offspring. Scripting languages like Perl use regular expressions as well, so I thought I needed to learn about them. Once I did I was hooked, and wanted to use them in my own applications. That lead me to Mike Ferris' MOKit, a Cocoa framework that lets you easily deal with regular expressions in your application.

Introduction to Regular Expressions

We'll start with a quick look at regular expression syntax for those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about. The introduction will be fast and shallow. If you need more information check out the URL in the Bibliography at the end of the article.

Symbol         Meaning                       Example
character      The character typed,          A is a, b is b, etc.
               with the exception of 
               special characters.

[character -   Any of a range of .           [a-d] = a,b,c, or d.
 character]    characters
.              Period matches any one 
               character, except line 
#              Matches any digit.            0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 
\r             return

\t             tab 

\              The escape character like     \. matches a period. 
               in printf. Putting a slash    \\ matches a slash.
               in front of a special 
               character allows that 
               character to be matched.
?              0 or 1 of the previous .      ca?t, matches cat, or ct,
               characters                    but not caat.

*              0 or more of the              ca*t, matches ct, cat, 
               previous characters           caat, caaat.
+              1 or more of the              ca+t, matches cat, caat,
               previous characters           caaat, but not ct.
^              any character but the         (^r23) any character 
               ones after the carat.         but r, 2, or 3.
pattern |      match pattern or pattern.     ca|t, matches ca or t, 
pattern                                      but not cat.

(pattern)      Matching: treats what is      (ca)*t, matches cat, or 
               in the parenthesis as a       cacat, but not ct.
               single character.   c(*?)t,   on string coat, 
               Searching: delineates the     returns "oa".
               information to be 
               remembered in a find.

The last pattern there gives you a hint that regular expression can be used in two different ways. One way is matching, where you have a string and you want to know if it is equal to a regular expression. This returns a Boolean value, either the string matches or it doesn't. The other way to use regular expressions is to find a substring or strings in a longer string. When you do this you give an expression and you specify what part of the matched string you want back by placing that part in parentheses.

Let's look at an example or two. Say you let the user input a seven digit zip code and you want to make sure they didn't put any letters in there. You could get their input string and compare it against the regular expression "#+", which matches 1 or more digits, but wouldn't match an empty string, nor one with letters in it.

Now say you have an HTML tag for a link like <A HREF=>RAD productions</A> and you wanted to pull out the URL. You could search with the regular expression "=(.*?)>" and you would get back You may wonder why the ? is there. If you just put ".*", which means match 0 or more characters, you get to the end of the string because quotes and brackets are characters too. This is called a greedy search. Putting the ? tells it to only search until it finds the next part of the expression string.


MOKit is a Cocoa framework written by Mike Ferris. It contains some text manipulation classes, one of which handles regular expressions. The underlying regular expression engine is actually a standard package written by Henry Spencer and used in one form or another by a lot of interesting things such as tcl and perl. MOKit classes are "not public domain, but they are free" according to the web page. The code can be downloaded at You can get both compiled frameworks and the source to MOKit. Version 2.6 was used for this article.

MOKit has two main parts, classes for text completion and classes for regular expressions. We'll only be talking about the regular expression classes here. These classes are MORegularExpression and MORegexFormatter. MORegularExpression is the main class for handling the evaluation of regular expressions. It is the one we'll use in our sample code. Here's its declaration.

Listing 1: MORegularExpression interface.

@interface MORegularExpression : NSObject <NSCopying, NSCoding> {
    NSString *_expressionString;
    NSString *_lastMatch;
    NSRange _lastSubexpressionRanges 
    void *_compiledExpression;
    BOOL _ignoreCase;
+ (BOOL)validExpressionString:(NSString *)expressionString;
+ (id)regularExpressionWithString:(NSString *)
               expressionString ignoreCase:(BOOL)ignoreCaseFlag;
+ (id)regularExpressionWithString:(NSString *)
- (id)initWithExpressionString:(NSString *)expressionString
- (id)initWithExpressionString:(NSString *)
- (NSString *)expressionString;
- (BOOL)matchesString:(NSString *)candidate;
- (NSRange)rangeForSubexpressionAtIndex:(unsigned)index
                inString:(NSString *)candidate;
- (NSString *)substringForSubexpressionAtIndex:
               (unsigned)index inString:(NSString *)candidate;
- (NSArray *)subexpressionsForString:(NSString *)candidate;

As you can see, it is a fairly simple class. To use a regular expression in your code you create an instance of this class. If you need to keep it around, using the initWithExpressionString methods will probably be easiest. If you're just going to use it in the scope of a single method, use the class methods regularExpressionWithString, so you won't have to deal with releasing. Both of these methods have twins that take an ignoreCase parameter which, if set to YES, will cause evaluations to ignore the case of the characters in the expression and the search string. If you don't explicitly set case sensitivity then searches are case sensitive. Here's an example of how to create an expression for finding HREFs in a string of HTML:

MORegularExpression*   linkURLExp = [MORegularExpression regularExpressionWithString: 
                                    @"<A HREF=.*?</A>" ignoreCase:YES];

If you want to make sure the expression you create is valid you can call the class method validExpressionString, which will return YES if the expression is a valid regular expression. If you want to know what an MORegularExpression object's expression is you can get it from the expressionString accessor.

Now we can actually do some evaluations. As I said previously, there are two ways to use regular expressions, to match a string and to find a sub-string. If you have a string and you want to make sure it conforms to the regular expression you created, you can pass it into matchesString and the result will tell you if it matches. This is what MORegexFormatter does. It is a formatter you can add to a field and it will validate the value in that field by the regular expression you give it.

Getting sub-expressions is interesting. If you just want to find the location in the target string of a sub-string, you can use the rangeForSubexpressionAtIndex method. If you want the whole sub-string back as a new NSString* you use the substringForSubexpressionAtIndex, passing the string you are searching for in the inString parameter. The index is which value in parentheses you want back. There can be 0 to 20 sets of parentheses in a MOKit expression, and the index indicates which one you want the range for. So you could create an expression like "<A HREF=(.*?)>(.*?)</A>" to search for a link in an HTML page. If we used the HTML in Listing 2, and you asked for index 0 you would get the whole HREF tag: "<A HREF=>R.A.D. Productions</A>". If you asked for index 1, you'd get the link back "". If you asked for index 2, you'd get back the text "R.A.D. Productions".

Listing 2: Sample HTML

<TITLE>R.A.D. Productions Home Page</TITLE>
<A HREF=>R.A.D. Productions</A>

In a nutshell, that is all there is to finding sub-strings with MORegularExpression. The last method in the interface, subexpressionsForString, is there for backwards compatibility and I'm not even going to explain it.

There is one tricky thing about using MORegularExpression in a large amount of text. What happens if you want to find every link in an HTML page? substringForSubexpressionAtIndex is only going to return the first occurrence in the string. Turns out there is no way to say, start searching at character n in the candidate string. What I did was truncate the string after each search to find the next one. Here's my code to find all of the links and their URL in an HTML page.

Listing 3: Finding all of the links.

   MORegularExpression*   bothExp = 
                        @"<A HREF=(.*?)>(.*?)</A>" 
   MORegularExpression*   startStopExp = 
   NSString*            result = nil;
   NSRange               range;
   NSString*            curString = [startStopExp 
      range = [bothExp rangeForSubexpressionAtIndex:0
                     inString:curString ];
      if ( range.length > 0 )
         NSString*   URLString;
         NSString*   linkString;
         NSURL*      fullURL;
         result = [linkURLExp 
         URLString = [bothExp 
         fullURL = [NSURL URLWithString:URLString 
         URLString = [fullURL absoluteString];
         linkString = [bothExp
         if ( linkString == nil || 
               URLString == nil || 
               ([linkString length]== 0) || 
                     ([URLString length]== 0) )
            {} else 
            [self addURL:URLString withText:linkString];
         curString = [curString substringFromIndex:
                        (range.location + range.length)];
   while ([curString length] > 0 && 
               range.location != NSNotFound );

A little explanation. The method is in a class that has a method addURL. The class also keeps two arrays, one for URLs and one for the link text. When you call addURL the URL and the link string are added to the arrays for future reference. The class also knows what the URL of the page you are parsing is, and saves it in a variable called baseURL.

The first thing the method does is set up our regular expression for links. Then it makes a new string that will contain only the text between the <HTML> tag. You can use this to limit the search to just a certain part of the page. Then it sets up a loop, which will always execute once and will end when we don't get anything back from our search, or we run out of HTML to parse. Inside the loop we first try to find our expression's range in the HTML. If it isn't there, were done. If we find something, then we use our expression to get the sub-string for the URL. Some times a URL will be relative, so we use NSURL with the page's URL to create a full URL. Then we ask for the second index, which is the link text. If we get both, we add it to our list.

If we find something, then we need to search from the end of the string we found. So we create a sub-string from our current HTML string, that starts at the end of what we found and ends at the end of the current string. This effectively chops off everything from the beginning of the string to the end of what we just found. Then we loop.

Hopefully you've seen the coolness of regular expressions and want to use them in your Cocoa apps. MOKit makes this easy and is easy to use. So go to Mike Ferris' website and download it and add regular expressions to your app.


Mastering Regular Expressions, Jeffrey E. F. Friedl,

Using Regular Expressions, Stephen Ramsay,

Regular Expressions specification,

A Tao of Regular Expressions,

BBEdit Grep Tutorial,

Ron Davis is a long time Mac programmer, having worked on everything from Virex Anti-Virus to CodeWarrior. His day job is working for Alsoft, and his evening job is R.A.D. Productions, makers of Suck It Down and FinderEye.


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