A regular expression parser
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A Regular Expression Parser

This is a regular expression parser in Python, it transforms a given regular expression to a non-deterministic finite automata (NFA), then transforms it into a deterministic finite automata (DFA).

Current Status

For now, this parser only accepts a regular expression that contains the basic operators:

  • Concatenation
  • Alternation -- |
  • Closure -- *
  • One or more -- +

Any other operators are not yet implemented.


>>> import parser
>>> p = parser.Parser()
>>> re = 'a[a-c]*'
>>> string = 'aaaaaaa'
>>> print 'String', string, 'is matched by re', re, 'at :', parser.Match(string, True)

String aaaaaaa is matched by re a[a-c]* at : 6


This part explains the procedure of the parser.


The regular expression (RE) that the parser gets is in the format of strings, so the first thing it does is to determine what each character means in the regular expression. For example, [ means the beginning of an alternation block (alternation of all the characters inside between it and a right bracket ). But if there is a escaping character (\) before the bracket, then together, \[ means the bracket character.

Letters and digits can be recognized easily.

Noted characters and operators are stored in a list of (Type, Value) pair.

Adding missing concatenations and alternations

By default, concatenations are not directly shown in the RE. To make conversion simpler, they are added before converting the RE to NFA. Concatenations are added before a character when the character is a "normal character" (a, 1, \n, etc.) or a left bracket or parenthese ([, () and the character before it is a

  • Closure -- *
  • One or more -- +
  • Normal character -- a, 1, \n, etc.
  • Right bracket or parenthese -- ], )

Unlike concatenation, alternations are specified in the RE already (if it is a valid RE), so all the parser does for alternation is to transform the bracket expression into a string of alternations.

For example,


will be transformed to


Turn special operators into basic operators

To simplify the complexity, only basic operators (alternation, concatenation, and closure) are supported, all other operators must be transformed to combinations of these basic operators before they can be transformed to a NFA.

For example,


will be transformed to


After above steps, the RE should now only composed of basic operators and operands (in cluding parentheses).

Transforming RE to stack-form

REs are transformed to NFA using Thompson's Construction.

Before RE is transformed to NFA, it is transformed to stack form first.

To give you an example, assume we have a regular expression ab|c, it will be transformed to:


(The top of the stack is at the right)

After transformed to Stack form, transform REs to NFA is fairly easy. But now, how do we transform RE to stack form?

We need 2 data structure: a stack for all elements (stack S) and a stack for operators (stack O). Stack S is the final output. Stack O is used as temperary storage.

Now look at elements in the RE, assuming they are all identified in advance:


The first is a, it is put directly into stack S.

The second is CONCATENATION, it is put into stack O first, since we don't know whether it is safe to push it into stack S (or, we know it's not). The reason is, the second operator haven't show up yet. Also, the operators after it might have higher precedence, or they have to be performed first. In this case, the operator can only be pushed into the stack after these operators with higher precedence are pushed into stack.

Then b is read. It is pushed into stack S directly.

When ALTERNATION is read, its precedence is compared against that of the top operator os stack O, in this case, CONCATENATION. Since ALTERNATION has lower precedence, the CONCATENATION is taken out from stack O, and pushed into stack O. It is pushed into stack O because an operator after it with lower precedence is encountered, and that means it CONCATENATION can be safely performed.

Now the current operator needs to be pushed into stack S for the same reason with above: the right operand has not show up.

Or you can look it this way: the current operator, ALTERNATION, has to be compared against the top operator of stack O again. Now stack O is empty, so ALTERNATION is compared against nothing. We can assume ALTERNATION has higher precedence than nothing. Therefore, ALTERNATION is pushed into the stack O.

Then c is read. It is pushed into stack S directly.

When re finally read EOF, we reach the end of string. so all operands have been pushed into stack S. Therefore, we can pop all operators from stack O and push them into stack S respectivly.

In short, the core rule for precedence comparison is:

if the current operator has

  • higher precedence -- push it into stack S
  • same precedence -- top operator of stack S to stack O, push current operator to stack O
  • lower precedence -- top operator of stack S to stack O, then compare again

Using this rule, we should be able to transform the regular expression to stack form.

RE to NFA transformation

After transforming the RE to stack form, doing the RE to NFA transformation is easy.

Assuming all elements of RE are in stack S, and we pop out one element from the stack at a time. Then for each element that popped out, if it's an operand (character), we just create a finite automata (FA) for it (assume it's an a character):

Start ---------> End

And push this finite automata into the stack.

If it's concatenation, we pop out the last two FAs in the stack, and connect the front of last FA to the FA before it. Assume what we have are a, b, and then CONCATENATION, the new FA will look like:

          'a'         'EPSILON'            'b'
Start1 --------> End1 ---------> Start2 --------> End2 (accept)

Here the character EPSILON means empty string. In other words, we can move from End1 to Start2 no matter what the input character is. So to match this finite automata, the string should be ab.

Similarly, if the operator is ALTERNATION, we pop out the last two FAs and connect them like this (Assume we have a, b,and then ALTERNATION):

    'EPSILON'            'a'          'EPSILON'
        +----> Start1 --------> End1 -----+
        |                                 |
        |                                 v
NewStart                                NewEnd (Accept)
        |                                 ^
        |                                 |
        +----> Start2 --------> End2 -----+
    'EPSILON'            'b'          'EPSILON'

Again, EPSILON means we can make transition no matter what is in the input string, so string a or b can be matched by this FA.

Now if the operator is CLOSURE, there would be a little different compared to the previous operators, because CLOSURE only needs one operand (assume we have a and CLOSURE):

                      |              |
        'EPSILON'     v     'a'      |   'EPSILON'
NewStart ------->  Start1 --------> End1 --------> NewEnd (Accept)
      |                                              ^
      |                                              |

So according to this FA, strings that can be matched are `` (empty), a, `aa` , `aaa`, etc.

But you might ask: "how do I know I have to make epsilon transition to Start1 or NewEnd in the first step?" Oh, I really don't know, because you can only know it after you traverse the FA. You cannot know the 'right path' in advance . And that's why FAs like this are called non-deterministic finite automata (NFA).

After all elements are transformed to NFAs like this, the result shoud be just one final NFA, which contains all small NFAs computed using the above method.

NFA to DFA transformation

The NFA is transformed to DFA using the following algorithm:

q0 <- epsilon-closure({n0})
Q <- q0
WorkList <- {q0}

while (WorkList is not empty) do
    remove q from WorkList
    for each character c in the character set do
        t <- epsilon-closure( Delta(q, c) )
        T[q, c] <- t
        if t doesn't belongs to Q
            add t to Q and WorkList

The epsilon-closure() computes all states that can be reached by epsilon transitions from the given set of states.

To transform the NFA to a DFA, we cannot use the original states in the NFA, we have to make a new FA using the information in the NFA. To do this, we start with only one new state, which is a collection of epsilon-closure() of the start state. then for each different input character, we check if the path leads to a new set of states, we rename this set and make it a new state. But we have to be cautious here, because {n0, n1, n2} may look like {n0, n1}, but no, they are not the same set of states. We can only say the set A has already been named if there is a set that is already named and which has the same members with this set A.

Also, the set containing the start state (n0) is the new start state (named q0 in the above algorithm), and the set containing accepting states is the new accepting state.

DFA minimization

Below is the algorithm used:

T <- {Da, {D - Da}}
P <- {}
while P != T do
    P <- T
    T <- {}
    for each set p in P do
        T <- T | Split(p)

    for each char do
        if c splits S into s1 and s2
            then return {s1, s2}

We first divide all states into accepting state and num-accepting state. Then for each set of states, we check if their behavior on encountering certain character are the same. In other words we check if the destination states of transitions are the same. If not, then states with different destination states are splitted into two sets. This process keeps on until no more new set of states can be generated. That is, we are done when all states in the same set have same behavior.

Future Plan

Make it more useful. I'll probably try to make it more like the re module.

Other Stuff

If you are interested in the implementation details of this project, you can read comments in the code, or you can read my [blog] 1 .