Paper of the Week: Structural Regular Expressions

David Albert

This is part of our “Paper of the Week” series. For more info, check out our introductory blog post.

This week’s paper is Structural Regular Expressions by Rob Pike, one of the creators of the Go programming language and the Plan 9 operating system. It was published in Proceedings of the EUUG Spring 1987 Conference.

This paper is all about picking the right abstraction. Sometimes a small change to the abstraction you’re using can dramatically simplify your code, or allow you to express a larger set of ideas. Structural Regular Expressions has a particularly good example of this. With one small change to how traditional regular expressions match, Pike shows how a number of common tasks become easier to express. The paper is accessible and short, and the examples are elegant and easy to read.

Structural Regular Expressions was suggested by Hacker Schooler Travis McDemus, who shared the following:

I benefited in a few ways from reading this concise, accessible paper: 1) Observing some of the biases inherent throughout Unix. 2) Greater understanding of regular expressions as a whole (which can help with daily practical usage of vim, ed, sed, awk). 3) Understanding some of the philosophy that went into designing Plan 9’s tools, golang, etc.

Here’s the abstract:

The current UNIX® text processing tools are weakened by the built-in concept of a line. There is a simple notation that can describe the ‘shape’ of files when the typical array-of-lines picture is inadequate. That notation is regular expressions. Using regular expressions to describe the structure in addition to the contents of files has interesting applications, and yields elegant methods for dealing with some problems the current tools handle clumsily. When operations using these expressions are composed, the result is reminiscent of shell pipelines.

Read Along

Read Along is a way for you to participate in Paper of the Week. If you want to take part, all you have to do is read the paper, make something small in response (code or prose), and email us a link to what you made by noon Eastern Time next Monday.

We didn’t get any Read Along submissions for Statecharts: A Visual Formalism for Complex Systems :(. We’re looking forward to your submissions for this week’s paper.

If you’re looking for even more things to read, check out the first issue of Code Words, our new quarterly publication about programming.

Happy reading!