How to print all expressions that match a regular expression

Alf P. Steinbach alfps at
Sun Feb 7 03:53:49 CET 2010

* Steven D'Aprano:
> On Sun, 07 Feb 2010 01:51:19 +0100, Alf P. Steinbach wrote:
>>> Regular expressions are programs in a "regex" programming language.
>>> What you are asking for is the same as saying:
>>> "Is there a program that can enumerate every possible set of data that
>>> is usable as valid input for a given program?"
>>> This, in turn, is equivalent to the Halting Problem -- if you can solve
>>> one, you can solve the other. You might like to google on the Halting
>>> Problem before you spend too much time on this.
>> Hm, well, text editors /regularly/ do repeated regular expression
>> searches, producing match after match after match, on request.
> I think you have completely misunderstood what I'm saying.


> I'm not saying that you can't *run* a regular expression against text and 
> generate output. That truly would be a stupid thing to say, because I 
> clearly can do this:
>>>> import re
>>>> mo ="p.rr.t", 
> ... "Some text containing parrots as well as other things")
> 'parrot'
> As you point out, it's not hard to embed a regex interpreter inside a 
> text editor or other application, or to call an external library.
> What is difficult, and potentially impossible, is to take an arbitrary 
> regular expression such as "p.rr.t" (the program in the regex language) 
> and generate every possible data ("parrot", "pbrrat", ...) that would 
> give a match when applied to that regular expression.

Hm, that's not difficult to do, it's just like counting, but it's rather 
meaningless since either the output is trivial or it's in general exponential or 

So it seems we both misunderstood the problem.

I didn't read the top level article until now, and reading it, I can't make 
sense of it.

It sounds like some kind of homework problem, but without the constraints that 
surely would be there in a homework problem.

> Now, in this case, my example is very simple, and it would be easy to 
> enumerate every possible data: there's only 65025 of them, limiting to 
> the extended ASCII range excluding NUL (1-255). But for an arbitrary 
> regex, it won't be that easy. Often it will be unbounded: the example of 
> enumerating every string that matches .* has already been given.
> The second problem is, generating the data which gives the output you 
> want is potentially very, very, difficult, potentially as difficult as 
> finding collisions in cryptographic hash functions:
> "Given the function hashlib.sha256, enumerate all the possible inputs 
> that give the hexadecimal result 
> 0a2591aaf3340ad92faecbc5908e74d04b51ee5d2deee78f089f1607570e2e91."

I tried some "parrot" variants but no dice. :-(


> I'm suggesting that, in general, there's no way to tell in advance which 
> regexes will be easy and which will be hard, and even when they are easy, 
> the enumeration will often be infinite.

I agree about the (implied) meaningless, exponential/infinite output, which 
means that possibly that's not what the OP meant, but disagree about the 
reasoning about "no way": really, regular expressions are /very/ limited so it's 
not hard to compute up front the number of strings it can generate from some 
given character set, in time linear in the length of the regexp.

Essentially, any regexp that includes '+' or '*' (directly or via e.g. notation 
that denotes "digit sequence") yields an infinite number of strings.

And otherwise the regexp is of the form ABCDE..., where A, B, C etc are parts 
that each can generate a certain finite number of strings; multiplying these 
numbers gives the total number of strings that the regexp can generate.


- Alf

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