PHP Regular Expressions – Preg_match, Preg_split, Preg_replace

What is a Regular Expressions?

Regular expressions are powerful pattern matching algorithm that can be performed in a single expression.

Regular expressions use arithmetic operators such as (+,-,^) to create complex expressions.

Regular expressions help you accomplish tasks such as validating email addresses, IP address etc.

Why to use regular expressions

  • Regular expressions simplify identifying patterns in string data by calling a single function. This saves us coding time.
  • When validating user input such as email address, domain names, telephone numbers, IP addresses,
  • Highlighting keywords in search results
  • When creating a custom HTML template. Regular expressions can be used to identify the template tags and replace them with actual data.

In this tutorial, you will learn-

  • Regular expressions in PHP
  • Preg_match
  • Preg_split
  • Preg_replace
  • Meta characters
  • Explaining the pattern

Regular expressions in PHP

PHP has built in functions that allow us to work with regular functions. Let’s now look at the commonly used regular expression functions in PHP.

  • preg_match – this function is used to perform a pattern match on a string. It returns true if a match is found and false if a match is not found.
  • preg_split – this function is used to perform a pattern match on a string and then split the results into a numeric array
  • preg_replace – this function is used to perform a pattern match on a string and then replace the match with the specified text.

Below is the syntax for a regular expression function such as preg_match,preg_split or preg_replace.


  • “function_name(…)” is either preg_match, preg_split or preg_replace.
  • “/…/” The forward slashes denote the beginning and end of our regular expression
  • “‘/pattern/'” is the pattern that we need to matched
  • “subject” is the text string to be matched against

Let’s now look at practical examples that implement the above regular expression functions in PHP.

PHP Preg_match

The first example uses the preg_match function to perform a simple pattern match for the word guru in a given URL.

The code below shows the implementation for the above example.

Let’s examine the part of the code responsible for our output “preg_match(‘/guru/’, $my_url)”  HERE,

  • “preg_match(…)” is the PHP regular expression function
  • “‘/guru/'” is the regular expression pattern to be matched
  • “$my_url” is the variable containing the text to be matched against.

The diagram below summarizes the above points

PHP Preg_split

Let’s now look at another example that uses the preg_split function.

We will take a string phrase and explode it into an array; the pattern to be matched is a single space.

The text string to be used in this example is “I Love Regular Expressions”.

The code below illustrates the implementation of the above example.

PHP Preg_replace

Let’s now look at the preg_replace function that performs a pattern match and then replaces the pattern with something else.

The code below searches for the word guru in a string.

It replaces the word guru with the word guru surrounded by css code that highlights the background colour.

Meta characters

The above examples used very basic patterns; metacharacters simply allow us to perform more complex pattern matches such as test the validity of an email address. Let’s now look at the commonly used metacharacters.

Metacharacter Description Example
. Matches any single character except a new line /./ matches anything that has a single character
^ Matches the beginning of or string / excludes characters /^PH/ matches any string that starts with PH
$ Matches pattern at the end of the string /com$/ matches, Etc.
* Matches any zero (0) or more characters /com*/ matches computer, communication etc.
+ Requires preceding character(s) appear at least once /yah+oo/ matches yahoo
\ Used to escape meta characters /yahoo+\.com/ treats the dot as a literal value
[…] Character class /[abc]/ matches abc
a-z Matches lower case letters /a-z/ matches cool, happy etc.
A-Z Matches upper case letters /A-Z/ matches WHAT, HOW, WHY etc.
0-9 Matches any number between 0 and 9 /0-4/ matches 0,1,2,3,4

The above list only gives the most commonly used metacharacters in regular expressions.

Let’s now look at a fairly complex example that checks the validity of an email address.

Explaining the pattern “[/^[a-zA-Z0-9._-]+@[a-zA-Z0-9-]+\.[a-zA-Z.]{2,5}$/]”


  • “‘/…/'” starts and ends the regular expression
  • “^[a-zA-Z0-9._-]” matches any lower or upper case letters, numbers between 0 and 9 and dots, underscores or dashes.
  • “+@[a-zA-Z0-9-]” matches the @ symbol followed by lower or upper case letters, numbers between 0 and 9 or dashes.
  • “+\.[a-zA-Z.]{2,5}$/” escapes the dot using the backslash then matches any lower or upper case letters with a character length between 2 and 5 at the end of the string.

As you can see from the above example breakdown, metacharacters are very powerful when it comes to matching patterns.


  • A regular expression is a pattern match algorithm
  • Regular expressions are very useful when performing validation checks, creating HTML template systems that recognize tags etc.
  • PHP has built in functions namely preg_match,preg_split and preg_replace that support regular expressions.
  • Metacharacters allow us to create complex patterns

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