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6.1.2.2 Strongly Typed Regexp Constants

This section describes a gawk-specific feature.

As we saw in the previous section, regexp constants (/…/) hold a strange position in the awk language. In most contexts, they act like an expression: ‘$0 ~ /…/’. In other contexts, they denote only a regexp to be matched. In no case are they really a “first class citizen” of the language. That is, you cannot define a scalar variable whose type is “regexp” in the same sense that you can define a variable to be a number or a string:

num = 42        Numeric variable
str = "hi"      String variable
re = /foo/      Wrong! re is the result of $0 ~ /foo/

For a number of more advanced use cases, it would be nice to have regexp constants that are strongly typed; in other words, that denote a regexp useful for matching, and not an expression.

gawk provides this feature. A strongly typed regexp constant looks almost like a regular regexp constant, except that it is preceded by an ‘@’ sign:

re = @/foo/     Regexp variable

Strongly typed regexp constants cannot be used everywhere that a regular regexp constant can, because this would make the language even more confusing. Instead, you may use them only in certain contexts:

You may use the -v option (see section Command-Line Options) to assign a strongly-typed regexp constant to a variable on the command line, like so:

gawk -v pattern='@/something(interesting)+/' …

You may also make such assignments as regular command-line arguments (see section Other Command-Line Arguments).

You may use the typeof() built-in function (see section Getting Type Information) to determine if a variable or function parameter is a regexp variable.

The true power of this feature comes from the ability to create variables that have regexp type. Such variables can be passed on to user-defined functions, without the confusing aspects of computed regular expressions created from strings or string constants. They may also be passed through indirect function calls (see section Indirect Function Calls) and on to the built-in functions that accept regexp constants.

When used in numeric conversions, strongly typed regexp variables convert to zero. When used in string conversions, they convert to the string value of the original regexp text.

There is an additional, interesting corner case. When used as the third argument to sub() or gsub(), they retain their type. Thus, if you have something like this:

re = don't panic/
sub(/don't/, "do", re)
print typeof(re), re

then re retains its type, but now attempts to match the string ‘do panic’. This provides a (very indirect) way to create regexp-typed variables at runtime.


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