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3.3.2 Some Notes On Interval Expressions

Interval expressions were not traditionally available in awk. They were added as part of the POSIX standard to make awk and egrep consistent with each other.

Initially, because old programs may use ‘{’ and ‘}’ in regexp constants, gawk did not match interval expressions in regexps.

However, beginning with version 4.0, gawk does match interval expressions by default. This is because compatibility with POSIX has become more important to most gawk users than compatibility with old programs.

For programs that use ‘{’ and ‘}’ in regexp constants, it is good practice to always escape them with a backslash. Then the regexp constants are valid and work the way you want them to, using any version of awk.17

When ‘{’ and ‘}’ appear in regexp constants in a way that cannot be interpreted as an interval expression (such as /q{a}/), then they stand for themselves.

As mentioned, interval expressions were not traditionally available in awk. In March of 2019, BWK awk (finally) acquired them. Starting with version 5.2, gawk’s --traditional option no longer disables interval expressions in regular expressions.

POSIX says that interval expressions containing repetition counts greater than 255 produce unspecified results.

In the manual for GNU grep, Paul Eggert notes the following:

Interval expressions may be implemented internally via repetition. For example, ‘^(a|bc){2,4}$’ might be implemented as ‘^(a|bc)(a|bc)((a|bc)(a|bc)?)?$’. A large repetition count may exhaust memory or greatly slow matching. Even small counts can cause problems if cascaded; for example, ‘grep -E ".*{10,}{10,}{10,}{10,}{10,}"’ is likely to overflow a stack. Fortunately, regular expressions like these are typically artificial, and cascaded repetitions do not conform to POSIX so cannot be used in portable programs anyway.

This same caveat applies to gawk.


Footnotes

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Use two backslashes if you’re using a string constant with a regexp operator or function.


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