Internal option setting

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The settings of PCRE_CASELESS, PCRE_MULTILINE, PCRE_DOTALL, and PCRE_EXTENDED can be changed from within the pattern by a sequence of Perl option letters enclosed between "(?" and ")". The option letters are


i        PCRE_CASELESS        Letters in the pattern match both upper and lower case letters. It is equivalent to Perl's /i option.        

m        PCRE_MULTILINE        By default, PCRE treats the subject string as consisting of a single "line" of characters (even if it actually contains several newlines). The "start of line" metacharacter (^) matches only at the start of the string, while the "end of line" metacharacter ($) matches only at the end of the string, or before a terminating newline (unless PCRE_DOLLAR_ENDONLY is set). This is the same as Perl.  When PCRE_MULTILINE it is set, the "start of line" and "end of line" constructs match immediately following or immediately before any newline in the subject string, respectively, as well as at the very start and end. This is equivalent to Perl's /m option. If there are no "\n" characters in a subject string, or no occurrences of ^ or $ in a pattern, setting PCRE_MULTILINE has no effect.        

s        PCRE_DOTALL        If this bit is set, a dot metacharater in the pattern matches all characters, including newlines. Without it, newlines are excluded. This option is equivalent to Perl's /s option. A negative class such as [^a] always matches a newline character, independent of the setting of this option.        

x        PCRE_EXTENDED        If this bit is set, whitespace data characters in the pattern are totally ignored except when escaped or inside a character class, and characters between an unescaped # outside a character class and the next newline character, inclusive, are also ignored. This is equivalent to Perl's /x option, and makes it possible to include comments inside complicated patterns. Note, however, that this applies only to data characters. Whitespace characters may never appear within special character sequences in a pattern, for example within the sequence (?( which introduces a conditional subpattern.        


For example, (?im) sets caseless, multiline matching. It is also possible to unset these options by preceding the letter with a hyphen, and a combined setting and unsetting such as (?im-sx), which sets PCRE_CASELESS and PCRE_MULTILINE while unsetting PCRE_DOTALL and PCRE_EXTENDED, is also permitted. If a letter appears both before and after the hyphen, the option is unset.


The scope of these option changes depends on where in the pattern the setting occurs. For settings that are outside any subpattern (defined below), the effect is the same as if the options were set or unset at the start of matching. The following patterns all behave in exactly the same way:







which in turn is the same as compiling the pattern abc with PCRE_CASELESS set. In other words, such "top level" settings apply to the whole pattern (unless there are other changes inside subpatterns). If there is more than one setting of the same option at top level, the rightmost setting is used.


If an option change occurs inside a subpattern, the effect is different. This is a change of behaviour in Perl 5.005. An option change inside a subpattern affects only that part of the subpattern that follows it, so




matches abc and aBc and no other strings (assuming PCRE_CASELESS is not used). By this means, options can be made to have different settings in different parts of the pattern. Any changes made in one alternative do carry on into subsequent branches within the same subpattern. For example,




matches "ab", "aB", "c", and "C", even though when matching "C" the first branch is abandoned before the option setting. This is because the effects of option settings happen at compile time. There would be some very weird behaviour otherwise.


The PCRE-specific options PCRE_UNGREEDY and PCRE_EXTRA can be changed in the same way as the Perl-compatible options by using the characters U and X respectively. The (?X) flag setting is special in that it must always occur earlier in the pattern than any of the additional features it turns on, even when it is at top level. It is best put at the start.


Note: This topic was taken from the PCRE library manual. The PCRE library is open source software, written by Philip Hazel <>, and copyright by the University of Cambridge, England.