6th September 2019

Lookahead and lookbehind

Sometimes we need to find only those matches for a pattern that are followed or preceeded by another pattern.

There’s a special syntax for that, called “lookahead” and “lookbehind”, together referred to as “lookaround”.

For the start, let’s find the price from the string like 1 turkey costs 30€. That is: a number, followed by sign.


The syntax is: X(?=Y), it means "look for X, but match only if followed by Y". There may be any pattern instead of X and Y.

For an integer number followed by , the regexp will be \d+(?=€):

let str = "1 turkey costs 30€";

alert( str.match(/\d+(?=€)/) ); // 30, the number 1 is ignored, as it's not followed by €

Please note: the lookahead is merely a test, the contents of the parentheses (?=...) is not included in the result 30.

When we look for X(?=Y), the regular expression engine finds X and then checks if there’s Y immediately after it. If it’s not so, then the potential match is skipped, and the search continues.

More complex tests are possible, e.g. X(?=Y)(?=Z) means:

  1. Find X.
  2. Check if Y is immediately after X (skip if isn’t).
  3. Check if Z is immediately after X (skip if isn’t).
  4. If both tests passed, then it’s the match.

In other words, such pattern means that we’re looking for X followed by Y and Z at the same time.

That’s only possible if patterns Y and Z aren’t mutually exclusive.

For example, \d+(?=\s)(?=.*30) looks for \d+ only if it’s followed by a space, and there’s 30 somewhere after it:

let str = "1 turkey costs 30€";

alert( str.match(/\d+(?=\s)(?=.*30)/) ); // 1

In our string that exactly matches the number 1.

Negative lookahead

Let’s say that we want a quantity instead, not a price from the same string. That’s a number \d+, NOT followed by .

For that, a negative lookahead can be applied.

The syntax is: X(?!Y), it means "search X, but only if not followed by Y".

let str = "2 turkeys cost 60€";

alert( str.match(/\d+(?!€)/) ); // 2 (the price is skipped)


Lookahead allows to add a condition for “what follows”.

Lookbehind is similar, but it looks behind. That is, it allows to match a pattern only if there’s something before it.

The syntax is:

  • Positive lookbehind: (?<=Y)X, matches X, but only if there’s Y before it.
  • Negative lookbehind: (?<!Y)X, matches X, but only if there’s no Y before it.

For example, let’s change the price to US dollars. The dollar sign is usually before the number, so to look for $30 we’ll use (?<=\$)\d+ – an amount preceded by $:

let str = "1 turkey costs $30";

// the dollar sign is escaped \$
alert( str.match(/(?<=\$)\d+/) ); // 30 (skipped the sole number)

And, if we need the quantity – a number, not preceded by $, then we can use a negative lookbehind (?<!\$)\d+:

let str = "2 turkeys cost $60";

alert( str.match(/(?<!\$)\d+/) ); // 2 (skipped the price)

Capturing groups

Generally, the contents inside lookaround parentheses does not become a part of the result.

E.g. in the pattern \d+(?=€), the sign doesn’t get captured as a part of the match. That’s natural: we look for a number \d+, while (?=€) is just a test that it should be followed by .

But in some situations we might want to capture the lookaround expression as well, or a part of it. That’s possible. Just wrap that part into additional parentheses.

In the example below the currency sign (€|kr) is captured, along with the amount:

let str = "1 turkey costs 30€";
let regexp = /\d+(?=(€|kr))/; // extra parentheses around €|kr

alert( str.match(regexp) ); // 30, €

And here’s the same for lookbehind:

let str = "1 turkey costs $30";
let regexp = /(?<=(\$|£))\d+/;

alert( str.match(regexp) ); // 30, $


Lookahead and lookbehind (commonly referred to as “lookaround”) are useful when we’d like to match something depending on the context before/after it.

For simple regexps we can do the similar thing manually. That is: match everything, in any context, and then filter by context in the loop.

Remember, str.match (without flag g) and str.matchAll (always) return matches as arrays with index property, so we know where exactly in the text it is, and can check the context.

But generally lookaround is more convenient.

Lookaround types:

Pattern type matches
X(?=Y) Positive lookahead X if followed by Y
X(?!Y) Negative lookahead X if not followed by Y
(?<=Y)X Positive lookbehind X if after Y
(?<!Y)X Negative lookbehind X if not after Y


There’s a string of integer numbers.

Create a regexp that looks for only non-negative ones (zero is allowed).

An example of use:

let regexp = /your regexp/g;

let str = "0 12 -5 123 -18";

alert( str.match(regexp) ); // 0, 12, 123

The regexp for an integer number is \d+.

We can exclude negatives by prepending it with the negative lookahead: (?<!-)\d+.

Although, if we try it now, we may notice one more “extra” result:

let regexp = /(?<!-)\d+/g;

let str = "0 12 -5 123 -18";

console.log( str.match(regexp) ); // 0, 12, 123, 8

As you can see, it matches 8, from -18. To exclude it, we need to ensure that the regexp starts matching a number not from the middle of another (non-matching) number.

We can do it by specifying another negative lookbehind: (?<!-)(?<!\d)\d+. Now (?<!\d) ensures that a match does not start after another digit, just what we need.

We can also join them into a single lookbehind here:

let regexp = /(?<![-\d])\d+/g;

let str = "0 12 -5 123 -18";

alert( str.match(regexp) ); // 0, 12, 123

Есть строка с HTML-документом.

Вставьте после тега <body> (у него могут быть атрибуты) строку <h1>Hello</h1>.


let regexp = /ваше регулярное выражение/;

let str = `
  <body style="height: 200px">

str = str.replace(regexp, `<h1>Hello</h1>`);

После этого значение str:

  <body style="height: 200px"><h1>Hello</h1>

Для того, чтобы вставить после тега <body>, нужно вначале его найти. Будем использовать регулярное выражение <body.*>.

Далее, нам нужно оставить сам тег <body> на месте и добавить текст после него.

Это можно сделать вот так:

let str = '...<body style="...">...';
str = str.replace(/<body.*>/, '$&<h1>Hello</h1>');

alert(str); // ...<body style="..."><h1>Hello</h1>...

В строке замены $& означает само совпадение, то есть мы заменяем <body.*> заменяется на самого себя плюс <h1>Hello</h1>.

Альтернативный вариант – использовать ретроспективную проверку:

let str = '...<body style="...">...';
str = str.replace(/(?<=<body.*>)/, `<h1>Hello</h1>`);

alert(str); // ...<body style="..."><h1>Hello</h1>...

Такое регулярное выражение на каждой позиции будет проверять, не идёт ли прямо перед ней <body.*>. Если да – совпадение найдено. Но сам тег <body.*> в совпадение не входит, он только участвует в проверке. А других символов после проверки в нём нет, так что текст совпадения будет пустым.

Происходит замена “пустой строки”, перед которой идёт <body.*> на <h1>Hello</h1>. Что, как раз, и есть вставка этой строки после <body>.

P.S. Этому регулярному выражению не помешают флаги: /<body.*>/si, чтобы в “точку” входил перевод строки (тег может занимать несколько строк), а также чтобы теги в другом регистре типа <BODY> тоже находились.

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