Special characters, escape characters, and raw strings#

So far we’ve seen how to write regular expressions, using the . and [] and ^ and - and \ characters for some special purposes. You might have two questions:

  1. What if you want to match one of those characters?

  2. Doesn’t \ do special things in Python?

These are tricky points! Some languages have a special syntax for regular expressions, which can simplify some of the issues here. Python’s situation is a little bit more complicated. Let’s take it from the top.


When writing strings, the backslash character \ is used to “escape” special characters. That is, backslash is a signal to interpret the next character differently. We’ve already seen this with \n, which represents a newline. There are plenty of others, like \t to mean a “tab” (nominally, 4 or 8 spaces, but displayed in an “aligned” way).

We’ve also used the backslash character to work with quotes:

And if you want to write a literal backslash, you just write two of them, to “escape” the second backslash and turn off its special meaning:

Escaping in regular expressions#

To write a regular expression that matches against a literal dot, you just need to escape it, i.e., \w\w\w\.py matches abc.py and the end of food.py, but not snoopy.

Backslashes in Python regular expressions#

In Python, regular expressions start out as strings. Strings are a very handy interface—regular expressions are quite like the strings that they match against—but there’s a problem. Strings already use backslash for their own escaping!

To see the problem, suppose we wanted to write a regular expression matching the literal string \newpage. If we just write '\newpage' in Python, we might not like the result:

Oops! The \n got interpreted as a newline. To solve the problem, we can escape the first backslash, like so:

Great! But it turns out that Python’s regular expression parser will see that single backslash followed by an n and get confused:

The solution is to make sure the regex sees two backslashes, so that those are escaped internally. That is, we need to write:

Ouch! That’s a lot of slashes. There’s a better way.

Raw strings#

Python supports a special syntax for raw strings, written r"...". The ‘r’ stand for “raw” and it indicates that backslashes should not be an escape character, but should be interpreted exactly as is (more or less).

So we could instead write:

It’s not always necessary to use raw strings—if you write a backslash before characters that Python doesn’t normally do anything for, it leaves the backslash and the character in:

Which means that you don’t have to worry about raw strings or multiple backslashes for escaping most things, only for any of the following characters treated specially: \'"abfnNrtuUvx and digits. But keeping track of that list is tricky—why not avoid a nasty, hard-to-understand bug and use raw strings?

A common mistake#

Especially when thinking about numbers, it is a common mistake to write a literal . instead of the escaped one.

Character class nuances#

Finally, character classes have their own nuances.

  • If you want to include ] in a character class, either escape it with a backslash or put it first.

  • If you want to include - in a character class, either escape it with a backslash or put it first or last.

  • If you want to include ^ in a character class, don’t make it the first character.