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Feature: Powerful new text-processing functions

Calcapp now supports three new text-processing functions, enabling you to determine if text matches a certain pattern and to extract and replace text, also using patterns. The three functions use so-called regular expressions.

Apps created with Calcapp are typically used to perform numeric calculations, but you can also process text. We support most of the text-processing formula functions spreadsheets offer. These are the most frequently-used text functions (there’s more information in the reference sidebar):

  • LEN returns the length of a text string. LEN("Abc") returns 3.
  • REPT repeats a text string a given number of times. REPT("Abc", 3) returns “AbcAbcAbc”.
  • LEFT, RIGHT and MID are used to extract text using indices. LEFT("Abc", 2) returns “Ab”, the first two characters counting from the left-hand side, and RIGHT("Abc", 2) returns “bc”. MID("Abc", 2, 1) returns “b”, because “b” starts at position two and has a length of one.
  • TRIM removes excess space characters from a text string. TRIM(" Abc ") returns “Abc”.
  • LOWER and UPPER convert text to lower-case and upper-case, respectively. LOWER("Abc") returns “abc” and UPPER("Abc") returns “ABC”.
  • FIND searches a text string nestled within another text string and returns its position. FIND("bc", "Abc") returns 2, because “bc” starts at that index in “Abc”.
  • REPLACE replaces part of a text string, identified using numeric indices, with a different text string. REPLACE("Abc", 1, 2, "De") returns “Dec”.
  • SUBSTITUTE substitutes new text for old text in a text string. SUBSTITUTE("Abc", "Ab", "De") also returns “Dec.”

While these functions are quite versatile, there are many things they cannot easily do, including:

  • Determining if a text string represents a phone number.
  • Ensuring that a password starts with a letter and is followed by any number of letters or numbers.
  • Extracting the fourth word from a sentence.
  • Replacing the fourth word in a sentence with the third word from the same sentence.

Three new text-processing functions enable this and more. What they have in common is that they expect you to write so-called regular expressions.

Calcapp’s regular expression dialect

A regular expression is a specially-crafted text string which can be used to find text strings within other text strings. They are very powerful, but can also be difficult to understand. There are entire books devoted to the topic (including the Calcapp team’s favorite book on the subject) and numerous online tutorials (here’s one we like to use). In this post, we’ll provide a basic introduction, but you’ll have to consult other sources to truly master regular expressions.

Spreadsheets don’t typically support regular expressions. Google Sheets, however, supports the three functions REGEXMATCH, REGEXEXTRACT and REGEXREPLACE. REGEXMATCH returns whether a text string matches a regular expression, REGEXEXTRACT extracts parts of a text string using a regular expression and REGEXREPLACE replaces parts of a text string, again using a regular expression.

We have modeled our three new functions after the Google Sheets functions, but our functions offer features that go beyond Google’s offering. The new functionality is offered through optional parameters to the Calcapp functions, meaning that you should be able to copy and paste formulas which use REGEXMATCH, REGEXEXTRACT and REGEXREPLACE directly from Google Sheets and have them work correctly in apps you build with Calcapp.

Regular expressions are part of lots of products and they often use dialects which aren’t quite compatible with one another. Google Sheets uses a dialect called RE2 and Calcapp uses the JavaScript dialect (with certain additions).

Introducing regular expressions through the REGEXMATCH function

The REGEXMATCH function is the most basic function Calcapp offers that uses regular expressions. It returns TRUE if a text string matches a regular expression and FALSE otherwise. The first parameter is the text string which may or may not match the regular expression, which is given as the second parameter.

Does “bc” appear within “Abc”? The following formula returns TRUE to indicate that it does: REGEXMATCH("Abc", "bc").

Of course, you can determine the same thing with the FIND function. The true value in regular expressions is their support for special characters, which can match not just literal characters but entire classes of characters, such as all letters, all numbers or even all vowels, and more.

Matching a number

Some special characters are preceded by a backslash character, like \d, which matches a single number. That means that REGEXMATCH("5", "\d") returns TRUE but REGEXMATCH("a", "\d") returns FALSE.

You can also spell out a number of permitted characters by enclosing them in brackets. [0123456789] is equivalent to \d, meaning that REGEXMATCH("5", "[0123456789]") also returns TRUE.

Within brackets, you can use character ranges. [0-9] means “zero through nine” and is, again, equivalent to [0123456789] and \d.

Matching a letter and whitespace

Character ranges work for letters too, so [a-z] matches all lower-case letters in the English alphabet, [A-Z] matches all upper-case letters and [a-zA-Z] matches all letters, regardless of case. [^a-z] is a negated character range (note the caret at the beginning) and matches any character which is not a lower-case letter. REGEXMATCH("(", "[^a-z]") returns TRUE, because the opening parenthesis is not a letter.

There is also the special character \w, which is equivalent to [a-zA-Z0-9_] and thus matches any letter, digit or underscore. \s matches any whitespace character, which is an invisible character such as an actual space or a tab character.

Putting it all together, REGEXMATCH("Abc10", "[A-Z][a-z][a-z]\d\d") returns TRUE, but REGEXMATCH("Abc1", "[A-Z][a-z][a-z]\d\d") returns FALSE, as the regular expression expects two trailing numbers.

Repetition

To handle repetition, regular expressions offer “curly braces,” which you use to specify the number of characters you expect. \d{3} is equivalent to \d\d\d and only matches three digits. \d{3,5} matches three digits, four digits or five digits, meaning that REGEXMATCH("four", "[a-z]{3,5}") returns TRUE, as “four” has four characters. \d{3,} matches at least three digits and \d{,3} matches at most three digits.

Use the special character + to indicate that one or more characters are accepted, * to indicate that zero or more characters are accepted and ? to indicate that zero or one character is accepted. REGEXMATCH("Abc10", "[a-zA-Z]+[0-9]+") returns TRUE, as does REGEXMATCH("A1", "[a-zA-Z]+[0-9]+"), as the regular expression only stipulates that the text string must have one or more letters followed by one or more numbers. [a-zA-Z]*[0-9]* (note that the + has been replaced by *) actually accepts zero letters followed by zero numbers, meaning that REGEXMATCH("1", "[a-zA-Z]*[0-9]*") returns TRUE, as does REGEXMATCH("", "[a-zA-Z]*[0-9]*"). [a-z]?\d matches a letter followed by a number but also matches just a number, as the question mark makes the letter optional.

Use parentheses to repeat entire expressions. While \d{3} matches exactly three digits, (\d[a-z]){3} matches a number followed by a letter, but only if this combination is repeated three times. REGEXMATCH("1a2b3c", "(\d[a-z]){3}") returns TRUE, but REGEXMATCH("1a2b", "(\d[a-z]){3}") returns FALSE (the third repetition is missing).

Alternation

Parentheses can also be used to specify alternation in a regular expression in conjunction with the special character, |. Alternation here means “either or,” in the sense “match this text string or match that other text string.”

As a simple example, REGEXMATCH("this", "(this|that)") and REGEXMATCH("that", "(this|that)") both return TRUE.

Matching any character

The period is a special character in regular expressions, as it matches anything. .+\d matches any number of characters followed by a number, meaning that REGEXMATCH("test1", ".+\d") returns TRUE but REGEXMATCH("0", ".+\d") returns FALSE (there must be a character — any character — before the number).

[^\d]+\d is mostly equivalent to .+\d (“match at least one character which is not a number, followed by a single number”). Generally speaking, it runs faster, so we suggest that you try to use a negated character group instead of a period whenever possible.

Anchoring a match

The ^ and $ characters are anchors which allow you to anchor your regular expression to the beginning of the text string or to the end of it. REGEXMATCH("test0test", "\d") actually returns TRUE, because there is a single number in the text string (“test” is ignored). REGEXMATCH("test0test", "^\d$"), on the other hand, returns FALSE, as the number in the regular expression is anchored both to the beginning of the text string and to the end of it, meaning that the “test” parts make the test fail.

The \b special character is also an anchor and matches between words. Use it to separate whole words from one another. REGEXMATCH("testing", "\btest\b") returns FALSE, because “test” needs to appear on its own, but REGEXMATCH("this is a test", "\btest\b") returns TRUE.

Escaping special characters

Finally, if you need to match literal text that is in conflict with the special characters supported by regular expressions, you need to escape that text by placing backslashes before the problematic characters. REGEXMATCH("\d", "\d") returns FALSE, as “\d” isn’t a number, but REGEXMATCH("\d", "\\d") returns TRUE, because the extra backslash tells Calcapp that you want to match a literal backslash followed by “d”.

There are many features supported by regular expressions which we haven’t covered here. If you’re consulting other sources on regular expressions, remember that the flavor Calcapp supports is the JavaScript dialect.

Additional REGEXMATCH features

Google Sheet’s version of REGEXMATCH also accepts two parameters and, with few exceptions, work exactly like Calcapp’s version. Calcapp accepts an additional two parameters, both of which are optional. If you care about bringing Calcapp formulas over to Google Sheets, you may want to ignore the extra parameters.

Set the third parameter to TRUE to make the match case-insensitive. REGEXMATCH("ABC", "bc") returns FALSE because of the differences in case, but REGEXMATCH("ABC", "bc", TRUE) returns TRUE.

The fourth parameter determines how the ^ and $ characters are interpreted. By default, ^ anchors the match to the beginning of the text string and $ to the end of it. By setting the fourth parameter to TRUE, you can make these anchors relative to a line instead of the whole text string, if the text string consists of multiple lines. This is especially useful with text fields with multiple lines.

Before demonstrating this fourth parameter, let’s briefly discuss what a line in a text string really is. When you press Enter on your keyboard to get a new line, what you’re doing is that you’re entering a special character, a line break character. When your computer sees the line break character, it knows that the text that follows should be presented on a new line. In Calcapp, you can produce a newline character using the CHAR formula function with the parameter 10, meaning that the formula "Line 1" & CHAR(10) & "Line 2" produces this text string:

Line 1
Line 2

REGEXMATCH("\.$", "Test string.") returns TRUE, because “Test string.” ends with a period. (Remember that the period is a special character and must be escaped with a leading backslash in order to be interpreted literally.) REGEXMATCH("\.$", "Line 1." & CHAR(10) & "Line 2") returns FALSE, though, because “Line 2” doesn’t end with a period and that’s the end of the text string. To get REGEXMATCH to consider “Line 1.” too and return TRUE, just set the fourth parameter to TRUE: REGEXMATCH("\.$", "Line 1." & CHAR(10) & "Line 2"), BLANK(), TRUE.

(Bonus Calcapp fact: Let’s say a formula function accepts four parameters, where the first two are required and the last two are optional. If you only provide the first two, the remaining two are set to their default values. What if you want to provide the fourth parameter but you’re fine with the default value of the third parameter? You can’t leave it out, but you can set it to a blank value. In other words, write BLANK() in place of that third parameter and its default value is used.)

Finding errors in regular expressions

It’s easy to make errors when writing regular expressions, especially when you’re starting out. Unfortunately, Calcapp Creator won’t complain if you write invalid regular expressions (they’re just text to Calcapp Creator).

Calcapp discovers errors in regular expressions only when you run your app. When it encounters an invalid regular expression, it returns an error value which displays as #VALUE!. If you hover your mouse cursor over #VALUE!, the message Invalid value error in the function “REGEXMATCH” appears, followed by a helpful error message.

Here’s a test app we wrote to ensure that all the formulas above are correct. We deliberately made a mistake and wrote REGEXMATCH("test0test", "(^\d$") (with an unclosed parenthesis). As you can see, the error message “unterminated group” is displayed when you hover your mouse cursor over the #VALUE! error:

An error message displayed for a regular expression

Enclosing part of a regular expression in parentheses makes that part a capturing group (which enables you to extract the characters that are part of the group, as discussed below). If a group is “unterminated,” it means that it’s missing its closing parenthesis.

Important: Errors, such as #VALUE! are only shown when your app is run in the preview sidebar or through connect.calcapp.net. Shared apps never display errors.

Extracting text using REGEXEXTRACT

Use the REGEXEXTRACT function to extract text using regular expressions. REGEXEXTRACT("This is a test", "\b\w{2}\b") returns “is”, because that is the only whole word with exactly two characters.

REGEXEXTRACT("The combination is 204228", "\d+") returns “204228”, but REGEXEXTRACT("The 99th combination is 204228", "\d+") returns “99”, because “99” appears first.

Aside from the two required parameters, which are also supported by Google Sheets, Calcapp also supports three additional, Calcapp-specific parameters. We’ll return to the third parameter, but the fourth parameter makes matching case-insensitive when set to TRUE (see above) and the fifth parameter, when set to TRUE, makes the ^ and $ anchors line-relative as opposed to relative to the entire text string (again, see above).

The third parameter should be set to a number, which specifies what capturing group should be returned. A capturing group enables you to extract very specific parts of a text string and is added to your regular expressions by enclosing these parts in parentheses. If the third parameter is not specified (or is set to BLANK()), the entire text string that matched is returned.

Consider REGEXEXTRACT("The 99th combination is 204228", "(\d+)[^\d]*(\d+)"). Here’s what the regular expression means: “Match one or several numbers and capture them, then match any number of characters which are not numbers and finally, match and capture one or several numbers.” As it is invoked without the third parameter, this function returns the entire text string that matches, that is, “99th combination is 204228.”

If the third parameter is set, though, only a specific group is returned. REGEXEXTRACT("The 99th combination is 204228", "(\d+)[^\d]*(\d+)", 1) (the only difference is that the third parameter is set to 1) returns “99”. With the third parameter set to 2, “204228” is returned.

Enclosing text in parentheses in a regular expression is useful not just when you need to extract certain information. As we saw earlier, (\d[a-z]){3} uses parentheses to match a number followed by a letter, but only if that combination is repeated three times. If you need to use parentheses with REGEXEXTRACT for that purpose and not as a means of extracting certain information, you can write (?: instead of ( to ensure that you’re not starting a capturing group.

Replacing text using REGEXREPLACE

The third and final new text-processing function is REGEXREPLACE, which replaces text using regular expressions: REGEXREPLACE("Abc", "Ab", "De") returns “Dec”, just like the SUBSTITUTE example used at the beginning of this post.

REGEXREPLACE is significantly more powerful than SUBSTITUTE, though, as it uses a regular expression to find the text string to replace. REGEXREPLACE("The 24th of May, 2019", "\d+", "") removes the first occurrence of a number in the text string and returns “The th of May, 2019”. It does this by replacing the first number with the empty text string, effectively removing it.

REGEXREPLACE requires three parameters, just like its Google Sheets counterpart. An additional three parameters are optional and specific to Calcapp. We’ll return to the fourth parameter, but the fifth parameter makes matching case-insensitive when set to TRUE (see above) and the sixth parameter, when set to TRUE, makes the ^ and $ anchors line-relative as opposed to relative to the entire text string (again, see above).

The fourth parameter may be set to TRUE if all matches and not just the first one should be replaced. As such, REGEXREPLACE("The 24th of May, 2019", "\d+", "", TRUE) returns “The th of May, “, effectively removing both numbers.

You can use capturing groups with REGEXREPLACE, just like with REGEXEXTRACT. The replacement text, given as the third parameter, can refer back to these capturing groups by writing a dollar sign ($) followed by the number of the capturing group. REGEXREPLACE("This is a sentence", "(\w+)\s+(\w+)\s+(\w+)\s+(\w+)", "$4 $3 $2 $1") returns “sentence a is This”, reversing the order of the words. The regular expression captures four words (the special character \w, which repeats one or many times), surrounded by spaces (the special character \s, which repeats one or many times).

Here’s a less contrived example: REGEXREPLACE("You owe me 42 dollars", "You owe me (-?\d+(?:\.\d+)?) dollars", "The amount you have to pay is $$$1."), which turns the sentence “You owe me 42 dollars” into “The amount you have to pay is $42.”, correctly capturing the given number.

There are a few things related to the regular expression that are worth discussing. First, (-?\d+(?:\.\d+)?) is used to match and capture a number. The presence of -? enables the number to be negative, with an optional minus symbol appearing before the rest of the number. \d+ requires the number to have at least one integer digit. (?:\.\d+)? captures the fractional part of the number (the “.19” in “-3.19”) and uses a non-capturing group starting with (?: as described above. In order to match a literal period, it has to be escaped, meaning that it is written \., otherwise the period would match any character. \d+ matches the actual fractional numbers. Finally, the group ends with ?, meaning that numbers don’t have to have fractional parts in order to match.

The replacement text string, “The amount you have to pay is $$$1.”, includes three dollar signs in a row. The first two dollar signs signify that a single literal dollar sign should be included – in replacement text strings, that’s how literal dollar signs must be written. The third dollar sign, followed by “1”, references the first capturing group and inserts the text string it captured.

Matching letters not in English

As we have seen, [a-zA-Z] can be used to match letters in English. Unfortunately, this only works for the 26 letters of the English alphabet. \w won’t work either, as it’s simply a concise way of writing [a-zA-Z0-9_].

To match a letter in any language, write p{L} instead. To match any character which is not a letter, write \p{^L}. REGEXMATCH("日本語", "\w+") returns FALSE, but REGEXMATCH("日本語", "\p{L}+") returns TRUE.

\p enables characters to be chosen from various categories, where letters are just one category of many. Another useful category is made up of currency symbols like “$”, “€” and “¥”. Match currency symbols using the “Sc” category, meaning that REGEXEXTRACT("$42", "\p{Sc}+") returns “$”.

For a more on regular expressions, read about our latest sample app, which uses regular expressions extensively.

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