JavaScript Lookahead and lookbehind

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

1. Lookahead

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 also immediately after X (skip if isn’t).
  4. If both tests passed, then the X is a match, otherwise continue searching.

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+ that is followed by a space (?=\s), and there’s 30 somewhere after it (?=.*30):

let str = "1 turkey costs 30€";

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

In our string that exactly matches the number 1.

2. 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+\b(?!€)/g) ); // 2 (the price is not matched)

3. Lookbehind

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(/(?<!\$)\b\d+/g) ); // 2 (the price is not matched)

4. 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, $

5. Summary

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:

X(?=Y)Positive lookaheadX if followed by Y
X(?!Y)Negative lookaheadX if not followed by Y
(?<=Y)XPositive lookbehindX if after Y
(?<!Y)XNegative lookbehindX if not after Y