How can emacs lisp match balanced parenthesis? for example: "foo(bar(),hee()) out()" should be match "foo(bar(),hee())".

I try below statement but it doesn't work:

#!/usr/bin/env emacs --script

(setq str "foo(bar(),hee()) out()")
(when (string-match "foo(.*?)" str)
  (print (match-string 0 str))

Currently, the output is:


But my expected output is:

  • A similar question: emacs.stackexchange.com/questions/30432/… My answer there is cexp.
    – Tobias
    Oct 15, 2018 at 20:50
  • 1
    Not a direct answer, but whatever your use case is, you're likely going to have a much better time using syntax-ppss if you want to find balanced parens. Oct 15, 2018 at 20:54
  • 2
    @beetlej Note that regular expressions cannot do what you are asking. You would instead use something like forward-sexp to move over a balanced expression.
    – phils
    Oct 15, 2018 at 21:01

1 Answer 1


As phils already pointed out in his comment forward-sexp is the function that parses balanced expressions.

You could modify your example as follows to match the balanced expression with vanilla emacs:

#!/usr/bin/env emacs --script
(setq str "foo(bar(),hee()) out()")
  (insert str)
  (goto-char (point-min))
  (let (end)
    (when (and (search-forward "foo(" nil t)
           (condition-case err
           (setq end (scan-sexps (1- (point)) 1))
         (scan-error nil)))
      (print (buffer-substring (match-beginning 0) end))

I already pointed out in my comment that I would use cexp. In that case the modified code would be:

#!/usr/bin/env emacs --script
(setq str "foo(bar(),hee()) out()")
(require 'cexp)
  (insert str)
  (goto-char (point-min))
  (when (cexp-search-forward "foo\\!(\\`(\\!)" nil t)
    (print (match-string 0))))

The parts of the combined expression "foo\\!(\\`(\\!)":

  • foo matches itself
  • \!(...\!) matches a balanced expression
  • \`... at the very beginning of the balanced expression...
  • ( should be a parenthesis
  • The cexp version works fine in emacs editor, but when run it as script, I got below error "Cannot open load file: No such file or directory, cexp". can I use require statement in script?
    – beetlej
    Oct 17, 2018 at 2:08
  • @beetlej Emacs does not load any initialization file with --script option. So no load-path modifications from your init files are executed. Either you save cexp.el into one of the directories in the compiled-in load-path, or you set the load path in your site-start.el file, or you replace the (require 'cexp) with (load-library "/absolute/path/to/cexp.el").
    – Tobias
    Oct 17, 2018 at 9:21

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