The code from here accesses groups of a regular expression match in a buffer in interactive mode:

(let ((re (concat "\\([ \t]*" org-clock-string " *\\)"
                        "\\(?:[ \t]*=>.*\\)?")))
        (when (looking-at re)
          (let ((indentation (match-string 1))
                (start (match-string 2))
                (to (match-string 3))
                (end (match-string 4))
                (use-start-as-default (equal end-as-default nil)))

But match-string n fails with in non-interactive mode, for example in the *scratch* buffer:

(string-match "\\([0-9]?[0-9]\\):\\([0-9]\\{2\\}\\)" "09:20")

(match-string 0)
#("save" 0 4 (fontified nil face font-lock-comment-face))

How can I access regular expression groups outside a buffer?

Update: after reading Strange behaviour of match-string/string-match adding the optional argument to match-string doesn't help and I get an error:

(string-match "\\([0-9]?[0-9]\\):\\([0-9]\\{2\\}\\)" "09:20")

(match-string 0 "09:20") ;; Debugger entered--Lisp error: (args-out-of-range "09:20" 9 15)

When I run it again, then the last expression returns "09:20", even after I restart Emacs ([this thread from the comments]. When I run the code in emacs -q -nw, then I get the error above.

  • 2
    Does this answer your question? Strange behaviour of match-string/string-match
    – Drew
    Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 16:52
  • 1
    I believe you are running into the problem that @Stefan identified in the comments to my answer. Can you try to reproduce with (progn (string-match ...) (match-string ...))?
    – NickD
    Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 23:19
  • 1
    "suggests that match data persists across sessions" -- this is absolutely not true. Moreover, you mustn't assume that the match data will persist for even the duration of a single command. What you should take in from that Q&A is everything the accepted answer tells you -- which is essentially that "If you evaluate the lines one by one, the match object will most certainly be mutated in that time" (i.e. what NickD's comment above this one -- and much of the text and comments in his earlier answer -- is pointing out).
    – phils
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 6:08
  • 2
    In short, the match data is used a lot by Emacs -- your code is not the only code using it. So if you want a value from it, you need to make sure you do so before anything else has an opportunity to set it.
    – phils
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 6:16
  • 1
    Also cross-referencing with emacs.stackexchange.com/a/18345
    – phils
    Commented Mar 30, 2020 at 19:26

1 Answer 1


The doc string of match-string says:

(match-string NUM &optional STRING)

This function does not change global state, including the match data.

Return string of text matched by last search. NUM specifies which parenthesized expression in the last regexp. Value is nil if NUMth pair didn’t match, or there were less than NUM pairs. Zero means the entire text matched by the whole regexp or whole string. STRING should be given if the last search was by ‘string-match’ on STRING. If STRING is nil, the current buffer should be the same buffer the search/match was performed in.

(emphasis added)

IOW, when you are doing match-string after doing string-match, you have to pass the string that you searched in as an argument to match-string. match-string only knows about beginning and ending indices: if you don't give it the string argument, it assumes that you did a search in the buffer and gets a substring out of the buffer (probably somewhere near the beginning). It does not know that you did a string-match unless you tell it by passing to it the string argument.

As @Stefan points out in the comments, it is important to take precautions not to trash the match data (trashing the match data is easy to do: basically, most emacs functions do not try to preserve the match data, so you need to save the various matches you are interested in as soon as possible after the match data are calculated and before any such functions are called - as Stefan points out, typing an expression into the *scratch* buffer and evaluating it, and then typing another expression and evaluating it is going to run a lot of emacs code between - and during - the code evaluations that might very well trash the match data produced in the first evaluation).

And, as in the accepted answer to match-data fails to consider only last search with string-match and persists across sessions, you should test the match before using match-data:

match-string is stateful and "can" persist on consecutive searches even if your next string-match search returns nil.

The following should work:

(when (string-match "\\([0-9]?[0-9]\\):\\([0-9]\\{2\\}\\)" "09:20") ;; <-- skip when string fails to match
    (setq group-zero (match-string 0 "09:20")
      group-one  (match-string 1 "09:20")
      group-two  (match-string 2 "09:20")))
"20"     ;;<--- the value of the "when" is the value that the last setq returned since the string matched and all the setq's wer executed.

;; now that they are saved, we can examine them at leisure


  • 3
    If it work for you, you're just really lucky: there can be a lot of Elisp code run between two uses of C-x C-e (or equivalent), so there's no guarantee that the match data of one command is still available when you run the second command.
    – Stefan
    Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 17:24
  • 1
    C-j in lisp-interaction-mode is like C-x C-e in the sense that it does not try to preserve the match data between invocations, so you just got lucky.
    – Stefan
    Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 19:16
  • 1
    To be clear, some Emacs functions do preserve match-data -- the macro (save-match-data &rest BODY) exists specifically for this purpose -- but in general this isn't guaranteed, and so if you're using match-data it's up to you to make sure it can't be clobbered before you've used it.
    – phils
    Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 22:18
  • 2
    n.b. This tends to be easy to ensure -- unless you allow Emacs to enter a 'waiting' state (in which case it may start dealing with other things), you know that nothing has been done to match-data outside of the code that you can see. The progn wrapper in this instance serves the purpose perfectly.
    – phils
    Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 7:00
  • 1
    emacs.stackexchange.com/q/40896 is another Q&A on that topic.
    – phils
    Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 7:00

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