I am trying to use a regexp to match strings, e.g. a pattern that matches these kinds of quoted strings:

"test" or 'test' or 'test with "quote"' or "test with 'quote'"

This pattern matches all those,


but, it fails on "test\n" (and other control characters like \t and \r). I don't understand why \n (a newline) is so special it doesn't match [^\\1] which I thought was a character that doesn't match the opening quote. Is this expected?

If I replace [^\\1] with . then it works on all the strings, including the one with \n in it. I guess it is ok because +? makes it nongreedy so it seems to not over match.

Note, this question originated from How to highlight in different colors for variables inside `fstring` on python-mode.

  • Would you mind linking where I can see what ^\1 matches? regexps and their docs give me a migraine every time I need to use one.
    – RichieHH
    Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 14:07
  • 1
    Are (negated) backreferences allowed inside character alternatives in Emacs regular expressions? The manual neither confirms or denies that, as far as I can tell (gnu.org/software/emacs/manual/html_node/elisp/…)
    – rpluim
    Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 14:14
  • @RichieHH \\1 should match whatever is in the first group, which in this case is (\"\|'), i.e. a " or a '. The syntax [^\1] (I thought) would match any character that is not \1. Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 14:20
  • 1
    And one more bit of info: '\' is not special inside characacter alternatives according to the last paragraph of gnu.org/software/emacs/manual/html_node/emacs/Regexps.html , so I think that means backreferences aren't allowed.
    – rpluim
    Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 15:15
  • 1
    @Hubisan, your [^\\1] is matching 'anything except backslash or 1'.
    – rpluim
    Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 15:53

2 Answers 2


[^\\1] and [^\1] match the same thing: any single character except 1 or \. The doc is clear about this. \ and 1 are not special inside [...].

Negation, other than in a character alternative, is not possible using a regular expression. Use Lisp code instead. For example, find something that might include what you don't want, test it, and exclude it if it's something you don't want.

(Suggestion: describe your real problem - the problem for which you thought regexp-searching would provide a solution directly.)

  • Actually, [^\1] matches anything excepts Ctrl-A.
    – rpluim
    Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 16:10
  • @rpluim No, [^\1] and [\\1] do what Drew said if this character sequence is not part of a string to be read by the Elisp reader. Only the reader translates \1 within a string to the character with code 1. Drew did not say anything about that.
    – Tobias
    Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 17:00
  • @Tobias Oh, I was testing in ielm, that explains it.
    – rpluim
    Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 17:52

You asked about regexps. But from my perspective this is rather an X-Y-problem.

This is an answer to your real question how to find strings in buffers with major mode derived from prog-mode assuming that its syntax table is set-up.

Instead of trying to compose a suitable regexp you can use the syntax parser built-in to Emacs. The following code shows how you can do that.

The main tools are:

  • syntax-ppss for requesting the current state of the syntax parser
  • parse-partial-sexp for fleeing comments and for finding the beginning of strings (and comments)
  • scan-sexp for finding the end of the string

Note, that it should be possible to use this function as MATCHER for font-lock-keywords and related.

(defun my-find-next-string (&optional bound)
  "Find the next string up to BOUND.
BOUND defaults to `point-max'.
If we start within a string we skip to its end
and start there with the search."
  (unless bound
    (setq bound (point-max)))
  (let ((state (syntax-ppss))
    ;; starting within string or comment:
    (when (nth 8 state)
      (setq state (parse-partial-sexp (point)
                      nil nil
    ;; searching for strings, skipping comments
    (while (and
        (setq state (parse-partial-sexp (point)
                        nil nil
        (< (point) bound)
        (null (setq start (and (nth 3 state)
                   (nth 8 state)))))) ;; inside string
    (when start
       (list (goto-char start)
         (goto-char (scan-sexps (point) 1))
  • 1
    +1. But it depends on the current syntax defining "string" as indicated in the Q, i.e., double-quoted or single-quoted, with possibly embedded single-quoted or double-quoted, respectively. (But how many such nestings are allowed? Unspecified.) (And I agree with you about this likely being an X-Y problem.)
    – Drew
    Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 18:30
  • @Drew This is not really about nestings. In a double-quoted string you can use as many single-quotes you want but you need to escape every double-quote. In a single-quoted string you can use double-quotes without escape but you must escape single-quotes.
    – Tobias
    Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 20:34
  • One can imagine a syntax that allows, for example (and for whatever reason) a string with nested syntax, such as "aaa 'bb "ccc cc" bbb' aaaa". The question isn't specific about what "string" syntax to respect. That's what I meant about the syntax not being well specified - OP just gave some examples.
    – Drew
    Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 22:11
  • @Drew Okay fair enough. I referred in my comment to the Python context which the OP gave.
    – Tobias
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 3:44

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