I would like to write a package that uses user defined regular expressions.

Is there a way to validate a regular expression is valid without having to perform a search, showing a helpful message when it's not?

2 Answers 2


If you want to check it interactively:

(defcustom foo "" "foo" :type 'regexp :group 'emacs)

Try giving it an invalid regexp and setting it, and it will raise an error.

Or if you want to test it programmatically, this predicate returns t for valid and nil for invalid, and when invalid it shows a message with the error type.

(defun regexp-valid-p (string)
  "Return nil if STRING is not a valid regexp."
  (condition-case err
      (prog1 t (string-match-p string ""))
    (error (message (error-message-string err))

This works because string-match-p and string-match return either nil or non-nil for any valid regexp, and they raise an error for an invalid regexp. The condition-case just captures the error, converts its message to an ordinary message instead, and returns nil for invalid and t for valid.

This solution comes almost directly from the definition of function widget-regexp-match (or function widget-regexp-validate) in standard library wid-edit.el.

In other words, I started from knowing that Customize checks validity of a field of :type regexp, and looked for the code that checked that.

Another programmatic solution, also found by looking in the Elisp source code: use function mh-index-parse-search-regexp, defined in standard library mh-search.el.


(mh-index-parse-search-regexp "\\(ab") ;; Raises an invalid-regexp error.

That function depends on these functions being defined:

  • mh-replace-string ; Defined in mh-utils.el.
  • mh-index-add-implicit-ops ; Defined in mh-search.el.
  • mh-index-evaluate ; Defined in mh-search.el.

Moral: If what you want to do seems like something that would be useful generally, there's a good chance it's already been done, and a good place to start looking is the source Lisp code provided with Emacs.


You can test a regular expression on a document with M-x re-builder and build it interactively. Faulty parts are highlighted.

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