Fossil: Fossil grep vs POSIX grep

Fossil SCM

As of Fossil 2.7, there is a grep command which acts roughly like POSIX's grep -E over all historical versions of a single file name. This document explains the commonalities and divergences between POSIX grep and Fossil grep.


Fossil grep supports only a small subset of the options specified for POSIX grep:

Option Meaning
-i ignore case in matches
-l list a checkin ID prefix for matching historical versions of the file
-v print each checkin ID considered, regardless of whether it matches

That leaves many divergences at the option level from POSIX grep:

  • There is no built-in way to get a count of matches, as with grep -c.

  • You cannot give more than one pattern, as with grep -e or grep -f.

  • There is no equivalent of grep -F to do literal fixed-string matches only.

  • fossil grep -l does not do precisely the same thing as POSIX grep -l: it lists checkin ID prefixes, not file names.

  • Fossil always gives the line number in its output, which is to say that it acts like grep -n. There is no way to disable the line number in fossil grep output.

  • There is no way to suppress all output, returning only a status code to indicate whether the pattern matched, as with grep -q.

  • There is no way to suppress error output, as with grep -s.

  • Fossil grep does not accept a directory name for Fossil to expand to the set of all files under that directory. This means Fossil grep has no equivalent of the common POSIX grep -R extension. (And if it did, it would probably have a different option letter, since -R in Fossil has a different meaning, by convention.)

  • You cannot invert the match, as with grep -v.

Patches to remove those limitations will be thoughtfully considered.

Regular Expression Dialect

Fossil contains a built-in regular expression engine implementing a subset of the POSIX extended regular expression dialect:

Atom Meaning
X* zero or more occurrences of X
X+ one or more occurrences of X
X? zero or one occurrences of X
X{p,q} between p and q occurrences of X, inclusive
(X) match X
X|Y X or Y
^X X occurring at the beginning of a line
X$ X occurring at the end of a line
. Match any single character
\c Character c where c is one of {}()[]|*+?.\
\c C-language escapes for c in afnrtv. ex: \t or \n
\uXXXX Where XXXX is exactly 4 hex digits, Unicode value XXXX
\xXX Where XX is exactly 2 hex digits, Unicode value XX
[abc] Any single character from the set abc
[^abc] Any single character not in the set abc
[a-z] Any single character in the range a-z
[^a-z] Any single character not in the range a-z
\b Word boundary
\w Word character: [A-Za-z0-9_]
\W Non-word character: [^A-Za-z0-9_]
\d Digit: [0-9]
\D Non-digit: [^0-9]
\s Whitespace character: [ \t\r\n\v\f]
\S Non-whitespace character: [^ \t\r\n\v\f]

There are several restrictions in Fossil grep relative to a fully POSIX compatible regular expression engine. Among them are:

  • There is currently no support for POSIX character classes such as [:lower:].

  • Fossil grep does not currently attempt to take your operating system's locale settings into account when doing this match. Since Fossil has no way to mark a given file as having a particular encoding, Fossil grep assumes the input files are in UTF-8 format.

    This means Fossil grep will not work correctly if the files in your repository are in an encoding that is not backwards-compatible with ASCII, such as UTF-16. Partially compatible encodings such as ISO 8859 should work with Fossil grep as long as you stick to their ASCII-compatible subset.

The Fossil grep language is not a strict subset of POSIX extended regular expressions. Some of the features documented above are well-understood extensions to it, such as the "word" features \b, \w and \W.

Fossil grep is based on the Unicode engine from SQLite's FTS5 feature. This means it does do things like Unicode-aware case folding. Therefore, it is usually a user error to attempt to substitute [a-z] for a lack of the POSIX character class [:lower:] if you are grepping over pretty much any human written language other than English. Use fossil grep -i instead, which does Unicode case folding.

Algorithm Details

Fossil grep uses a nondeterministic finite automaton for matching, so the performance is bounded by O(nm) where n is the size of the regular expression and m is the size of the input string.

In order to avoid ReDoS attacks, the Fossil regular expression matcher was purposely written to avoid implementation choices which have the potential to require exponential evaluation time. This constrains the possible feature set we can support in the Fossil grep dialect. For instance, we are unlikely to ever add support for backtracking.

The X{p,q} operator expands to p copies of X followed by q-p copies of X? before RE evaluation. The O(nm) performance bound above remains true for this case, but realize that it applies to the RE after this expansion, not to the form as given by the user. In other words, as q-p increases, so does the RE evaluation time.