An experiment involving matching regular expressions

Recommendations for/against particular programming constructs have one thing in common: there is no evidence backing up any of the recommendations. Running experiments to measure the impact of particular language features on developer performance is not something that researchers do (there have been a handful of experiments looking at the impact of strong typing on developer performance; the effect measured was tiny).

In February I discovered two groups researching regular expressions. In the first post on duplicate regexs, I promised to say something about the second group. This post discusses an experiment comparing developer comprehension of various regular expressions; the paper is: Exploring Regular Expression Comprehension.

The experiment involved 180 workers on Mechanical Turk (to be accepted, workers had to correctly answer four or five questions about regular expressions). Workers/subjects performed two different tasks, matching and composition.

  • In the matching task workers saw a regex and a list of five strings, and had to specify whether the regex matched (or not) each string (there was also an unsure response).
  • In the composition task workers saw a regular expression, and had to create a string matched by this regex. Each worker saw 10 different regexs, which were randomly drawn from a set of 60 regexs (which had been created to be representative of various regex characteristics). I have not analysed this data yet.

What were the results?

For the matching task: given each of the pairs of regexs below, which one (of each pair) would you say workers were most likely to get correct?

         R1                  R2
1.     tri[a-f]3         tri[abcdef]3
2.     no[w-z]5          no[wxyz]5
3.     no[w-z]5          no(w|x|y|z)5
4.     [ˆ0-9]            [\D]

The percentages correct for (1) were essentially the same, at 94.0 and 93.2 respectively. The percentages for (2) were 93.3 and 87.2, which is odd given that the regex is essentially the same as (1). Is this amount of variability in subject response to be expected? Is the difference caused by letters being much less common in text, so people have had less practice using them (sounds a bit far-fetched, but its all I could think of). The percentages for (3) are virtually identical, at 93.3 and 93.7.

The percentages for (4) were 58 and 73.3, which surprised me. But then I have been using regexs since before \D support was generally available. The MTurk generation have it easy not having to use the ‘hard stuff’ 😉

See Table III in the paper for more results.

This matching data might be analysed using Item Response theory, which can take into account differences in question difficulty and worker/subject ability. The plot below looks complicated, but only because there are so many lines. Each numbered colored line is a different regex, worker ability is on the x-axis (greater ability on the right), and the y-axis is the probability of giving a correct answer (code+data; thanks to Peipei Wang for fixing the bugs in my code):

Probability of giving a correct answer, by subject ability, for 60 regex matching questions

Yes, for question 51 the probability of a correct answer decreases with worker ability. Heads are being scratched about this.

There might be some patterns buried in amongst all those lines, e.g., particular kinds of patterns require a given level of ability to handle, or correct response to some patterns varying over the whole range of abilities. These are research questions, and this is a blog article: answers in the comments :-)

This is the first experiment of its kind, so it is bound to throw up more questions than answers. Are more incorrect responses given for longer regexs, particularly if they cannot be completely held in short-term memory? It is convenient for the author to use a short-hand for a range of characters (e.g., a-f), and I was expecting a difference in performance when all the letters were enumerated (e.g., abcdef); I had theories for either one being less error-prone (I obviously need to get out more).

Patterns of regular expression usage: duplicate regexs

Regular expressions are widely used, but until recently they were rarely studied empirically (i.e., just theory research).

This week I discovered two groups studying regular expression usage in source code. The VTLeeLab has various papers analysing 500K distinct regular expressions, from programs written in eight languages and StackOverflow; Carl Chapman and Peipei Wang have been looking at testing of regular expressions, and also ran an interesting experiment (I will write about this when I have decoded the data).

Regular expressions are interesting, in that their use is likely to be purely driven by an application requirement; the use of an integer literals may be driven by internal housekeeping requirements. The number of times the same regular expression appears in source code provides an insight (I claim) into the number of times different programs are having to solve the same application problem.

The data made available by the VTLeeLab group provides lots of information about each distinct regular expression, but not a count of occurrences in source. My email request for count data received a reply from James Davis within the hour :-)

The plot below (code+data; crates.io has not been included because the number of regexs extracted is much smaller than the other repos) shows the number of unique patterns (y-axis) against the number of identical occurrences of each unique pattern (x-axis), e.g., far left shows number of distinct patterns that occurred once, then the number of distinct patterns that each occur twice, etc; colors show the repositories (language) from which the source was obtained (to extract the regexs), and lines are fitted regression models of the form: NumPatterns = a*MultOccur^b, where: a is driven by the total amount of source processed and the frequency of occurrence of regexs in source, and b is the rate at which duplicates occur.

Number of distinct patterns occurring a given number of times in the source stored in various repositories

So most patterns occur once, and a few patterns occur lots of times (there is a long tail off to the unplotted right).

The following table shows values of b for the various repositories (languages):

StackOverflow   cpan    godoc    maven    npm  packagist   pypi   rubygems
    -1.8        -2.5     -2.5    -2.4    -1.9     -2.6     -2.7     -2.4

The lower (i.e., closer to zero) the value of b, the more often the same regex will appear.

The values are in the region of -2.5, with two exceptions; why might StackOverflow and npm be different? I can imagine lots of duplicates on StackOverflow, but npm (I’m not really familiar with this package ecosystem).

I am pleased to see such good regression fits, and close power law exponents (I would have been happy with an exponential fit, or any other equation; I am interested in a consistent pattern across languages, not the pattern itself).

Some of the code is likely to be cloned, i.e., cut-and-pasted from a function in another package/program. Copy rates as high as 70% have been found. In this case, I don’t think cloned code matters. If a particular regex is needed, what difference does it make whether the code was cloned or written from scratch?

If the same regex appears in source because of the same application requirement, the number of reuses should be correlated across languages (unless different languages are being used to solve different kinds of problems). The plot below shows the correlation between number of occurrences of distinct regexs, for each pair of languages (or rather repos for particular languages; top left is StackOverflow).

Correlation of number of identical pattern occurrences, between pairs of repositories.

Why is there a mix of strong and weakly correlated pairs? Is it because similar application problems tend to be solved using different languages? Or perhaps there are different habits for cut-and-pasted source for developers using different repositories (which will cause some patterns to occur more often, but not others, and have an impact on correlation but not the regression fit).

There are lot of other interesting things that can be done with this data, when connected to the results of the analysis of distinct regexs, but these look like hard work, and I have a book to finish.