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Chapter 6. Using Regular Expressions to Specify Simple Datatypes

Among the different facets available to restrict the lexical space of simple datatypes, the most flexible (and also the one that we will often use as a last resort when all the other facets are unable to express the restriction on a user-defined datatype) is based on regular expressions.

6.1. The Swiss Army Knife

Patterns (and regular expressions in general) are like a Swiss army knife when constraining simple datatypes. They are highly flexible, can compensate for many of the limitations of the other facets, and are often used to define user datatypes on various formats such as ISBN numbers, telephone numbers, or custom date formats. However, like a Swiss army knife, patterns have their own limitations.

Multirange datatypes (such as integers between -1 and 5 or 10 and 15) can be defined as a union of datatypes meeting the different ranges (in this case, we could perform a union between a datatype accepting integers between -1 and 5 and a second datatype accepting integers between 10 and 15); however, after the union, the resulting datatype loses its semantic of integer and cannot be constrained using integer facets any longer. Using patterns to define multirange datatypes is therefore an option: although less readable than using an union, it preserves the semantic of the base type.

Cutting a tree with a Swiss army knife is long, tiring, and dangerous. Writing regular expressions may also become long, tiring, and dangerous when the number of combinations grows. One should try to keep them as simple as possible.

A Swiss army knife cannot change lead into gold, and no facet can change the primary type of a simple datatype. A string datatype restricted to match a custom date format will still retain the properties of a string and will never acquire the facets of a datetime datatype. This means that there is no effective way to express localized date formats.

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