Extending ctags with Regex parser (optlib)

Maintainer:Masatake YAMATO <yamato@redhat.com>

Option files

An “option” file is a file in which command line options are written line by line. ctags loads it and runs as if the options in the file were passed in command line.

Following file is an example of option file.

# Exclude directories that don't contain real code
        # indentation is ignored

# can be used as a start marker of a line comment. Whitespaces at the start of lines are ignored during loading.

There are two categories of option files, though they both contain command line options: preload and optlib option files.

Preload option file

Preload option files are option files loaded by ctags automatically at start-up time. Which files are loaded at start-up time are very different from Exuberant-ctags.

At start-up time, Universal-ctags loads files having .ctags as a file extension under the following statically defined directories:

  1. $HOME/.ctags.d
  2. $HOMEDRIVE$HOMEPATH/.ctags.d (in Windows)
  3. .ctags.d
  4. ctags.d

ctags visits the directories in the order listed above for preloading files. ctags loads files having .ctags as file extension in alphabetical order (strcmp(3) is used for comparing, so for example .ctags.d/ZZZ.ctags will be loaded before .ctags.d/aaa.ctags).

Quoted from man page of Exuberant-ctags:

           /ctags.cnf (on MSDOS, MSWindows only)
           $HOME/ctags.cnf (on MSDOS, MSWindows only)
           ctags.cnf (on MSDOS, MSWindows only)
                          If any of these configuration files exist, each will
                          be expected to contain a set of default options
                          which are read in the order listed when ctags
                          starts, but before the CTAGS environment variable is
                          read or any command line options are read.  This
                          makes it possible to set up site-wide, personal or
                          project-level defaults. It is possible to compile
                          ctags to read an additional configuration file
                          before any of those shown above, which will be
                          indicated if the output produced by the --version
                          option lists the "custom-conf" feature. Options
                          appearing in the CTAGS environment variable or on
                          the command line will override options specified in
                          these files. Only options will be read from these
                          files.  Note that the option files are read in
                          line-oriented mode in which spaces are significant
                          (since shell quoting is not possible). Each line of
                          the file is read as one command line parameter (as
                          if it were quoted with single quotes). Therefore,
                          use new lines to indicate separate command-line

What follows explains the differences and their intentions…

Directory oriented configuration management

Exuberant-ctags provides a way to customize ctags with options like --langdef=<LANG> and --regex-<LANG>. These options are powerful and make ctags popular for programmers.

Universal-ctags extends this idea; we have added new options for defining a parser, and have extended existing options. Defining a new parser with the options is more than “customizing” in Universal-ctags.

To make it easier to maintain a parser defined using the options, you can put each parser language in a different options file. Universal-ctags doesn’t preload a single file. Instead, Universal-ctags loads all files having the .ctags extension under the previously specified directories. If you have multiple parser definitions, put them in different files.

Avoiding option incompatibility issues

The Universal-ctags options are different from those of Exuberant-ctags, therefore Universal-ctags doesn’t load any of the files Exuberant-ctags loads at start-up. Otherwise there would be incompatibility issues if Exuberant-ctags loaded an option file that used a newly introduced option in Universal-ctags, and vice versa.

No system wide configuration

To make the preload path list short and because it was rarely ever used, Universal-ctags does not load any option files for system wide configuration. (i.e., no /etc/ctags.d)

Use .ctags for the file extension

Extensions .cnf and .conf are obsolete. Use the unified extension .ctags only.

Optlib option file

From a syntax perspective, there is no difference between optlib option files and preload option files; ctags options are written line by line in a file.

Optlib option files are option files not loaded at start-up time automatically. To load an optlib option file, specify a pathname for an optlib option file with --options=PATHNAME option explicitly. The pathname can be just the filename if it’s in the current directory.

Exuberant-ctags has the --options option, but you can only specify a single file to load. Universal-ctags extends the option two aspects: you can specify a directory to load all files in that directory, and you can specify a path search list to look in. See next section for details.

Specifying a directory

If you specify a directory instead of a file as the argument for the --options=PATHNAME, Universal-ctags will load all files having a .ctags extension under the directory in alphabetical order.

Specifying an optlib path search list

For loading a file (or directory) specified in --options=PATHNAME, ctags searches “optlib path list” first if the option argument (PATHNAME) doesn’t start with ‘/’ or ‘.’. If ctags finds a file, ctags loads it.

If ctags doesn’t find a file in the path list, ctags loads a file (or directory) at the specified pathname.

By default, optlib path list is empty. To set or add a directory path to the list, use --optlib-dir=PATH.

For setting (adding one after clearing):


For adding:


Tips for writing an option file

  • Use --quiet --options=NONE to disable preloading.
  • Two options are introduced for debugging the process of loading option files.


    Prints MSG to standard error immediately.


    Exit immediately with the status of the specified NUM.

  • Universal-ctags has an optlib2c script that translates an option file into C source code. Your optlib parser can thus easily become a built-in parser, by contributing to Universal-ctags’ github. You could be famous! Examples are in the optlib directory in Universal-ctags source tree.

Regular expression (regex) engine

Universal-ctags currently uses the same regex engine as Exuberant-ctags does: the POSIX.2 regex engine in GNU glibc-2.10.1. By default it uses the Extended Regular Expressions (ERE) syntax, as used by most engines today; however it does not support many of the “modern” extensions such as lazy captures, non-capturing grouping, atomic grouping, possessive quantifiers, look-ahead/behind, etc. It is also notoriously slow when backtracking, and has some known “quirks” with respect to escaping special characters in bracket expressions.

For example, a pattern of [^\]]+ is invalid in POSIX.2, because the ] is not special inside a bracket expression, and thus should not be escaped. Most regex engines ignore this subtle detail in POSIX.2, and instead allow escaping it with \] inside the bracket expression and treat it as the literal character ]. GNU glibc, however, does not generate an error but instead considers it undefined behavior, and in fact it will match very odd things. Instead you must use the more unintuitive [^]]+ syntax. The same is technically true of other special characters inside a bracket expression, such as [^\)]+, which should instead be [^)]+. The [^\)]+ will appear to work usually, but only because what it is really doing is matching any character but \ or ). The only exceptions for using \ inside a bracket expression are for \t and \n, which ctags converts to their single literal character control codes before passing the pattern to glibc.

Another detail to keep in mind is how the regex engine treats newlines. Universal-ctags compiles the regular expressions in the --regex-<LANG> and --mline-regex-<LANG> options with REG_NEWLINE set. What that means is documented in the POSIX spec. One obvious effect is that the regex special dot any-character . does not match newline characters, the ^ anchor does match right after a newline, and the $ anchor matches right before a newline. A more subtle issue is this text from the Regular Expressions chapter: “the use of literal <newline>s or any escape sequence equivalent produces undefined results”. What that means is using a regex pattern with [^\n]+ is invalid, and indeed in glibc produces very odd results. Never use \n in patterns for --regex-<LANG>, and never use them in non-matching bracket expressions for --mline-regex-<LANG> patterns. For the experimental --_mtable-regex-<LANG> you can safely use \n because that regex is not compiled with REG_NEWLINE.

You should always test your regex patterns against test files with strings that do and do not match. Pay particular emphasis to when it should not match, and how much it matches when it should. A common error is forgetting that a POSIX.2 ERE engine is always greedy; the * and + quantifiers match as much as possible, before backtracking from the end of their match.

For example this pattern:


Will match this entire string, not just the first part:

foobar, bar, and even more bar

Regex option argument flags

Many regex-based options described in this document support additonal arguments in the form of long flags. Long flags are specified with surrounding { and }.

The general format and placement is as follows:


Some examples:

--regex-Pod=/^=head1[ \t]+(.+)/\1/c/

Note that the last example only has two / forward slashes following the regex pattern, as a shortened form when no kind-spec exists.

The --mline-regex-<LANG> option also follows the above format. The experimental --_mtable-regex-<LANG> option follows a slightly modified version as well.

The --langdef=<LANG> option also supports long flags, but not using forward-slash separators.

Regex control flags

The regex matching can be controlled by adding flags to the --regex-<LANG>, --mline-regex-<LANG>, and experimental --_mtable-regex-<LANG> options. This is done by either using the single character short flags b, e and i flags as explained in the ctags.1 man page, or by using long flags described earlier. The long flags require more typing but are much more readable.

The mapping between the older short flag names and long flag names is:

short flag long flag description
b basic Posix basic regular expression syntax.
e extend Posix extended regular expression syntax (default).
i icase Case-insensitive matching.

So the following --regex-<LANG> expression:


is the same as:


The characters { and } may not be suitable for command line use, but long flags are mostly intended for option files.

Exclusive flag in regex

By default, lines read from the input files will be matched with all regular expressions defined with --regex-<LANG>. Each matched regular expression will successfully emit a tag.

In some cases another policy, exclusive-matching, is preferable to the all-matching policy. Exclusive-matching means the rest of regular expressions are not tried if one of regular expressions is matched successfully, for that input line.

For specifying exclusive-matching the flags exclusive (long) and x (short) were introduced. For example, this is used in optlib/gdbinit.ctags for ignoring comment lines in gdb files, as follows:


Comments in gbd files start with # so the above line is the first regex match line in gdbinit.ctags, so that subsequent regex matches are not tried for the input line.

If an empty name pattern(//) is used for the --regex-<LANG> option, ctags warns it as a wrong usage of the option. However, if the flags exclusive or x is specified, the warning is suppressed.

NOTE: This flag does not make sense in the multi-line --mline-regex-<LANG> option nor the multi-table --_mtable-regex-<LANG> option.

Experimental flags


These flags are experimental. They apply to all regex option types: basic --regex-<LANG>, multi-line --mline-regex-<LANG>, and the experimental multi-table --_mtable-regex-<LANG> option.


This flag indicates the tag should only be generated if the given ‘extra’ type is enabled, as explained in Conditional tagging with extras.


This flag allows a regex match to add additional custom fields to the generated tag entry, as explained in Adding custom fields to the tag output.


This flag allows a regex match to generate a reference tag entry and specify the role of the reference, as explained in Capturing reference tags.

Ghost kind in regex parser

If a whitespace is used as a kind letter, it is never printed when ctags is called with --list-kinds option. This kind is automatically assigned to an empty name pattern.

Normally you don’t need to know this.

Scope tracking in a regex parser

With the scope long flag, you can record/track scope context. A stack is used for tracking the scope context.


Push the tag captured with a regex pattern to the top of the stack. If you don’t want to record this tag but just push, use placeholder long option together.


Refer to the thing at the top of the stack as a scope where the tag captured with a regex pattern is. The stack is not modified with this specification. If the stack is empty, this flag is just ignored.


Pop the thing at the top of the stack. If the stack is empty, this flag is just ignored.


Make the stack empty.


Clear then push.


Don’t print a tag captured with a regex pattern to a tag file. This is useful when you need to push non-named context information to the stack. Well known non-named scope in C language is established with {. A non- named scope never appears in tags file as a name or scope name. However, pushing it is important to balance push and pop.

Example 1:

# in /tmp/input.foo
class foo:
def bar(baz):
class goo:
def gar(gaz):
# in /tmp/foo.ctags:

$ ctags --options=/tmp/foo.ctags -o - /tmp/input.foo
bar     /tmp/input.foo  /^    def bar(baz):$/;" d       class:foo
foo     /tmp/input.foo  /^class foo:$/;"        c
gar     /tmp/input.foo  /^    def gar(gaz):$/;" d       class:goo
goo     /tmp/input.foo  /^class goo:$/;"        c

Example 2:

// in /tmp/input.pp
class foo {
        int bar;
# in /tmp/pp.ctags:

$ ctags --options=/tmp/pp.ctags -o - /tmp/input.pp
bar     /tmp/input.pp   /^    include bar$/;"   v       class:foo
foo     /tmp/input.pp   /^class foo {$/;"       c

NOTE: This flag doesn’t work well with --mline-regex-<LANG>=.

Overriding the letter for file kind

One of the built-in tag kinds in Universal-ctags is the F file kind. Overriding the letter for file kind is not allowed in Universal-ctags.


Don’t use F as a kind letter in your parser. (See issue #317 on github)

Generating fully qualified tags automatically from scope information

If scope fields are filled properly with {scope=…} regex flags, you can use the field values for generating fully qualified tags. About the {scope=..} flag itself, see “FLAGS FOR –regex-<LANG> OPTION” section of ctags-optlib(7) man page or Universal-ctags parser definition language.

Specify {_autoFQTag} to the end of --langdef=<LANG> option like -langdef=Foo{_autoFQTag} to make ctags generate fully qualified tags automatically.

. is the default separator combining names into a fully qualified tag. It is not customizable yet.


class X
   var y


--regex-foo=/class ([A-Z]*)/\1/c/{scope=push}
--regex-foo=/[ \t]*var ([a-z]*)/\1/v/{scope=ref}


$ u-ctags --quiet --options=NONE --options=./foo.ctags -o - input.foo
X       input.foo       /^class X$/;"   c
y       input.foo       /^      var y$/;"       v       class:X

$ u-ctags --quiet --options=NONE --options=./foo.ctags --extras=+q -o - input.foo
X       input.foo       /^class X$/;"   c
X.y     input.foo       /^      var y$/;"       v       class:X
y       input.foo       /^      var y$/;"       v       class:X

“X.y” is printed as a fully qualified tag when --extras=+q is given.

Multi-line pattern match

We often need to scan multiple lines to generate a tag, whether due to needing contextual information to decide whether to tag or not, or to constrain generating tags to only certain cases, or to grab multiple substrings to generate the tag name.

Universal-ctags has two ways to accomplish this: multi-line regex options, and an experimental multi-table regex options described later.

The newly introduced --mline-regex-<LANG> is similar to --regex-<LANG> except the pattern is applied to the whole file’s contents, not line by line.

This example is based on an issue #219 posted by @andreicristianpetcu:

// in input.java:

public void catchEvent(SomeEvent e)

public void
recover(Exception e)

The above java code is similar to the Java Spring framework. The @Subscribe annotation is a keyword for the framework, and the developer would like to have a tag generated for each method annotated with @Subscribe, using the name of the method followed by a dash followed by the type of the argument. For example the developer wants the tag name Event-SomeEvent generated for the first method shown above.

To accomplish this, the developer creates a spring.ctags file with the following:

# in spring.ctags:
--mline-regex-javaspring=/@Subscribe([[:space:]])*([a-z ]+)[[:space:]]*([a-zA-Z]*)\(([a-zA-Z]*)/\3-\4/s,subscription/{mgroup=3}

And now using spring.ctags the tag file has this:

$ ./ctags -o - --options=./spring.ctags input.java
Event-SomeEvent input.java      /^public void catchEvent(SomeEvent e)$/;"       s       line:2  language:javaspring
recover-Exception       input.java      /^    recover(Exception e)$/;"  s       line:10 language:javaspring

Multiline pattern flags


These flags also apply to the experimental --_mtable-regex-<LANG> option described later.


This flag indicates the pattern should be applied to the whole file contents, not line by line. N is the number of a capture group in the pattern, which is used to record the line number location of the tag. In the above example 3 is specified. The start position of the regex capture group 3, relative to the whole file is used.


You must add an {mgroup=N} flag to the multi-line --mline-regex-<LANG> option, even if the N is 0 (meaning the start position of the whole regex pattern). You do not need to add it for the multi-table --_mtable-regex-<LANG>.


A regex pattern is applied to whole file’s contents iteratively. This long flag specifies from where the pattern should be applied in the next iteration for regex matching. When a pattern matches, the next pattern matching starts from the start or end of capture group N. By default it advances to the end of of the whole match (i.e., {_advanceTo=0end} is the default).

Let’s think about following input

def def abc

Consider two sets of options, foo and bar.

# foo.ctags:
--mline-regex-foo=/def *([a-z]+)/\1/a/{mgroup=1}
# bar.ctags:
--mline-regex-bar=/def *([a-z]+)/\1/a/{mgroup=1}{_advanceTo=1start}

foo.ctags emits following tags output:

def  input.foo       /^def def abc$/;"       a

bar.ctgs emits following tags output:

def  input-0.bar     /^def def abc$/;"       a
abc  input-0.bar     /^def def abc$/;"       a

_advanceTo=1start is specified in bar.ctags. This allows ctags to capture “abc”.

At the first iteration, the patterns of both foo.ctags and bar.ctags match as follows

0   1       (start)
v   v
def def abc
           0,1  (end)

“def” at the group 1 is captured as a tag in both languages. At the next iteration, the positions where the pattern matching is applied to are not the same in the languages.


           0end (default)
def def abc


        1start (as specified in _advanceTo long flag)
def def abc

This difference of positions makes the difference of tags output.

A more relevant use-case is when {_advanceTo=N[start|end]} is used in the experimental --_mtable-regex-<LANG>, to “advance” back to the beginning of a match, so that one can generate multiple tags for the same input line(s).


This flag doesn’t work well with scope related flags and exclusive flags.

Advanced pattern matching with multiple regex tables


This is a highly experimental feature. This will not go into the man page of 6.0. But let’s be honest, it’s the most exciting feature!

In some cases, the --regex-<LANG> and --mline-regex-<LANG> options are not sufficient to generate the tags for a particular language. Some of the common reasons for this are:

  • To ignore commented lines or sections for the language file, so that tags aren’t generated for symbols that are within the comments.
  • To enter and exit scope, and use it for tagging based on contextual state or with end-scope markers that are difficult to match to their associated scope entry point.
  • To support nested scopes.
  • To change the pattern searched for, or the resultant tag for the same pattern, based on scoping or contextual location.
  • To break up an overly complicated --mline-regex-<LANG> pattern into separate regex patterns, for performance or readability reasons.

To help handle such things, Universal-ctags has been enhanced with multi-table regex matching. The feature is inspired by lex, the fast lexical analyzer generator, which is a popular tool on Unix environments for writing parsers, and RegexLexer of Pygments. Knowledge about them will help you understand the new options.

The new options are:


Declares a new regex matching table of a given name for the language, as described in Declaring a new regex table.


Adds a regex pattern and associated tag generation information and flags, to the given table, as described in Adding a regex to a regex table.


Includes a previously-defined regex table to the named one.

The above will be discussed in more detail shortly.

First, let’s explain the feature with an example. Consider a imaginary language “X” has a similar syntax as JavaScript: “var” is used as defining variable(s), , and “/* … */” is used for block comments.

Here is our input, input.x:

var dont_capture_me;

We want ctags to capture a and b - but it is difficult to write a parser that will ignore dont_capture_me in the comment with a classical regex parser defined with --regex-<LANG> or --mline-regex-<LANG>, because of the block comments.

The --regex-<LANG> option only works on one line at a time, so cannnot know dont_capture_me is within comments. The --mline-regex-<LANG> could do it in theory, but due to the greedy nature of the regex engine it is impractical and potentially inefficient to do so, given that there could be multiple block comments in the file, with * inside them, etc.

A parser written with multi-table regex, on the other hand, can capture only a and b safely. But it is more complicated to understand.

Here is a 1st version of X.ctags:


Not so interesting. It doesn’t really do anything yet. It just creates a new language named X, for files ending with a .x suffix, and defines a new tag for variable kinds.

When writing a multi-table parser, you have to think about the necessary states of parsing. For the parser of language X, we need the following states:

  • toplevel (initial state)
  • comment (inside comment)
  • vars (var statements)

Declaring a new regex table

Before adding regular expressions, you have to declare tables for each state with the --_tabledef-<LANG>=<TABLE> option.

Here is the 2nd version of X.ctags doing so:



For table names, only characters in the range [0-9a-zA-Z_] are acceptable.

For a given language, for each file’s input the ctags multi-table parser begins with the first declared table. For X.ctags, toplevel is the one. The other tables are only ever entered/checked if another table specified to do so, starting with the first table. In other words, if the first declared table does not find a match for the current input, and does not specify to go to another table, the other tables for that language won’t be used. The flags to go to another table are {tenter}, {tleave}, and {tjump}, as described later.

Adding a regex to a regex table

The new option to add a regex to a declared table is --_mtable-regex-<LANG>, and it follows this form:


The parameters for --_mtable-regex-<LANG> look complicated. However, <PATTERN>, <NAME>, and <KIND> are the same as the parameters of the --regex-<LANG> and --mline-regex-<LANG> options. <TABLE> is simply the name of a table previously declared with the --_tabledef-<LANG> option.

A regex pattern added to a parser with --_mtable-regex-<LANG> is matched against the input at the current byte position, not line. Even if you do not specify the ^ anchor at the start of the pattern, ctags adds ^ to the pattern automatically. Unlike the --regex-<LANG> and --mline-regex-<LANG> options, a ^ anchor does not mean “begging of line” in --_mtable-regex-<LANG>; instead it means the beginning of the input string (i.e., the current byte position).

The LONGFLAGS include the already discussed flags for --regex-<LANG> and --mline-regex-<LANG>: {scope=...}, {mgroup=N}, {_advanceTo=N}, {basic}, {extend}, and {icase}. The {exclusive} flag does not make sense for multi-table regex.

In addition, several new flags are introduced exclusively for multi-table regex use:


Push the current table on the stack, and enter another table.


Leave the current table, pop the stack, and go to the table that was just popped from the stack.


Jump to another table, without affecting the stack.


Clear the stack, and go to another table.


Clear the stack, and stop processing the current input file for this language.

To explain the above new flags, we’ll continue using our example in the next section.

Skipping block comments

Let’s continue with our example. Here is the 3rd version of X.ctags:





Four --_mtable-regex-X lines are added for skipping the block comments. Let’s discuss them one by one.

For each new file it scans, ctags always chooses the first pattern of the first table of the parser. Even if it’s an empty table, ctags will only try the first declared table. (in such a case it would immedietaly fail to match anything, and thus stop proessing the input file and effectively do nothing)

The first declared table (toplevel) has the following regex added to it first:


A pattern of \/\* is added to the toplevel table, to match the beginning of a block comment. A backslash character is used in front of the leading / to escape the separation character / that separates the fields of --_mtable-regex-<LANG>. Another backslash inside the pattern is used before the asterisk *, to make it a literal asterisk character in regex.

The last // means ctags should not tag something matching this pattern. In --regex-<LANG> you never use // because it would be pointless to match something and not tag it using and single-line --regex-<LANG>; in multi-line --mline-regex-<LANG> you rarely see it, because it would rarely be useful. But in multi-table regex it’s quite common, since you frequently want to transition from one state to another (i.e., tenter or tjump from one table to another).

The long flag added to our first regex of our first table is tenter, which is a long flag for switching the table and pushing on the stack. {tenter=comment} means “switch the table from toplevel to comment”.

So given the input file input.x shown earlier, ctags will begin at the toplevel table and try to match the first regex. It will succeed, and thus push on the stack and go to the comment table.

It will begin at the top of the comment table (it always begins at the top of a given table), and try each regex line in sequence until it finds a match. If it fails to find a match, it will pop the stack and go to the table that was just popped from the stack, and begin trying to match at the top of that table. If it continues failing to find a match, and ultimately reaches the end of the stack, it will stop processing for this file. For the next input file, it will begin again from the top of the first declared table.

Getting back to our example, the top of the comment table has this regex:


Similar to the previous toplevel table pattern, this one for \*\/ uses a backslash to escape the separator /, as well as one before the * to make it a literal asterisk in regex. So what it’s looking for, from a simple string perspective, is the sequence */. Note that this means even though you see three backslashes /// at the end, the first one is escaped and used for the pattern itself, and the --_mtable-regex-X only has // to separate the regex pattern from the long flags, instead of the usual ///. Thus it’s using the shorthand form of the --_mtable-regex-X option. It could instead have been:


The above would have worked exactly the same.

Getting back to our example, remember we’re looking at the input.x file, currently using the comment table, and trying to match the first regex of that table, shown above, at the following location:

   ,ctags is trying to match starting here
var dont_capture_me;

The pattern doesn’t match for the position just after /*, because that position is a space character. So ctags tries the next pattern in the same table:


This pattern matches any any one character including newline; the current position moves one character forward. Now the character at the current position is B. The first pattern of the table */ still does not match with the input. So ctags uses next pattern again. When the current position moves to the */ of the 3rd line of input.x, it will finally match this:


In this pattern, the long flag {tleave} is specified. This triggers table switching again. {tleave} makes ctags switch the table back to the last table used before doing {tenter}. In this case, toplevel is the table. ctags manages a stack where references to tables are put. {tenter} pushes the current table to the stack. {tleave} pops the table at the top of the stack and chooses it.

So now ctags is back to the toplevel table, and tries the first regex of that table, which was this:


It tries to match that against its current position, which is now the newline on line 3, between the */ and the word var:

var dont_capture_me;
*/ <--- ctags is now at this newline (/n) character

The first regex of the toplevel table does not match a newline, so it tries the second regex:


This matches a newline successfully, but has no actions to perform. So ctags moves one character forward (the newline it just matched), and goes back to the top of the toplevel table, and tries the first regex again. Eventually we’ll reach the beginning of the second block comment, and do the same things as before.

When ctags finally reaches the end of the file (the position after b;), it will not be able to match either the first or second regex of the toplevel table, and quit processing the input file.

So far, we’ve successfully skipped over block comments for our new X language, but haven’t generated any tags. The point of ctags is to generate tags, not just keep your computer warm. So now let’s move onto actually tagging variables…

Capturing variables in a sequence

Here is the 4th version of X.ctags:



--_mtable-regex-X=toplevel/var[ \n\t]//{tenter=vars}



One pattern in toplevel was added, and a new table vars with four patterns was also added.

The new regex in toplevel is this:

--_mtable-regex-X=toplevel/var[ \n\t]//{tenter=vars}

The purpose of this being in toplevel is to switch to the vars table when the keyword var is found in the input stream. We need to switch states (i.e., tables) because we can’t simply capture the variables a and b with a single regex pattern in the toplevel table, because there might be block comments inside the var statement (as there are in our input.x), and we also need to create two tags: one for a and one for b, even though the word var only appears once. In other words, we need to “remember” that we saw the keyword var, when we later encounter the names a and b, so that we know to tag each of them; and saving that “in-variable-statement” state is accomplished by switching tables to the vars table.

The first regex in our new vars table is:


This pattern is used to match a single semi-colon ;, and if it matches pop back to the toplevel table using the {tleave} long flag. We didn’t have to make this the first regex pattern, because it doesn’t overlap with any of the other ones other than the /.// last one (which must be last for this example to work).

The second regex in our vars table is:


We need this because block comments can be in variable definitions:


So to skip block comments in such a position, the pattern \/\* is used just like it was used in the toplevel table: to find the literal /* beginning of the block comment and enter the comment table. Because we’re using {tenter} and {tleave} to push/pop from a stack of tables, we can use the same comment table for both toplevel and vars to go to, because ctags will “remember” the previous table and {tleave} will pop back to the right one.

The third regex in our vars table is:


This is nothing special, but is the one that actually tags something: it captures the variable name and uses it for generating a variable (shorthand v) tag kind.

The last regex in the vars table we’ve seen before:


This makes ctags ignore any other characters, such as whitespace or the comma ,.

Running our example

$ cat input.x
var dont_capture_me;

$ u-ctags -o - --fields=+n --options=X.ctags input.x
u-ctags -o - --fields=+n --options=X.ctags input.x
a       input.x /^var a \/* ANOTHER BLOCK COMMENT *\/, b;$/;"   v       line:4
b       input.x /^var a \/* ANOTHER BLOCK COMMENT *\/, b;$/;"   v       line:4

It works!

You can find additional examples of multi-table regex in our github repo, under the optlib directory. For example puppetManifest.ctags is a serious example. It is the primary parser for testing multi-table regex parsers, and used in the actual ctags program for parsing puppet manifest files.

Conditional tagging with extras

If a matched pattern should only be tagged when an extra is enabled, mark the pattern with {_extra=XNAME}. XNAME is the name of extra. You must define an XNAME with the --_extradef-<LANG>=XNAME,DESCRIPTION option before defining a regex option marked {_extra=XNAME}.

if __name__ == '__main__':

To capture above lines in a python program(input.py), an extra can be used.

--_extradef-Python=main,__main__ entry points
--regex-Python=/^if __name__ == '__main__':/__main__/f/{_extra=main}

The above optlib(python-main.ctags) introduces main extra to Python parser. The pattern matching is done only when the main is enabled.

$ ./ctags --options=python-main.ctags -o - --extras-Python='+{main}' input.py
__main__        input.py        /^if __name__ == '__main__':$/;"        f

Adding custom fields to the tag output

Exuberant-ctags allows one of the specified group in a regex pattern can be used as a part of the name of a tagEntry. Universal-ctags offers using the other groups in the regex pattern.

An optlib parser can have its own fields. The groups can be used as a value of the fields of a tagEntry.

Let’s think about Unknown, an imaginary language. Here is a source file(input.unknown) written in Unknown:

public func foo(n, m); protected func bar(n); private func baz(n,…);

With –regex-Unknown=… Exuberant-ctags can capture foo, bar, and baz as names. Universal-ctags can attach extra context information to the names as values for fields. Let’s focus on bar. protected is a keyword to control how widely the identifier bar can be accessed. (n) is the parameter list of bar. protected and (n) are extra context information of bar.

With following optlib file(unknown.ctags)), ctags can attach protected to protection field and (n) to signature field.


--_fielddef-unknown=protection,access scope

--regex-unknown=/^((public|protected|private) +)?func ([^\(]+)\((.*)\)/\3/f/{_field=protection:\1}{_field=signature:(\4)}


For the line protected func bar(n); you will get following tags output:

bar     input.unknown   /^protected func bar(n);$/;"    f       protection:protected    signature:(n)

Let’s see the detail of unknown.ctags.

--_fielddef-unknown=protection,access scope

--_fielddef-<LANG>=name,description defines a new field for a parser specified by <LANG>. Before defining a new field for the parser, the parser must be defined with --langdef=<LANG>. protection is the field name used in tags output. access scope is the description used in the output of --list-fields and --list-fields=Unknown.


This defines a field named signature.

--regex-unknown=/^((public|protected|private) +)?func ([^\(]+)\((.*)\)/\3/f/{_field=protection:\1}{_field=signature:(\4)}

This option requests making a tag for the name that is specified with the group 3 of the pattern, attaching the group 1 as a value for protection field to the tag, and attaching the group 4 as a value for signature field to the tag. You can use the long regex flag _field for attaching fields to a tag with following notation rule:


--fields-<LANG>=[+|-]{FIELDNAME} can be used to enable or disable specified field.

When defining a new parser own field, it is disabled by default. Enable the field explicitly to use the field. See Parser own fields about –fields-<LANG> option.

passwd parser is a simple example that uses --fields-<LANG> option.

Capturing reference tags

To capture a reference tag with an optlib parser, specify a role with _role long regex flag. Let’s see an example:

--_roledef-FOO=m.imported,imported module
--regex-FOO=/import[ \t]+([a-z]+)/\1/m/{_role=imported}

See the line, –regex-FOO=…. In this parser FOO, a name of imported module is captured as a reference tag with role imported. A role must be defined before specifying it as value for _role flag. –_roledef-<LANG> option is for defining a role.

The parameter of the option comes from three components: a kind letter, the name of role, and the description of role. The kind letter comes first. Following a period, give the role name. The period represents that the role is defined under the kind specified with the kind letter. In the example, imported role is defined under module kind specified with m.

Of course, the kind specified with the kind letter must be defined before using –_roledef-<FOO> option. –kinddef-<LANG> option is for defining a kind.

The roles are listed with –list-roles=<LANG>. The name and description passed to –_roledef-<LANG> option are used in the output like:

$ ./ctags --langdef=FOO --kinddef-FOO=m,module,modules \
                        --_roledef-FOO='m.imported,imported module' --list-roles=FOO
m/module   imported on      imported module

With specifying _role regex flag multiple times with different roles, you can assign multiple roles to a reference tag. See following input of C language

i += 1;

An ultra fine grained C parser may capture a variable i with lvalue and incremented. You can do it with:

--_roledef-C=v.lvalue,locator values
--_roledef-C=v.incremented,incremeted with ++ operator
--regex-C=/([a-zA-Z_][a-zA-Z_0-9])+ *+=/\1/v/{_role=lvalue}{_role=incremeted}

Submitting an optlib file to the Universal-ctags project

You are encouraged to submit your .ctags file to our github through a pull request.

Universal-ctags provides a facility for “Option library”. Read “Option library” about the concept and usage first.

Here I will explain how to merge your .ctags into universal-ctags as part of option library. Here I assume you consider contributing an option library in which a regex based language parser is defined. See How to Add Support for a New Language to Exuberant Ctags (EXTENDING) about the way to how to write a regex based language parser. In this section I explains the next step.

I use Swine as the name of programming language which your parser deals with. Assume source files written in Swine language have a suffix .swn. The file name of option library is swine.ctags.

Units test cases

We, universal-ctags developers don’t have enough time to learn all languages supported by ctags. In other word, we cannot review the code. Only test cases help us to know whether a contributed option library works well or not. We may reject any contribution without a test case.

Read “Using Units” about how to write Units test cases. Don’t write one big test case. Some smaller cases are helpful to know about the intent of the contributor.

  • Units/sh-alias.d
  • Units/sh-comments.d
  • Units/sh-quotes.d
  • Units/sh-statements.d

are good example of small test cases. Big test cases are good if smaller test cases exist.

See also parser-m4.r/m4-simple.d especially parser-m4.r/m4-simple.d/args.ctags. Your test cases need ctags having already loaded your option library, swine.ctags. You must specify loading it in the test case own args.ctags.

Assume your test name is swine-simile.d. Put --option=swine in Units/swine-simile.d/args.ctags.


Add your optlib file, swine.ctags to PRELOAD_OPTLIB variable of Makefile.in.

If you don’t want your optlib loaded automatically when ctags starts up, put your optlib file into OPTLIB of Makefile.in instead of PRELOAD_OPTLIB.


Let’s verify all your work here.

  1. Run the tests and check whether your test case is passed or failed:

    $ make units
  2. Verify your files are installed as expected:

    $ mkdir /tmp/tmp
    $ ./configure --prefix=/tmp/tmp
    $ make
    $ make install
    $ /tmp/tmp/ctags -o - --option=swine something_input.swn


Please, consider submitting your well written optlib parser to Universal-ctags. Your .ctags is a treasure and can be shared as a first class software component in Universal-ctags.

Pull-requests are welcome.