Patterns and Rules

Recognizing patterns and applying rules is a powerful symbolic computing tool to identify and manipulate the structure of expressions.


Wildcard symbols are placeholders in an expression. They start with a _.

The "_" universal wildcard matches anything that is in the corresponding position in an expression.

The "__" wildcard matches any sequence of 1 or more expressions in its corresponding position. It is useful to capture the arguments of a function.

The "___" wildcard matches any sequence of 0 or more expressions in its corresponding position.

A wildcard symbol may include a name which is used to capture the matching expression, for example _1 or _a. When using a named wildcard, all instances of the named wildcard must match. In contrast, an un-named wildcard (a universal wildcard such as "_" "__" or "___") can be used multiple times to match different values.


A pattern is an expression which can include one or more placeholders in the form of wildcard symbols.

Patterns are similar to Regular Expressions in traditional programming languages but they are tailored to deal with MathJSON expressions instead of strings.

Given a pattern and an expression the goal of pattern matching is to find a substitution for all the wildcards such that the pattern becomes the expression.

An expression is said to match a pattern if there exists a set of values such that replacing the wildcards with those values match the expression. This set of values is called a substitution.

For example, the pattern ["Add", 3, "_c"] becomes the expression ["Add", 3, "x"] by replacing the wildcard "_c" with "x". The substitution is {_c : "x"}.

On the other hand, the expression ["Divide", "x", 2] does not match the pattern ["Add", 3, "_c"]: no substitution exists to transform the expression into the pattern by replacing the wildcards.

Matching an Expression to a Pattern

To check if an expression matches a pattern, use the _pattern_.match(_expression_) function.

If there is a match, pattern.match() returns a Substitution object literal with keys corresponding to the matching named wildcards. If no named wildcards are used and there is a match it returns an empty object literal. If there is no match, it returns null.

const pattern =["Add", "x", "_"]);
console.log(pattern.match(["Add", "x", 1])));
// ➔ { } : the expression matches the pattern
console.log(pattern.match(["Multiply", "x", 1])));
// ➔ null : the expression does not match the pattern
const pattern =["Add", "x", "_"]);
console.log(patterm.match(["Add", "x", 1])));
// ➔ { } : the expression matches the pattern
console.log(pattern.match(["Add", 1, "x"])));
// ➔ { } : the expression matches the pattern by commutativity

The pattern.match() does not consider sub-expressions, it is not recursive.

const pattern =["Add", "x", "_"]);
console.log(pattern.match(["Multiply", 2, ["Add", "x", 1]])));
// ➔ null : the expression does not match the pattern

If the same named wildcard is used multiple times, all its values must match.

console.log(["Add", '_a', '_a']).match(["Add", 1, "x"])));
// ➔ null
console.log(["Add", '_a', '_a']).match(["Add", "x", "x"])));
// ➔ { _a: "x" }

Wildcards can be used to capture the head of functions:

console.log(["_f", 1, "x"]).match(["Add", 1, "x"])));
// ➔ { _f: "Add" }


The return value of the match() function is a Substitution object: a mapping from wildcard names to expressions.

If there is no match, match() returns null.

To apply a substitution to a pattern, and therefore recover the expression it was derived from, use the subs() function.

const expression =["Add", 1, "x"]);
const pattern =["Add", 1, "_a"]);
// ➔ { _a: "x" }
expression.subs({ _a: "x" }).print();
// ➔ ["Add", 1, "x"]

Matching Patterns

To check if an expression matches a pattern, use the pattern.match() function.

The function returns null if the two expressions do not match. It returns an object literal if the expressions do match.

If the argument to match() included wildcards the resulting object literal indicate the substitutions for those wildcards. If no wildcards were used and the expressions matched, an empty object literal, {} is returned. To check if the expressions simply match or not, check if the return value is null (indicating not a match) or not (indicating a match).

const ce = new ComputeEngine();
const variable = "x";
console.log(ce.match(["Add", "x", 1], ["Add", variable, 1]));
// ➔ {}: the two expressions are the same
console.log(ce.match(["Add", "x", 1], ["Add", 1, "x"]));
// ➔ null: the two expressions are the same because `Add` is commutative
console.log(ce.match(parse('2 + 2 + x'), parse('3 + 1 + x')));
// ➔ null: the two expressions are **not** the same: they are not evaluated
  match(ce.evaluate(parse('2 + 2 + x')), ce.evaluate(parse('3 + 1 + x')))
// ➔ {}: the two expressions are the same once evaluated

Applying Rewrite Rules

A rewrite rule is a [_match_, _sub_] tuple:

  • match: a matching pattern
  • sub: a substitution pattern,

To apply a set of rules to an expression, call the expr.replace() function.

When a rule is applied to an expression expr with expr.replace(), if expr matches the match pattern the result of expr.replace() is the substitution pattern sub applied to the expression.

const squareRule = ce.rules([
    ["Multiply", "_x", "_x"],   // match pattern
    ["Square", "_x"],           // substitution pattern
]);["Multiply", 4, 4], {canonical: false}).replace(squareRule);
// ➔ ["Square", 4]

The expr.replace() function continues applying all the rules in the ruleset until no rules are applicable.

The expr.simplify() function applies a collection of built-in rewrite rules. You can define your own rules and apply them using expr.replace().