Even if you don’t know XQuery, if you’ve only heard of it, you know XQuery is a language built for querying, or searching, XML. And if you’ve started learning XQuery for a digital humanities project, you use XQuery because it helps you search the text that you’ve put inside your XML. Given your interest in searching text, it’s likely that the first function you learn in an XQuery class or tutorial is contains(). Take this simple XPath expression:

//book[contains(title, "arm")]

This economical little query searches through all the books in your XML for those with a title that contains the phrase “arm” — you know, all of your books about armadillo shwarma. Tasty, right?

Then in the next lesson you learn about the matches() function, which can do the same simple searches as contains() but can also handle patterns, expressed using a pattern matching language called regular expressions:

//book[matches(title, "[A-Za-z]\d{2}T!")]

This finds titles like “W00T!” and “L33T!” — an upper or lower case letter, two digits, and a capital T, and an exclamation mark. Slick!

Then, naturally, you learn the highlight-matches() function, which turns highlights the phrase or pattern that you searched for:

//book[highlight-matches(title, "[PT]ickl[a-z]+")]

This highlights the matching portion of the book titles: “The Art of Pickling” and “How to Tickle the Ivories like a Pro.” Super!

But wait! The highlight-matches() function never appears in your lessons or class materials. It’s not in the XQuery spec. Not the 1.0 version, not the 3.0 version. Surely, this must be a mistake. No, your teacher says. You google for it. You click through the links. Stuff about indexes? Proprietary functions? The disappointment sets in. Really? No standard way to highlight the search results?

This was my experience, lasting several years, until today. I realized that I could combine two features of XQuery 3.0 — the analyze-string() function and higher order functions — to write a simple, implementation-independent highlight-matches() function, allowing us to write queries like this:

local:highlight-matches(
    //book/title,
    "[PT]ickl[a-z]+",
    function($word) { <b>{$word}</b> }
    )

To make this easier to read, I’ve split the expression onto several lines. Here’s what’s going on:

  1. This should look pretty familiar: we return all the pickling and tickling titles. But instead of applying contains() or matches(), we use local:highlight-matches(). And instead of putting the function inside a predicate (i.e., [inside square brackets]), we put the function outside. This is because our function doesn’t merely serve as a condition (i.e., return all books whose title matches); it actually creates an in-memory copy of the nodes that meet the condition with the highlight function applied.
  2. Whereas we gave contains() and matches() two parameters (title and the phrase/pattern), we pass local:highlight-matches() a third parameter: a function. You may not have ever used a function as a parameter, but this is a perfectly valid thing to do in XQuery 3.0. It’s the idea of “higher order functions” - or functions that can take other functions. The advantage of letting you define your own highlighting function is that you might not want to highlight with <b> tags. Rather, you might want to surround matches with a <person key="#smith_michael"> tag. In other words, you might use highlight-matches() to do more than “highlight.”
  3. Submit the query. The local:highlight-matches() function finds the matching books and works its magic, returning the titles with the properly bolded phrases <b>Pickling</b> and <b>Tickle</b>.

But wait! If this highlight-matches() function isn’t part of the XQuery specification, where can you get it?

I’ve posted the source code to highlight-matches() as a GitHub gist. Copy and paste the code into any XQuery 3.0-compliant engine. Need one? Try eXist-db, which has a handy online sandbox called eXide that you can access from any web browser.

Once you get the sample code working, try writing your own highlighting function to return underlined text or text with a yellow background—or find instances of people whose names you know appear in the text and tag them using <person> or proper TEI.

And enjoy!

(And if you’re one of the people who figured this out long ago, or as soon as XQuery 3.0 came along — which admittedly is still in draft form but whose higher order functions and analyze-string() function that made this possible have been in place for some time now — please take a look at the code and add some comments or submit a pull request. Let’s ensure everyone learns this function right after contains() and matches(), okay?)