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early preview of a recursive descent parser compiler implemented as a ma

From: Mike Mattie
Subject: early preview of a recursive descent parser compiler implemented as a macro
Date: Tue, 8 Jan 2008 02:34:36 -0800


I recently found myself needing a top down parser, so I wrote up a parser 
as a macro. It is turning out quite nicely for my purposes so I would like to 
submit it 
for comments and suggestions. I am still working out a couple of kinks, but it 
is at the
point where I can start integrating feedback.

The goal is a lightweight parser for simple jobs such as scraping a data 
out of essentially static buffers, which is the problem I was solving when I 
developed it.

I am in-lining the actual parser compiler, and attaching a testing file so 
people can play
with it if they find it interesting.


It's my first medium sized macro so it may have some thinko's or oddities. 

Simple tests work. The backtracking hasn't been extensively tested yet. The and 
doesn't seem to return the full AST it should. Other than that all the basic 
are in place.

The catch for semantic-error throws is not in place yet. I need something like
(condition-case) however that construct seemed a little over-powered for my
purpose. Suggestions on handling multiple error conditions in a single form
would be appreciated.


1. add ? for optional productions. Not a big deal to implement once the basic
   implementation is sound.

2. Full Documentation

Review Questions:

Do the Emacs developers consider this tool useful ? Does it fill a niche
in Emacs ? If so I will document it.

Is it elegant ?

Is the terminology correct ? I am not entirely sure I used curry in the strict

Are there any essential features missing ? keeping in mind the goal is 
not a fully optimized parser.

Is it interesting in a creative sense, or have I just ground out another
lisp right of passage ?


A couple of contrived examples I have used for testing. A couple of things to 
Keywords are token|and|or. token defines a regex match, while or and and 
terminals. The definition of a token or terminal creates a match object at the
point of definition.

There is a built-in start symbol that is a or-terminal, so the first example
will match to the start symbol either token. 

(parser-compile test-parser
  (token whitespace "[[:blank:]]+")
  (token word "[[:alpha:]]+"))

The parser is compiled to the function value of test-parser. You can call
it like this: (test-parser (point))

It parses a single start production. Looping is done outside of the parser

as the second example shows you can reference previously created tokens.

(parser-compile test-parser
  (and indented (token whitespace "[[:blank:]]+") (token word "[[:alpha:]]+"))
  (and inverted word whitespace))

The attached file test-parser.el has some test drivers for playing with the 
interactively. Some of the features for defining tokens such as defining your 
actions for tokens are shown there.

P.S, here is a fun little lisp comic in the spirit of finding amusement in your 

Without further ado here is parser.el , and enjoy !

;; parser.el
;; Primary Author: Mike Mattie (
;; Copyright: Mike Mattie (2008)

;; ->Summary

;; parser.el aims to be a lightweight implementation of parsing.

;; My requirements involve building/extracting a data structure from
;; analysis of a given text. For this purpose a "top-down" parse
;; makes it easier to assemble a data structure. [TODO: why is it easier
;; this way ?]

;; ->Related Works

;; Much of the parsing facilities that I have seen so far in Emacs
;; have been various forms of regex tables.

;; There are many reasons why Emacs parsing tools would evolve away
;; from the usual parser generator tool-set.

;; 1. The requirement to work incrementally: parse errors are not
;;    errors, the user just has not finished typing :)

;; 2. Emacs analysis is often partial by requirement, usually only
;;    significant parts of the text need to be identified for
;;    features.

;; 3. Emacs can leverage the annotation facilities of
;;    text properties and overlays making analysis extremely
;;    modular and robust while editing.

;; CEDET appears to be a parser generator implemented on-top of a
;; CLOS emulation. The fact that this sort of design is not "lispy"
;; does not negate it's value, but limits it IMHO. This tool-set
;; has also "grown around" the problem of analyzing source code as
;; a project which is bloat for simpler requirements.

;; ->Concept

;; A parser compiler that combines lexical (regex) analysis with LL
;; parsing compiled by recursive macro expansion.

;; The concept started out as an idea to build a parser as nested cond
;; forms. The matches would go in the predicate part of the clause
;; while the action part would go in the body.

;; This idea is expressed here with cond forms mutated into lambdas so
;; that previously defined matches can be referenced by productions.

;; -> Requirements

;; 1. Easy to use for trivial problems.

;; 2. Data structures are orthogonal to the parser and not hard-wired
;;    in. Leafs and nodes of the AST are constructed with beginning
;;    and ending positions of the text in the buffer.
;;    This allows the user to choose between positions, markers, overlays
;;    according to the requirements.

;; -> Naming Conventions

;; parser-*          internal functions
;; parser-build-*    Construct the AST structures returned by the parser.
;; parser-interp-*   expand definitions of terminals and non-terminals into lisp
;; parser-compile-*  compile the expanded definitions into interchangeable 
match functions.

;; -> Key data structures

;; Matches

;; matches are a cons pair of ( parser . AST ).

;; Parser is used internally to indicate match success or failure. It
;; should be the distance matched from the current parser position.
;; It can, and often will be zero for a successful match. nil indicates
;; a failure to match.

;; AST is the data returned from the match ( production . ( start . end ) | 
list )
;; the car of the pair (production) is the production's symbol.

;; diagnostics

(defun parser-expr-diagnostic ( form ) ;; tested
  (format "type(%s) %s" (symbol-name (type-of form)) (pp (eval form))))

(defmacro parser-diagnostic ( form from expected ) ;; tested
  "syntax: (parser-diagnostic form from expected)

   Where form is the expr received, from is the component issuing the 
   and expected is a message describing what the component expected"
  `(concat (format "[%s] expected: " ,from)  ,expected " not: " 
,(parser-expr-diagnostic form)))

;; AST constructors

(defun parser-build-token ( identifier ) ;; tested
  "parser-make-token is a built-in constructor that records the analysis
   and the location of the text (id . (begin . end))"
  (cons identifier (cons (match-beginning 0) (match-end 0))))

;; compiler internals

;; make-match and get-match implement a table of productions and
;; tokens. Both production and tokens are interchangeable as far as
;; matching and referencing is concerned. This table gives the ability
;; to reference previously defined matches in other productions.

;; match-table is dynamically scoped by the macro, and does not appear
;; in the compiled form.

(defun parser-make-match ( symbol function ) ;; tested
  "parser-make-match takes ( symbol function ) and returns a symbol
   stored in the parser's match-table with the evaluated lambda
    ((new-name (symbol-name symbol)))

    (if (intern-soft new-name match-table)
      (throw 'semantic-error (format "illegal redefinition of match %s" 

    (fset (intern new-name match-table) (eval function))
    (intern new-name match-table)

(defun parser-make-anon-func ( sexp ) ;; tested
  "bind an un-evaluated anonymous function to an un-interned symbol"
    ((anon-func (make-symbol "parser-lambda")))
    (fset anon-func (eval sexp))

(defun parser-get-match ( symbol ) ;; tested
  "return the compiled match for symbol, or throw a semantic-error if it does 
    ((existing-name (symbol-name symbol)))

    (unless (intern-soft existing-name match-table)
      (throw 'semantic-error (format "unkown match %s" existing-name)))

    (intern existing-name match-table)))

;; compiler run-time

;; these functions are defined independent of the compilation of a parser
;; for simplicity, and to avoid wasteful duplication in the macro expansion.

;; parser-position

;; The position of the parser in the input stream is maintained as a
;; stack of indexes into the buffer. As matching progresses the top of
;; the stack (car) is updated. The push and pop operations copy a
;; position to a next or previous stack position. backtrack discards
;; the top of the stack.

(defun parser-pos () ;; tested
  "Return the current position of the parser in the buffer"
  (car parser-position))

(defun parser-push ()
  "Copy the parser position to a new stack level so the parser can backtrack 
when necessary."
  (setq parser-position (cons (car parser-position) parser-position)))

(defun parser-pop ()
  "Copy the parser position to a previous stack level When the possibility of a 
   has been eliminated by matching."
    ((current (parser-pos)))
    (setq parser-position (cons (car parser-position) (cddr parser-position)))

(defun parser-backtrack ()
  "Restore the previous parser position by discarding the top of the 
parser-position stack."
  (setq parser-position (cdr parser-position))
  (goto-char (parser-pos)))

(defun parser-advance ( distance )
  "Add distance to the parsing position on the current stack level.
   The advancing of the parser is done relative to the current
   position so that a successful match can advance 0 characters.
   This is important for optional matches such as the \"?\" meta-symbol.
   They want to indicate a successful match without moving the parser position."

  ;; we are going to get zero's as a unfortunate side-effect of
  ;; keeping the nesting of combination operators simple. Avoid NOP
  ;; work with a quick test.

  (if (> distance 0)
      (setq parser-position (cons (+ distance (car parser-position)) (cdr 
      (goto-char (parser-pos)))

(defun parser-next ()
  "Compute the next parser position from the length of the entire regex's 
current match, plus one."
  (+ 1 (- (match-end 0) (match-beginning 0))))

;; parser combination operators

;; the combination operators group matches by and,or operators as the
;; underlying mechanics of non-terminal productions. As these
;; functions are not compiled into the generated parser they have no
;; knowledge of the symbol associated with the match list, only the
;; match list itself.

(defun parser-or ( &rest match-list )
  "Combine match objects by or where the first successful match is returned.
   nil is returned if no matches are found"
  (catch 'match
    (dolist (match match-list)
        ((match-result (funcall match)))
        (if (car match-result)
            (parser-advance (car match-result))
            (throw 'match (cons 0 (cdr match-result)))))
    (throw 'match (cons nil nil)) ;; this is what failure looks like :)

(defun parser-and ( &rest match-list )
  "combine the matches with and. all of the match objects must return non-nil
   in the parser part or the parser will backtrack and return nil."

    ((ast (catch 'backtrack
            ;; we want to gather all the matches, so mapcar across the match 
              (lambda (match)
                  ((match-result (funcall match)))

                  (if (car match-result)
                      ;; on match advance the parser and return the AST
                      (parser-advance (car match-result))
                      (cdr match-result))

                    ;; on fail backtrack and return nil
                      (throw 'backtrack nil)))
   (if (car ast)
     ;; would be nice to run map-filter-nil on ast.
     (cons 0 ast)
     (cons nil nil))

;; syntax interpretation

;; interpretation as expansion of a form into lisp is separated from
;; compilation to make the parser easier to debug and verify by
;; phase.

;; the token interpreter was split into two functions to isolate the
;; flexibility of tokens (user functions or return values for
;; constructing AST) from the hard-wired parser part.

(defun parser-interp-token-action ( identifier constructor ) ;; tested
  "Translate the AST constructor definition for a token into Elisp."

  (unless (symbolp identifier)
    (throw 'syntax-error (parser-diagnostic identifier
                           "parser token"
                           "identifier: An unbound symbol used as an identifier"

  ;; Warning: this code is very touchy, double quotation of AST
  ;; symbols is required. the saving grace is that the symbols don't
  ;; have a variable value bound so it fails noisily when the
  ;; quotation is incorrect.
    ((eq nil constructor)    `(parser-build-token (quote ',identifier)))
    ((listp constructor)     `(,(parser-make-anon-func constructor) 
(match-beginning 0) (match-end 0)))
    ((functionp constructor) `(,constructor (match-beginning 0) (match-end 0)))
    ((symbolp constructor)   `(quote ',constructor))

    ;; all other constructor types are un-handled.
    ((throw 'syntax-error (parser-diagnostic identifier
                           "parser token: identifier" "A symbol"))))

(defun parser-interp-token ( syntax ) ;; tested
  "Translate a token definition into a parser match function."

    ((identifier  (car syntax))
     (regex       (cadr syntax))    ;; eval ? many regexs are stored in 
     (constructor (caddr syntax)))

    `(lambda ()
       (if (looking-at ,regex)
         (cons (parser-next) ,(parser-interp-token-action identifier 
         (cons nil nil)

(defun parser-interp-production ( production )
  "Translate the definition of a production, or a reference to a production
   into a match object symbol."

    ((listp production) (parser-compile-definition production))
    ((symbolp production) (parser-get-match production))

    (throw 'syntax-error
      (parser-daignostic production
        "interpret definition"
        "expected a definition as a list, or a symbol as a production/token 

;; compilation

;; after definitions are interpreted they are evaluated or compiled and
;; stored as match functions.

(defun parser-compile-token ( syntax ) ;; tested
  "compile a token definition into a match object"
  (parser-make-match (car syntax) (parser-interp-token syntax)))

(defun parser-curry-production ( identifier combine-operator &rest grammar )
  "Compile a match object with a combine operator and a match function list.
   I think curry is applicable, but largely it was named curry so I could
   create the parser-compile-production macro."
  (unless (symbolp identifier)
    (parser-diagnostic identifier
      "compile production"
      "match identifier"))

    (parser-make-match identifier
      `(lambda ()
           ((result (apply ',combine-operator ',grammar)))
         (if (car result)
           (cons (car result) (cons ',identifier (cdr result)))

(defmacro parser-compile-production ( combine-function production-list )
  "parser-compile-production simplifies the syntax of interpreting and compiling
   a production. The construct looks hairy because it combines two operations
   with quoting necessitated by apply. This macro mechanizes the tricky part
   to enhance code readability."
  `(apply 'parser-curry-production      ;; make a match function
     (car ,production-list)             ;; the identifier of the production
     ',combine-function                 ;; the combine operator
     (mapcar 'parser-interp-production (cdr ,production-list)))) ;; interpret 
the matching definition.

(defun parser-compile-definition ( term )
  "parser-compile-definition is the recursive heart of the compiler."
  (unless (listp term)
    (throw 'syntax-error (parser-diagnostic term
                           "parser definition"
                           "expected a definition of token|or|and")))

    ((keyword (car term))
      (syntax (cdr term)))

    (if (listp keyword)
      (parser-compile-definition keyword)

        ((eq keyword 'token) (parser-compile-token syntax))
        ((eq keyword 'or)    (parser-compile-production parser-or syntax))
        ((eq keyword 'and)   (parser-compile-production parser-and syntax))

        ((throw 'syntax-error (parser-diagnostic term
                                "parser definition"
                                "definition keyword token|or|and")))

(defvar parser-mtable-init-size 13
  "initial size of the match-table objarray for storing match functions. the 
   was chosen based on the recommendation of prime numbers for good hashing.")

(defmacro parser-compile ( parser &rest definition )
  "compile a LL parser from the given grammar."
    ;; create a symbol table to store compiled terminal and
    ;; non-terminal match functions
    ((match-table (make-vector parser-mtable-init-size 0)))

      ((compiled (catch 'syntax-error
                   `(lambda ( start-pos )
                        ((parser-position (cons start-pos nil))) ;; initialize 
the backtrack stack
                          (goto-char start-pos)
                          ;; note that the start symbol of the grammar is built 
in as an or combination
                          ;; of the top-level definitions.
                            ((parse (,(apply 'parser-curry-production 'start 
                                        (mapcar 'parser-compile-definition 
                            (if (car parse)
                              ;; if we have a production return the position at 
which the
                              ;; parser stopped along with the AST.
                              (cons (car parser-position) (cdr parse))
      (if (stringp compiled)
        ;; error path, print a message and return nil.
          (message "parser-compile failed! %s" compiled)

        ;; success path, bind the compiled parser to the parser symbol and 
return t.
          (fset parser (eval compiled))

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