Compiler Compiler

In Castle you can define a grammar directly in your code. The compiler will translate them into functions, using the build-in (PEG) compiler-compiler – at least that was it called back in the days of YACC.

How does one use that? And why should you?

Grammars, a short intro

A grammar is a collection of (parsing)-rules and optionally some settings. Rules are written in a mixture of EBNF and PEG meta-syntax. Let’s start with an simple example:

castle_file  <- ( import_line | interface | implementation )* ;
import_line  <- IMPORT_stmt ( STRING_literal | qualID ) ';' ;
qualID       <-  '.'? nameID  ('.' nameID )*   ;
IMPORT_stmt  =   'import' ;

This basically defines that a castle_file is a sequence of import_line(s), interface(s), or implementation(s); which are all “non-terminal(s)” – see below. Each of those non-terminals are defined by more rules. By example, an import_line starts with the IMPORT_stmt then comes either a STRING_literal or a qualID, and it ends with a semicolon (‘;’). Likewise, the IMPORT_stmt is set to ‘import’ (literally).

As we see, a grammar contains non-terminals and terminals. Non-terminals are abstract and defined by grammar-rules, containing both (other) non-terminals and terminals. Terminals are concrete: it are the things (tokens) you type when programming. Some terminals are like constants like the semicolon at the end of import_line, therefore they are quoted in the grammar (Notice, the is also a non quoted semicolon on each line, that is part of the syntax of grammar.)
Other terminals are more like valuables, they have a value. The STRING_literal is a good example. It’s value is the string itself. Similar for numbers and variable-names.

In this example grammar, a qualID is a nameID (a name that is used as ID, like in any programming language), optionally followed by sub-names (again like most languages: a dotted name, specifying a field (in a field, in …). In Castle, that name may start with a dot –which is a shorthand notation for “in the current namespace”. You can ignore that for know.

Basically, grammers defines how one should read the input –a text–, or more formally: how to parse it. The result of this parsing is twofold. It will check whether input conforms to the grammer; resulting in boolean, for the mathematics under us. And it will translate a sequential (flat) text into a tree-structure; which typically much more useful for a software-engineer.
A well known example is this HTML-file. On disk it’s nothing but text, which is easy to store and to transfer. But when send to your brouwer, it’s parsed to create the DOM; a tree of the document, with sections, paragraphs, hyper-links, etc. By regarding it as a tree, it easy to describe (e.g. with CSS) how arts should be shown: all headers have a background, the first row in a table is highlighed, etc.


Another well-known example is (the source of a) program. As code, it is just text. But the compiler will parse it into a parse-tree and/or an abstract-syntax-tree; which is build out of classes, methods, statements etc.
But also your favorite IDE will parse it; to highlight the code, give tooltips, enable you to quickly navigate and refactor it and all those conviant features that make it your favorite editor.

And even you are probably parsing text as part of your daily job. When you un-serialise data, you are (often) parsing text; when you read the configuration, you are (or should be ) parsing that text. Even a simple input of the user might need a bit of parsing. The text “42” is not the number \(42.0\) – you need to convert it; parse it.

There a many ways to parse. You do not need a full-fledged grammer to translate “42” into \(42\) or \(42.0\); a stdlib-function as atoi() or atof() will do. But how about handling complex numbers (\(4+j2\)) or fractions (\(\frac{17}{42}\))?


As writing a proper-passer used to be (too) hard, other similar (but simpler) techniques are often used, like globing (``*.Castle`` on the bash-prompt will result in all Castle-files). This is simple, and will is very simple cases.
Other try to use regular-expressions for parsing. RegExps are indeed more powerfull then globing, and often used to highlight code. A pattern as //.*$ can be used to highlight (single-line) comment. It often works, but this simple pattern might match a piece of text inside a multi-line-(doc)string – which wrong.

To parse an input-text its not a sound solution; although I have seen cunning regular-expressions, that almost always work. But reg-exps have not the same power as a grammar– That is already proven halve a century ago and will not be repeated here.

Grammars are more powerfull

A grammar (even a simple one) is more powerfull. You can define the overal structure of the input and the sub-structure of each lump. When a multi-line-string has no sub-structure, the parser will never find comments inside it. Nor other way around; it simple is not hunting for it.

As most programming-languages do not have build-in support for grammars, one has to resort to external tools. Like the famous YACC; developed in 197X. YACC will read a grammar-file, and generates C-code that can be compiled and linked to your code.

Back then, writing compiler-compilers was a popular academic research exercise (YACC stand for: Yet Another Compiler Compiler). It was great for compiler-designers, but clumsy to use for average developers: The syntax to write a grammar was hard to grasp, with many pitfalls, the interface between your code and the parser was awkward (you had to call yyparse(); needed some globals; OO wasn’t invented, no inheritance or data-hiding, which resulted in puzzling tricks to use multiple parsers, etc).
Aside of that, more and better parsing strategies are developed; that is handles in another blog.

Unleash that power!

With those better parsing-algorithms, faster computers with a lot more memory and other inventions, writing grammars has become more peaceful. Except that you still need an extra step, another sytax, as you still need to use an external tool. That sometimes isn’t maintained after a couple of years …
The effect is, most developers don’t use grammars; they write parser-like code manually, or the settle for less optimal result. Or are utterly not aware that grammer can provide another, better, easier solution.

With a few lines, you can define the structure of the input. Each rule is like a function: it has a name (the left-hand-side of the rule, so the part before the arrow), and an implementation; the part after the arrow. That implementation “calls” other rules, like normal code.
When you call the “main rule function”, with the input-stream as input, that file is parsed, and the complete input is ready to use; not more manual scanning and parsing. And when the file-structure is slightly updated, you just add a few details to the grammer.

Castle has it build-in

Grammars makes reading text easy. Define the structure, call the “main rule” and use the values. Castle makes that simple!

UseCase: Castle has build-in grammers support U_Grammers ../../_images/arrow-right-circle.svg
links incoming: R_GrammerCallables

In Castle one can define a grammer directly into the source-code; as Grammar is code!

And, like many other details, the language is hiding the nasty details of parsing-strategies. There is no need to generating, compiling, and use that code, with external tools. All that clutter is gone.


The standard parsing-algorithm is PEG; but that is not an requirement.

The syntax of grammers is quite generic, it’s the implementation of the Castle-compiler that implements the parsing-strategy; it should supports PEG. But it is free to support others as well (with user-selectable compiler-plugins).
This is not unlike other compiler-options.

To use the grammar you simply call one of those rules as a function: pass the input (string) and it will return a (generic) tree-structure. When you simple like to verify the syntax is correct: use the tree as a boolean: when it not-empty the input is valid.
Typically however, you traverse that tree, like you do in many situations.

To read that early configuration: parse the file and walk over the tree. Or use it “ala a DOM” by using Castle’s Matching Statements (todo) to simply. Curious on how that works: continue reading in Grammar is code. Or skip to “Why there are No inline actions”.


comments powered by Disqus