Archive for May, 2009

VHDL grammars and the parser sandwich

Posted in Grammars on May 20th, 2009 by kay – 4 Comments

Eli Bendersky has mentioned some problems of parsing VHDL. I was quite pleased though finding the Postlexer idea being discussed in the following paper which provides a more thorough treatment of VHDL parsing issues.

They call it “Auxiliary Terminal Generator” which is a more precise notation of what I call a “Postlexer”. In that case a Postlexer resolves ambiguities caused by context sensitivity. The solution is to introduce auxiliary terminal symbols in between two context free passes – the one for lexical analysis and parsing.

What I distaste about their approach is that they coupled the grammar with the Postlexer using parsing actions. Apparently generations of computing scientists enjoyed squeezing as much information as possible into their grammars instead of acknowledging the obvious: a separate parsing phase is often required for non-trivial grammars and since the problems are specific one can leave it entirely to a powerful general purpose language and the programmer to solve them. As a consequence the parser isn’t portable across languages but at least the grammars are.

Generally speaking one has to consider three functions now instead of two:

The Parser Sandwich

Lexer: Parsetable String -> Tokenstream
Postlexer: Tokenstream -> Tokenstream
Parser: Parsetable Tokenstream -> Tree

Lexer and Parser shall be universally applicable for any language whereas the Postlexer is always specific and can be omitted if the whole language can be described in a context free way.

Pattern matching with TupleTrees

Posted in Python on May 14th, 2009 by kay – Be the first to comment

As it seems advanced dispatch schemes are discussed right now under the pattern matching label. In this article I want to discuss another solution using a data-structure called the TupleTree ( also known as prefix tree or trie ). The tuple tree solution comes closer to PEAK rules than to Marius Eriksens pattern matching engine. I find it more elegant than the PEAK rules solution and there is less boilerplate. I can’t say much about the generality of PEAK rules though and they might cover a lot more.

A TupleTree is an efficient way to store tuples by factoring out common prefixes. Suppose you have a set of tuples:

{(a, b, c), (a, b, d), (a, c, d), (b, d, d)} then you can store the same information using a tree structure

{(a, (b, ((c,) (d,))), (c, d)), (b, d, d)}

Searching in the tuple tree is of complexity O(log(n)) and can degenerate to O(n) if there is isn’t much to factorize.

This isn’t too interesting in the discussion of pattern matching schemes if we wouldn’t introduce two different kinds of wildcards or symbolic pattern called ANY and ALL.

ANY – a pattern that matches any symbol but with the lowest priority: if there is a tuple (ANY, Y, …) in the tuple tree then (X, Y, …) is matched by (ANY, Y, …) iff there isn’t a more specific matching tuple (X, Y, … ) in the tree.

ALL – a pattern that matches any symbol but with the same priority as a more specific symbol. If there is a tuple (ALL, Y, …) in the tuple tree then (X, Y, …) is matched by (ALL, Y, …) and by a more specific tuple (X, Y, … ) if present. This means ALL creates an ambiguity.

We can consider ALL as a variable and we eliminate the ambiguity using value substitution. Let’s say we have a set of tuples {(ANY, Y), (X, Y), (ALL, Z)} then elimination of ALL leads to {(ANY, Y), (ANY, Z), (X,Y), (X, Z)} and the tuple tree {(ANY, (Y,), (Z,)), (X, (Y,), (Z,))}.

TupleTree implementation

First we define the mentioned pattern ANY and ALL

class Pattern:
    def __init__(self, name): = name
    def __repr__(self):
        return "<P:%s>"
ANY = Pattern("ANY")
ALL = Pattern("ALL")

Now we create the TupleTree object. The TupleTree implements two methods insert and find. The insert method takes a tuple and a key as parameters. It inserts the tuple and stores a key at the location of the tuple. The find method takes a tuple and returns a key if it was inserted at the location of the tuple.

class TupleTree(object):
    def __init__(self):
        self.branches = {}
        self.key = None
        self.all = None
    def insert(self, args, value):
        if len(args) == 0:
            self.key = value
        first = args[0]
        if first == ALL:
            for node in self.branches.values():
                node.insert(args[1:], value)
            self.all = (args[1:], value)
        elif first in self.branches:
            node = self.branches[first]
            node.insert(args[1:], value)
            if self.all:
            tree  = TupleTree()
            self.branches[first] = tree
            tree.insert(args[1:], value)
            if self.all:
    def find(self, args):
        first = args[0]
        if first in self.branches:
            node = self.branches[first]
        elif ANY in self.branches:
            node = self.branches[ANY]
        if len(args) == 1:
            return node.key
            return node.find(args[1:])

The Dispatcher

It is easy to define a dispatcher that matches argument tuples against a tuple in a TupleTree. Handler functions which are decorated by a Dispatcher object are stored as tuple tree keys. Those handler functions are retrieved from the TupleTree when the apply method is called with concrete arguments.

class Dispatcher(object):
    def __init__(self):
        self.ttree = TupleTree()
    def __call__(self, *args):
        def handler(f):
            self.ttree.insert(args, f)
            return f
        return handler
    def apply(self, *args):
        handler = self.ttree.find(args)
        if not handler:
            raise ValueError("Failed to find handler that matches arguments")
            return handler(*args)


As an example we create a new Dispatcher object and decorate handler functions using it.

alt = Dispatcher()
@alt("/", ANY)
def not_a_resource(path, method):
    print "not a resource"
@alt(ANY, "GET")
def retrieve_resource(path, method):
    print "retrieve resource"
@alt(ANY, "POST")
def update_resource(path, method):
    print "update resource", path
@alt(ALL, "PUT")
def create_new_resource(path, method):
    print "create new resource", path
@alt(ANY, ANY)
def invalid_request(path, method):
    print "invalid request", path

Notice that the create_new_resource handler is called when the HTTP command is PUT is passed even when the path is the root path “/”. This is caused by the ALL pattern in the first argument. For all other commands a “not a resource” message is printed.

>>> alt.apply("/home", "PUT")
create new resource /home
>>> alt.apply("/", "PUT")
create new resource /
>>> alt.apply("/", "GET")
not a resource
>>> alt.apply("/home", "GET")
retrieve resource /home
>>> alt.apply("/home", "PAUSE")
invalid request PAUSE

Trace Based Parsing (Part V) – From Grammars to NFAs

Posted in EasyExtend, Grammars, TBP on May 7th, 2009 by kay – Be the first to comment

In this article I will demonstrate the translation process by which an EBNF grammar will be translated into a Trail NFA. There are several different notations for EBNF that differ only in minor details. I’ve chosen the one of Pythons Grammar which can roughly be described using following set of EBNF rules:

file_input: ( RULE | NEWLINE )* ENDMARKER
RHS: ALT ( '|' ALT )*
ITEM: '[' RHS ']' | ATOM [ '*' | '+' ]

The grammar is self-describing. Starting with the non-terminal file_input you can parse the grammar using its own production rules. The multiplicities the EBNF grammar uses are:

  • [X] – zero or one time X
  • X* – zero or more times X
  • X+ – one or more times X

EasyExtend defines a langlet called grammar_langlet used to parse grammars. With the grammar_langlet EBNF grammars become just ordinary languages supported by EE. The parse trees created from grammars will be transformed into NFAs.

From EBNF parse trees to Trail NFAs

The grammar_langlet defines transformations on parse trees. More concretely it wraps pieces of the grammar into Rule objects. Rule objects are basically list wrappers with an additional copy method which is not of interest here.

class Rule(object):
    def __init__(self, lst):
        self.lst = lst
    def copy(self):

From Rule we derive several subclasses which can be reflected by issubclass:

class ConstRule(Rule): ...
class SequenceRule(Rule): ...
class AltRule(Rule): ...
class EmptyRule(Rule): ...

What you don’t find are rules like MaybeRule or ZeroOrMoreRule because we eliminate multiplicities entirely. This will discussed later.

Names and strings are wrapped wrapped into ConstRule objects as follows:

ConstRule([('file_name', 0)])
ConstRule([('"("', 1)])
ConstRule([('RULE', 2)])

In this scheme we already recover the indices that directly translates to states of Trail NFAs. A special case of a ConstRule is the rule that wraps None:

ConstRule([('None', '-')])

The rules of type SequenceRule and AltRule serve as containers for other rules.

Elimination of multiplicities

We apply a trick to get rid of rules with multiplicities i.e. rules defined by X*, X+ and [X]. All of them can be reduced to special combinations of our basic rule set. Before we show the details we need to introduce the EmptyRule type. Apart from the unique exit state (None, ‘-‘) there might be several other empty states (None, nullidx). Just like the constant rules those empty states get enumerated but with an own index and just like any but the exit state they might occur on the left-hand side of a rule. The idea of using those empty states might be demonstrated using a simple example. Consider the following rule:

R: A [B]

We can manually translate it into the NFA

(R, 0): [(A, 1)]
(A, 1): [(B, 2), (None, '-')]
(B, 2): [(None, '-')]

However the translation becomes much simpler when we reify empty productions and insert them first:

(R, 0): [(A, 1)]
(A, 1): [(B, 2), (None, 1)]
(None, 1): [(None, '-')]
(B, 2): [(None, '-')]

What we have effectively done here is to interpret [B] as B | None. In a second step we eliminate the indexed empty states again which will lead to NFAs of the first form. Removing A* and A+ is similar but a little more tricky. We write

A*  → None | A | A A
A+  → A | A A

This looks wrong but only when we think about those transitions in terms of an an indexing scheme that assigns different numerals to each symbol that occurs in the rule. But now all A on the right hand side shall actually be indistinguishable and lead to identical states. With this modification of the translation semantics in mind we translate the grammar rule R: A* into

(R, 0): [(A, 1), (None, 1)]
(A, 1): [(A, 1), (None, '-')]
(None, 1): [(None, '-')]

Eliminating the indexed empty state leads to this NFA

(R, 0): [(A, 1), (None, '-')]
(A, 1): [(A, 1), (None, '-')]

which is just perfect.

The reduction of rules with multiplicities to sequences and alternatives can be applied to Rule objects as well:

[A] →  AltRule( EmptyRule([(None, nullidx)]), A)
A*  →  AltRule( EmptyRule([(None, nullidx)]), A, SequenceRule([A, A]))
A+  →  AltRule( A, SequenceRule([A, A]))

Since we have found a simple a way to express grammars by rule trees containing only the mentioned rule types we can go on and flatten those trees into a tabular form.

Computing NFAs from rule trees

First we define an auxiliary function called end(). For a rule object R this function computes a set of constant or empty rules that terminate R. This means end(R) contains the last symbols of R wrapped into rule objects.

def end(R):
    if not R.lst:
        return set()
    if isinstance(R, (ConstRule, EmptyRule)):
        return set([R])
    elif isinstance(R, AltRule):
        return reduce(lambda x, y: x.union(y), [end(U) for U in R.lst])
    else:  # SequenceRule
        S = R.lst[-1]
        return end(S)

With this function we can implement the main algorithm.

Suppose you have a SequenceRule(S1, …, Sk). The end points of each S[i] are computed by application of end(S[i]) and shall be connected with the start points of S[i+1]. Those starting points will build the follow sets of S[i]’s end points. If S[i+1] is a constant or empty rule we are done. If S[i+1] is an AltRule we compute the connection of S[i] with each entry in S[i+1]. If S[i+1] is a SequenceRule we recursively call our connection building algorithm with S[i] being prepended to the sub-rules of S[i+1]. In finitely many steps we always find the complete set of constant/empty rules S[i] can be connected with. Here is the Python implementation:

def build_nfa(rule, start = None, nfa = None):
    if not start:
        nfa = {}
        # rule.lst[0] == (rule name, 0)
        # rule.lst[1] == SequenceRule(...)
        start = set([ConstRule([rule.lst[0]])])
        return build_nfa(rule.lst[1], start, nfa)
    if isinstance(rule, SequenceRule):
        for i, R in enumerate(rule.lst):
            build_nfa(R, start, nfa)
            start = end(R)
    elif isinstance(rule, AltRule):
        for R in rule.lst:
            build_nfa(R, start, nfa)
    else: # ConstRule or EmptyRule
        r = rule.lst[0]
        for s in start:
            state = s.lst[0]
            follow = nfa.get(state, set())
            nfa[state] = follow
    return nfa

The last step is to remove indexed empty states (None, idx).

def nfa_reduction(nfa):
    removable = []
    for (K, idx) in nfa:
        if K is None and idx!="-":
            F = nfa[(K, idx)]
            for follow in nfa.values():
                if (K, idx) in follow:
                    follow.remove((K, idx))
            removable.append((K, idx))
    for R in removable:
        del nfa[R]
    return nfa

This yields an NFA. In order to make it suitable for Trail one additionally has to map each state (A, idx) to (A, idx, R) with the rule id R.

What’s next?

So far all our discussions were placed in the realm of nice context free languages and their aspects. However the real world is hardly that nice and real language syntax can only be approximated by context free formalisms. Context sensitive languages are pervasive and they range from Python over Javascript to C, C++, Ruby and Perl. Instead of augmenting grammars by parser actions EasyExtend factors context sensitive actions out and let the programmer hacking in Python.

Trace Based Parsing ( Part IV ) – Recursive NFAs

Posted in EasyExtend, Grammars, TBP on May 6th, 2009 by kay – Be the first to comment

Not long ago I inserted the following piece of code in the EasyExtend/trail/ module which defines NFA tracers and cursors and deals with the reconstruction of parse trees from state set sequences.

class NFAInterpreter(object):
    def __init__(self, nfa):
        for state in nfa:
            if state[1] == 0:
                self.start = state
            raise ValueError("Incorrect NFA - start state not found")
        self.nfa = ["", "", self.start, nfa]
    def run(self, tokstream):
        cursor = NFACursor(self.nfa, {})
        selection = cursor.move(self.start[0])
        for t in tokstream:
        return cursor.derive_tree([])

This little interpreter is basically for experimentation with advancements of Trail. The idea is to initialize a a single NFAInterpreter object with the transition table of an NFA. This table can be handcrafted and represents a concept. The run method keeps a token stream and uses it to iterate through the NFA. Finally a parse tree will be derived from a state sequence. This derivation process is defined in the method derive_treeof the class NFAStateSetSequence of the same module and it has to be adapted. I’ll show you an interesting example.

Recursive rules

Recursively defined rules are most likely a cause for Trail to turn into backtracking mode. I’ve had some ideas in the past on how to deal with recursion in Trail based on Trail NFAs. Here are some of my findings.

For the following discussion I’ll consider a single grammar rule which might be among the most simple albeit interesting rules that cannot be expanded:

R: a b [R] a c
The inner R causes a First/First conflict because a b … and a c are both possible continuations at the location of [R]. This conflict can’t be resolved by expansion because it would just be reproduced:
R: a b [a b [R] a c] a c
We do now translate R into an NFA.

{(R, 0, R): [(a, 1, R)],
 (a, 1, R): [(b, 2, R)],
 (b, 2, R): [(R, 3, R), (a, 4, R)],
 (R, 3, R): [(a, 4, R)],
 (a, 4, R): [(c, 5, R)],
 (c, 5, R): [(None, '-', R)]

What I intend to introduce now is some sort of tail recursion elimination ( despite Guidos verdict about it ). This is done by the introduction of two new control characters for NFA states. Remember that a state (A, ‘.’, 23, B) contains the control character ‘.’ which is created when an NFA A is embedded in another NFA B. Transient states like this containing control characters don’t produce own nid selections but get nevertheless recorded and stored in state set sequences and are important in the derivation process of parse trees. The idea is to replace the inner state (R, 3, R) by a pair of transient states (R, ‘(‘, 0, R) and (R, ‘)’, 0, R).

The transient state (R, ‘(‘, 0, R) acts like a pointer to the beginning of the rule whereas the state (R, ‘)’, 0, R) is close to the end only followed by the exit state (None, ‘-‘, R) and the states following the formerly embedded (R, 3, R). Here is what we get:

{(R, 0, R): [(R, '(', 0, R)],
(R, '(', 0, R): [(a, 1, R)],
(a, 1, R): [(b, 2, R)],
(b, 2, R): [(R, '(', 0, R), (a, 4, R)],
(a, 4, R): [(c, 5, R)],
(c, 5, R): [(R, ')', 0, R)],
(R, ')', 0, R): [(None, '-', R), (a, 4, R)]

A correct parse created with this rule implies an exact pairing of opening and closing parentheses. If we have passed through (R, ‘(‘, 0, R) n-times we also need to pass n-times though (R, ‘)’, 0, R). But the NFA is constructed such that it can be left any time we have passed through (R, ‘)’, 0, R) because the exit state is its follow state. NFAs cannot count and the tracer can’t be used to rule out all incorrect parse trees.

The way parse trees created by those kind of rules are checked is directly at their (re-)construction from state sequences. This leads us into the next step after having introduced a new NFA scheme and new transient NFA states.

Customization of derive_tree method

The derive_tree() method of the NFAStateSetSequence is the location where parse trees are created from state lists. Here is also the place to define the behavior associated with transient states. We give a listing of the relevant section that deals with ‘(‘ and ‘)’ control characters in transient states.

def derive_tree(self, sub_trees):
    states = self.unwind() # creates state list from state set sequence
    root = states[0][0][0]
    tree = []
    rule = [root]
    cycle = []
    std_err_msg = "Failed to derive tree."
                  "Cannot build node [%s, ...]"%root
    for state, tok in states[1:]:
        nid  = state[0]
        link = state[-1]
        IDX  = state[1]
        if IDX == SKIP:
        # begin of '(' and ')' control character treatment
        # and their transient states
        elif IDX == '(':
        elif IDX == ')':
            if cycle:
                rec = cycle.pop()
                if (rec[0], rec[2], rec[3]) != (state[0], state[2], state[3]):
                    raise ValueError(std_err_msg)
                raise ValueError(std_err_msg)
            for i in xrange(len(tree)-1, -1, -1):
                t_i = tree[i]
                if type(t_i) == tuple:
                    if t_i[1] == '(':
                        tree, T = tree[:i], tree[i+1:]
                        if tree:
                            T.insert(0, link)
                            tree = T
                raise ValueError(std_err_msg)
        elif nid is None:
            if cycle:  # there must not be cycles left
                raise ValueError(std_err_msg)
            if type(tree[0]) == int:
                return tree
                tree.insert(0, link)
                return tree
        # end of '(' , ')'

Here you can download the complete code within its context. At the top the nfatracing module CONTROL characters are defined. The list can be extended by your own characters.

Testing our NFA

Let’s write some tests for our NFA interpreter:

R = 'R'
a, b, c = 'a', 'b', 'c'
nfa = {(R, 0, R): [(R, '(', 0, R)],
       (R, '(', 0, R): [(a, 1, R)],
       (a, 1, R): [(b, 2, R)],
       (b, 2, R): [(R, '(', 0, R), (a, 4, R)],
       (a, 4, R): [(c, 5, R)],
       (c, 5, R): [(R, ')', 0, R)],
       (R, ')', 0, R): [(None, '-', R), (a, 4, R)]
interpreter = NFAInterpreter(nfa)
assert'abac') == ['R', 'a', 'b', 'a', 'c']
assert'ababacac') == ['R', 'a', 'b',
                                           ['R', 'a', 'b', 'a', 'c'],
                                            'a', 'c']

With those modifications being applied the parser still exists within O(n) bounds which is quite encouraging. How to go from here to a fully general treatment of recursion in NFAs? Here are some grammars which represent challenges:

Mutually recursive expansions:

A: a b [B] a c
B: a b [A] a d

Immediate left recursion:

A: A '+' A | a

Multiple occurrences of a rule in immediate succession

A: (A '+' A A) | a

In all the of mentioned cases left recursion conflicts can be removed quite trivially. In complex grammars, however, they can lurk somewhere and with NFA expansion you can’t be sure that they do not emerge at places where you didn’t expect them.

What’s next?

In the next article I’ll move a few steps back and show how to create Trail NFAs from EBNF grammars. EasyExtend 3 contained a rather complicated and obscure method due to my apparent inability to find a simple simple algorithm at the time of its implementation. Recently I found a much simpler and more reliable generation scheme that shall be demonstrated.

Trace Based Parsing ( Part III ) – NFALexer

Posted in EasyExtend, Grammars, TBP on May 4th, 2009 by kay – Be the first to comment

The NFALexer gives me an uneasy feeling. It is the most questionable of Trails components – one that cannot decide whether it wants to be a lexer that produces a token stream or a parser that produces parse trees. Right now it creates both and degrades parse trees to token streams.

Then there is also another component that actually does not belong to the Trail core anymore which is called the Postlexer. The Postlexer originates from the observation that Pythons module implements a two pass lexical analysis. In the first pass the source code is chunked into pieces using regular expressions whereas in the second pass whitespace is extracted and NEWLINE, INDENT and DEDENT token are produced. In a certain sense the split into NFALexer and Postlexer can be understood as a generalization and clarification of that module. But why creating a trace based lexer at all? Why not just staying faithful with regular expressions?

Issues with popular regexp implementations

When you take a look at you will observe code like this

Triple = group("[uU]?[rR]?'''", '[uU]?[rR]?"""')
String = group(r"[uU]?[rR]?'[^\n'\\]*(?:\\.[^\n'\\]*)*'",
Operator = group(r"\*\*=?", r">>=?", r"<<=?", r"<>", r"!=",
Bracket = '[][(){}]'
Special = group(r'\r?\n', r'[:;.,`@]')

The group function will turn a sequence of regular expressions s1, s2, … into a new regexp (s1 | s2 | …). This group building process will yield a big regular expression of this kind containing about 60-70 components.

What’s wrong with that kind of regular expressions for lexical analysis?

Python uses longest match or greedy tokenization. It matches as much characters as possible. So do regular expressions.

Do they?

The basic problem with Pythons regular expression implementation is that s1|s2|… could match something entirely different than s2|s1|….

For example a simple Float regexp can be defined as

Float = group(r’\d+\.\d*’, r’\.\d+’)

whereas an Int is just

Int = r'[1-9]\d*’

Finally we have a Dot token

Dot = r”\.”

When we group those regular expressions as group(Int, Dot, Float) a float never gets matched as a Float: tokenizing 7.5 yields the token stream Int, Dot, Int not Float. Same with group(Int, Float, Dot). But group(Float, Int, Dot) works as expected.

This behavior is called ordered choice and it is more of a misfeature than a feature. Ordered choice is o.k. for small regular expressions ( or PEGs ) where the programmer has complete oversight but it is not appropriate for 60 or more token and it is a design failure for systems like EasyExtend.

Regular expressions and trace based parsing

I briefly noted in part I of this article series that the original work on trace based parsing goes back to the late 60s and work by Ken Thompson on regular expression engines. So there is no intrinsic flaw to regular expressions but only some of their implementations. The implicit parallelism of TBP will just scan source code using Int and Float at the same time and the matched results will always correspond no matter how we group our matching rules.

Expansion in traced based lexers

The Int, Float example highlights a First/First conflict among different rules. Trail uses expansion to eliminate them. Actually expansion works as a conflict resolution strategy for all lexers I’ve examined. For that reason NFALexer lacks backtracking as a fall back.

Why the current NFALexer implementation is flawed

The NFALexer is slow. For each character the NFALexer produces a token and often the token are just thrown away again. Strings and comments might have a rich internal token structure but in the NFAParser we just want to use a single STRING token and comments are at best preserved to enable pretty printing.

The NFAParser for Python demands a single NUMBER token for all kinds of numbers. The token grammar defines about 12 different rules for numbers. That’s perfectly o.k. as a structuring principle we get far more structure than needed. It would be good if the NFA production for the lexer could adapt itself to the demand of the parser.

The weirdest aspect is the flattening of parse trees to token. This is caused by the fact that we want want to pass Python parse trees to the compiler and the compiler can’t deal with terminal symbols that are in fact none but parse trees.

Conclusion: rewrite the NFALexer s.t. it becomes a proper lexer i.e. a function that keeps a string and returns a token stream without producing any complex intermediate data structures . A trace based lexer should fly!

In the rest of the article we discuss some design aspects of the NFALexerl.

Parser Token and Lexer Symbols

In the previous article about NFA expansion we have already touched the concept of a node id ( nid ). For each rule with rule name R there is a mapping R → nid(R) where nid(R) is a number used to identify R. The mapping expresses a unique relationship and it is not only unique for a particular EasyExtend langlet but it is intended to be unique across all of them. This means that each langlet has an own domain or range of node ids:

   nid_range = range(L, L+1024)
The LANGLET_OFFSET is a number L = offset_cnt*1024, offset_cnt = 0, 1, 2, …. The offset_cnt will be read/stored in the file EasyExtend\fs and it gets incremented for each new langlet that is created.

A range of size 1024 might appear small but big programming languages have about 80 terminal symbols and 200-300 non-terminals. Even COBOL has not more than 230 rules. COBOL has a few hundred keywords but this won’t matter, since keywords are all mapped to a single token. Maybe Perl is bigger but I guess the problems with Perl are those of context sensitivity and everything that can be encoded about Perl in a context free way can also be expressed in EasyExtend.

The node id range is again splitted into two ranges: one for terminals ( token ) and another one for non-terminals ( symbols ):

    token_range  = range(L, 256 + L)
    symbol_range = range(256 + L, 1024 + L)
The used names “symbol” and “token” goes back to Pythons standard library modules and

From lex_symbol to parse_token

Both NFALexer and NFAParser are parsers and use the same LANGLET_OFFSET and the same nid ranges. Since the terminal and non-terminal ranges coincide and we want to use the symbols of the NFALexer as the token of the NFAParser we have to apply a shift on the NFALexer symbols to become NFAParser token:

token-nid NFAParser = symbol-nid NFALexer – 256

Comparing lexdef/ with parsedef/ for arbitrary langlets lets you check this relation:


Lexer Terminals

When symbols of the lexer are token of the parser how can we characterize the token of the lexer? The answer is simple: by individual characters. One can just define:

DIGIT: '0123456789'
CHAR: 'abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyzABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ'

The disadvantage of this explicit notation is that it blows up the lexer NFAs and adds a new state for each character. Moreover we cannot write down the set of all characters and define a symbol that behaves like a regular expression dot that matches anything. So EasyExtend lets one define character sets separately.

Character sets

Character sets include sets for alphanumeric characters, whitespace, hexdigits and octdigits but also the set ANY used to represent any character. Unlike individual characters character sets have a numerical token-id. Character sets are defined in the module EasyExtend/

Here is an example:

BaseLexerToken.tokenid.A_CHAR  = 11
BaseLexerToken.charset.A_CHAR  = set(string.ascii_letters+"_")

Each lexdef/ contains a LexerToken object. LexerToken is a copy of BaseLexerToken prototype. During the copying process the token-ids defined at are shifted according to the langlet offset. LexerToken objects will be directly accessed and extracted by the NFALexer.

Below we give an example of a LexerToken extension. The langlet we use here is Teuton and the charactersets we define are German umlauts.

# -*- coding: iso-8859-1 -*-
# You might create here a new LexerToken object and set or overwrite
# properties of the BaseLexerToken object defined in
from EasyExtend.lexertoken import NewLexerToken
LexerToken = NewLexerToken(LANGLET_OFFSET)
LexerToken.tokenid.A_UMLAUT = LANGLET_OFFSET+20
LexerToken.charset.A_UMLAUT = set('\xe4\xf6\xfc\xc4\xd6\xdc\xdf\x84\x8e\x94\x99\x81\x9a\xe1')
LexerToken.tokenid.A_ue     = LANGLET_OFFSET+21
LexerToken.charset.A_ue     = set(['\x81\xfc'])

Beyond character sets

Character sets are proper set objects. However it is possible to use other set-like objects as well. An interesting yet unused set-like type is the universal set described in this article.

Postlexer token

There is another important class of token we have not touched yet. This class of token is already present in Python and some of the token make Pythons fame. Most prominently INDENTand DEDENT. But there are also NEWLINE, ENDMARKER, NL and ERRORTOKEN. What they have in common is that there is no pattern describing them. When the source code is chunked into pieces using regular expressions there is no assignment of one of those chunks to the mentioned token. The chunks are produced in a secondary post processing step.

Same for EasyExtend. There are grammar rules for INDENT, DEDENT, NEWLINE etc. but on the right-hand-side we find terminals like T_INDENT, T_DEDENT and T_NEWLINE that are neither characters nor charsets. They are terminal symbols only in a formal sense used to pacify the parser generator. In EasyExtend postlexer token are produced and inserted into the token stream generated by the NFALexer. Their production is located in the Postlexer which is a function Postlexer: TokenStream → TokenStream.

Apart from the Postlexer there is another component called the Interceptor that is used to manipulate state sets on the fly during NFA parsing. Together the Postlexer and the Interceptor enable context sensitive parsing. It is interesting to note here that they both act on the level of lexical analysis and token production and there is no interference with the NFAParser. From a design point of view this is very pleasant because parsing is usually harder and more error prone than lexing and if context sensitivity can be captured during lexical or post-lexical analysis pressure is taken away from the parser.

Special token

In a final section we want to discuss three special token called ANY, STOP and INTRON.


INTRON – at other occasions people also call it JUNK. I used a slightly less pejorative name. Although INTRONs do not encode any token used by the parser it can happen that the Postlexer still extracts information from them. For example Pythons Postlexer can derive INDENT, DEDENTand NEWLINE token from an INTRON. Other languages like C have no use for them and just throw them away. An INTRON can be annotated to a token as an attribute for the purpose of exact source code reconstruction from parse trees.


ANY is the counterpart of a regexp dot. It just matches any character. ANY is implemented as a charset – the empty set. Since it is the empty set one could expect to run into First/First conflicts with every other character set and indeed it does! However the NFALexer has a hardcoded disambiguation strategy and according the this strategy ANY is always endowed with the lowest priority. So if {ANY, ‘X’, ‘;’} is in the selection and the current character is ‘c’ it is matched by ANY. But if it is ‘X’ it is matched by ‘X’ and the ANY trace will be discontinued.


Sometimes a production rule accepts a proper subset of the productions of another one. The NAME rule is very popular for example


and it covers every production that specifies a particular name as a token:

DEF: “def”

So DEF is always also a NAME and if the trace terminates with “def” and does not continue with another character we have two trace and need to make a decision. The STOP terminal serves for disambiguation purposes. We can write

DEF: “def” STOP

If this happens and NAME cannot be continued STOP is selected. STOP does not match any character but extends the trace of DEF which means the DEF trace is selected, not NAME.

What’s next?

In the next article I’ll move to the borders of Trail and discuss recursion in NFAs and possible methods to deal with them.

Trace Based Parsing ( Part II ) – NFA Expansion

Posted in EasyExtend, Grammars on May 2nd, 2009 by kay – Be the first to comment

In the previous article about trace based parsing (TBP) I explained the basic concepts of TBP. I motivated TBP by parse tree validators that check the correctness of parse trees against grammars and I derived a trace based LL(1) parser. In this article I will leave familiar territory and will talk about the most important disambiguation technique in Trail which is called NFA expansion. Before I can get into this I have to advance the notation of Trail NFAs.

Trail NFAs

A Trail NFA is a dictionary of states. The keys of those dictionaries are single states and the values are lists of states. A single state is either a 3-tuple

(node-type, index, rule-node-type)

or a 4-tuple

(node-type, control-symbol, index, rule-node-type).

( Notice that the only reason for this somewhat peculiar implementation of states is that they are easy to read and dump to text files. Furthermore field access on tuples is more efficient in Python than attribute access on objects. )

A node-type or node-id or nid is an integer value that represents a terminal or non-terminal in a parse tree. A parse tree is full of node ids. A node-type can also be None for the exit state of an NFA or it can be a string. All exist states are equal. If the nid is a string it is a language keyword. The index is just an arbitrary number that uniquely identifies a symbol in a grammar rule. If you have a grammar rule like the following

R: (A | B ‘;’ c*)+

you can enumerate the symbols as such (R, 0), (A, 1), (B, 2), (‘;’, 3), (c, 4). The index of the rule symbol ( R in our example ) is always 0.

The rule-node-type is just the node id of the rule itself. The control-symbol will be discussed later. So the states are

(R, 0, R), (A, 1, R), (B, 2, R), (‘;’, 3, R), (c, 4, R).

In EasyExtend the Trail NFAs of grammar rules are again organized again into dictionaries. The rule-node-type is the dictionary key and a list of entries is the value

 257: ['file_input: ( NEWLINE | stmt)* ENDMARKER',
       (257, 0, 257),
       {(0, 3, 257): [(None, '-', 257)],
        (4, 1, 257): [(266, 2, 257), (4, 1, 257), (0, 3, 257)],
        (257, 0, 257): [(266, 2, 257), (4, 1, 257), (0, 3, 257)],
        (266, 2, 257): [(266, 2, 257), (4, 1, 257), (0, 3, 257)]}],

The meaning of those entries is

  • the textual grammar rule description – `file_input: ( NEWLINE | stmt)* ENDMARKER`
  • the second entry is a relict and it might go away in EE 4.0
  • the start symbol of the NFA – `(257, 0, 257)`
  • the NFA itself

The NFA looks awkward on the first sight but it is easy to very why it correctly expresses the grammar rule once we have translated node ids to rule names. Since the rule is a Python rule we can decode the nids using std library modules for non-terminals and for terminals.

>>> import symbol
>>> map(symbol.sym_name.get, [257, 266])
['file_input', 'stmt']
>>> import token
>>> map(symbol.tok_name.get, [0, 4])

When we replace the states by the rule names mapped from the node ids we will get the following dict:

{ ENDMARKER: [None],
  file_input: [stmt, NEWLINE, ENDMARKER],
  stmt: [stmt, NEWLINE, ENDMARKER]

With file_input as the start and None as the exit symbol it obviously expresses the correct transitions.

Here is a little more advanced NFA showing why using indices is quite reasonable

 271: ["print_stmt: 'print' ([test (',' test)* [',']] | '>>' test [(',' test)+ [',']])",
       (271, 0, 271),
       {(12, 3, 271): [(303, 4, 271)],
        (12, 5, 271): [(None, '-', 271)],
        (12, 8, 271): [(303, 9, 271)],
        (12, 10, 271): [(None, '-', 271)],
        (35, 6, 271): [(303, 7, 271)],
        (271, 0, 271): [('print', 1, 271)],
        (303, 2, 271): [(12, 3, 271), (12, 5, 271), (None, '-', 271)],
        (303, 4, 271): [(12, 3, 271), (12, 5, 271), (None, '-', 271)],
        (303, 7, 271): [(None, '-', 271), (12, 8, 271)],
        (303, 9, 271): [(12, 8, 271), (12, 10, 271), (None, '-', 271)],
        ('print', 1, 271): [(None, '-', 271), (303, 2, 271), (35, 6, 271)]}],


Trail works just fine for single self-contained rules. Because of implicit parallelism a rule like

R: A* B | A* C
neither requires advanced lookahead schemes, special left factoring algorithms nor backtracking. This is also the reason why TBP is used for regular expression matching. This comfort gets lost when more than one grammar rule is used.
R: A* B | D* C
D: A
Now we have a First/First conflict because A!=D but all A-reachables are also reachable from D. Both A and D are in the selection of R and the parser has to somehow decide which one to chose. The trick we apply is to embed D carefully in R or as we say: expand R by D. Careful means that we substitute D in R by the right hand side of D i.e. A but in such a way that the link to D is preserved. As we will see this is the deeper cause for the rule-type-id being the last entry of each state.

In a somewhat idealized Trail NFA style where the node ids are symbols we derive following two NFAs:

Trail NFA of R
(R, 0, R): (A, 1, R), (D, 2, R)
(A, 1, R): (A, 1, R), (B, 3, R)
(D, 2, R): (D, 2, R), (C, 4, R)
(B, 3, R): (None, '-', R)
(C, 4, R): (None, '-', R)
Trail NFA of D
(D, 0, D): (A, 1, D)
(A, 1, D): (None, '-', D)

Now we substitute the R state (D, 2, R) by (A, 1, D). However we have to embed the complete NFA not just the states following (D, 0, D).

Expanded Trail NFA of R
(R, 0, R): (A, 1, R), (A, 1, D)
(A, 1, R): (A, 1, R), (B, 3, R)
(A, 1, D): (A, 1, D), (None, '-', D)
(B, 3, R): (None, '-', R)
(C, 4, R): (None, '-', R)
(None, '-', D): (C, 4, R)

This is still not correct. The exit symbol (None, ‘-‘, D) of D must not occur in R because we want to continue in R after D and do not leave it. Instead we create a new type of state – a transient or glue state which has the form: (D, ‘.’, 5, R)

The dot ‘.’ indicates that the state is a transient state. The follow states of (D, ‘.’, 5, R) are precisely the follow states of (D, 2, R). So the correct embedding of D in R looks like

Expanded Trail NFA of R
(R, 0, R): (A, 1, R), (A, 1, D)
(A, 1, R): (A, 1, R), (B, 3, R)
(A, 1, D): (A, 1, D), (D, '.', 5, R)
(B, 3, R): (None, '-', R)
(C, 4, R): (None, '-', R)
(D, '.', 5, R): (C, 4, R)

Reconstruction of parse trees from traces

Transient states never cause First/First conflicts and they also do not produce new selections. They are nevertheless preserved in the state set traces and used for reconstructing parse trees from traces.

Assume we use the expanded NFA we have created above to parse the sentence A A C. This yields following sequence of state sets:

(R, 0, R) → R → [(A, 1, R), (A, 1, D)]
          → A → [(A, 1, R), (B, 3, R), (A, 1, D), ((C, 4, R) ← (D, '.', 5, R))]  
          → A → [(A, 1, R), (B, 3, R), (A, 1, D), ((C, 4, R) ← (D, '.', 5, R))]
          → C → (None, '-', R)
From this stateset-selection sequence we can reconstruct the actual state sequence. We know that the last entry of a state is the node-type of a rule. Hence we also know the containing NFA of a state even though it is embedded. We now move backwards in the state set sequence from (None, ‘-‘, R) to (R, 0, R). By changing the orientation in the proposed manner we enter the sub NFA D through the transient state (D, ‘.’, 5, R) and leave it only when there is no state of rule-node-type D left anymore in any of the state sets which is actually the final state (R, 0, R) in this case.

So we get

(None, '-', R)(C, 4, R) ← (D, '.', 5, R)(A, 1, D) ← (A, 1, D) ← (R, 0, R)
From this state sequence we reconstruct the parse tree. First we mark all states that are D states and wrap the node ids into D
(None, '-', R)(C, 4, R) ← (D, '.', 5, R)(A, 1, D) ← (A, 1, D) ← (R, 0, R)
(None, '-', R)(C, 4, R) ← [D, A, A] ← (R, 0, R)
Then we wrap the D-tree and the remaining C state into R:

[R, [D, A, A], C]


Limitations of expansion

We have seen how to apply NFA expansion and reconstructed parse trees from state set sequences. This process is linear but it is hard to guess the effort after all because it depends on the number of states in the state sets.

Notice also that NFA embeddings require an additional shift of the state indices. That’s because it can happen that an NFA is embedded multiple times and the embeddings must not overlap.

This technique raises the question of its limitations quite naturally.

One obvious limitation is cyclic or infinite expansion. Suppose we expand D in R but this time D is a recursive rule and contains a state(D, k, D). This is not necessarily harmful as long as (D, k, D) doesn’t cause a First/First conflict that leads to another expansion of D in R. Expansion cycles can be easily detected and in those cases expansion is aborted and the original NFA restored.

Another situation is more comparable to stack overflows. The expansion process continues on and on. Without running into a cycle it produces thousands of states and it is not clear when and how it terminates. Trail sets an artificial limit of 1500 states per NFA. If this number is exceeded expansion is terminated and the original NFA restored.

Another disadvantage of expansion is that error reporting becomes harder because localization of states becomes worse.

Brute force as a last resort

If expansion is interrupted and the original unexpanded NFA is restored the only chance to deal with First/First conflicts without changing the grammar manually is to use backtracking. Trail will have to check out any possible trace and select the longest one. In the past I tried to break (D, k, D) into two new transient states (D, ‘(‘, k, D) and (D, ‘)’, k, D). The approach was interesting but made maintenance and debugging harder and there were still corner cases that were not properly treated.

What’s next?

In the next article I’ll leave the level of groundwork and will talk about the NFALexer. The NFALexer is actually just another context free TBP. The NFALexer replaces regular expression based lexical analysis in Trail which has some positive but also negative aspects. We have to talk about both.

Trace Based Parsing (Part I) – Introduction

Posted in EasyExtend, Grammars on May 1st, 2009 by kay – Be the first to comment

This is the first in a series of articles about Trace Based Parsing ( TBP ). Trace based parsing is a powerful top down, table driven parsing style. TBP is the technique underlying Trail which is the parser generator of EasyExtend (EE). At its core Trail uses a variant of regular expression matching engines of the Thompson style described in an excellent article by Russ Cox. However Trail extends the scope of those engines and goes beyond regular expressions and covers context free grammars and programming languages.

Originally I didn’t intend to create a parser generator let alone a novel one that wasn’t described by the literature that was available to me. EasyExtend used a very efficient LL(1) parser generator written by Jonathan Riehl and what I needed was something more modest namely a parse tree validator for checking the correctness of parse tree transformations. Those validators are simpler to create than parsers and I’ll start my introductory notes about TBP describing them.

Parse Tree Validators

Suppose an EasyExtend user has defined a few new grammar rules in an extension language ExtLPython of Python. The ExtLPython source code is parsed correctly into a parse tree PT(ExtLPython) and now the user wants to transform PT(ExtLPython) back into a Python parse tree PT(Python) which can be compiled to bytecode by means of the usual compiler machinery. In essence the function PT(ExtLPython)PT(Python) is a preprocessor of the users language and the preprocessors, not the bytecode compiler, are defined within EE and need to be checked.

So the task we need to solve can be stated as

Given a parse tree PT and a grammar G check that PT is conformant with G.

An EBNF grammar of Pythons parser is already available in the Python distribution and can be found in the distributions /Grammar folder or here ( for Python 2.5 ).

We will start the derivation of a parse tree validator considering simple grammars. Take the following grammar G1 for example:

Grammar G1
G1: A B | A C

The possible parse trees of a language described by G1 have the following shape :
[G1, A, B] or [G1, A, C]. Our next grammar is just slightly more involved

Grammar G2
G2: A R
R: B B C | B B D

The corresponding trees are:
TG1 = [G2, A, [R, B,B, C]]
TG2 = [G2, A, [R, B, B, D]].

The function ( or object method ) I seek steps through the parse tree and determines for every node in the tree the set of all possible subsequent nodes. This function shall be called a tracer. Given the grammar G2 and the symbol A the tracer shall yield the symbol R. If the symbol is B the yielded follow symbol is either B or those are the symbols C and D depending on the state of the tracer.

A tracer can be best implemented using a finite state automaton. For the grammar G2 we derive following states and state transitions in the automaton:

(G2,0) : (A, 1)
(A, 1) : (R, 2)
(R, 2) : (B, 3) , (B, 4)
(B, 3) : (B, 5)
(B, 4) : (B, 6)
(B, 5) : (C, 7)
(B, 6) : (D, 8)
(C, 7) : (None, '-')
(D, 8) : (None, '-')

In this automaton we have encoded the symbols of the grammar rules as 2-tuples (symbol-name, index). The index is arbitrary but important to distinguish different states in the automaton originating from the same symbol that is used at different locations. In G2 the symbol B gives rise to four different states (B, 3), (B, 4), (B, 5) and (B, 6).

The finite state automaton is non-deterministic. That’s because each transition is described by the symbol name only. So if the automaton is in the state (A, 1) the symbol R is the label of the transition: (A, 1) → R → (R, 2). The subsequent transition is
(R, 2) → B → [(B, 3), (B,4)].
This particular transition doesn’t yield a unique state but a set of states. Hence the non-determinism. Nondeterministic finite state automatons are abbreviated by NFA.

For all states S in a state set we can safely assume that S[0] = symbol-name for a fixed symbol name. In essence our tracing function produces state sets on each transition and those sets are uniquely determined by symbol names.

State views and selection views

The parse trees TG1 and TG2 from the previous section correspond with following traces which describe state transition sequences:

Trace(TG1) = (G2,0) → A → (A, 1) → R → (R, 2) → B → [(B, 3), (B, 4)] → B → [(B, 5), (B, 6)] → C → (C, 5) → (None, ‘-‘)

Trace2(TG2) = (G2,0) → A → (A, 1) → R → (R, 2) → B →[(B, 3), (B, 4)] → B →[(B, 5), (B, 6)] → D → (D, 6) → (None, ‘-‘)

Our intended tracer would step through Trace(TG1) and Trace(TG2) at the same time. This makes the tracer is implicitly parallel! The actual state sets of the NFA are hidden from client objects that use the tracer. All they consume is the sequence of labels/symbols:

G2 → A → R → B → B → ( C, D ) → None

We assume now that the tracer is an object that stores the current state-set of the NFA as a private member and enables tracing though the NFA using a select method which returns a set of labels that can be used for the next select call ( unless the label is None). A sequence of selectcalls looks like this:

[A] =
[R] =
[B] =
[B] =
[C,D] =
[None] =     # or [None] =

Now we just have to bring the NFA tracers and the parse trees together. If the nested list [G2, A, [R, B, B, C]] represents a parse tree one has to step through the list and call the select method of the tracer with the current symbol found in the list. If we enter a sublist we spawn a new tracer a call the validator recursively. The parse tree is correct if each selection was successful. Otherwise an exception is raised.

The following Python function gives us an implementation:

def validate_parse_tree(tree, tracer):
    selection = []
    for N in tree:
        if istree(N):
            validate_parse_tree(N, tracer.clone())
            selection =
            if not selection:
                raise ValueError("parse tree validation failed at node %s"%N)
    if None in selection:
       raise ValueError("parse tree validation failed at node %s"%tree)

A conflict free traced based LL(1) parser

LL(1) parsers are a class of efficient top down parsers. Wikipedia states

An LL parser is called an LL(k) parser if it uses k tokens of lookahead when parsing a sentence. If such a parser exists for a certain grammar and it can parse sentences of this grammar without backtracking then it is called an LL(k) grammar. Of these grammars, LL(1) grammars, although fairly restrictive, are very popular because the corresponding LL parsers only need to look at the next token to make their parsing decisions. Languages based on grammars with a high value of k require considerable effort to parse.

Notice that this section is pretty confusing because the fact that only 1 token of lookahead is required for a parser doesn’t imply anything about the characteristic features of the grammar but about the implementation technique. Backtracking is mentioned as such a technique and it is a general goal of parser generator design to avoid it because backtracking has an O(2^n) asymptotic complexity.

Later in the article WP mentions three types of LL(1) conflicts:

  • First/First conflict – overlapping of non-terminals
  • First/Follow conflict – first and follow sets overlap
  • Left recursion

The implicit parallelism of trace based parsers is able to solve many of the mentioned First/First and First/Follow conflicts. TBPs are nevertheless LL(1) which means that they don’t look deep into the token stream for decision making or run into backtracking. Right now it is unknown how powerful TBPs actually are. So if you know a computing science PhD student who looks for an interesting challenge in parsing theory you can recommend this work. If the problems discussed here are already solved you can recommend that work to me.

For the rest of the article we want to assume that LL(1) grammars are EBNF grammars free of the conflicts mentioned above. Traditionally LL(1) parsers are constrained by their ability to parse language of those grammars.


The more common term found in the literature for reachable is first set. I prefer the term reachable in the context of EE though simply because the common distinction between first set and follow set is not so important in Trail. We watch parsers through the lens of Trail NFAs and everything that is on the RHS of a state is just a follow set. So the first set is also a follow set.

We give an explanation of the term reachable in the context of Trail NFAs.

Let’s reconsider the grammar G2 which defines two grammar rules named as G2 and R. The follow sets of the initial state of R and G2 are given by:

(G2,0) : (A, 1)
(R, 2) : (B, 3) , (B, 4)

The terminals or non-terminals according to those states are reachable i.e. A is reachable from G2 and B is reachable from R. Actually we do not only look at the immediate follow sets of the initial state but also compute the transitive closure. Reachability is transitive which means: if X is reachable from B and B is reachable from R then X is also reachable from R.

Each token in a token stream that is passed to a parser is characterized by a terminal symbol. We call this terminal symbol also the token type. The central idea of an LL parsers is to derive terminals ( token types ) T as leftmost derivations of nonterminals N. Leftmost derivation is yet another characterization of reachability in the above sense. So we start with a terminal N and if T can be reached from N we can also create a parse tree containing N as a root node and T as a leaf node. We want to elaborate this now:

Suppose T0 is reachable from N and there is no other non-terminal M that is reachable from N which can also reach T0. So there is no non-terminal between N and T0. If N0 is a start symbol of our grammar and N1 is reachable from N0 and N2 from N1 etc. we get a nested chain of symbols [N0, [N1 , [… [Nk , … [N, T0]]] which is our initial parse tree.

That was simple but how to move on and derive the next token T1? Let’s examine the Trail NFA of N which has following structure:

(N, 0) : (T0, 1), ...
(T0,1) : (M, 2), ...

and make following case distinction:

  • (T1, i) is a follow state of (T0, 1). Then our new parse tree becomes [N0, [N1 , [… [Nk , … [N, T0, T1 *]]] and we can proceed with token T2 and the follow states of (T1, i) in N. The * symbol indicates the location where the parser proceeds. These locations correspond to NFA states.
  • (T1, i) is reachable from (M, 2). Then we recursively call the parser with the token iterator and M as a start symbol and trace through the NFA of M. The parser returns a new parse tree [M, …] and we embed this tree like [N0, [N1 , [… [Nk , … [N, T0, [M,…] *]]] and proceed with the follow states of (M, 2) and the current token Tk yielded by the token iterator.
  • (None, ‘-‘) is in the follow states of (T0, 1). This means that that N is allowed to terminate. The parser with N as a start symbol returns the parse tree [N, T0]. So we get [N0, [N1 , [… [Nk , [N, T0]*]] and proceed with T1 and Nk.
  • If all those conditions fail raise an error message.

The following code is an implementation of the algorithm.

def parse(tokenstream, symbol):
    tracer    = self.new_tracer(symbol)
    selection =
    tree      = [symbol]
    token     = tokenstream.current()
    while token:
        token_type = get_tokentype(token)
        for nid in selection:
            if nid is not None:
                if istoken(nid):
                    if token_type == nid:
                elif token_type in reachable(nid):
                    sub = parse(tokenstream, nid)
                    if sub:
            if None in selection:
                return tree
                raise ParserError
        selection =
            token =
        except StopIteration:
            token = None
    return tree

You will have noticed that the production of the NFAs from EBNF grammars was just presumed. It would take another article to describe the translation. However for simple grammars you can do such a translation easily by hand and the translation process doesn’t add much to our understanding of parse tree validation and language parsing.

What’s next?

In the next article we will touch grammars with First/First and First/Follow conflicts. They are not LL(1) grammars according to the Wikipedia definition. The way we’ve dealt with those grammars is neither increasing the number of lookaheads ( i.e. going from LL(1) to LL(k) or LL(*)), nor running into backtracking, nor modifying the grammar itself. Instead we carefully modify the NFAs derived from the grammar. “Careful” means that parse trees we create with TBP and modified NFAs correspond to those created with unmodified NFAs. That’s much like distort and restore the grammar itself. This might be another area of academic research for young computing scientists interested in parser technology. I’ve developed a particular algorithm for solving the mentioned problem and I haven’t the slightest idea if one could do so far better.

Notice that I even tried to attack left recursion conflicts that tantalize top down parsers but I gave up on these approaches because I couldn’t understand the NFAs anymore, didn’t capture all use cases and debugging became such a pain. However there is still the promise of creating an O(n) top down parser that is able to parse all context free languages. And please, no tricks and no PEGs. Sweeping grammar conflicts under the rug using ordered choice is a foul and a burden to the programmer who wants to use the parser generator. Creating such a parser isn’t quite proving P!=NP but it would be still really, really cool and of much more practical relevance.