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Ambiguitiy in Xtext grammars – part 2

September 11, 2014 Leave a comment

In this continuation of the previous instalment, we’re going to take an ambiguous grammar and resolve its ambiguity.

As an example, consider the situation that we have a (arguably slightly stupid) language involving expressions and statements, two of which are variable declaration and assignment. (Let’s assume that all other statements start off by consuming an appropriate keyword token.) So, the following is valid, Java-like syntax (SomeClass is the identifier of a class thingy defined elsewhere):

SomeClass.SomeInnerClass localVar := ...
localVar.intField := 42

Now, let’s implement a “naive” Xtext grammar fragment for this:

Variable: name=ID;

Statement: VariableDeclaration | Assignment;

VariableDeclaration: typeRef=ClassRef variable=Variable (':=' value=Expression)?;
ClassRef:            type=[Class] tail=FeatureRefTail?;

Assignment:     lhs=AssignableSite ':=' value=Expression;
AssignableSite: var=[VariableDeclaration] tail=FeatureRefTail?;

FeatureRefTail: '.' feature=[Feature] tail=FeatureRefTail?;

Here, Class and Feature are quite standard types that both have String-valued ‘name’ features and have corresponding syntax elsewhere. Expression references an expression sub language which is at least able to do integer literals. Note that a Variable is contained by a VariableDeclaration so you can refer to a variable without needing to refer to its declaration. (You can find this grammar on GitHub.)

Now, let’s run this through the Xtext generator:

error(211): ../nl.dslmeinte.xtext.ambiguity/src-gen/nl/dslmeinte/xtext/ambiguity/parser/antlr/internal/InternalMyPL.g:415:1: [fatal] rule ruleStatement has non-LL(*) decision due to recursive rule invocations reachable from alts 1,2.  Resolve by left-factoring or using syntactic predicates or using backtrack=true option.
error(211): ../nl.dslmeinte.xtext.ambiguity.ui/src-gen/nl/dslmeinte/xtext/ambiguity/ui/contentassist/antlr/internal/InternalMyPL.g:472:1: [fatal] rule rule__Statement__Alternatives has non-LL(*) decision due to recursive rule invocations reachable from alts 1,2.  Resolve by left-factoring or using syntactic predicates or using backtrack=true option.

Even though Xtext itself doesn’t warn us about any problem (upfront), ANTLR spits out two errors back at us, and flat-out refuses to generate a parser after which the Xtext generation process crashes completely. The problem is best illustrated with the example DSL proza: its first line corresponds to a token stream ID-Keyword(‘.’)-ID-Keyword(‘:=’)-… while the second line corresponds to a stream ID-Keyword(‘.’)-ID-Keyword(‘:=’)-INT(42). (Note that whitespace is usually irrelevant and therefore, typically hidden which is Xtext’s default anyway.) Both lines start with consuming an ID token and because of the k=1 lookahead, the parser doesn’t stand a chance of distinguishing the variable declaration parser rule from the assignment one: only the fourth token reveals the distinction ID vs. Keyword(‘:=’). Note that since the nesting can be arbitrarily deep, any finite lookahead wouldn’t suffice meaning that we’d have to switch on the backtracking – one could think of this as setting k=∞.

To recap the situation with the token streams in comments:

SomeClass.SomeInnerClass localVar := ...  // ID-Keyword('.')-ID-[WS]-ID-[WS]-Keyword(':=')-[WS]-...
localVar.intField := 42                   // ID-Keyword('.')-ID-[WS]-Keyword(':=')-INT(42)

So, how do we deal with this ambiguity? One answer is to left-factor(ize) the grammar – as is already suggested by the ANTLR output. The trade-off is that our grammar becomes more complicated and we might have to do some heavy lifting outside of the grammar. But that is only to be expected since the grammar deals first and foremost with the syntax – what Xtext provides extra has everything to do with inference of the Ecore meta model (to which the EMF models conform) and only marginally so with semantics, by means of the default behavior for lazily-resolved cross-references.

Analogous to the left-factorized pattern for expression grammars, we’re going to implement the lookahead manually and rewrite nodes in the parsing tree to have the appropriate type. First note that our statements always begin with an ID token which either equals a variable name or a class name. After that any number of Keyword(‘.’)-ID sequences follow (we don’t care about whitespace, comments and such for now) until we either encounter an ID-Keyword(‘:=’) sequence or a Keyword(‘:=’) token, in both cases followed by an expression of sorts.

So, the idea is to first parse the ID-(Keyword(‘.’)-ID)* token sequence (which we’ll call the head) and then rewrite the tree according to whether we encounter an ID or the Keyword(‘:=’) token first. In Xtext, there’s a distinction between parser and type rules but only type rules give us code completion through scoping out-of-the-box, so we would like to use a type rule for the head. The head starts with either a reference to a Class or to a VariableDeclaration. Unfortunately, we can’t distinguish between these two at parse level so we have to have a common super type:

HeadTarget: Class | Variable;

However, due to the way that Xtext tries to “lift” or automatically Refactor identical features (having the same name, type, etc.), we need to introduce an additional type (that’s used nowhere) to suppress the corresponding errors:

Named: Class | Variable | Attribute;

Now we can make the Head grammar rule, reusing the FeatureRefTail rule we already had:

Head: target=[HeadTarget] tail=FeatureRefTail?;

And finally, the new grammar rule to handle both Assignment and VariableDeclaration:

AssignmentOrVariableDeclaration:
  Head (
    ({VariableDeclaration.assignableSite=current} name=ID ':=' (value=Expression)?) |
    ({Assignment.lhs=current} ':=' value=Expression)
  );

This works as follows:

  1. Try to parse and construct a Head model element without actually creating a model element containing that Head;
  2. When the first step is successful, determine whether we’re in a variable declaration or an assignment by looking at the next tokens;
  3. Create a model element of the corresponding type and assign the Head instance to the right feature.

This is commonly referred to a “tree rewriting” but in the case of Xtext that’s actually slightly misleading, as no trees are rewritten. (In fact, Xtext produces models which are only trees as long as there are no unresolved references.)

To complete the example, we have to implement the scoping (which can also be found on GitHub). I’ve already covered that (with slightly different type names) in a previous blog post, but I will rephrase that here. Essentially, scoping separates into two parts:

  1. Determining the features of the type of a variable. This type is specified by the typeRef feature (of type Head) of a VariableDeclaration. This is a actually a type system computation as the Head instance in the VariableDeclaration should already be completely resolved.
  2. Determining the features of the previous element of a Head instance as possible values of the current FeatureRefTail.feature. For this we only want the “direct features” since we’re actively computing a scope.

(The scoping implementation uses a type SpecElement which is defined as a super type of Head and FeatureRefTail, but this is merely for convenience and type-safety of said implementation.)

In conclusion, we’ve rewritten an ambiguous grammar as an unambiguous one so we didn’t need to use backtracking with all its associated disadvantages: less performance, ANTLR reports no warnings about unreachable alternatives, “magic”, etc. We also found that this didn’t really complicate the grammar: it expresses intent and mechanism quite clearly and doesn’t feel like as kluge.

 

Xtext tip: “synthetic” parser rules

December 22, 2011 2 comments

This is a quick one to share a simple trick which may come in handy when creating an Xtext grammar.

Let’s say your grammar has a type rule T1 (i.e., a rule which corresponds to an EClass in the Ecore meta model). Let’s also say that some other type rule T2 composes that type somehow, i.e., it has a feature someT1 to which something of type T1 is assigned. Let’s say that you want to limit the syntactic possibilities for the composition of a T1 instance somewhat, e.g. in the case that T1 is a group of alternatives but a few alternatives are invalid when used inside T2.

This is a wholly legitimate situation because Xtext grammars usually have a number of responsibilities at the same time, amongst which are defining (1) a mapping to an Ecore meta model and defining (2) the syntax of the DSL.

Let’s sum this situation up in some grammar code:

T1: A1 | A2 | A3;

T2: 'a-t2' someT1=T1;

Let’s say that we would want to exclude A3 from the possible T1‘s in any T2. We could do this via a validation which simply checks the someT1 feature of any T2, reporting an error if it’s an A3. But that means that the parser itself still allows an A3 at that spot which could open up a whole can of smelly worms – e.g., left-recursion or some ambiguity. Also, the content assist that comes out-of-the-box will make syntax suggestions for A3.

Hence, we would like to inform the parser about the restricted syntax. One possibility would be:

T1: T1WithoutA3 | A3;

T1WithoutA3: A1 | A2;

T2: 'a-t2' someT1=T1WithoutA3;

This works perfectly, but it also ‘pollutes’ the meta model a bit. Since the meta model is mostly consumed by downstream clients like interpreters and code generators, this would only cause confusion. But more importantly: if we re-use an existing Ecore meta model (by means of the returns clause) this solution is not possible, since we would have to add a super type T1WithoutA3 to the A1 and A2 types which are sealed inside the re-used Ecore meta model – Xtext will issue an error as soon as we try it.

The clean solution consists of using something which I’ve termed a “synthetic parser rule” and has the following form:

T1:  A1 | A2 | A3;

T1WithoutA3 returns T1: A1 | A2;

T2: 'a-t2' someT1=T1WithoutA3;

Now there’s no pollution of the meta model, but the syntax will be restricted as we’d like it. Note that is very much something which is part of the standard Xtext repertoire but this trick works especially well in the face of type hierarchies and re-used Ecore meta model or inheriting Xtext grammars.

Using syntactic predicates in Xtext, part 2

December 20, 2011 2 comments

This blog is a continuation of the previous one about how to use syntactic predicates in Xtext. As promised, I’ll provide a few more examples, most of which come from the realm of GPL-like languages.

But first, a little summary is in order. As stated in the previous blog, a syntactic predicate is an annotation in an Xtext grammar which indicates to the ANTLR parser generator how a (potential) ambiguity should be resolved by picking the (first) one which is decorated with ‘=>‘. The annotation can be applied to:

  • a(n individual) keyword (such as ‘else‘),
  • a rule call (unassigned or as part of an assignment) and
  • a grouped parse expression, i.e. a parse expression between parentheses.

One thing to keep in mind -not only for syntactic predicates but in general- that an Xtext grammar has at least three and often four responsibilities:

  1. defining the lexing behavior through definition and inclusion of terminals;
  2. defining the parsing behavior through parser rules which determine how tokens are matched and consumed;
  3. defining how the model is populated;
  4. (when not using an existing Ecore model) defining the meta model.

Syntactic predicates influence the second of these but not the others. It is, after all, a syntactic predicate, not a semantic one – which Xtext doesn’t have in any case. Just as without using syntactic predicates, parsing behavior is not influenced by how the model is populated: instead, it is governed solely by the types of the tokens it receives from the lexer. This is easily forgotten when you’re trying to write grammars with cross-references like this:

SomeParserRule: Alternative1 | Alternative2;
Alternative1: ref1=[ReferencedType1|ID];
Alternative1: ref2=[ReferencedType2|ID];

In this case, the parser will always consume the ID token as part of Alternative1 even if its value is the (qualified) name of something of ReferencedType2. In fact, ANTLR will issue a warning about alternative 2 being unreachable so it is disabled. For a workaround this problem, see this older blog: it uses a slightly different use case as motivation but the details are the same. The only thing a syntactic predicate can do here is to explicitly favor one alternative over the other.

Some examples from Xbase

The Xtend and the Xbase languages that Xtext ships with both use plenty of syntactic predicates to avoid ambiguities in their grammars and to avoid having to use backtracking altogether. This already indicates that syntactic predicates are a necessary tool, especially when creating GPL-like or otherwise quite expressive DSLs. Note again that syntactic predicates are typically found near/inside optional parts of grammar rules since optionality automatically implies an alternative parsing route.

A good example can be found in the Xbase grammar in the form of the XReturnExpression rule: see GitHub. It uses a syntactic predicate on an assignment to force the optional XExpression following the ‘return‘ keyword to be parsed as part of the XReturnExpression rather than being an XExpression all on its own – which would have totally different semantics, but could be a viable interpretation considering Xtend doesn’t require separating/ending semi-colons.

The Xbase grammar also shows that syntactic predicates are an effective way to disambiguate the use of pairs of parentheses for denoting a list of arguments to a function call from that for grouping inside an expression: once again, see GitHub – here, the syntactic predicate applies to a grouped parse expression, i.e. everything between the parentheses pair starting just before the ‘=>‘.

Unforeseen consequences

Even if you don’t (have to) use syntactic predicates yourself, it’s important to know of their existence. As an example, the other day I was prototyping a DSL which used the JvmTypeReference type rule from Xbase followed by an angled bracket pair (‘<‘, ‘>’) which held ID tokens functioning as cross-references. I was momentarily surprised to see parse errors arise in my example along the lines of “Couldn't resolve reference to JvmType 'administrator'.” The stuff between the angled brackets was being interpreted as a generic type parameter!

It turns out that the  JvmTypeReference parser rule uses a syntactic predicate on an angled bracket pair surrounding generic type parameters. This explains both the behavior and the lack of warnings by ANTLR about grammar ambiguities. You’d probably have a hard time figuring out this behavior before finding an innocuous ‘=>here. In the end, I changed “my” angled brackets to square brackets to resolve this. This shows that syntactic predicates, just like backtracking, can be a double-edged sword: it can solve some of your problems but you have to really know how it works to be able to understand what’s going on.

I hope that this was useful for you: please let me know whether it is! I’m not planning on a third installment but you never know: a particular enticing use case might just do the trick.

Using syntactic predicates in Xtext, part 1

December 5, 2011 5 comments

Xtext 2.x comes with the possibility to define syntactic predicates in the grammar. But what exactly are these syntactic predicates and how can they be used to avoid or resolve ambiguities in your grammar? The reference documentation is characteristically succinct on the subject. This might mean that it’s either very simple or very complicated ;)

In short: syntactic predicates provide a way to force the parser to make certain choices by annotating the grammar using a ‘=>‘.

Fortunately, it’s actually quite simple but you have to dive a little deeper into the parsing technology used by Xtext to really understand it. Xtext uses ANTLR* ‘under the hood’ to generate the lexer and recursive-descent parser. To leverage ANTLR, Xtext generates an** ANTLR grammar from an Xtext one. As such, it is ANTLR that does most of the heavy lifting while the Xtext runtime sort-of piggybacks on the ‘stuff’ ANTLR generates to build a full model from the parsed text and provide the functionality that ANTLR doesn’t.

During the generation of lexer and parser, ANTLR performs a thorough analysis of the grammar generated by Xtext to check for non-LL(*) behavior (i.e., left-recursion) and nondeterminism (i.e., ambiguities) in the grammar. The former it deals with by reporting an error “[fatal] rule xxx has non-LL(*) decision due to recursive rule invocations reachable from alts n, m, …. Resolve by left-factoring or using syntactic predicates or using backtrack=true option.” for every left-recursive rule and quitting the process, leaving you with a broken Xtext project. Left-recursion usually originates from trying to implement an expression language along the lines of

Expression:
      Literal
    | '(' Expression ')'
    | left=Expression op=('+'|'-'|'*'|'/') right=Expression

There’s a string of material (see herehere and here) detailing the ‘right’ patterns for writing such languages in a non-left-recursive manner in Xtext which also takes care of precedence and associativity. Since those patterns don’t use syntactic predicates (well, they can but it’s not essential), I won’t talk about these any more here.

Switching on backtracking should really be the very last option you try, as it doesn’t guarantee to solve the problem your grammar has but it does guarantee to obscure any problem, simply by not reporting any, even the ones that are easy to fix. Furthermore, backtracking ‘merely’ tries all the possible options, picking the first one that works: in essence it’s a ‘precognitive’ syntactic predicate, but at the expense of time and memory. If we can tweak our grammar with syntactic predicates so that no backtracking is required, we get a parser that performs better and more predictable if only because we’ve documented part of its behavior in the grammar.

The perfunctory example: the dangling else-problem

The most well-known application of syntactic predicates is also the simplest. Consider this grammar (header stuff omitted):

Model:
    statement+=IfStatement*;

IfStatement:
    'if' condition=Expression 'then' then=Expression
    ('else' else=Expression)?;

Expression:
    IfStatement | {ValueReference} name=ID;

When having Xtext generate the language infrastructure for this grammar, you’ll get a warning from ANTLR saying “Decision can match input such as “‘else'” using multiple alternatives: 1, 2 As a result, alternative(s) 2 were disabled for that input“. This means that there are is an ambiguity in the grammar. ANTLR detects this and makes a choice for you, because otherwise it would have to return a forest of parse trees instead of just one per parse, or roll a dice to cope with the nondeterminism. We’ll see in a minute that a syntactic predicate allows you to choose yourself, instead of having to rely on ANTLR to pick the right choice – with the chance of your luck running out.

Of course, we already were expecting this behavior, so let’s fire up ANTLRWorks on the InternalMyDsl.g file in the principal/non-UI Xtext project (easily findable using the Ctrl/-Shift-R shortcut) to see how we might use that in general. First, ask ANTLRWorks to perform the same analysis ANTLR itself does during parser generation through Ctrl/-R. Then, click the ruleIfStatement (conveniently marked in red) to see the Syntax Diagram for it. This will look like this:

Since ANTLR already reported to only use alternative 1, this is the way that the if-statement will be parsed: the optional else-part will be matched as part of the current invocation of the IfStatement rule. For the canonical example input “if a then if b then c else d”, it means that the parse will be equivalent to “if a then (if b then c else d)”, i.e. the else-part belongs to the second, inner if-statement and not the first, outer if-statement. This result is what we usually would want since it complies with most existing languages and also because the else-part is visually closer to the inner if so it’s more natural that it binds to that instead of the outer if.

By unchecking alternative 1 and checking alternative 2, we get the following:

Now, these ‘faulty’ diagrams in ANTLRWorks are usually a bit funky to interpret because the arrows don’t really seem to start/end in logical places. In this case, we should read this as: the optional else-part can also be matched as part of the invocation of the IfStatement rule invoking the IfStatement rule for a second time – it’s probably convenient to think of the outer, respectively, inner invocation. For our ubiquitous example input, it would mean that the parse is equivalent to “if a then (if b then c) else d” – with the else-part belonging to the first, outer if-statement and not the inner if-statement.

Note that it’s a bit hard to implement a recursive-descent parser with this behavior, since the execution of the inner IfStatement rule should somehow decide to leave the matching and consumption of the following ‘else‘ keyword to the execution of an (not necessarily the direct caller rule!) outer IfStatement rule. ANTLR tends to favor direct matching and consuming tokens as soon as possible, by the currently-called parser rule, over a more circuitous approach.

You can influence the alternatives-picking behavior by placing syntactic predicates in the Xtext grammar. One advantage is that make the choice explicit in your grammar, which both serves to document it as well to eradicate the corresponding warning(s). Another advantage might be is that you make a different choice from the one ANTLR would make: in fact, you can ‘trigger’ a syntactic predicate not only from a single token but also from a series of tokens – more on that in a next blog. Note that syntactic predicates favor the quickest match as well – by design.

Syntactic predicates in an Xtext grammar consist of a ‘=>‘ keyword in front of a keyword, rule call, assignment (i.e., an assigned rule call) or a grouped parse expression (including any cardinality). So, in our case the IfStatement rule becomes:

IfStatement:
    'if' condition=Expression 'then' then=Expression
    (=>'else' else=Expression)?;

The ‘=>‘ now forces ANTLR to not consider the second alternative path at all and always match and directly consume an ‘else‘ and an ensuing Expression, which happens to match the situation without a syntactic predicate – but now this behavior is clearly intentional and not a happenstance.

Since this blog already runs to some length, I’m deferring some more examples, insights and hints & tips to a next blog. One of the examples will revolve around some common GPL-like language features which can be difficult to implement without syntactic predicates but are blissfully uncomplicated with them.

*) Not entirely by default, but it’s thoroughly recommended: see this explanation for more details on that matter.
**) Actually, Xtext generates two ANTLR grammars: one for full parsing, and one which extracts just enough information to provide the content assist functionality with. They’re essentially the same as far as the pure ANTLR part is concerned.

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