Baby Steps

A blog about programming, and tiny ways to improve it.

Nice Errors in LALRPOP

For the last couple of weeks, my mornings have been occupied with a pretty serious revamping of LALRPOP’s error message output. I will probably wind up doing a series of blog posts about the internal details of how it works, but I wanted to write a little post to advertise this work.

Typically when you use an LR(1) parser generator, error messages tend to be written in terms of the LR(1) state generation algorithm. They use phrases like shift/reduce conflict and talk about LR(1) items. Ultimately, you have to do some clever thinking to relate the error to your grammar, and then a bit more clever thinking to figure out how you should adjust your grammar to make the problem go away. While working on adapting the Rust grammar to LALRPOP, I found I was wasting a lot of time trying to decrypt the error messages, and I wanted to do something about it. This work is the result.

An aside: It’s definitely worth citing Menhir as an inspiration, which is an awesome parser generator for OCaml. Menhir offers a lot of the same features that LALRPOP does, and in particular generates errors very similar to those I am talking about here.

What I’ve tried to do now in LALRPOP is to do that clever thinking for you, and instead present the error message in terms of your grammar. Perhaps even more importantly, I’ve also tried to identify common beginner problems and suggest solutions. Naturally this is a work-in-progress, but I’m already pretty excited with the current status, so I wanted to write up some examples of it in action.

Diagnosing ambiguous grammars

Let’s start with an example of a truly ambiguous grammar. Imagine that I have this grammar for a simple calculator (in LALRPOP syntax, which I hope will be mostly self explanatory):

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use std::str::FromStr;
grammar;
pub Expr: i32 = {
    <n:r"[0-9]+"> => i32::from_str(n).unwrap(),
    <l:Expr> "+" <r:Expr> => l + r,
    <l:Expr> "-" <r:Expr> => l - r,
    <l:Expr> "*" <r:Expr> => l * r,
    <l:Expr> "/" <r:Expr> => l / r,
};

This grammar evaluates expressions like 1 + 2 * 3 and yields a 32-bit integer as the result. The problem is that this grammar is quite ambiguous: it does not encode the precedence of the various operators in any particular way. The older versions of LALRPOP gave you a rather opaque error concerning shift/reduce conflicts. As of version 0.10, though, you get this (the actual output even uses ANSI colors, if available):

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calc.lalrpop:6:5: 6:34: Ambiguous grammar detected

  The following symbols can be reduced in two ways:
    Expr "*" Expr "*" Expr

  They could be reduced like so:
    Expr "*" Expr "*" Expr
    ├─Expr──────┘        │
    └─Expr───────────────┘

  Alternatively, they could be reduced like so:
    Expr "*" Expr "*" Expr
    │        └─Expr──────┤
    └─Expr───────────────┘

  Hint: This looks like a precedence error related to `Expr`. See the LALRPOP
  manual for advice on encoding precedence.

Much clearer, I’d say! And note, if you look at the last sentence, that LALRPOP is even able to diagnose that this an ambiguity specifically about precedence and refer you to the manual – now, if only I’d written the LALRPOP manual, we’d be all set.

I should mention that LALRPOP also reports several other errors, all of which are related to the precedence. For example, it will also report:

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/Users/nmatsakis/tmp/prec-calc.lalrpop:6:5: 6:34: Ambiguous grammar detected

  The following symbols can be reduced in two ways:
    Expr "*" Expr "+" Expr

  They could be reduced like so:
    Expr "*" Expr "+" Expr
    ├─Expr──────┘        │
    └─Expr───────────────┘

  Alternatively, they could be reduced like so:
    Expr "*" Expr "+" Expr
    │        └─Expr──────┤
    └─Expr───────────────┘

  LALRPOP does not yet support ambiguous grammars. See the LALRPOP manual for
  advice on making your grammar unambiguous.

The code for detecting precedence errors however doesn’t consider errors between two distinct tokens (here, * and +), so you don’t get a specific message, just a general note about ambiguity. This seems like an area that would be nice to improve.

Diagnosing LR(1) limitations and suggesting inlining

That last example was a case where the grammar was fundamentally ambiguous. But sometimes there are problems that have to do with how LR(1) parsing works; diagnosing these nicely is even more important, because they are less intuitive to the end user. Also, LALRPOP has several tools that can help make dealing with these problems easier, so where possible we’d really like to suggest these tools to users.

Let’s start with a grammar for parsing Java import declarations. Java’s import declarations have this form:

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import java.util.*;
import java.lang.String;

A first attempt at writing a grammar for them might look like this (in this grammar, I gave all of the nonterminals the type (), so there is no need for action code; this means that this grammar does not build a parse tree, and so it can only be used to decide if the input is legal Java or not):

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grammar;

pub ImportDecl: () = {
    "import" Path ";",
    "import" Path "." "*" ";",
};

Path: () = Ident ("." Ident)*;

Ident = r#"[a-zA-Z][a-zA-Z0-9]*"#;

Now, unlike before, this grammar is unambiguous. Nonetheless, if we try to run it through LALRPOP, we will get the following error:

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java.lalrpop:8:12: 8:29: Local ambiguity detected

  The problem arises after having observed the following symbols in the input:
    "import" Ident
  At that point, if the next token is a `"."`, then the parser can proceed in
  two different ways.

  First, the parser could execute the production at java.lalrpop:8:12: 8:29,
  which would consume the top 1 token(s) from the stack and produce a `Path`.
  This might then yield a parse tree like
    "import" Ident  ╷ "." "*" ";"
    │        └─Path─┘           │
    └─ImportDecl────────────────┘

  Alternatively, the parser could shift the `"."` token and later use it to
  construct a `("." Ident)+`. This might then yield a parse tree like
    Ident "."        Ident
    │     └─("." Ident)+─┤
    └─Path───────────────┘

  Hint: It appears you could resolve this problem by adding the annotation
  `#[inline]` to the definition of `Path`. For more information, see the section
  on inlining in the LALROP manual.

What’s interesting is that, in this case, the grammar is not actually ambiguous. For any given string, there is only one possible parse. The problem though is that the grammar as it is written requires more than one token of lookahead. To understand why, you have to think like an LR(1) parser – which really isn’t as complicated as it sounds. As usually happens with computers, the hard part is not understanding how wicked smart the LR(1) algorithm is, it’s understanding just how plain dumb it is.

Basically, the way an LR(1) parser works is that it takes one token at a time from your input and tries to match up what it has seen so far against the productions in your grammar. If it finds a match, it can reduce, which basically means that it can recognize the last few tokens as something larger. But, and this is the key point, it can only do a reduction when it is at exactly the right point in the input. So, for example, consider the definition of ImportDecl:

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pub ImportDecl: () = {
    "import" Path ";",
    "import" Path "." "*" ";",
};

Imagine that we are parsing an input like:

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import foo.bar.*;

The first thing that would happen then is that we would see an "import" token. An "import" is the start of an ImportDecl, but it alone is not enough to say for sure if we have a valid ImportDecl yet. So we would push it on the stack. The next token is an identifier ("foo"). We don’t see any identifiers listed in the definition of ImportDecl, but we do see a Path, and a Path is defined like so:

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Path: () = Ident ("." Ident)*;

So maybe this identifier is the start of a Path. Still, too early to say for sure. We would then push the identifier onto the stack and look at the next token. The next token will be a ".". This is promising, since to make a Path, we have to first see an identifier (which we did) and then zero or more ("." Ident) pairs. So this "." could be the start of such a pair. So we might imagine that we should push it on the stack and keep going, expecting to see a Path. Then we’d have a stack like:

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"import" Ident "."

Now, for the input import foo.bar.*, in fact, pushing the . onto the stack would be the right thing to do. But for other inputs, it would not be. Imagine that our input was import foo.*;. If we pushed the . onto the stack, then we would eventually wind up with a stack that looks like this:

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"import" Ident "." "*" ";"

Now we have a real problem. To a human, this is clearly an ImportDecl; in particular, it matches this production:

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ImportDecl = "import" Path "." "*" ";"

But to the computer, this is not a match at all. The second thing listed after "import" should be a path not an identifier. Now of course there is a rule that lets us convert an ident to a path, but it’s too late to use it. We can only do a conversion when the thing we are converting is the last thing we have seen. In particular here we’d need to ignore the last three tokens ("." "*" ";") and just convert the Path that lies above them. The LR(1) parser is not smart enough to do that (which is why it can parse in linear time).

The way I described things, this conflict arises at parse time – but in fact the LR(1) generation algorithm can detect ahead of time that this could happen, which is why you are getting an error.

So how can we solve this? The answer is that we can rearrange our grammar. What’s kind of surprising about LR(1) is that seemingly no-op rearrangements can make a big difference. This is precisely beacuse in order for the parser to recognize a nonterminal, it must do so at the very moment when those symbols are seen – it can’t do it after the fact. This has some significance to the semantics of a grammar. That is, normally, you can rely on the fact that your action code will execute precisely when the tokens that you list are seen, no later and no earlier. This may matter if your action code has side-effects. (In the case of this grammar, we have no action code, so there are clearly no side-effects.)

This also means that we can solve LR(1) conflicts by rearranging things so that the parser doesn’t have to make a decision as soon. So imagine that we transformed our grammar by inlining the Path nonterminal into the ImportDecl, and be further converting the ("." Ident)* entries into ("." Ident)+ (as well as another option where there are no pairs at all). Then we would have:

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grammar;

pub ImportDecl: () = {
    "import" Ident ";",
    "import" Ident "." "*" ";", // (*)
    "import" Ident ("." Ident)+ ";",
    "import" Ident ("." Ident)+ "." "*" ";",
};

Ident = r#"[a-zA-Z][a-zA-Z0-9]*"#;

Now, this version is equivalent to what we had before, in that it parses the same inputs. But to the parser, it looks very different. In particular, we no longer have to first recognize that an identifier is a Path to produce an ImportDecl. As you can see in the second production (indicated with a (*) comment) we can now directly recognize "import" Ident "." "*" ";" as an ImportDecl. In other words, the parse which got stuck before now works just fine.

This technique of inlining one nonterminal into another is very common and very effective for making grammars compatible with LR(1). Therefore, it’s actually automated in LALRPOP. All you have to do is annotate a nonterminal with #[inline] and the preprocessor will handle it for you (moreover, the preprocessor automatically converts Foo* into two options, one without Foo at all, and one with Foo+). In fact, if we go back to the original error report, we can see that LALRPOP recognized what was happening and even advised us that we may want to add a #[inline] attribute:

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  Hint: It appears you could resolve this problem by adding the annotation
  `#[inline]` to the definition of `Path`. For more information, see the section
  on inlining in the LALROP manual.

You may be wondering why LALRPOP doesn’t just inline automatically. There are a couple of reasons:

  1. It’s hard to tell for sure when inlining will help. I have some heuristics to detect some situations, but I can’t detect them all, and sometimes the suggestion may be inappropriate.
  2. Inlining makes your grammar bigger.
  3. Inlining changes when you action code runs, so it effectively alters your program semantics.
  4. Even if we could detect when to inline, it would happen relatively late in the cycle, and so we would have to start from the beginning. By having the user add an attribute, we know from the beginning when to inline, and so subsequent LALRPOP instantiations are faster.

Finally, inlining may just not be the best fix. For example, the change I would actually make to that grammar would probably be to convert it as follows:

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grammar;

pub ImportDecl: () = {
    "import" Path ";",
    "import" Path "." "*" ";",
};

Path: () = {
    Ident,
    Path "." Ident,
};

Ident = r#"[a-zA-Z][a-zA-Z0-9]*"#;

If you work it through, you will find that this grammar IS LR(1), and it doesn’t use any inlining at all. That means it will have fewer states. I also find it more readable. But YMMV.

Where to from here?

First off, I really want to rework the phrasings of those error messages. They should not (I think) talk about popping states and so forth. But I’ve got to spend some time thinking about how best to explain the LR(1) algorithm. This blog post is kind of a first stab, but it proved much harder than I expected, and I think I could certainly make it much clearer than what I’ve achieved thus far! :) There are also a host of other smaller improvements that can be made.

All of that said, I am currently hard at work on exploring the lane table generation algorithm and other variations on LR(1). This may lead to some insights into how to present errors, I’m not sure. This may also lead to some ideas for how to automate inlining further, or other scenarios where I can make tailored suggestions. We’ll just have to see!

I’ve got a few parsing-related blog posts I hope to write over the next few weeks (or months, more likely):

  • the ascii art library that I wrote to format the error messages is itself kind of interesting;
  • how the error report generation works under the hood;
  • an explanation of the lane table algorithm, which is rather underdocumented (but I’m still figuring it out myself);
  • rustypop, my Rust grammar in LALRPOP, is coming along, and I want to use it as a springboard to talk about some of LALRPOP’s macro features.

So, if parsing interests you, then stay tuned.