Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Episode 3: Squaak Details and First Steps

In the previous episodes we introduced the Parrot Compiler Tools (PCT). Starting from a high-level overview, we quickly created our own little scripting language called Squaak, using a Perl script provided with Parrot. We discussed the general structure of PCT-based compilers, and each of the default four transformation phases.
This third episode is where the Fun begins. In this episode, we shall introduce the full specification of Squaak. In this and following episodes, we will implement this specification step by step, in small increments that are easy to digest. Once you get a feel for it, you'll notice implementing Squaak is almost trivial, and most important, a lot of fun! So, let's get started!

Squaak Grammar
Without further ado, here is the full grammar specification for Squaak. This specification uses the following meta-syntax:
statement   indicates a non-terminal, named "statement"
{statement} indicates zero or more statements
[step] indicates an optional step
'do' indicates the keyword 'do'
Below is Squaak's grammar. The start symbol is program.
program              ::= {stat-or-def}

stat-or-def ::= statement
| sub-definition

statement ::= if-statement
| while-statement
| for-statement
| try-statement
| throw-statement
| variable-declaration
| assignment
| sub-call
| do-block

block ::= {statement}

do-block ::= 'do' block 'end'

if-statement ::= 'if' expression 'then' block
['else' block]

while-statement ::= 'while' expression 'do'
block 'end'

for-statement ::= 'for' for-init ',' expression [step]

step ::= ',' expression

for-init ::= 'var' identifier '=' expression

try-statement ::= 'try' block 'catch' identifier

throw-statement ::= 'throw' expression

sub-definition ::= 'sub' identifier parameters

parameters ::= '(' [identifier {',' identifier}] ')'

variable-declaration ::= 'var' identifier ['=' expression]

assignment ::= primary '=' expression

sub-call ::= primary arguments

primary ::= identifier postfix-expression*

postfix-expression ::= key
| index
| member

key ::= '{' expression '}'

index ::= '[' expression ']'

member ::= '.' identifier

arguments ::= '(' [expression {',' expression}] ')'

expression ::= expression {binary-op expression}
| unary-op expression
| '(' expression ')'
| term

term ::= float-constant
| integer-constant
| string-constant
| array-constructor
| hash-constructor
| primary

hash-constructor ::= '{' [named-field {',' named-field}] '}'

named-field ::= string-constant '=>' expression

array-constructor ::= '[' [expression {',' expression} ] ']'

binary-op ::= '+' | '-' | '/' | '*' | '%' | '..'
| 'and | 'or' | '>' | '>=' | '<' | '<='
| '==' | '!='

unary-op ::= 'not' | '-'

Gee, that's a lot, isn't it? Actually, this grammar is rather small compared to "real world" languages such as C, not to mention Perl 6. No worries though, we won't implement the whole thing at once, but in small steps. What's more, the exercises section contains enough exercises for you to learn to use the PCT yourself! The solutions to these exercises will be posted a few days later (but you really only need a couple of hours to figure them out).

Most of the Squaak language is straightforward; the if-statement executes exactly as you would expect. When we discuss a grammar rule (for its implementation), a semantic specification will be included. This is to prevent myself from writing a complete language manual, which could take some pages.

Interactive Squaak
Although the Squaak compiler can be used in interactive mode, there is one point of attention to be noted. When defining a local variable using the 'var' keyword, this variable will be lost in any consecutive commands. The variable will only be available to other statements within the same command (a command is a set of statements before you press enter). This has to do with the code generation by the PCT, and will be fixed at a later point. For now, just remember it doesn't work.

Let's get started!
In the rest of this episode we will implement the basic parts of the grammar, such as the basic data types and assignments. At the end of this episode, you'll be able to assign simple values to (global) variables. It ain't much, but it's a very important first step. Once these basics are in place, you'll notice that adding a certain syntactic construct becomes a matter of minutes.

First, open your editor and open the files src/parser/ and src/parser/ The former implements the parser using Perl 6 rules, and the latter contains the parse actions, which are executed during the parsing stage.
In the file, you'll see the top-level rule, named "TOP". It's located at, ehm... the top. When the parser is invoked, it will start at this rule (a rule is nothing else than a method of the grammar class).
When we generated this language (in the first episode), some default rules were defined. Now we're going to make some small changes, just enough to get us started. Firstly, change the statement rule to this:
rule statement {

and add these rules:
rule assignment {
<primary> '=' <expression>

rule primary {

token identifier {
<!keyword> <ident>

token keyword {
['and'|'catch'|'do' |'else' |'end' |'for' |'if'
|'not'|'or' |'sub' |'throw'|'try' |'var'|'while']>>
Now, change the rule "value" into this (renaming to "expression"):
rule expression {
| <string_constant> {*} #= string_constant
| <integer_constant> {*} #= integer_constant
Rename the rule "integer" as "integer_constant", and "quote" as "string_constant" (to better match our language specification).

Phew, that was a lot of information! Let's have a closer look at some things that may look unfamiliar. The first new thing is in the rule "identifier". Instead of the "rule" keyword, you see the keyword "token". In short, a token doesn't skip whitespace between the different parts specified in the token, while a rule does. For now, it's enough to remember to use a token if you want to match a string that doesn't contain any whitespace (such as literal constants and identifiers), and use a rule if your string does (and should) contain whitespace (such as a an if-statement). We shall use the word "rule" in a general sense, which could refer to a token. For more information on rules and tokens (and there's a third type, called "regex"), take a look at synopsis 5.

In token "identifier", the first subrule is called an assertion. It asserts that an "identifier" does not match the rule keyword. In other words, a keyword cannot be used as an identifier. The second subrule is called "ident", which is a built-in rule in the class PCT::Grammar, of which this grammar is a subclass.

In token "keyword", all keywords of Squaak are listed. At the end there's a ">>" marker, which indicates a word boundary. Without this marker, an identifier such as "forloop" would wrongly be disqualified, because the part "for" would match the rule keyword, and the part "loop" would match the rule "ident". However, as the assertion <!keyword> is false (as "for" could be matched), the string "forloop" cannot be matched as an identifier. The required presence of the word boundary prevents this.

The last rule is "expression". An expression is either a string-constant or an integer-constant. Either way, an action is executed. However, when the action is executed, it does not know what the parser matched; was it a string-constant, or an integer-constant? Of course, the match object can be checked, but consider the case where you have 10 alternatives, then doing 9 checks only to find out the last alternative was matched is somewhat inefficient (and adding new alternatives requires you to update this check). That's why you see the special comments starting with a "#=" character. Using this notation, you can specify a key, which will be passed as a second argument to the action method. As we will see, this allows us to write very simple and efficient action methods for rules such as expression. (Note there's a space between the #= and the key's name).

Testing the Parser
It is useful to test the parser before writing any action methods. This can save you a lot of work; if you write the actions immediately after writing the grammar rules, and only later find out that your parser must be updated, then your action methods probably need to be updated as well.
In Episode 2 we saw the target command line option. In order to test the parser, the "parse" target is especially helpful. When specifying this option, your compiler will print the parse tree of your input string, or print a syntax error. It is wise to test your parser with both correct and incorrect input, so you know for sure your parser doesn't accept input that it shouldn't.

And... Action!
Now we have implemented the initial version of the Squaak grammar, it's time to implement the parse actions we mentioned before. The actions are written in a file called src/parser/ If you look at the methods in this file, here and there you'll see that the match object ($/) , or rather, hash fields of it (like $<statement>) is evaluated in scalar context, by writing "$( ... )".
As mentioned in Synopsis 5, evaluating a Match object in scalar context returns its result object. Normally the result object is the matched portion of the source text, but the special make function can be used to set the result object to some other value.
This means that each node in the parse tree (a Match object) can also hold its PAST representation. Thus we use the make function to set the PAST representation of the current node in the parse tree, and later use the $( ... ) operator to retrieve the PAST representation from it.

In recap, the match object ($/) and any subrules of it (for instance $<statement>) represent the parse tree; of course, $<statement> represents only the parse tree what the $<statement> rule matched. So, any action method has access to the parse tree that the equally named grammar rule matched, as the match object is always passed as an argument. Evaluating a parse tree in scalar context yields the PAST representation (obviously, this PAST object should be set using the make function).

If you're following this tutorial, I highly advise you to get your feet wet, and do the exercises. Remember, learning and not doing is not learning (or something like that :-). This week's exercises are not that difficult, and after doing them, you'll have implemented the first part of our little Squaak language.

What's next?
In this episode we introduced the full grammar of Squaak. We took the first steps to implement this language. The first, and currently only, statement type is assignments. We briefly touched on how to write the action methods that are invoked during the parsing phase.
In the next episode, we shall take a closer look on the different PAST node types, and implement some more parts of the Squaak language. Once we have all basic parts in place, adding statement types will be rather straightforward.
In the mean time, if you have any questions or are stuck, don't hesitate to leave a comment or contact me.

This episode's exercises are simple enough to get started on implementing Squaak.
  1. Rename the names of the action methods according to the name changes we made on the grammar rules. So, "integer" becomes "integer_constant", "value" becomes "expression", and so on.
  2. Look at the grammar rule for statement. A statement currently consists of an assignment. Implement the action method "statement" to retrieve the result object of this assignment and set it as statement's result object using the special make function. Do the same for rule primary.
  3. Write the action method for the rule identifier. As a result object of this "match", a new PAST::Var node should be set, taking as name a string representation of the match object ($/). For now, you can set the scope to 'package'. See "pdd26: ast" for details on PAST::Var nodes.
  4. Write the action method for assignment. Retrieve the result objects for "primary" and for "expression", and create a PAST::Op node that binds the expression to the primary. (Check out pdd26 for PAST::Op node types, and find out how you do such a binding).
  5. Run your compiler on a script or in interactive mode. Use the target option to see what PIR is being generated on the input "x = 42".
Some Notes
  • Help! I get the error message "no result object".
    This means that the result object was not set properly (duh!). Make sure each action method is invoked (check each rule for a "{*}" marker), and that there is an action method for that rule, and that "make" is used to set the appropriate PAST node. Note that not all rules have action methods, for instance the "keyword" rule (there's no point in that).
  • While we're constructing parts of Squaak's grammar, we'll sometimes make a shortcut, by forgetting about certain rules for a while. For instance, you might have noticed we're ignoring float-constants right now. That's ok. When we'll need them, these rules will be added.

This source code has been released by the author into the public domain. Where this is not possible by law, the author grants license to use this file for any reason without any rights reserved, and with no warranty express or implied or fitness for a particular purpose.


PantherSE said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
srottak said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
srottak said...

Hello, is the word <expression> some kind of keyword or reserved word, because the example works only after renaming rule expression to something else (fe. the originally generated rule value {...} works) ?

kjs said...

<expression> refers to the rule (or token) expression. If you declare a rule "foo", and you want to use it, you need to put the pointy brackets around it, like <foo>.

srottak said...

Ok, I have 2 grammars:

grammar test::Grammar is PCT::Grammar;

rule TOP {
[ $ || <panic: 'Syntax error'> ]

rule foo {


grammar test::Grammar is PCT::Grammar;
rule TOP {
[ $ || <panic: 'Syntax error'> ]

rule expression {

Both grammars are ok, when I run parrot test.pbc and enter hello, the first grammar(with foo) accepts the input hello, the second one

../../parrot test.pbc
> hello
too few arguments passed (2) - 3 params expected

I have up to date Parrot from svn.

ChrisDolan said...

srottak: I'll bet that #57864: Calling a token "text", "null" or "ws" in Rakudo makes matching fail is the cause.

kjs said...

srottak: You should check the action method definitions in the file. Please note that each {*} indicates an invocation to an action method that has the same name as the rule in which the {*} occurs. Please check the parameter lists of these methods; apparently, there's a parameter/argument mismatch.