Talking Meta

Meta talk about Smalltalk, Seaside, Magritte, Pier and related things.

PetitParser for Smalltalk, Java and Dart

I am happy to announce initial ports of PetitParser to Java and Dart. The repositories contain complete and usable ports of the original Smalltalk implementation, unit tests and example grammars.

The three implementations are very similar in their API and the supported features. If possible, I tried to adapt common practices and features of the target language. In this blog post I like to point out some differences and design decisions I took.

Production rules

In Smalltalk, the parser that accepts identifiers looks like this:

parser := #letter asParser , (#letter asParser / #digit asParser) star.

In Java the same parser looks like this:

Parser parser = letter().seq(letter().or(digit()).star());

Instead of the custom operators I use nested function calls. It is visually not as readable as the Smalltalk version, but still it is quite to the point.

In Dart the definition of the identifier parser is similar:

var parser = letter().seq(letter().or(digit()).star());

Even though Dart allows one to overload the standard operators I decided not to use this feature: The fixed set of operators and the fixed operator precedence is simply too confusing.

Production actions

To attach a production action to a number parser in Smalltalk one writes:

parser := #digit asParser plus flatten ==> [ :input | input asNumber ].

Due to the lack of closures the Java solution gets a bit bulky. Hopefully this issue will finally be fixed with Java 8. The type declarations are quite nice as documentation of input and output values of the production action:

Parser parser = digit().plus().flatten().map(new Function<String, Integer>() {
    public Integer apply(String input) {
      return Integer.valueOf(input);

Luckily Dart has closures, and furthermore we can skip the type declarations:

var parser = digit().plus().flatten().map((input) => Math.parseInt(input));

Composite grammars

For the definition of complex grammars with possibly recursive rules you subclass CompositeParser in all three implementations:

The details of the Smalltalk implementation are explained in this blog post. Production rules are defined as methods and instance-variables of the same name. The parser constructor initializes all production rules to dummy parsers that are eventually replaced by the actual definitions using reflection. As a real-world example have a look at this JSON grammar.

The Java solution is very similar to the one in Smalltalk. To make things a bit more Java-ish, methods are annotated with @Production to mark them as a production. In the future, I plan to avoid the use of inner classes for production actions by introducing new annotation called @Action. Again there is a JSON grammar to look at.

Due to the (current) lack of reflection in Dart I had to come up with something else. For Dart I introduced a DSL that allows one to define productions, reference productions, redefine productions and assign production actions to existing productions. The implementation is simple and I like it much better than the others. The JSON grammar in Dart is pretty concise.


Comparing the performance of the implementations is interesting. For this preliminary evaluation I took the XML parser and parsed 2000 times a medium sized XML file. This is the ranking:

  1. Java: 815ms (Java HotSpot 64-Bit 1.7)
  2. Smalltalk: 4069ms (Pharo 1.3 on Cog)
  3. Dart: 6156ms (Dart SDK version 13851, M1)
  4. Dart: 7048ms (Dart SDK version 8638)
  5. Dart: 14332ms (Dart SDK version 8344)

Interestingly Java is doing really well, even if I use auto-boxed characters everywhere and didn’t care to optimize the implementation yet.

The Smalltalk implementation is about 4 times slower. With this implementation I worked the longest and I doubt that it can be optimized further.

Dart lost this evaluation, but I am sure that the code can be further improved. I am suspecting that a problem is that Dart has no notion of characters and needs to represent them as integers or single character strings. Also, in Dart there is no efficient way to figure out if a character is a whitespace, a letter or a digit. To do this correctly I had to fall back to regular expressions, which likely kills an otherwise fast VM. The latest implementation works directly with character codes.


To sum up, the three implementations are open-source and available in their respective public repositories:

I am happy to take patches or suggestions on how to improve the Java or Dart version.

Posted by Lukas Renggli at 10 June 2012, 6:11 pm with tags petitparser, smalltalk, java, dart 1 comment link

Composite Grammars with PetitParser

In a previous post I described the basic principles of PetitParser and gave some introductory examples. In this blog post I am going to present a way to define more complicated grammars. We continue where we left off the last time, with the expression grammar.

Writing parsers as a script as we did in the previous post can be cumbersome, especially if grammar productions that are mutually recursive and refer to each other in complicated ways. Furthermore a grammar specified in a single script makes it unnecessary hard to reuse specific parts of that grammar. Luckily there is PPCompositeParser to the rescue.

Defining the Grammar

As an example let’s create a composite parser using the same expression grammar we built in the last blog post:

PPCompositeParser subclass: #ExpressionGrammar
instanceVariableNames: ''
classVariableNames: ''
poolDictionaries: ''
category: 'PetitTutorial'

Again we start with the grammar for an integer number. Define the method number in ExpressionGrammar as follows:

^ #digit asParser plus token trim ==> [ :token | token value asNumber ]

Every production in ExpressionGrammar is specified as a method that returns its parser. Productions refer to each other by reading the respective instance variable of the same name. This is important to be able to create recursive grammars. The instance variables themselves are typically not written to as PetitParser takes care to initialize them for you automatically.

Next we define the productions term, prod, and prim. Contrary to our previous implementation we do not define the production actions yet; and we factor out the parts for addition (add), multiplication (mul), and parenthesis (parens) into separate productions. This will give us better reusability later on. We let Pharo automatically add the necessary instance variables as we refer to them for the first time.

^ add / prod
^ prod , $+ asParser trim , term
^ mul / prim
^ prim , $* asParser trim , prod
^ parens / number
^ $( asParser trim , term , $) asParser trim

Last but not least we define the starting point of the expression grammar. This is done by overriding start in the ExpressionGrammar class:

^ term end

Instantiating the ExpressionGrammar gives us an expression parser that returns a default abstract-syntax tree:

parser := ExpressionGrammar new.
parser parse: '1 + 2 * 3'. " --> #(1 $+ #(2 $* 3)) "
parser parse: '(1 + 2) * 3'. " --> #(#($( #(1 $+ 2) $)) $* 3) "

Defining the Evaluator

Now that we have defined a grammar we can reuse this definition to implement an evaluator. To do this we create a subclass of ExpressionGrammar called ExpressionEvaluator

ExpressionGrammar subclass: #ExpressionEvaluator
instanceVariableNames: ''
classVariableNames: ''
poolDictionaries: ''
category: 'PetitTutorial'

and we redefine the implementation of add, mul and parens with our evaluation semantics:

^ super add ==> [ :nodes | nodes first + nodes last ]
^ super mul ==> [ :nodes | nodes first * nodes last ]

^ super parens ==> [ :nodes | nodes second ]

The evaluator is now ready to be tested:

parser := ExpressionEvaluator new.
parser parse: '1 + 2 * 3'. " --> 7 "
parser parse: '(1 + 2) * 3'. " --> 9 "

Similarly — as an exercise — a pretty printer can be defined by subclassing ExpressionGrammar and by redefining a few of its productions:

parser := ExpressionPrinter new.
parser parse: '1+2 *3'. " --> '1 + 2 * 3' "
parser parse: '(1+ 2 )* 3'. " --> '(1 + 2) * 3' "
Posted by Lukas Renggli at 27 November 2010, 3:14 pm with tags tutorial, petitparser, smalltalk, pharo comment link

PhD Defense Video & Slides

For those that missed my PhD defense, below the video recording of the event. Thanks go to Tudor Gîrba and Jorge Ressia for recording it. The slides can be found on SlideShare.

Posted by Lukas Renggli at 22 October 2010, 7:34 am with tags phd, helvetia, pharo, smalltalk comment link

PhD Defense on Dynamic Language Embedding

I would like to invite to my PhD defense:

Dynamic Language Embedding With Homogeneous Tool Support

Domain-specific languages (DSLs) are increasingly used as embedded languages within general-purpose host languages. DSLs provide a compact, dedicated syntax for specifying parts of an application related to specialized domains. Unfortunately, such language extensions typically do not integrate well with existing development tools. Editors, compilers and debuggers are either unaware of the extensions, or must be adapted at a non-trivial cost. Furthermore, these embedded languages typically conflict with the grammar of the host language and make it difficult to write hybrid code; few mechanisms exist to control the scope and usage of multiple tightly interconnected embedded languages.

In this dissertation we present Helvetia, a novel approach to embed languages into an existing host language by leveraging the underlying representation of the host language used by these tools. We introduce Language Boxes, an approach that offers a simple, modular mechanism to encapsulate (i) compositional changes to the host language, (ii) transformations to address various concerns such as compilation and syntax highlighting, and (iii) scoping rules to control visibility of fine-grained language changes. We describe the design and implementation of Helvetia and Language Boxes, discuss the required infrastructure of a host language enabling language embedding, and validate our approach by case studies that demonstrate different ways to extend or adapt the host language syntax and semantics.

The defense will take place on Wednesday, October 20, 2010 at 16h15 in Room 001, Engehaldenstrasse 8, Bern. For directions please see

After the defense, there will be an apéro.

Posted by Lukas Renggli at 17 October 2010, 5:31 pm with tags phd, helvetia, pharo, smalltalk 5 comments link

New OmniBrowser Completion Dialog

The latest version of OmniBrowser includes a completion dialog that is used at various places to ease the use of the keyboard. This new dialog is currently used for the following features:

  • Finding Classes (Ctrl+F)
  • Finding Implementors (Ctrl+M) and Senders (Ctrl+N)
  • Creating and Renaming Categories and Protocols
  • Triggering Commands (Ctrl+Shift+T) (new)
  • Selecting Windows (Ctrl+Shift+W) (new)

The following video gives a quick overview of these features:

Posted by Lukas Renggli at 25 September 2010, 6:14 pm with tags omnibrowser, smalltalk 2 comments link
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