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How it Works

Note: Make sure you read the Overview section first to get a sense for some of the high-level principles.

This approach borrows heavily from the designs of Roslyn and TypeScript. However, it needs to be adapted because PHP doesn't offer the same runtime characteristics as .NET and JS.

The syntax tree is produced via a two step process:

  1. The lexer reads in text, and produces the resulting Tokens.
  2. The parser reads in Tokens, to construct the final syntax tree.

Under the covers, the lexer is actually driven by the parser to reduce potential memory consumption and make it easier to perform lookaheads when building up the parse tree.


The lexer produces tokens out PHP, based on the following lexical grammar:

Initially, we tried handspinning the lexer, rather than using PHP's built-in token_get_all, because that approach would provide the most flexibility to use our own lightweight token representation (see below) from the beginning, rather than requiring a conversion. This initial implementation is available in src/Lexer.php, but has been deprecated in favor of src/PhpTokenizer.php.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge with the initial approach was performance (especially with Unicode representations) - we found that PHP doesn't provide an efficient way to extract character codes without multiple conversions after the initial file-read.


Tokens hold onto the following information:

Token: {
    Kind: Id, // the classification of the token
    FullStart: 0, // the start of the token, including trivia
    Start: 3, // the start of the token, excluding trivia
    Length: 6 // the length of the token (from FullStart)

Helper functions

In order to be as efficient as possible, we do not store full content in memory. Instead, each token is uniquely defined by four integers, and we take advantage of helper functions to extract further information.

  • GetTriviaForToken
  • GetFullTextForToken
  • GetTextForToken
  • See code for an up-to-date list


In order to ensure that the parser evolves in a healthy manner over time, we define and continuously test the set of invariants defined below:

  • The sum of the lengths of all of the tokens is equivalent to the length of the document
  • The Start of every token is always greater than or equal to the FullStart of every token.
  • A token's content exactly matches the range of the file its span specifies.
  • GetTriviaForToken + GetTextForToken == GetFullTextForToken
  • concatenating GetFullTextForToken for each token returns the document
  • GetTriviaForToken returns a string of length equivalent to (Start - FullStart)
  • GetFullTextForToken returns a string of length equivalent to Length
  • GetTextForToken returns a string of length equivalent to Length - (Start - FullStart)
  • See tests/LexicalInvariantsTest.php for an up-to-date list...


At this point in time, the Representation has not yet diverged from the Model. Tokens are currently represented as a Token object, with four properties - $kind, $fullStart, $start, and $length. However, objects (and arrays, and ...) are super expensive in PHP (see experiments/php7-types.txt). WordPress (11MB source) has around ~1 million tokens (more if you do no conversion from token_get_all, so it gets really expensive, really fast with an object representation. Ultimately, we need a way to store these four properties in a performant and memory-efficient manner.

We've explored a number of different options at this point.

  • objects / array / SplFixedArray / SplFixedArray::fromArray
    • pros: friendly API
    • cons: as stated above, major overhead.
  • pack/unpack to pack the token as ints into a string.
    • pros: memory efficient (~62 bytes per string)
    • cons: requires a PHP complex property, and packing/unpacking adds ~10x overhead to access all properties.
  • structs in a native PHP extension
    • pros: as memory-efficient as you can get
    • cons: more complicated than using only PHP, ~3.5x overhead to access properties
  • store info in numeric properties using bitwise-operators
    • pros: memory-efficient (gets rid of Token objects altogether), no significant overhead for property access
    • cons: more complicated encoding

It has not yet been implemented, and we're very much open to other ideas, but at the moment we're currently leaning towards bitwise operators. So now the question is "what encoding?" - note that we can always drop the Start property, and recompute, but we would prefer not to throw away that information if we can help it.

Each double/long property in PHP is 16 bytes total, though only 4-8 bytes (depending on 32-bit or 64-bit) are used for the value. We propose the following 64-bit representation (1 16-byte property on a 64-bit machine, two 12-byte properties on a 32-bit machine):

bits 1-8: TokenKind
bits 9-32: FullStart
bits: 33-59 - (TriviaLength << LengthEncoding) & TokenLength
bits: 60-64: LengthEncoding

TokenKind and FullStart remain unchanged, so we won't dive into that, but the second pair needs some explanation. Instead of storing Start and Length properties, we will store TriviaLength (FullStart - Start) and TokenLength (Length - TriviaLength). Because we don't know which of the two will be longer (TriviaLength or TokenLength), we won't know how many bytes to allocate to each until we tokenize the stream. Therefore the bits allocated to LengthEncoding specify the bitshift value.

In the edge cases where we cannot store both, and we can recompute the value. Note that this extra complexity does not preclude us from presenting a more reasonable API for consumers of the API because we can simply override the property getters / setters on Node.


The parser reads in Tokens provided by the lexer to produce the resulting Syntax Tree. The parser uses a combination of top-down and bottom-up parsing. In particular, most constructs are parsed in a top-down fashion, which keeps the code simple and readable/maintainable (by humans 😉) over time. The one exception to this is expressions, which are parsed bottom-up. We also hold onto our current ParseContext, which lets us know, for instance, whether we are parsing ClassMembers, or TraitMembers, or something else; holding onto this ParseContext enables us to provide better error handling (described below).

For instance, let's take the simple example of an if-statement. We know to start parsing the if-statement because we'll see an if keyword token. We also know from the PHP grammar, that an if-statement can be defined as follows:

   if   (   expression   )   statement   elseif-clauses-1opt   else-clause-1opt

The resultant parsing logic will look something like this. Notice that we anticipate the next token or set of tokens based on the our current context. This is top-down parsing.

function parseIfStatement($parent) {
    $n = new IfStatement();
    $n->ifKeyword = eat("if");
    $n->openParen = eat("(");
    $n->expression = parseExpression();
    $n->closeParen = eat(")");
    $n->statement = parseStatement();
    $n->parent = $parent;
    return $n;

Expressions (produced by parseExpression), on the other hand, are parsed bottom-up. That is, rather than attempting to anticipate the next token, we read one token at a time, and construct a resulting tree based on operator precedence properties. See the parseBinaryExpression in src/Parser.php for full information.

See the Error-handling section below for more information on how ParseContext is used.


Nodes hold onto the following information:

Node: {
  Kind: Id,
  Parent: ParentNode,
  Children: List<Node|Token>


In order to reduce memory usage, we plan to remove the NodeKind property, and instead rely solely on subclasses in order to represent the Node's kind. This should reduce memory usage by ~16 bytes per Node.

Abstract Syntax Tree

An example tree is below. The tree Nodes (represented by circles), and Tokens (represented by squares) image

Below, we define a set of invariants. This set of invariants provides a consistent foundation that makes it easier to confidently reason about the tree as we continue to build up our understanding.

For instance, the following properties hold true about every Node (N) and Token (T).

POS(N) -> POS(FirstChild(N))
POS(T) -> T.Start
WIDTH(N) -> SUM(Child_i(N))
WIDTH(T) -> T.Width


  • Invariants for all Tokens hold true
  • The tree contains every token
  • Span of any node is sum of spans of child nodes and tokens
  • The tree length exactly matches the file length
  • Every leaf node of the tree is a token
  • Every Node contains at least one Token
  • See tests/ParserInvariantsTest.php for an up-to-date list...

Error Tokens

We define two types of Error tokens:

  • Skipped Tokens: extra token that no one knows how to deal with
  • Missing Tokens: Grammar expects a token to be there, but it does not exist
Example 1

Let's say we run the following through parseIf

if ($expression)
function parseIf($str, $parent) {
    $n = new IfNode();
    $n->ifKeyword = eat("if");
    $n->openParen = eat("(");
    $n->expression = parseExpression();
    $n->closeParen = eat(")");
    $n->block = parseBlock();
    $n->parent = $parent;

This above should generate the IfNode successfully. But let's say we run the following through, which is missing a close parenthesis token.

if ($expression // ) <- MissingToken

In this case, eat(")") will generate a MissingToken because the grammar expects a token to be there, but it does not exist.

Example 2
class A {
    function foo() {
 // } <- MissingToken

    public function bar() {


In this case, the foo function block is not closed. A MissingToken will be similarly generated, but the logic will be a little different, in order to provide a gracefully degrading experience. In particular, the tree that we expect here looks something like this:


This is achieved by continually keeping track of the current ParseContext. That is to say, every time we venture into a child, that child is aware of its parent. Whenever the child gets to a token that they themselves don't know how to handle (e.g. a MethodNode doesn't know what public means), they ask their parent if they know how to handle it, and continue walking up the tree. If we've walked the entire spine, and every node is similarly confused, a SkippedToken will be generated.

In this case, however, a SkippedToken is not generated because ClassNode will know what public means. Instead, the method will say "okay, I'm done", generate a MissingToken, and public will be subsequently handled by the ClassNode.

Example 3

Building on Example 2... in the following case, no one knows how to handle an ampersand, and so this token will become a SkippedToken

class A {
    function foo() {
    & // <- SkippedToken
    public function bar() {

Example 4

There are also some instances, where the aforementioned error handling wouldn't be appropriate, and special-casing based on certain heuristics, such as whitespace, would be required.

if ($a >
    $b = new MyClass;

In this case, the user likely intended the type of $b to be MyClass. However, because under normal circumstances, parsers will ignore whitespace, the example above would produce the following tree, which implies that the $b assignment never happens.

- IfNode
  - OpenParen = Token
  - Expression = RelationalExpressionNode
    - Left: $a Token
    - Right: $b Token
  - CloseParen = MissingToken
- SkippedToken: '='
- ObjectCreationExpression
  - New: Token
  - ClassTypeDesignator: MyClass
  - Semicolon: Token

In our design, however, because every Token includes preceding whitespace trivia, our parser would be able to use whitespace as a heuristic to infer the user's likely intentions. So rather than handling the error by generating a skipped = token, we could instead generate a missing token for the right hand side of the RelationalExpressionNode.

Note that for this error case, it is more of an art than a science. That is to say, we would add special casing for anticipated scenarios, rather than construct some general-purpose rule.

Other notes

  • Just as it's imporant to understand the assumptions that will hold true, it is also important to understand the assumptions that will not hold true. One such non-invariant is that not every token generated by the lexer ends up in the tree.

Incremental Parsing

Note: not yet implemented, but helps guide related architectural decisions / principles.

For large files, it can be expensive to reparse the tree on every edit. Instead, we save time by reusing nodes from the old AST.

Rather than reparsing the entire token stream, we reparse only the portion corresponding to the edit range. Such "invalidated" nodes include the directly-intersecting node, as well as (by definition) its parents.


In order to minimize the impact of edge cases, we avoid context-specific conditions in the parser. For instance, let us apply the following transformation (making an edit that turns a compound statement into an class):

/* BEFORE */
    function __construct() : int { }

/* AFTER */
class A {
    function __construct() : int { }

Technically, a constructor cannot include a return type. However, this constraint limits the reusability of the node during incremental parsing. Such context-specific handling during incremental parsing complicates the logic, and tends to result in a long-tail of hard-to-debug incremental parsing bugs, so we avoid it where possible. Instead we produce diagnostics once the AST has already been produced.

In addition to simply avoiding context-specific conditions where possible, we minimize the number of edge cases by limiting the granularity of node-reuse. In the case of this parser, we believe a reasonable balance is to limit granularity to a list ParseContext.

Open Questions

Open Questions:

  • need some examples of large PHP applications to help benchmark? We are currently testing against the frameworks in the validation folder, and more suggestions welcome.
  • what are the most memory-efficient data-structures we could use? See Node and Token Notes sections above for our current thoughts on this, but we hope we can do better than that, so ideas are very much welcome.
  • Can PHP can be sufficiently optimized to support aforementioned parser performance goals? Performance shouldn't is pretty okay at the moment, and there's more we could to do optimize that. But we are certainly running up against major challenges when it comes to memory.
  • How well does this approach will work on a wide range of user development environment configurations?
  • Anything else?

Previously open questions:

  • would PHP 5 provide sufficient performance? No - the memory management and performance in PHP5 is so behind that of PHP7, that it wouldn't really make sense to support. Check out Nikic's blog to get an idea for just how stark the difference is:
  • Is the PHP grammar described in php/php-langspec complete? Complete enough - we've submitted some PRs to improve the spec, but overall we haven't run into any major impediments.
  • Is the PHP 7 grammar a superset of the PHP5 grammar? It's close enough that we can afford to patch the cases where it's not.

Validation Strategy

We ensure correctness in several ways:

  • Define and test both parser and lexer against a set of invariants (characteristics about the produced token set or tree that always hold true, no matter what the input). This set of invariants provides a consistent foundation that makes it easier to ensure the tree is "structurally sound", and confidently reason about the tree as we continue to build up our understanding. For instance, one such invariant is that the original text (including whitespace and comments) should always be reproducible from a Node. Every test case we add is tested against this invariant.
  • Test cases to validate both lexer and parser against the expected grammar.
  • Continuous validation against existing codebases and popular frameworks to validate that no errors are produced on valid code.
  • Compare produced tree to that of other parsers, and investigate any instance of disagreement. This helps us use existing, more battle-tested, work to validate our own correctness.
  • Performance/memory benchmarks - constantly monitor and investigate any regressions. Because there may be a high degree of variance, we should set up some infrastructure to help us ensure that performance work results in a statistically significant boost and works on a wide variety of machine configurations.
  • Fuzz testing - test the parser against automatically generated inputs to exercise edge cases in a bulk fashion, and and ensure expected properties of the tree.
  • Community feedback - try and get the parser in the hands of as many people as possible so we can validate a wide range of use cases. The Syntax Visualizer tool is one tool to help us increase reach.
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