C library for Markdown syntax highlighting, using a recursive-descent parser.
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PEG Markdown Highlight

Copyright 2011-2016 Ali Rantakari -- http://hasseg.org

This is a syntax highlighter for the Markdown language, designed to be integrated into GUI text editor programs. It uses a recursive-descent parser for interpreting the input (instead of e.g. regular expressions), and this parser is based on the PEG grammar from John MacFarlane's peg-markdown project.

PEG Markdown Highlight…

  • is written in ANSI/ISO C89 with GNU extensions
  • has no external dependencies
  • is re-entrant
  • is probably slower than many simpler (but less correct) highlighting mechanisms but faster than most Markdown compilers
  • works (at least) on OS X, Linux and Windows
  • is used in shipping software (Mou, MacDown, LightPaper, Erato, CuteMarkEd)
  • is dual-licensed under the MIT and GPL2+ licenses.

This program uses the PEG grammar from John MacFarlane's peg-markdown project, and the greg parser generator by Why The Lucky Stiff and Amos Wenger (greg is heavily based on peg/leg by Ian Piumarta). It also contains an implementation of the merge sort algorithm for linked lists by Simon Tatham.

Thanks to these gentlemen (and everyone who contributed to their projects) for making this one possible.

See the LICENSE file for licensing information.

Why This is Useful

Existing syntax highlighting solutions in (programming) editors are too simple to be able to handle the context sensitivity of the Markdown language, and the fact that it is not well defined. They usually work well for simple cases but fail for many nontrivial inputs that existing Markdown compilers handle correctly. This project is an attempt to bring Markdown syntax highlighting to the same level of “correctness” as the existing compilers.

Quick Code Examples

Here are some quick, simple examples of what it might look like to use this highlighter in your project.

Using the Cocoa highlighter classes to highlight an NSTextView with default settings:

#import "HGMarkdownHighlighter.h"

@interface MyClass : NSObject {
    HGMarkdownHighlighter *highlighter;

- (void) awakeFromNib {
    highlighter = [[HGMarkdownHighlighter alloc]
    [highlighter activate];

Manually highlighting a TextWidget in some hypothetical GUI framework:

#include "pmh_parser.h"

void highlight(TextWidget *textWidget)
    pmh_element **results;
    pmh_markdown_to_elements(textWidget->containedText, pmh_EXT_NONE, &results);
    for (int i = 0; i < pmh_NUM_LANG_TYPES; i++) {
        TextStyle style;
        switch (i) {
            case pmh_EMPH: style = ItalicStyle; break;
            case pmh_STRONG: style = BoldStyle; break;
            case pmh_H1: style = LargeFontStyle; break;
            default: style = FunkyStyle; break;
        pmh_element *element_cursor = results[i];
        while (element_cursor != NULL) {
            element_cursor = element_cursor->next;


Repo Contents

This project contains:

  • A Markdown parser for syntax highlighting, written in C. The parser itself should compile as is on OS X, Linux and Windows (at least).
  • Helper classes for syntax highlighting NSTextViews in Cocoa applications.
  • A simple example on how to highlight a GtkTextView in a GTK+ application.
  • A simple example on how to highlight a QTextEdit in a Qt application.
  • A parser for stylesheets that define syntax highlighting styles

API Documentation

The public APIs are documented using Doxygen. If you have it installed, just run make docs and they should be available under the docs/ directory.

Using the Parser in Your Application

The parser has been written in ANSI/ISO C89 with GNU extensions, which means that you need a GCC-compatible compiler (see section on MSVC below, though). You also need Bourne Shell and some common Unix utilities due to a utility shell script that is used to combine some files in a make step.

Files You Need

You need to add the following files into your project:

  • pmh_definitions.h
  • pmh_parser.h
  • pmh_parser.c

pmh_parser.c implements the parser and must be generated with make. pmh_parser.h contains the parser's public interface and pmh_definitions.h some public definitions you might want to use in files where you don't wish to import the parser interface itself.

Compiling in Microsoft Visual C++

First you need to generate pmh_parser.c somehow. There are two main ways to do this:

  • Use a Linux or OS X machine to generate it
  • Generate it on Windows using MinGW (you'd run make in the MinGW shell)

Whichever way you go, the command you run is make pmh_parser.c.

MSVC does not support some of the GNU extensions the code uses, but it should compile it nicely as C++ (just change the extensions to .cpp or set some magic switch in the project settings to get the same effect). You may need to insert the following to the beginning of pmh_parser.c:

#include "stdafx.h"

Stylesheet Parser

The pmh_styleparser.h file contains the style parser's public interface and the pmh_styleparser.c file implements the parser. The style parser depends on the main parser.

The stylesheet syntax is documented in /styleparser/stylesheet_syntax.md. This file is compiled into an HTML format upon running make docs.