Smithereen is a Ruby library for building Top-Down Operator Precedence parsers.
Switch branches/tags
Clone or download
Fetching latest commit…
Cannot retrieve the latest commit at this time.
Failed to load latest commit information.

smithereen Build Status

Smithereen is a library for building Top-Down Operator Precedence parsers.

To learn more about TDOP parsing, see Doug Crockford's chapter in the book Beautiful Code, and Vaughan Pratt's original paper.

If you're already familiar with TDOP, you will notice that I'm using nonstandard names for the methods that Pratt called "nud" and "led". Part of my goal in writing this library was to understand the algorithm better, and to make it easier for others to understand. I found that Pratt's names were a barrier to understanding, so I'm using "prefix" and "infix" instead (although I still think there are better names out there waiting to be discovered).


I was intrigued when I read Crockford's chapter in Beautiful Code. It seemed to me that top-down operator precedence promised parsers as easy to write and understand as recursive descent, but with much better performance and space-efficiency. Also, as a Rubyist, I was drawn by Crockford's claim that TDOP "is most effective when used in a dynamic, functional programming language." He goes on to say that TDOP:

wants a dynamic language, but dynamic language communities historically have had no use for the syntax that Pratt's technique conveniently realizes.

Clearly, if ever there was a counterexample to that trend, it's the Ruby community.

At the same time, I found it hard to grasp the core of the algorithm from the code in Crockford's chapter (which is a parser for a simplified dialect of JavaScript, written in that same dialect). After some reflection, I realized that there were three problems with that code:

  1. The parts that are core to TDOP aren't clearly separated from the parts that are specific to parsing JavaScript.
  2. JavaScript as an implementation language is so dynamic that the dynamic features TDOP exploits don't stand out.
  3. Many of the important method names (most of which originated with Pratt) are poor, hindering understanding to someone who does not already grasp the algorithm.

A Python implementation by Fredrik Lundh is easier to follow simply because he starts small and builds up the pieces bit-by-bit, rather than presenting a full parser for a complex grammar right from the start. But of course the Python style of implementation differs in many respects from what you would expect to see in Ruby.

After some time, then, I decided to write a new implementation in Ruby. The goal is to provide a reusable core that can be exploited by multiple different parsers, thus answering the first problem with Crockford's implementation. Ruby supports the same kinds of dynamic features that JavaScript does, but their use is often more explicit, which helps with the second problem. And as I've grown to understand the algorithm more, I've chosen different names and done some refactoring to address the third.

In truth, the core of TDOP is very small, and there's simply not a lot there that is independent of particular grammars. However, I've tried to provide a well-factored set of tools to help with the core TDOP algorithm and several related problems, including scope, symbol-table management, tree building, block structure, and the distinction between expression- and statement-oriented languages.


Smithereen has one distinctive design characteristic, the full implications of which are still unclear. It may have to be changed if it proves to have too great a performance impact.

One interesting characteristic of TDOP in an object-oriented language is that it makes sense for tokens to actively participate in the parsing process: tokens parse their own subexpressions.

A naive implementation of that, however, results in very tight coupling of lexer and parser. Crockford's implementation avoids that by having the parser augment tokens, adding new methods to them when they are received from the lexer. That's a very JavaScript-y solution that nicely demonstrates part of Crockford's point about dynamic languages' natural affinity for TDOP.

It seemed to me that the best way to deal with this in Ruby was for the parser to extend tokens with modules. So a Smithereen parser's symbol table contains a module for each token type, and the parser calls token.extend(token_module) as each token is received from the lexer.

I like that design, but it's unusual even in Ruby for such things to be done in the inner loop of an algorithm that strives to perform well. I plan to do some profiling to assess the performance of this design before committing to it for the long term.

To do

  • Write syntax error tests for the JavaScript parser.
  • Add some kind of tracing output to make it easier to understand (and debug) the algorithm.
  • Reusable example groups for lexers and lexer tokens.
  • Refactor scoping.
  • Investigate separating parsing from tree building.
  • Figure out a good way to unit-test prefix, infix, and stmt methods.
  • Address all the TODO and ??? comments
  • Revisit:
    • Whether to hide the left parameter to infix
    • Whether to raise the token or have another error strategy
    • Names: prefix, infix, extend_with_infixes, symbolize, symbol_module, lexer token, take_token, deftoken.
    • The names advance_if_whatever and how those methods work.
  • Add notes and stats rake tasks.
  • Measure performance:
    • speed
    • space
    • stack depth

Note on Patches/Pull Requests

  • Fork the project.
  • Make your feature addition or bug fix.
  • Add tests for it. This is important so I don't break it in a future version unintentionally.
  • Commit, do not mess with Rakefile, VERSION, or history. (if you want to have your own version, that is fine but bump version in a commit by itself I can ignore when I pull)
  • Send me a pull request. Bonus points for topic branches.


Copyright (c) 2009, 2010 Glenn Vanderburg. See LICENSE for details.