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Dynamic Grammars in Java
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PetitParser for Java

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Grammars for programming languages are traditionally specified statically. They are hard to compose and reuse due to ambiguities that inevitably arise. PetitParser combines ideas from scannnerless parsing, parser combinators, parsing expression grammars and packrat parsers to model grammars and parsers as objects that can be reconfigured dynamically.

This library is open source, stable and well tested. Development happens on GitHub. Feel free to report issues or create a pull-request there. General questions are best asked on StackOverflow.


From the command line check out the code and install your own copy:

git clone
cd java-petitparser
git checkout 2.0.0
mvn install

Then add the following snippet to your pom.xml file:



Writing a Simple Grammar

Writing grammars with PetitParser is simple as writing Java code. For example, to write a grammar that can parse identifiers that start with a letter followed by zero or more letter or digits is defined as follows:

import static org.petitparser.parser.primitive.CharacterParser.*;

class Example {
  public static void main(String[] arguments) {
    Parser id = letter().seq(letter().or(digit()).star());

If you look at the object id in the debugger, you'll notice that the code above builds a tree of parser objects:

  • SequenceParser: This parser accepts a sequence of parsers.
    • CharacterParser: This parser accepts a single letter.
    • PossessiveRepeatingParser: This parser accepts zero or more times another parser.
      • ChoiceParser: This parser accepts a single word character.
        • CharacterParser: This parser accepts a single letter.
        • CharacterParser: This parser accepts a single digit.

Parsing Some Input

To actually parse a String we can use the method Parser#parse(String):

Result id1 = id.parse("yeah");
Result id2 = id.parse("f12");

The method String returns Result, which is either an instance of Success or Failure. In both examples above we are successful and can retrieve the parse result using Success#get():

System.out.println(id1.get());  // ['y', ['e', 'a', 'h']]
System.out.println(id2.get());  // ['f', ['1', '2']]

While it seems odd to get these nested arrays with characters as a return value, this is the default decomposition of the input into a parse tree. We'll see in a while how that can be customized.

If we try to parse something invalid we get an instance of Failure as an answer and we can retrieve a descriptive error message using Failure#getMessage():

Result id3 = id.parse('123');
System.out.println(id3.getMessage());  // "letter expected"
System.out.println(id3.getPosition());  // 0

Trying to retrieve the parse result by calling Failure#get() would throw the exception ParseError. Result#isSuccess() and Result#isFailure() can be used to decide if the parse was successful.

If you are only interested if a given string matches or not you can use the helper method Parser#accept(String):

System.out.println(id.accept("foo"));  // true
System.out.println(id.accept("123"));  // false

Different Kinds of Parsers

PetitParser provide a large set of ready-made parser that you can compose to consume and transform arbitrarily complex languages. The terminal parsers are the most simple ones. We've already seen a few of those:

  • CharacterParser.of('a') parses the character a.
  • StringParser.of("abc") parses the string abc.
  • CharacterParser.any() parses any character.
  • CharacterParser.digit() parses any digit from 0 to 9.
  • CharacterParser.letter() parses any letter from a to z and A to Z.
  • CharacterParser.word() parses any letter or digit.

Many other parsers are available in CharacterParser and StringParser.

So instead of using the letter and digit predicate, we could have written our identifier parser like this:

Parser id = letter().seq(word().star());

The next set of parsers are used to combine other parsers together:

  • p1.seq(p2) parses p1 followed by p2 (sequence).
  • p1.or(p2) parses p1, if that doesn't work parses p2 (ordered choice).
  • parses p zero or more times.
  • parses p one or more times.
  • p.optional() parses p, if possible.
  • p.and() parses p, but does not consume its input.
  • p.not() parses p and succeed when p fails, but does not consume its input.
  • p.end() parses p and succeed at the end of the input.

To attach an action or transformation to a parser we can use the following methods:

  • -> ...) performs the transformation given the function.
  • p.pick(n) returns the n-th element of the list p returns.
  • p.flatten() creates a string from the result of p.
  • p.token() creates a token from the result of p.
  • p.trim() trims whitespaces before and after p.

To return a string of the parsed identifier, we can modify our parser like this:

Parser id = letter().seq(word().star()).flatten();

To conveniently find all matches in a given input string you can use Parser#matchesSkipping(String):

List<Object> matches = id.matchesSkipping("foo 123 bar4");
System.out.println(matches);  // ["foo", "bar4"]

These are the basic elements to build parsers. There are a few more well documented and tested factory methods in the Parser class. If you want, browse their documentation and tests.

Writing a More Complicated Grammar

Now we are able to write a more complicated grammar for evaluating simple arithmetic expressions. Within a file we start with the grammar for a number (actually an integer):

Parser number = digit().plus().flatten().trim().map((String value) -> Integer.parseInt(value));

Then we define the productions for addition and multiplication in order of precedence. Note that we instantiate the productions with undefined parsers upfront, because they recursively refer to each other. Later on we can resolve this recursion by setting their reference:

SettableParser term = SettableParser.undefined();
SettableParser prod = SettableParser.undefined();
SettableParser prim = SettableParser.undefined();

term.set(prod.seq(of('+').trim()).seq(term).map((List<Integer> values) -> {
  return values.get(0) + values.get(2);
prod.set(prim.seq(of('*').trim()).seq(prod).map((List<Integer> values) -> {
  return values.get(0) * values.get(2);
prim.set((of('(').trim().seq(term).seq(of(')').trim())).map((List<Integer> values) -> {
  return values.get(1);

To make sure that our parser consumes all input we wrap it with the end() parser into the start production:

Parser start = term.end();

That's it, now we can test our parser and evaluator:

System.out.println(start.parse("1 + 2 * 3").get());  // 7
System.out.println(start.parse("(1 + 2) * 3").get());  // 9

As an exercise we could extend the parser to also accept negative numbers and floating point numbers, not only integers. Furthermore it would be useful to support subtraction and division as well. All these features can be added with a few lines of PetitParser code.



The package comes with a large collections of grammars and language experiments ready to explore:

  • petitparser-json contains a complete JSON grammar and parser.
  • petitparser-xml contains a complete XML grammar and parser.
  • petitparser-smalltalk contains a complete Smalltalk parser.


PetitParser was originally implemented in Smalltalk. Later on, as a mean to learn these languages, I reimplemented PetitParser in Java and Dart. The implementations are very similar in their API and the supported features. If possible, the implementations adopt best practises of the target language.



The MIT License, see LICENSE.

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