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Parse-EZ : Clojure Parser Library

API Documentation

Parse-EZ is a parser library for Clojure programmers. It allows easy mixing of declarative and imperative styles and does not require any special constructs, macros, monads, etc. to write custom parsers. All the parsing is implemented using regular Clojure functions.

The library provides a number of parse functions and combinators and comes with a built-in customizable infix expression parser and evaluator. It allows the programmer to concisely specify the structure of input text using Clojure functions and easily build parse trees without having to step out of Clojure. Whether you are writing a parser for some well structured data or for data scraping or prototyping a new language, you can make use of this library to quickly create a parser.


  • Parse functions and Combinators
  • Automatic handling of whitespaces, comments
  • Marking positions and backtracking
  • Seek, read, skip string/regex patterns
  • Builtin customizable expression parser and evaluator
  • Exceptions based error handling
  • Custom error messages



Just add Parse-EZ as a dependency to your lein project

[protoflex/parse-ez "0.4.2"]

and run

lein deps

A Taste of Parse-EZ

Here are a couple of sample parsers to give you a taste of the parser library.

CSV Parser

A CSV file contains multiple records, one-record per line, with field-values separated by a delimiter such as a comma or a tab. The field values may optionally be quoted either using a single or double quotes. When field-values are quoted, they may contain the field-delimiter characters, and in such cases they will not be treated as field separators.

First, let us define a parse function for parsing one-line of csv file:

(defn csv-1 [sep] 
    (sep-by #(any-string sep) #(chr sep)))

In the above function definition, we make use of the parse combinator sep-by which takes two arguments: the first one to read a field-value and the second one to read the separator. Here, we have used Clojure's anonymous function shortcuts to specify the desired behavior succinctly. The any-string function matches a single-quoted string or a double-quoted string or a plain-string that is followed by the specified separator sep. This is exactly the function that we need to read the field-value. The second argument provided to sep-by above uses the primitive parse function chr which succeeds only when the next character in the input matches its argument (sep parameter in this case). The csv-1 function returns the field values as a vector.

The sep-by function actually takes a third, optional argument as record-separator function with the default value of a function that matches a newline. We didn't pass the third argument above because the default behavior suits our purpose. Had the default behavior of sep-by been different, we would have written the above function as:

(defn csv-1 [sep] 
    (sep-by #(any-string sep) #(chr sep) #(regex #"\r?\n")))

Now that we have created a parse function to parse a single line of CSV file, let us write another parse function that parses the entire CSV file content and returns the result as a vector of vector of field values (one-vector per record/line). All we need to do is to repeatedly apply the above defined csv-1 function and the multi* parse combinator does just that.

Just one small but important detail: by default, Parse-EZ automatically trims whitespace after successfully applying a parse function. This means that the newline at the end of line would be consumed after reading the last field value and the sep-by would be unable to match the end-of-line which is the record-separator in this case. So, we will disable the newline trimming functionality using the no-trim combinator.

(defn csv [sep] 
    (multi* (fn [] (no-trim #(csv-1 sep)))))

Alternatively, you can express the above function a bit more easily using the macro versions of combinators introduced in Version 0.3.0 as follows:

(defn csv [sep] 
    (multi* (no-trim_ (csv-1 sep))))

Now, let us try out our csv parser. First let us define a couple of test strings containing a couple of records (lines) each. Note that the second string contains a comma inside the first cell (a quoted string).

user> (def s1 "1abc,def,ghi\n2jkl,mno,pqr\n")
user> (def s2 "'1a,bc',def,ghi\n2jkl,mno,pqr\n")
user> (parse #(csv \,) s1)
[["1abc" "def" "ghi"] ["2jkl" "mno" "pqr"]]
user> (parse #(csv \,) s2)
[["1a,bc" "def" "ghi"] ["2jkl" "mno" "pqr"]]

Well, all we had to do was to write two lines of Clojure code to implement the CSV parser. Let's add a bit more functionality: the CSV files may use a comma or a tab character to separate the field values. Let's say we don't know ahead of time which character a file uses as a separator and we want to detect the separator automatically. Note that both characters may occur in a data file, but only one acts as a field-separator -- that too only when it's not inside a quoted string.

Here is our strategy to detect the separator:

  • if the first field value is quoted (single or double), read the quoted string
  • else, read until one of comma or tab occurs
  • the next char is our delimiter

Here is the code:

(defn detect-sep []
    (let [m (mark-pos)
           s (attempt #(any dq-str sq-str))
           s (if s s (no-trim #(read-to-re #",|\t")))
           sep (read-ch)]
       (back-to-mark m)

Note how we used the mark-pos and back-to-mark Parse-EZ functions to 'unconsume' the consumed input.

The complete code for the sample CSV parser with the separator-detection functionality is listed below (you can find this in csv_parse.clj file under the examples directory.

(ns protoflex.examples.csv_parse
  (:use [protoflex.parse]))

(declare detect-sep csv-1)

(defn csv
  "Reads and returns one or more records as a vector of vector of field-values"
  ([] (csv (no-trim #(detect-sep))))
  ([sep] (multi* (fn [] (no-trim-nl #(csv-1 sep))))))

(defn csv-1
  "Reads and returns the fields of one record (line)"
  [sep] (sep-by #(any-string sep) #(chr sep)))

(defn detect-sep
  "Detects the separator used in a csv file (a comma or a tab)"
  [] (let [m (mark-pos)
           s (attempt #(any dq-str sq-str))
           s (if s s (no-trim #(read-to-re #",|\t")))
           sep (read-ch)]
       (back-to-mark m)

Let's try out the new auto-detect functionality. Let us define two new test strings s3 and s4 that use tab character as field-separator.

user> (use 'protoflex.examples.csv_parse)
user> (def s3 "1abc\tdef\tghi\n2jkl\tmno\tpqr\n")
user> (def s4 "'1a\tbc'\tdef\tghi\n2jkl\tmno\tpqr\n")
user> (parse csv s3)
[["1abc" "def" "ghi"] ["2jkl" "mno" "pqr"]]
user> (parse csv s4)
[["1a\tbc" "def" "ghi"] ["2jkl" "mno" "pqr"]]
user> (parse csv s1)
[["1abc" "def" "ghi"] ["2jkl" "mno" "pqr"]]

As you can see, this time we didn't specify what field-separator to use: the parser itself detected the field-separator character and used it, returning us the desired results.

XML Parser

Here is the listing of a sample XML parser implemented using Parse-EZ. You can find the source file in the examples directory. The parser returns a map containing keys and values for :tag, :attributes and :children for the root element. The value for :attributes key is itself another map containing attribute names and their values. The value for :children key is a vector (potentially empty) containing string content and/or maps for child elements.

(ns protoflex.examples.xml_parse
  (:use [protoflex.parse]))

(declare pi prolog element attributes children-and-close cdata elem-or-text close-tag)

(defn parse-xml [xml-str]
  (parse #(between prolog element pi) xml-str :blk-cmt-delim ["<!--" "-->"] :line-cmt-start nil))

(defn- pi [] (while (starts-with? "<?") (skip-over "?>")))

(defn- prolog [] (pi) (attempt  #(regex #"(?s)<!DOCTYPE([^<]+?>)|(.*?\]\s*>)")) (pi))

The function parse-xml is the entry point that kicks off parsing of input xml string xml-str. It passes the between combinator to Parse-EZ's parse function. Here, the call to between returns the value returned by the element parse function, ignoring the content surrounding it (matched by prolog and pi functions). The block-comment delimiters are set to match XML's and the line-comment delimiter is cleared (by default these match Java comments).

The parse function pi is used to skip consecutive processing instructions by using the delimiters .

The parse function prolog is used to skip DTD declaration (if any) and also any surrounding processing instructions. Note that the regex used to match DTD declaration is only meant for illustration purposes. It isn't complete but will work in most cases.

(def name-start ":A-Z_a-z\\xC0-\\xD6\\xD8-\\xF6\\xF8-\\u02FF\\u0370-\\u037D\\u037F-\\u1FFF\\u200C-\\u200D\\u2070-\\u218F\\u2C00-\\u2FEF\\u3001-\\uD7FF\\uF900-\\uFDCF\\uFDF0-\\uFFFD")

(def name-char (str name-start "\\-.0-9\\xB7\\u0300-\\u036F\\u203F-\\u2040"))

(def name-re (-> (format "[%s][%s]*" name-start name-char) re-pattern))

name-re is a regular expression that matches xml element and attribute names.

(defn element []
  (let [tag (do (chr \<) (regex name-re))
        attrs (attributes)
        children (look-ahead* [
                               ">" #(children-and-close tag)
                               "/>" (fn [] [])])]
    {:tag tag, :attributes attrs, :children children}))

The element parse function matches an xml element and returns the tag, attribute list and children in a hash map. Note the usage of the look_ahead* combinator to handle both the cases -- with children and without children. If it sees a ">" after reading the attributes, the look-ahead* function calls the children-and-close parse function to read children and the element close tag. On the other hand, if it sees "/>" after the attributes, it calls the (almost) empty parse function that simply returns an empty list.

(defn attr []
  (let [n (regex name-re) _ (chr \=)
        v (any sq-str dq-str)]
    [n v]))

(defn attributes [] (apply hash-map (flatten  (multi* attr))))

The attr parse function matches a single attribute. The attribute value may be a single-quoted or double-quoted string. Note the usage of any parse combinator for this purpose.

The attributes parse function matches multiple attribute specifications by passing the attr parse function to multi* parse combinator.

(defn- children-and-close [tag]
  (let [children (multi* #(between pi elem-or-text pi))]
    (close-tag tag)

Each child item is read using the elem-or-text parse function while ignoring any surrounding processing instructions using the between combinator; the combinator multi* is used to read all the child items.

(defn- elem-or-text []
  (look-ahead [
               "<![CDATA[" cdata
               "</" (fn [] nil)
               "<" element
               "" #(read-to "<")]))

The look-ahead parse combinator is used to call different parse functions based on different lookahead strings. Note that the look-ahead function doesn't consume the lookahead string unlike the look-ahead* function used earlier (in the definition of element parse function).

(defn- cdata []
  (string "<![CDATA[")
  (let [txt (read-to "]]>")] (string "]]>") txt))

(defn- close-tag [tag]
    (string (str "</" tag))
    (chr \>))

By now, it should be obvious what the above two functions do.

Well, an XML parser in under 50 lines. Let's try it with a few sample inputs:

user> (use 'protoflex.examples.xml_parse)
user> (parse-xml "<abc>text</abc>")
{:tag "abc", :attributes {}, :children ["text"]}
user> (parse-xml "<abc a1=\"1\" a2=\"attr 2\">sample text</abc>")
{:tag "abc", :attributes {"a1" "1", "a2" "attr2"}, :children ["sample text"]}
user> (parse-xml "<abc a1=\"1\" a2=\"attr 2\"><def d1=\"99\">xxx</def></abc>")
{:tag "abc", :attributes {"a1" "1", "a2" "attr2"}, :children [{:tag "def", :attributes {"d1" "99"}, :children ["xxx"]}]}

Comments and Whitespaces

By default, Parse-EZ automatically handles comments and whitespaces. This behavior can be turned on or off temporarily using the macros with-trim-on and with-trim-off respectively. The parser option :auto-trim can be used to enable or disable the auto handling of whitespace and comments. Use the parser option :blk-cmt-delim to specify the begin and end delimiters for block comments. The parser option :line-cmt-start can be used to specify the line comment marker. By default, these options are set to java/C++ block and line comment markers respectively. You can alter the whitespace recognizer by setting the :ws-regex parser option. By default it is set to #"\s+".

Alternatively, you can turn off auto-handling of whitespace and comments and use the lexeme function which trims the whitespace/comments after application of the parse-function passed as its argument.

Also see the no-trim and no-trim-nl functions.

Primitive Parse Functions

Parse-EZ provides a number of primitive parse functions such as: chr, chr-in, string, string-in, word, word-in, sq-str, dq-str, any-string, regex, read-to, skip-over, read-re, read-to-re, skip-over-re, read-n, read-ch, read-ch-in-set, etc. See API Documentation

Let us try some of the builtin primitive parse functions:

user> (use 'protoflex.parse)
user> (parse integer "12")
user> (parse decimal "12.5")
user> (parse #(chr \a) "a")
user> (parse #(chr-in "abc") "b")
user> (parse #(string-in ["abc" "def"]) "abc")
user> (parse #(string-in ["abc" "def"]) "abcx")
Parse Error: Extraneous text at line 1, col 4
  [Thrown class java.lang.Exception]

Note the parse error for the last parse call. By default, the parse function parses to the end of the input text. Even though the first 3 characters of the input text is recognized as valid input, a parse error is generated because the input cursor would not be at the end of input-text after recognizing "abc".

The parser option :eof can be set to false to allow recognition of partial input:

user> (parse #(string-in ["abc" "def"]) "abcx" :eof false)

You can start parsing by looking for some marker patterns using the read-to, read-to-re, skip-over, skip-over-re functions.

user> (parse #(do (skip-over ">>") (number)) "ignore upto this>> 456.7")

Parse Combinators

Parse Combinators in Parse-EZ are higher-order functions that take other parse functions as input arguments and combine/apply them in different ways to implement new parse functionality. Parse-EZ provides parse combinators such as: opt, attempt, any, series, multi\*, multi+, between, look-ahead, lexeme, expect, etc. See API Documentation

Let us try some of the builtin parse combinators:

user> (parse #(opt integer) "abc" :eof false)
user> (parse #(opt integer) "12")
user> (parse #(any integer decimal) "12")
user> (parse #(any integer decimal) "12.3")
user> (parse #(series integer decimal integer) "3 4.2 6")
[3 4.2 6]
user> (parse #(multi* integer) "1 2 3 4")
[1 2 3 4]
user> (parse #(multi* (fn [] (string-in ["abc" "def"]))) "abcabcdefabc abcdef")
["abc" "abc" "def" "abc" "abc" "def"]

You can create your own parse functions on top of primitive parse-functions and/or parse combinators provided by Parse-EZ.

Committing to a particular parse branch

Version 0.4.0 added support for committing to a particular parse branch via the new parse combinators commit and commit-on. These functions make the parser commit to the current parse branch, making the parser report subsequent parse-failures in the current branch as parse-errors and preventing it from trying other alternatives at higher levels.

Nesting Parse Combinators Using Macros

Version 0.3.0 of Parse-EZ adds macro versions of parse combinator functions to make it easy to nest calls to parse combinators without having to write nested anonymous functions using the "(fn [] ...)" syntax. Note that Clojure does not allow nesting of anonymous functions of "#(...)" forms. Whereas the existing parse combinators take parse functions as arguments and actually perform parsing and return the parse results, the newly added macros take parse expressions as arguments and return parse functions (to be passed to other parse combinators). These macros are named the same as the corresponding parse combinators but with an underscore ("_") suffix. For example the macro version of "any" is named "any_".

Error Handling

Parse Errors are handled in Parse-EZ using Exceptions. The default error messages generated by Parse-EZ include line and column number information and in some cases what is expected at that location. However, you can provide your own custom error messages by using the expect parse combinator.


Parse-EZ includes a customizable expression parser expr for parsing expressions in infix notation and an expression evaluator function eval-expr to evaluate infix expressions. You can customize the operators, their precedences and associative properties using :operators option to the parse function. For evaluating expressions, you can optionally specify the functions to invoke for each operator using the :op-fn-map option.

Parser State

The parser state consists of the input cursor and various parser options (specified or derived) such as those affecting whitespace and comment parsing, word recognizers, expression parsing, etc. The parser options can be changed any time in your own parse functions using set-opt.

Note that most of the parse functions affect Parser state (e.g: input cursor) and hence they are not pure functions. The side-effects could be avoided by making the Parser State an explicit parameter to all the parse functions and returning the changed Parser State along with the parse value from each of the parse functions. However, the result would be a significantly programmer unfriendly API. We made a design decision to keep the parse fuctions simple and easy to use than to fanatically keep the functions "pure".

Relation to Parsec

Parsec is a popular parser combinator library written in Haskell. While Parse-EZ makes use of some of the ideas in there, it is not a port of Parsec to Clojure.


Copyright (C) 2012 Protoflex Software

Distributed under the Eclipse Public License, the same as Clojure.


Parser library for Clojure programmers






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