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Spork is a "little language" designed to facilitate the extraction and processing of data held in XML or HTML files. The intent is to fulfil a similar role to AWK, but with structured rather than line-oriented data. It can be run as a program, either explicitly or with a #! line, following the pattern of awk implementations, or used as a Python module.

A spork is not quite a fork, and a rather poor spoon. The Spork language is not quite a declarative language (compare it to XSLT) and would make a poor choice for a general purpose language (especially when you consider that Spork code consists of Python expressions, and you could just be writing in Python instead). However, there are times when a spork is exactly the right tool for the job.

Running spork requires two inputs: a Spork program and XML or HTML data. There is no implicit output: any output must be explicitly generated by the spork code or command line options.


spork depends on three Python packages which are not part of the standard library:

These are all available on PyPI and can be installed with

$ pip install lxml cssselect tinycss

If you are using a version of Python prior to 2.7, you also need argparse (

Alternatively, most Linux distributions will have their own versions of these packages. This is particularly important for lxml, which does not install smoothly from PyPI on all platforms.

Once you have the dependencies installed:

$ python install

spork has been tested with Python 2.6 and 2.7, and should also work with Python 3.x.


$ spork --help
usage: spork [-h] (-f progfile | -e program-text) [-w] [-X] [-H] [-s tag] [-p]
             [-d] [--attribute-defaults] [--dtd-validation] [--allow-network]
             [--recover] [--remove-blank-text] [--leave-cdata]
             [--leave-entities] [--forget-ids] [--huge-tree]

Spork is a mark-up scanning and processing language

positional arguments:
  file                  document to be processed (default stdin)

optional arguments:
  -h, --help            show this help message and exit
  -f progfile, --file progfile
                        filename of spork program
  -e program-text, --source program-text
                        text of spork program
  -w, --warn            warn of program parsing errors
  -X, --xml             attempt XML parsing of document
  -H, --html            attempt HTML parsing of document
  -s tag, --select tag  process selected elements from document
  -p, --print           print result(s)
  -d, --debug           display debugging information

Document parser options:
  These options only apply if -X/--xml or -H/--html are given.

  --attribute-defaults  read the DTD (if referenced by the document) and add
                        the default attributes from it
  --dtd-validation      validate while parsing (if a DTD was referenced)
  --allow-network       allow network access when looking up external
  --recover             try hard to parse through broken XML
  --remove-blank-text   discard blank text nodes (ignorable whitespace)
                        between tags
  --leave-cdata         don't replace CDATA sections by normal text content
  --leave-entities      don't replace entities by their text value
  --forget-ids          don't collect XML IDs (can speed up parsing if IDs not
  --huge-tree           support deep trees and very long text content.
                        WARNING: disables security restrictions


A Spork program uses essentially the same format as a CSS stylesheet, with declaration lists replaced by lists of Python expressions. This structure looks a lot like an AWK program, which is one of the observations behind the creation of Spork. Comments are denoted by /* ... */ as with CSS, except that the first line only of a Spork file may be a comment starting with # to allow the #! mechanism to work. Note that a #! line must end with -f (as with awk) to indicate the Spork program is to be read from this file. This means that Spork code consists of a series of stanzas of the form:

selector {
    name: expression;

Each stanza is evaluated in turn the order presented (note that this is unlike AWK, where the order of evaluation is determined by the data). For each element in the input data which matches selector, the expressions in body of the stanza is executed in the context of that element in the order presented. In general, the value of the evaluated expression is attached to the variable name.

A selector may be _, in which case the stanza is evaluated with no contextual element.

As well as stanzas of this form, import statements of the form:

@import "module";

are permitted. These work exactly like Python import statements, importing the module into the environment in which the expressions in subsequent stanzas are evaluated. The sys, os and etree modules are automatically available, so there is no need to @import these. A complex Spork application may consist of a series of Python modules driven from a single piece of Spork code which @imports them. (The alternative is to drive the application from Python code using the sporklib module to extract data.)

Spork assigns expression values to variables by appending the value to a list with that variable name. This facilitates aggregating data from repeating elements. The list is created when the variable is first assigned to, and may be referenced in any subsequent expression. If the name given is _, the name of the contextual element will be used for the variable name, with any -s appearing in this name being replaced by _s. If both the selector and name are _ (ie there is no contextual element) then the expression is evaluated and the result discarded.

Expressions can take one of three forms:

  1. If the expression is the name of a variable, or [], or ends [:], the value of the expression is copied to the named variable, rather than being appended.
  2. If the expression contains #, it is interpreted as the left-most element of a list comprehension over the named variable, with occurrences of # being replaced by the iterating variable. The named variable is replaced by the result.
  3. Otherwise, the expression is evaluated as a Python expression, and the result appended to the named variable.

If an expression contains [] but does not soley consist of it, the [] is interpreted as [-1], ie a subscript to the last element of an array, including spork variables.

The values of attributes of the contextual element can be insterted into the expression as literal strings prior to evaluation by writing $attr where attr is the name of the attribute to be inserted. If the contextual element has no attribute named attr, its ancestors are searched until one is found, or the document root is reached in which case an empty string is inserted. In the same way, literal string versions of the element tag, textual content (including the text of all sub-elements), and XML representation can be inserted using $_TAG, $_TEXT and $_XML respectively.

The environment in which an expression is evaluated consists of:

  • builtins, including print as a function
  • the defaultdict, StringIO and Template classes
  • the sys, os, json and etree modules
  • any modules previously imported using @import
  • the Spork object running the code as self
  • the contextual element (if present) as _
  • variables assigned by spork as lists

Extra flow control within Spork code can be acheived by calling self.exit(). With no arguments, it restarts execution of the current stanza with the next matching contextual element (or moves on to the next stanza if there is no such element). Otherwise, it may be called with one of the following:

  • Spork.SELECTOR: abandons processing the current stanza and moves on to the next.
  • Spork.ELEMENT: abandons all processing, but moves on to the next root element as selected by the -s option on the command line or using select(). If there was no -s option or run() was called instead of select(), it is equivalent to Spork.PROGRAM.
  • Spork.PROGRAM: abandons all processing and returns control to the caller. Note this difference between calling self.exit(Spork.PROGRAM) and sys.exit(0) (which exits the program immediately). In particular, using self.exit(Spork.PROGRAM) in a spork program called from the command line with -p -s ... means the -p will still apply to all selected elements completely processed up to the point at which it was called.

Examples gives examples of XML-to-XML and XML-to-HTML transformations. These could be written in Spork as:

person>name {
    users: ($username, $_TEXT)

persons {
    root: etree.Element("root");
    users: setattr(etree.SubElement(root[], "name", username=#[0]), "text", #[1]);
    _: print(etree.tostring(root[], encoding="UTF-8", xml_declaration=True, pretty_print=True));


name, family-name {
    _: $_TEXT

persons {
    persons: sorted(zip(family_name, name))[:];
    persons: "      <li>%s, %s</li>" % #;
    head: "<?xml version=\"1.0\" encoding=\"UTF-8\"?>";
    head: "<html xmlns=\"\">";
    head: "  <head> <title>Testing XML Example</title> </head>";
    head: "  <body>";
    head: "    <h1>Persons</h1>";
    head: "    <ul>";
    tail: "    </ul>";
    tail: "  </body>";
    tail: "</html>";
    _: print("\n".join(head + persons + tail));


spork is entirely implemented by the Python module sporklib, and running a Spork program within a Python program is one way of creating more complex applications than could be achieved in a pure Spork program. (The other is to @import complex Python code into a Spork program.) After import sporklib there are three steps involved:

  1. Create a Spork object with sporklib.Spork(source) where source is a file-like object containing the Spork program.
  2. Obtain an lxml.etree element to be processed by the spork program. Typically you will call the get_root(document) method on the Spork object created in step 1. Again, document is a file-like object. get_root() uses lxml.etree parsers (by default, it tries first the XML parser, then the HTML parser) to obtain the document root element and, in the case of XML documents, establish the namespaces in use.
  3. Call the run() or select(selector) methods on the Spork object.

run() runs the Spork program on the given element, or by default the document root obtained from the last call to get_root() and returns a dict representing the final state of the Spork variables. If the program is terminated by calling self.exit(Spork.PROGRAM), run() returns an empty dict.

select(selector) selects the subelements of the given element (or document root as obtained from get_root()) identified by the CSS selector selector and runs the Spork program over each of these subelements in turn. It returns a list of 2-tuples, where the first item in the tuple is a selected element and the second item the dict of Spork variables resulting from running the program over that element. If the program terminates by calling self.exit(Spork.ELEMENT) then no tuple is added to the return value and processing continues. If the program terminates by calling self.exit(Spork.PROGRAM) then select() returns immediately with the results obtained up to that point.

selector(selector) is the generator form of select(). In fact, select() is currently implemented as

def select(self, selector, document=None):
    return list(self.selector(selector, document))

so unless you really need the list it is probably better to use selector().

S. Arrowsmith 2015-01-28

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