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Partcl - a minimal Tcl interpreter

Build Status


  • ~600 lines of "pedantic" C99 code
  • No external dependencies
  • Good test coverage
  • Can be extended with custom Tcl commands
  • Runs well on bare metal embedded MCUs (~10k of flash is required)

Built-in commands:

  • subst arg
  • set var ?val?
  • while cond loop
  • if cond branch ?cond? ?branch? ?other?
  • proc name args body
  • return
  • break
  • continue
  • arithmetic operations: +, -, *, /, <, >, <=, >=, ==, !=


struct tcl tcl;
const char *s = "set x 4; puts [+ [* $x 10] 2]";

if (tcl_eval(&tcl, s, strlen(s)) != FERROR) {
    printf("%.*s\n", tcl_length(tcl.result), tcl_string(tcl.result));

Language syntax

Tcl script is made up of commands separated by semicolons or newline symbols. Commnads in their turn are made up of words separated by whitespace. To make whitespace a part of the word one may use double quotes or braces.

An important part of the language is command substitution, when the result of a command inside square braces is returned as a part of the outer command, e.g. puts [+ 1 2].

The only data type of the language is a string. Although it may complicate mathematical operations, it opens a broad way for building your own DSLs to enhance the language.


Any symbol can be part of the word, except for the following special symbols:

  • whitespace, tab - used to delimit words
  • \r, \n, semicolon or EOF - used to delimit commands
  • Braces, square brackets, dollar sign - used for substitution and grouping

Partcl has special helper functions for these char classes:

static int tcl_is_space(char c);
static int tcl_is_end(char c);
static int tcl_is_special(char c, int q);

tcl_is_special behaves differently depending on the quoting mode (q parameter). Inside a quoted string braces, semicolon and end-of-line symbols lose their special meaning and become regular printable characters.

Partcl lexer is implemented in one function:

int tcl_next(const char *s, size_t n, const char **from, const char **to, int *q);

tcl_next function finds the next token in the string s. from and to are set to point to the token start/end, q denotes the quoting mode and is changed if " is met.

A special macro tcl_each(s, len, skip_error) can used to iterate over all the tokens in the string. If skip_error is false - loop ends when string ends, otherwise loop can end earlier if a syntax error is found. It allows to "validate" input string without evaluating it and detect when a full command has been read.

Data types

Tcl uses strings as a primary data type. When Tcl script is evaluated, many of the strings are created, disposed or modified. In embedded systems memory management can be complex, so all operations with Tcl values are moved into isolated functions that can be easily rewritten to optimize certain parts (e.g. to use a pool of strings, a custom memory allocator, cache numerical or list values to increase performance etc).

/* Raw string values */
tcl_value_t *tcl_alloc(const char *s, size_t len);
tcl_value_t *tcl_dup(tcl_value_t *v);
tcl_value_t *tcl_append(tcl_value_t *v, tcl_value_t *tail);
int tcl_length(tcl_value_t *v);
void tcl_free(tcl_value_t *v);

/* Helpers to access raw string or numeric value */
int tcl_int(tcl_value_t *v);
const char *tcl_string(tcl_value_t *v);

/* List values */
tcl_value_t *tcl_list_alloc();
tcl_value_t *tcl_list_append(tcl_value_t *v, tcl_value_t *tail);
tcl_value_t *tcl_list_at(tcl_value_t *v, int index);
int tcl_list_length(tcl_value_t *v);
void tcl_list_free(tcl_value_t *v);

Keep in mind, that ..._append() functions must free the tail argument. Also, the string returned by tcl_string() it not meant to be mutated or cached.

In the default implementation lists are implemented as raw strings that add some escaping (braces) around each iterm. It's a simple solution that also reduces the code, but in some exotic cases the escaping can become wrong and invalid results will be returned.


A special type, struct tcl_env is used to keep the evaluation environment (a set of functions). The interpreter creates a new environment for each user-defined procedure, also there is one global environment per interpreter.

There are only 3 functions related to the environment. One creates a new environment, another seeks for a variable (or creates a new one), the last one destroys the environment and all its variables.

These functions use malloc/free, but can easily be rewritten to use memory pools instead.

static struct tcl_env *tcl_env_alloc(struct tcl_env *parent);
static struct tcl_var *tcl_env_var(struct tcl_env *env, tcl_value_t *name);
static struct tcl_env *tcl_env_free(struct tcl_env *env);

Variables are implemented as a single-linked list, each variable is a pair of values (name + value) and a pointer to the next variable.


Partcl interpreter is a simple structure struct tcl which keeps the current environment, array of available commands and a last result value.

Interpreter logic is wrapped around two functions - evaluation and substitution.


  • If argument starts with $ - create a temporary command [set name] and evaluate it. In Tcl $foo is just a shortcut to [set foo], which returns the value of "foo" variable in the current environment.
  • If argument starts with [ - evaluate what's inside the square brackets and return the result.
  • If argument is a quoted string (e.g. {foo bar}) - return it as is, just without braces.
  • Otherwise return the argument as is.


  • Iterates over each token in a list
  • Appends words into a list
  • If the command end is met (semicolor, or newline, or end-of-file - our lexer has a special token type TCMD for them) - then find a suitable command (the first word in the list) and call it.

Where the commands are taken from? Initially, a Partcl interpeter starts with no commands, but one may add the commands by calling tcl_register().

Each command has a name, arity (how many arguments is shall take - interpreter checks it before calling the command, use zero arity for varargs) and a C function pointer that actually implements the command.

Builtin commands

"set" - tcl_cmd_set, assigns value to the variable (if any) and returns the current variable value.

"subst" - tcl_cmd_subst, does command substitution in the argument string.

"puts" - tcl_cmd_puts, prints argument to the stdout, followed by a newline. This command can be disabled using #define TCL_DISABLE_PUTS, which is handy for embedded systems that don't have "stdout".

"proc" - tcl_cmd_proc, creates a new command appending it to the list of current interpreter commands. That's how user-defined commands are built.

"if" - tcl_cmd_if, does a simple if {cond} {then} {cond2} {then2} {else}.

"while" - tcl_cmd_while, runs a while loop while {cond} {body}. One may use "break", "continue" or "return" inside the loop to contol the flow.

Various math operations are implemented as tcl_cmd_math, but can be disabled, too if your script doesn't need them (if you want to use Partcl as a command shell, not as a programming language).

Building and testing

All sources are in one file, tcl.c. It can be used as a standalone interpreter, or included as a single-file library (you may want to rename it into tcl.h then).

Tests are run with clang and coverage is calculated. Just run "make test" and you're done.

Code is formatted using clang-format to keep the clean and readable coding style. Please run it for pull requests, too.


Code is distributed under MIT license, feel free to use it in your proprietary projects as well.


ParTcl - a micro Tcl implementation





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