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Posts Tagged ‘parsing’

Is Early parsing now practical?

September 10th, 2014 1 comment

Language parsing was once a hot topic within computing research. The discovery of LALR parsing, quickly followed by yacc becoming available on Unix, resulted in this approach to language parsing dominating developer mind-share (helped by the first half of most compiler books being devoted to the theory of LR parsing). Until maybe 10 years ago the received wisdom was to implement parsers using Bison (the GNU successor to yacc); this process automatically creates arrays of values that are read by a parser to decide how to process the tokens fed to it by a lexer. The accepted wisdom has now shifted to creating hand written recursive decent parsers (or some variant), where the developer writes code that decides what to do next based on the current token(s); developers are back doing things the way they were done before yacc was written in 1970.

Is this change of implementation choice driven by fashion (despite heroic efforts nobody has been able to produce an industrial strength LALR based parser for C++; all C++ compilers that I am aware of use recursive descent and, sad to say, C++ is a trend setter), existing languages outgrowing existing parsing technology or just developers forgetting what a maintenance nightmare recursive descent can be?

I’m a fan of using tools and the big advantage parser generators have over hand written parsers is that they warn about ambiguities in the syntax, i.e., potential faults in the specification or implementation. Hand written recursive decent is just code that does what is written.

The big disadvantage of LALR parsing are restrictions on the form of the grammars that are accepted (in practice the tools usually complain that an ambiguity cannot be resolved and make use of some default behavior to handle it). Transforming a grammar into a form acceptable to tools, such as Bison, without too many warnings being generated, can take a lot of work by an experienced compiler developer. I once spent a month creating a workable LALR grammar for all of SQL-92 and could have written a recursive decent parser in less time (grammar transformations are a potential source of faults as much as hand written parsers are).

Introductions to parsing sometimes mention how much easier life would be using Early parsing, if only its performance was not so appalling. It turns out that a linear algorithm for Early parsing was published in 1991, followed by various useful refinements in 2001 (all discussed in what is effectively the encyclopedia of parsing sitting on my shelf waiting to be read). Theory will sit on the shelf until somebody implements it and a few days ago I found out about Marpa, a linear time Early parser.

So why does Early parsing make life so much easier, at least for those implementing parsers, than LALR parsing? Early parsing has far fewer restrictions on the form of the grammars it accepts. This means no more spending a month transforming a grammar into something acceptable to the tool being used (at least in theory, I have not tried any large grammars yet; somebody has written one for C).

Another benefit from using an Early parser is the potential for improved syntax error recovery, the drive to reduce the size of the arrays generated by yacc/Bison resulted in information essential for good error recovery being thrown away (the original LALR theory threw some useful information away and over the years several PhDs were awarded to researchers who figured out how to throw even more away). When things go wrong Early parsers have lots of useful information to them.

To check out the hype I’m jumping in at the deep end with the grammar for C++14, can I really cut-and-paste the grammar from the appendix, add in some Marpa syntax and start parsing C++? I will let you know whether I sink or swim.

Parsing R code: Freedom of expression is not always a good idea

February 29th, 2012 9 comments

With my growing interest in R it was inevitable that I would end up writing a parser for it. The fact that the language is relatively small (the add-on packages do the serious work) hastened the event because it did not look like much work; famous last words. I knew about R’s design and implementation being strongly influenced by the world view of functional programming and this should have set alarm bells ringing; this community have a history of willfully ignoring some of the undesirable consequences of their penchant of taking simple ideas and over generalizing them (i.e., I should have expected hidden complications).

While the official R language definition only contains a tiny fraction of the information needed to create a full implementation I decided to use it rather than ‘cheat’ and look at the R project implementation sources. I took as my oracle of correctness the source code of the substantial amount of R in its 3,000+ package library. This approach would help me uncover some of the incorrect preconceived ideas I have about how R source fits together.

I started with a C lexer and chopped and changed (it is difficult to do decent error recovery in automatically generated lexers and I prefer to avoid them). A few surprises cropped up ** is supported as an undocumented form of ^ and by default ]] must be treated as two tokens (e.g., two ] in a[b[c]] but one ]] in d[[e]], an exception to the very commonly used maximal munch rule).

The R grammar is all about expressions with some statement bits and pieces thrown in. R operator precedence follows that of Fortran, except the precedence of unary plus/minus has been increased to be above multiply/divide (instead of below). Easy peasy, cut and paste an existing expression grammar and done by tea time :-) . Several tea times later I have a grammar that parses all of the R packages (apart from 80+ real syntax errors contained therein and a hand full of kinky operator combinations I’m not willing to contort the grammar to support). So what happened?

Two factors accounts for most of the difference between my estimate of the work required and the actual work required:

  • my belief that a well written grammar has no ambiguities (while zero is a common goal for many projects a handful might be acceptable if the building is on fire and I have to leave). A major advantage of automatic generation of parser tables from a grammar specification is being warned about ambiguities in the grammar (either shift/reduce or reduce/reduce conflicts). At an early stage I was pulling my hair out over having 59 conflicts and decided to relent and look at the R project source and was amazed to find their grammar has 81 ambiguities!

    I have managed to get the number of ambiguities down to the mid-30s, not good at all but it will have to do for the time being.

  • some of my preconceptions about of how R syntax worked were seriously wrong. In some cases I spotted my mistake quickly because I recognized the behavior from other languages I know, other misconceptions took a lot longer to understand and handle because I did not believe anybody would design expression evaluation to work that way.

The root cause of the difference can more concretely be traced to the approach to specifying language syntax. The R project grammar is written using the form commonly seen in functional language implementations and introductory compiler books. This form has the advantage of being very short and apparently simple; the following is a cut down example in a form of BNF used by many parser generators:

expr :   expr  op  expr  |
         IDENTIFIER      ;
 
op :  &'  |  '=='  |  '>'  |  '+'  |  '-'  |  '*'  |  '/'  | '^' ;

This specifies a sequence of IDENTIFIERs separated by binary operators and is ambiguous when the expression contains more than two operators, e.g., a + b * c can be parsed in more than one way. Parser generators such as Yacc will complain and flag any ambiguity and pick one of the possibilities as the default behavior for handling a given ambiguity; developers can specify additional grammar information in the file read by Yacc to guide its behavior when deciding how to resolve specific ambiguities. For instance, the relative precedence of operators can be specified and this information would be used by Yacc to decide that the ambiguous expression a + b * c should be parsed as-if it had been written like a + (b * c) rather than like (a + b) * c. The R project grammar is short, highly ambiguous and relies on the information contained in the explicitly specified relative operator precedence and associativity directives to resolve the ambiguities.

An alternative method of specifying the grammar is to have a separate list of grammar rules for each level of precedence (I always use this approach). In this approach there is no ambiguity, the precedence and associativity are implicitly specified by how the grammar is written. Obviously this approach creates much longer grammars, there will be at least two rules for every precedence level (19 in R, many with multiple operators). The following is a cut down example containing just multiple, divide, add and subtract:

...
multiplicative_expression:
             cast_expression                               |
             multiplicative_expression '*' cast_expression |
             multiplicative_expression '/' cast_expression ;
 
additive_expression:
             multiplicative_expression                         |
             additive_expression '+' multiplicative_expression |
             additive_expression '-' multiplicative_expression ;
...

The advantages of this approach are that, because there are no ambiguities, the developer can see exactly how the grammar behaves and if an ambiguity is accidentally introduced when editing the source it should be noticed when the parser generator reports a problem where previously there were none (rather than the new ambiguity being hidden in the barrage of existing ones that are ignored because they are so numerous).

My first big misconception about R syntax was to think that R had statements, it doesn’t. What other languages would treat as statements R always treats as expressions. The if, for and while constructs have values (e.g., 2*(if (x == y) 2 else 4)). No problem, I used Algol 68 as an undergraduate, which supports this kind of usage. I assumed that when an if appeared as an operand in an expression it would have to be bracketed using () or {} to avoid creating a substantial number of parsing ambiguities; WRONG. No brackets need be specified, the R expression if (x == y) 2 else 4+1 is ambiguous (it could be treated as-if it had been written if (x == y) 2 else (4+1) or (if (x == y) 2 else 4)+1) and the R project grammar relies on its precedence specification to resolve the conflict (in favor of the first possibility listed above).

My next big surprise came from the handling of unary operators. Most modern languages give all unary operators the same precedence, generally higher than any binary operator. Following Fortran the R unary operators have a variety of different precedence levels; however R did not adopt the restrictions Fortran places on where unary operators can occur.

I assumed that R had adopted the restrictions used by other languages containing unary operators at different precedence levels, e.g., not allowing a unary operator token to follow a binary operator token (i.e., there has to be an intervening opening parenthesis); WRONG. R allows me to write 1 == !1 < 0, while Fortran (and Ada, etc) require that a parenthesis be inserted between the operands == ! (hopefully resulting in the intent being clearer).

I had to think a bit to come up with an explicit set of grammar rules to handle R unary operator's freedom of expression (without creating any ambiguities).

Stepping back from the details. My view is that programming language syntax should be designed to reduce the number of mistakes developers make. Requiring that brackets appear in certain contexts helps prevent mistakes by the original author and subsequent readers of the code.

Claims that R (or any other language) syntax is 'natural' is clearly spurious and really no more than a statement of preference by the speaker. Our DNA has not yet been found to equip us to handle one programming language better than another.

Over the coming months I hope to have the time to analyse R source looking for faults that might not have occurred had brackets been used. Also how much code might be broken if R started to require brackets in certain contexts?

An example of the difference that brackets can make is provided by the handling of the unary ! operator in R and C/C++/Java/etc. Take the expression !x > y, which R parses as-if written !(x > y) and C/C++/Java/etc as if written (!x) > y. I would not claim that either is better than the other from the point of view of developers getting the behavior right, I know that some C programmers get it wrong and I suspect that some R programmers do too.

By increasing the precedence of unary plus/minus the R designers ensured that 8/-2/2 was parsed like (8/-2)/2 rather than 8/(-2/2).

SQL usage: schema evolution

January 30th, 2011 No comments

My first serious involvement with SQL, about 15 years ago, was writing a parser for the grammar specified in the ISO SQL-92 Standard. One of the things that surprised me about SQL was how little source code was generally available (for testing) and the almost complete lack of any published papers on SQL usage (its always better to find out about where the pot-holes are from other peoples’ experience).

The source code availability surprie is largely answered by the very close coupling between source and data that occurs with SQL; most SQL source is closely tied to a database schema and unless you have a need to process exactly the same kind of data you are unlikely to have any interest having access to the corresponding SQL source. The growth in usage of MySQL means that these days it is much easier to get hold of large amounts of SQL (large is a relative term here, I suspect that there are probably many orders of magnitude fewer lines of SQL in existence than there is of other popular languages).

In my case I was fortunate in that NIST released their SQL validation suite for beta testing just as I started to test my parser (it had taken me a month to get the grammar into a manageable shape).

Published research on SQL usage continues to be thin on the ground and I was pleased to recently discover a paper combining empirical work on SQL usage with another rarely researched topic, declaration usage e.g., variables and types or in this case schema evolution (for instance, changes in the table columns over time).

The researchers only analyzed one database, the 171 releases of the schema used by Wikipedia between April 2003 and November 2007, but they also made their scripts available for download and hopefully the results of applying them to lots of other databases will be published.

Not being an experienced database person I don’t know how representative the Wikipedia figures are; the number of tables increased from 17 to 34 (100% increase) and the number of columns from 100 to 242 (142%). A factor of two increase sounds like a lot but I suspect that all but one these columns occupy a tiny fraction of the 14GB that is the current English Wikipedia.

Brief history of syntax error recovery

April 19th, 2010 2 comments

Good recovery from syntax errors encountered during compilation is hard to achieve. The two most common strategies are to insert one or more tokens or to delete one or more tokens. Make the wrong decision and a second syntax error will occur, often leading to another and soon the developer is flooded by a nonsensical list of error messages. Compiler writers soon learn that their first priority is ensuring that syntax error recovery does not result in lots of cascading errors. In languages that use a delimiter to indicate end of statement/declaration, usually a semicolon, the error recovery strategy of deleting all tokens until this delimiter is next encountered is remarkably effective.

The era of very good syntax error recovery was the 1970s and early 1980s. Developers working on mainframes might only be able to achieve one or two compilations per day on a batch oriented mainframe and they were not happy if a misplaced comma or space resulted in a whole day being wasted. Most compilers were rented for lots of money and customer demand resulted in some very fancy error recovery strategies.

Borland’s Turbo Pascal had a very different approach to handling errors in code, it stopped processing the source as soon as one was detected. The combination of amazing compilation rates and an interactive environment (MS-DOS running on the machine in front of the developer) made this approach hugely attractive.

To a large extent syntax error recovery has been driven by the methods commonly used to write parsers. Many compilers use a table driven approach to syntax analysis with the tables being generated by parser generator tools such as Yacc. During the 1970s and 80s a lot of the research on parser generators was aimed at reducing the size of the generated tables. A table of 10k bytes was a significant percentage of available storage for machines that supported a maximum of 64k of memory. Some parser table compression techniques involve assuming the default behavior and then handling any special cases when these defaults are found not to apply, but one consequence is that context information needed for good error recovery is often not available when an error is detected. The last major release of Yacc from AT&T in the early 1990s managed another reduction in table size, just as typical storage sizes were getting into the ten of megabytes, but at the expense of increasing the difficulty of doing good error recovery.

While there are still some application areas where the amount of storage occupied by parser tables is still a big issue, e.g., the embedded market, developers of parser generators such as Bison ought to start addressing the needs of users wanting to do good error recovery and who are willing to accept larger tables.

I am pleased to see that the LLVM project is making an effort to provide good syntax error recovery. A frustrating barrier to providing better error recovery is lack of information on the kinds of syntax errors commonly made by developers; there are a few papers and reports containing small scale measurements of errors made by students. Perhaps the LLVM developers will provide a mechanism for automatically collecting compilation errors and providing users with the option to send the results to the LLVM project.

One of my favorite syntax error recovery techniques (implemented in a PL/1 mainframe compiler; I have never been able to justify implementing it on any project I worked on) is the following:

// Use of an undeclared identifier is a syntax error in C and some other
// languages, while in other languages it is a semantic error.
 
// no identifier with name result visible here
 
   {
   int result;
   ...
   result=...
   ...
   }
...
calc=result*2;  // Error reported by most compilers is use of an undeclared variable

The ‘real’ error is probably the misplaced closing bracket. Other possibilities include result being a misspelled version of another variable or the assignment to calc being in the wrong place.

There seems to be a trend over the last 20 years to create languages that require more and more semantic information during parsing. Deciphering a syntax error today can involve a lot more than figuring out which surrounding tokens have been omitted or misplaced, information on which types are in scope and visible (oh for the days when that meant the same thing) and where they might be found in the umpteen thousand lines of included source has to be distilled and presented to the developer in a helpful message.

For a long time compilers have primarily been benchmarked on the quality of their code. With every diminishing returns from improved optimization, the increasing complexity of languages and the increasing volume of header code pulled in during compilation perhaps the quality of syntax error recovery will grow in importance.

Parsing Fortran 95

December 20th, 2009 No comments

I have been looking at doing some dimensional analysis of the Climategate code and so needed a Fortran parser.

The last time I used Fortran in anger the modern compilers were claiming conformance to the 1977 standard and since then we have had Fortran 90 (with a minor revision in 95) and Fortran 03. I decided to take the opportunity to learn something about the new features by writing a Fortran parser that did not require a symbol table.

The Eli project had a Fortran 90 grammar that was close to having a form acceptable to bison and a few hours editing and debugging got me a grammar containing 6 shift/reduce conflicts and 1 reduce/reduce conflict. These conflicts looked like they could all be handled using glr parsing. The grammar contained 922 productions, somewhat large but I was only interested in actively making use of parts of it.

For my lexer I planned to cut and paste an existing C/C++/Java lexer I have used for many projects. Now this sounds like a fundamental mistake, these languages treat whitespace as being significant while Fortran does not. This important difference is illustrated by the well known situation where a Fortran lexer needs to lookahead in the character stream to decide whether the next token is the keyword do or the identifier do5i (if 1 is followed by a comma it must be a keyword):

      do 5 i = 1 , 10
      do 5 i = 1 . 10        ! assign 1.10 to do5i
5     continue

In my experience developers don’t break up literals or identifier names with whitespace and so I planned to mostly ignore the whitespace issue (it would simplify things if some adjacent keywords were merged to create a single keyword).

In Fortran the I/O is specified in the language syntax while in C like languages it is a runtime library call involving a string whose contents are interpreted at runtime. I decided to to ignore I/O statements by skipping to the end of line (Fortran is line oriented).

Then the number of keywords hit me, around 190. Even with the simplifications I had made writing a Fortran lexer looked like it would be a lot of work; some of the keywords only had this status when followed by a = and I kept uncovering new issues. Cutting and pasting somebody else’s lexer would probably also involve a lot of work.

I went back and looked at some of the Fortran front ends I had found on the Internet. The GNU Fortran front-end was a huge beast and would need serious cutting back to be of use. moware was written in Fortran and used the traditional six character abbreviated names seen in ‘old-style’ Fortran source and not a lot of commenting. The Eli project seemed a lot more interested in the formalism side of things and Fortran was just one of the languages they claimed to support.

The Open Fortran Parser looked very interesting. It was designed to be used as a parsing skeleton that could be used to produce tools that processed source and already contained hooks that output diagnostic output when each language production was reduced during a parse. Tests showed that it did a good job of parsing the source I had, although there was one vendor extension used quiet often (an not documented in their manual). The tool source, in Java, looked straightforward to follow and it was obvious where my code needed to be added. This tool was exactly what I needed :-)

GLR parsing is the future

August 27th, 2009 No comments

Traditionally parser generators have required that their input grammar be LALR(1) or some close variant (I would include LL(1) in this set). Back when 64k was an unimaginably large amount of memory being able to squeeze parser tables in a few kilobytes was very important; people received PhDs on parser table compression.

There is still a market for compact, fast parsers. Formal language grammars abound in communication protocols and vendors of communications hardware are very interested in keeping down costs by using minimizing the storage needed by their devices.

The trouble with LALR(1) is that value 1. It means that the parser only looks ahead one token in the input stream. This often means that a grammar is flagged as being ambiguous (i.e., it contains shift/reduce or reduce/reduce conflicts) when it is actually just locally ambiguous, i.e., reading tokens further head on the input stream would provide sufficient context to unambiguously specify the appropriate grammar production.

Restructuring a grammar to make it LALR(1) requires a lot of thought and skill and inexperienced users often give up. I once spent a month trying to remove the conflicts in the SQL/2 grammar specified by the SQL ISO standard; I managed to get the number down from over 1,000 to a small number that I decided I could live with.

It has taken a long time for parser generators to break out of the 64k mentality, but over the last few years it has started to happen. There have been two main approaches: 1) LR(n) provides a mechanism to look further ahead than one token, ie, n tokens, and 2) GLR parsing.

I think that GLR parsing is the future for two reasons:

  • It is supported by the most widely used parser generator, bison.
  • It enables working parsers to be created with much less thought and effort than a LALR(1) parser. (I don’t know how it compares against LR(n)).

GLR parsers resolve any language ambiguities by effectively delaying decisions until runtime in the hope that reading enough tokens will resolve local ambiguities. If an ambiguity in the token stream cannot be resolved a runtime error occurs (this is the one big downside of a GLR parser, the parser generated by a LALR(1) parser generator may produce lots of build time warnings but never produces errors when the parser is executed).

One example of a truly ambiguous construct (discussed here a while ago) is:

x * y;

which in C/C++ could be a declaration of y to be a pointer to x, or an expression that multiplies x and y.

Tools that can detect these global ambiguities in a grammar are starting to appear, e.g., DTWA is a bison extension.

I reviewed an early draft of the new O’Reilly book “flex & bison” and tried to get the author to be more upbeat on GLR support in bison; I think I got him to be a bit less cautious.

Parsing ambiguous grammars (part 1)

March 4th, 2009 No comments

Parsing a language is often much harder than people think, perhaps because they have only seen examples that use a simple language that has been designed to make explanation easy. Most languages in everyday use contain a variety of constructs that make the life of a parser writer difficult. Yes, there are parser generators, tools like bison, that automate the process of turning a grammar into a parser and a language’s grammar is often found in the back of its reference manual. However, these grammars are often written to make the life of the programmer easier, not the life of the parse writer.

People may have spotted technical term like LL(1), LR(1) and LALR(1); what they all have in common is a 1 in brackets, because they all operate by looking one token ahead in the input stream. There is a big advantage to limiting the lookahead to one token, the generated tables are much smaller (back in the days when these tools were first created 64K was considered to be an awful lot of memory and today simple programs in embedded processors, with limited memory, often use simple grammars to parse communication’s traffic). Most existing parser generators operate within this limit and rely on compiler writers to sweat over, and contort, grammars to make them fit.

A simple example is provided by PL/1 (most real life examples tend to be more complicated) which did not have keywords, or to be exact did not restrict the spelling of identifiers that could be used to denote a variable, label or procedure. This meant that in the following code:

IF x THEN y = z; ELSE = w;

when the ELSE was encountered the compiler did not know whether it was the start of the alternative arm of the previously seen if-statement or an assignment statement. The token appearing after the ELSE needed to be examined to settle the question.

In days gone-by the person responsible for parsing PL/1 would have gotten up to some jiggery-pokery, such as having the lexer spot that an ELSE had been encountered and process the next token before reporting back what it had found to the syntax analysis.

A few years ago bison was upgraded to support GLR parsing. Rather than lookahead at more tokens a GLR parser detects that there is more than one way to parse the current input and promptly starts parsing each possibility (it is usually implemented by making copies of the appropriate data structures and updating each copy according to the particular parse being followed). The hope is that eventually all but one of these multiple parsers will reach a point where they cannot successfully parse the input tokens and can be killed off, leaving the one true parse (the case where multiple parses continue to exist was discussed a while ago; actually in another context).

Using local context to disambiguate source

February 12th, 2009 No comments

Developers can often do a remarkably good job of figuring out what a snippet of code does without seeing (i.e., knowing anything about) most of the declarations of the identifiers involved. In a previous post I discussed how frequency of occurrence information could be used to help parse C without using a symbol table. Other information that could be used is the context in which particular identifiers occur. For instance, in:

f(x);
y = (f)z;

while the code f(x); is probably a function call, the use of f as the type in a cast means that f(x) is actually a definition an object x having type f.

A project investigating the analysis of partial Java programs uses this context information as its sole means of disambiguating Java source (while they do build a symbol table they do not analyze the source of any packages that might be imported). Compared to C Java parsers have it easy, but Java’s richer type system means that semantic analysis can be much more complicated.

On a set of benchmarks the researchers obtained a very reasonable 91.2% accuracy in deducing the type of identifiers.

There are other kinds of information that developers probably use to disambiguate source: the operation that the code is intended to perform and the identifier names. Figuring out the ‘high level’ operation that code performs is a very difficult problem, but the names of Java identifiers have been used to predict object lifetime and appear to be used to help deduce operator precedence. Parsing source by just looking at the identifiers (i.e., treating all punctuators and operators as whitespace) has been on my list of interesting project to do for some time, but projects that are likely to provide a more immediate interesting result keep getting in the way.

The 30% of source that is ignored

January 3rd, 2009 No comments

Approximately 30% of source code is not checked for correct syntax (developers can make up any rules they like for its internal syntax), semantic accuracy or consistency; people are content to shrug their shoulders at this this state of affairs and are generally willing to let it pass. I am of course talking about comments; the 30% figure comes from my own measurements with other published measurements falling within a similar ballpark.

Part of the problem is that comments often contain lots of natural language (i.e., human not computer language) and this is known to be very difficult to parse and is thought to be unusable without all sorts of semantic knowledge that is not currently available in machine processable form.

People are good at spotting patterns in ambiguous human communication and deducing possible meanings from it, and this has helped to keep comment usage alive, along with the fact that the information they provide is not usually available elsewhere and comments are right there in front of the person reading the code and of course management loves them as a measurable attribute that is cheap to do and not easily checkable (and what difference does it make if they don’t stay in sync with the code).

One study that did attempt to parse English sentences in comments found that 75% of sentence-style comments were in the past tense, with 55% being some kind of operational description (e.g., “This routine reads the data.”) and 44% having the style of a definition (e.g., “General matrix”).

There is a growing collection of tools for processing natural language (well at least for English). However, given the traditionally poor punctuation used in comments, the use of variable names and very domain specific terminology, full blown English parsing is likely to be very difficult. Some recent research has found that useful information can be extracted using something only a little more linguistically sophisticated than word sense disambiguation.

The designers of the iComment system sensibly limited the analysis domain (to memory/file lock related activities), simplified the parsing requirements (to looking for limited forms of requirements wording) and kept developers in the loop for some of the processing (e.g., listing lock related function names). The aim was to find inconsistencies between the requirements expressed in comments and what the code actually did. Within the Linux/Mozilla/Wine/Apache sources they found 33 faults in the code and 27 in the comments, claiming a 38.8% false positive rate.

If these impressive figures can be replicated for other kinds of coding constructs then comment contents will start to leave the dark ages.

Parsing without a symbol table

December 19th, 2008 No comments

When processing C/C++ source for the first time through a compiler or static analysis tool there are invariably errors caused by missing header files (often because the search path has not been set) or incorrectly defined, or not defined, macro names. One solution to this configuration problem is to be able to process source without handling preprocessing directives (e.g., skipping them, such as not reading the contents of header files or working out which arm of a conditional directive is applicable). Developers can do it, why not machines?

A few years ago GLR support was added to Bison, enabling it to process ambiguous grammars, and I decided to create a C parser that simply skipped all preprocessing directives. I knew that at least one reasonably common usage would generate a syntax error:

func_call(a,
#if SOME_FLAG
b_1);
#else
b_2);
#endif

c);
and wanted to minimize its consequences (i.e., cascading syntax errors to the end of the file). The solution chosen was to parse the source a single statement or declaration at a time, so any syntax error would be localized to a single statement or declaration.

Systems for parsing ambiguous grammars work on the basis that while the input may be locally ambiguous, once enough tokens have been seen the number of possible parses will be reduced to one. In C (and even more so in C++) there are some situations where it is impossible to resolve which of several possible parses apply without declaration information on one or more of the identifiers involved (a traditional parser would maintain a symbol table where this information could be obtained when needed). For instance, x * y; could be a declaration of the identifier y to have type x or an expression statement that multiplies x and y. My parser did not have a symbol table and even if it did the lack of header file processing meant that its contents would only contain a partial set of the declared identifiers. The ambiguity resolution strategy I adopted was to pick the most likely case, which in the example is the declaration parse.

Other constructs where the common case (chosen by me and I have yet to get around to actually verifying via measurement) was used to resolve an ambiguity deadlock included:

f(p);      // Very common, 
            // confidently picked function call as the common case
(m)*p;   // Not rare,
            // confidently picked multiplication as the common case
(s) - t;      // Quiet rare,
               // picked binary operator as the common case
(r) + (s) - t; // Very rare,
                  //an iteration on the case above

At the moment I am using the parser to measure language usage, so less than 100% correctness can be tolerated. Some of the constructs that cause a syntax error to be generated every few hundred statement/declarations include:

offsetof(struct tag, field_name)  // Declarators cannot be 
                                            //function arguments
int f(p, q)
int p;     // Tries to reduce this as a declaration without handling
char q;   // it as part of an old style function definition
{
 
MACRO(+); // Preprocessing expands to something meaningful

Some of these can be handled by extensions to the grammar, while others could be handled by an error recovery mechanism that recognized likely macro usage and inserted something appropriate (e.g., a dummy expression in the MACRO(x) case).