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Posts Tagged ‘syntax error’

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.

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.