Flows of energy

by Marijn Haverbeke (license)

Parsing line noise as JavaScript

Monday, January 21, 2013 javascript parsing tern

I am writing a tool that tries to enhance a JavaScript code editor by doing some halfway serious static analysis on code, as it is being written. To analyze code, you'll want to parse it, because—believe me—running casual regexps over programs in order to determine their structure is not a healthy direction to go in. But unfortunately, code that's in the process of being written will, most of the time, not be in a syntactically valid form.

Thus, the kind of software that usually passes for a parser is not much help. A typical parser understands it as its responsibility to diligently check its input for validity, and complain, rather than return a useful result, when a problem is found.

That's not what we want. We need access to an abstract syntax tree, not an error message.

One solution that comes to mind is a technique often used by some compilers: when they come across a syntax error, they'll report it, skip forward to a heuristically determined 'safe point' (often the start of the next statement, function, or block) and continue parsing.

However, skipping forward will drop the current context on the floor. And since the invalid part of the code is very likely to be the part that the cursor is currently at, the constructs used near this position are of great interest. Throwing them out more or less defeats our purpose.

The red marker and eraser approach

At first, I believed I could cleverly reuse my existing parser by using the following approach:

That didn't work out. To make any kind of informed judgement on where to move braces or how big a range to blank out, you need a lot of context information. Thus, my 'light-weight error fixer' was quickly growing into a heavy-weight monster, and still pretty ineffective at, you know, actually getting a file to parse.

In retrospect, I'm not sure why I ever thought this was a good idea. I'm just documenting it here to dissuade other people from going down a similar route.

A full, but very open-minded parser

What worked a lot better, and was actually not that much work in my case (where the target language is JavaScript, which isn't a very complicated language), was to just write a new parser.

I reused the tokenizer from Acorn, my JavaScript parser. I also reused the general structure of the parser, by working from a copy and then editing that, which saved a lot of work, and, by allowing me to work from a well-tested algorithm, helped avoid a lot of mistakes.

The new parser is guided by two principles:

Some of the changes made to the parser were mechanical—simply kill all code that verifies non-essential properties of the code, for example whether a labeled break corresponds to a known label. Others added local heuristics, for example when no while keyword is found after a do body, simply invent a bogus expression to take the role of the condition.

The original parser uses an operator called expect to enforce that it wants to see a certain kind of token, and raise an error otherwise. The loose parser uses a similar operator, which, if the token isn't there, looks at the next two tokens, and skips forward if one of them matches. If none match, it'll just return, not consuming any token—and the parse continues as if the token was there.

Using such a careless style of parsing gets you surprisingly far. But it still leaves open the problem of a missing or superfluous brace leading to a wildly incorrect interpretation of everything after it. To get around that, the loose parser relies heavily on indentation to guide the way it parses blocks. Basically, when a new statement (or new object property, or new array element) is indented less than the first one in the block, it assumes that the block (or object literal, or array) ends there.

That works very well for properly indented code. But it will go wrong when indentation is sloppy, or people do cute things like not indenting their debug statements. This is why the loose parser should be used as a backup for when the regular parser fails, in order to get at least some kind of syntax tree, but never as a primary parser.

Finally, a subtle problem of this parsing strategy—when in doubt, don't advance the token stream—is that is very easy to get into infinite loops. For example, say you're trying to parse an argument list, and there's a bunch of nonsense in the middle such as foo(a, ], c). The argument list parser obviously has a loop in it, calling parseExpression for each argument. When it runs into the ], parseExpression returns a dummy node, because it couldn't find any expression there. The argument list parser then optionally skips a comma (it parses foo(a c) as foo(a, c)—tolerant as it is), and continues. If that was all there was to it, the above expression would land us in an infinite loop.

To work around that, a few select parts of the parser have special cased code to ensure that the token stream does, somehow, advance on every iteration of their loops. For the argument list parser, it will check that the expression it parsed isn't a dummy placeholder, and if it is, discard a token and ignore the dummy expression. This, combined with the fact that it'll bail out when it finds a token indented less than or equal to the line that started the list, makes it return more or less sane results for most inputs.

Get the code

This new parser is a submodule of my Acorn parser, and lives in the acorn_loose.js file. If you've come up with a use for such a parser, or just want to see if you can break it, check out the git repository, and have fun. It runs both in Node and in the browser. It's not terribly mature or stable, but it does what it claims to do.