The Simplest Parser

We're going to start by building the most simplest parser library we can: a parser that parses a single fixed string.

We're going to create a type Parser[A], where the type parameter A is the type of the result produced by a successful parse. So, for example, a Parser[String] will produce a String on a successful parse, and a successful parse by a Parser[Album] will produce an Album.

To actually perform the parsing we'll have a method

Parser[A].parse(input: String): Result[A]

In words, a Parser[A] has a method parse that accepts a String and returns a Result[A].

What's a Result[A]? On a successful parse it will contain a value of type A and any remaining unparsed input. Otherwise we'll have an error. We'll get into the details later.

We'll need a way to create Parsers. Our very simple constructor will take a String as input and return a Parser[String] that succeeds if the input starts with exactly that string.

Let's sketch out in Scala what we have so far. We're using a trait to represent Parser for now, but we'll change that as the design evolves.

trait Parser[A] {
  def parse(input: String): Result[A]
object Parser {
  def string(value: String): Parser[String]

When we've finished the implementation we'll be able to create a parser like so:

Parser.string("Ziggy Stardust")

This will successful parse a String that starts with "Ziggy Stardust" but fail if the String starts with anything else.

The Result Type

Now we can flesh out the implementation. We'll start with Result. We previously described it as:

This immediately suggests an algebraic data type like

sealed trait Result[A]
final case class Success[A](result: A, remaining: String) extends Result[A]
final case class Failure[A](reason: String, input: String) extends Result[A]

However, for efficiency concerns we'll use a slightly different representation. If our input is "hello there" and we parse "hello", the remaining input is " there". To create this String we have to copy all the characters from the original input, which takes time proportional to the number of characters remaining. When parsing large input this copying can take a significant amount of time. Instead of copying input we can just record the index of character at which parsing should resume. Character indices start at 0, so in this case parsing should resume at character 5. Now we don't have to do a lot of copying; we can instead just pass around an Int.

This gives us the following representation:

/** Indicates the result of a parse. */
sealed trait Result[A]
/** The parse succeeded. 

    - result is the parsed value
    - input is the input that was parsed
    - offset is the index of where any remaining input starts.  */
final case class Success[A](result: A, input: String, offset: Int) extends Result[A]
/** The parse failed.

    - reason is a description of why the parser failed
    - input is the input that the parser attempted to parse
    - start is the index into input of where the parser started from */
final case class Failure[A](reason: String, input: String, start: Int) extends Result[A]

Implementing the Parser

Now we have created Result we can finish the implementation of Parser. Read the code below and I'll then explain the implementation.

sealed trait Parser[A] {
  import Parser._

  def parse(input: String): Result[A] = {
    def loop[A](parser: Parser[A], index: Int): Result[A] =
      parser match {
        case ParserString(value) =>
          if (input.startsWith(value, index))
            Success(value, input, index + value.size)
              s"input did not start with $value at index $index",
    loop(this, 0)
object Parser {
  final case class ParserString(value: String) extends Parser[String]

  def string(value: String): Parser[String] = ParserString(value)

Before we get into the implementation let's check that it actually works. Here's an example of succesful and unsuccessful parsing.

Parser.string("Hello").parse("Hello there")
// res2: Result[String] = Success(
//   result = "Hello",
//   input = "Hello there",
//   offset = 5
// )
Parser.string("Goodbye").parse("Hello there")
// res3: Result[String] = Failure(
//   reason = "input did not start with Goodbye at index 0",
//   input = "Hello there",
//   start = 0
// )

Now we're satisfied that it works, let's talk about how it works. We can see that Parser is an algebraic data type, with ParserString as it's single case. parse is a structural recursion on Parser. As we're dealing with indices we need to know at what index we should start looking at the input. That is why we have the loop helper inside parser, which implements the actual structural recursion. In the case of ParserString we simply see if the input starts with the String we're looking for. If so, we succeed. Otherwise we fail.

I've described how it works, but why did I decide to implement the code in this way? There is a pattern behind this code, which we'll look at now.

Reified Interpreters

The Parser is an example of a reified interpreter. Let's talk about interpreters first, and then talk about reification.

An interepreter means that there are two parts to our implementation:

  1. the part that describes what we want to do, which we call the program; and
  2. the part that carries out the description, which is the interpreter.

In this case ParserString is the program. It represents the action we want to carry (look for a particular String in the input) and the String we should be looking for. The interpreter is in the parse method, where we actually go looking for the String in the input.

We've seen this pattern in other context, so it should be familiar.

There are a number of different ways to implement an interpreter. The one I've chosen is known as a deep embedding or reification. Reification means to make concrete something that was abstract. Concretely, in this case we're turning a method (Parser.string) into data (ParserString).

The general reification pattern works as follows:

  1. We divide methods into three classes: constructors, combinators, and interpreters.
  2. We reify constructors and combinators into an algebraic data type.
  3. We implement interpreters as structural recursions over the algebraic data type we just created.

Constructors, combinators, and interpreters are the three classes of methods that make up what we call an algebra. In this case Parser is our algebra. We distinguish the three classes of methods as follows:

(Note that sometimes we have interpreter methods that take in and return the algebra type. We'll see one later.)

With this classification we can see that:

  1. Parser.string is a constructor, because it goes from a String to a Parser[String].
  2. There are no combinators, yet.
  3. Parser.parse is an interpreter, because it goes from a Parser[A] to a Result[A].

Let's now talk about the specifics of reification. Remember that we reify every constructor and combinator. To do so we create a final case class for each method that we're reifying, and:

  1. The constructor parameters of the final case class are exactly the parameters of the corresponding method. Remember to include the this parameter for methods on a trait or class.
  2. The final case class extends exactly the return type of the method.

In the case of Parser.string there is one parameter and method returns a Parser[String]. Hence ParserString has a single constructor parameter of type String and it extends Parser[String].

Once we have reified to an algebraic data type the interpreter uses the familiar pattern of structural recursion. As is usual in functional programming we have a fancy term for what is ultimately a simple idea.

Testing Parsers→