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RExpressions - Recursive ASTs!

In this example, we'll explore more on how to create heierarchical ASTs. We will parse a minimalistic JSON-like language and compile the results into our data structures in the form of a tree.

rexpr is a parser for RExpressions, a language resembling a minimal subset of json, limited to a dictionary (composed of key=value pairs) where the value can itself be a string or a recursive dictionary.

Here's an Example:

    "color" = "blue"
    "size" = "29 cm."
    "position" = {
        "x" = "123"
        "y" = "456"

This simple parser for X3 is intended as a minimal starting point. It is minimal, yet complete with all things necessary parts that make up rules (and grammars), except error handling and reporting.

The example can be found here: rexpr.cpp

The same parser, but complete with error handling and reporting, better file organization, separate compilation of grammars, and a full test harness, can be found in this directory:


[Note] Note

rexpr_full is the canonical structure proposed as best practice on how parsers are written using Spirit X3.


Here's the AST:

namespace client { namespace ast
    namespace x3 = boost::spirit::x3;

    struct rexpr;

    struct rexpr_value : x3::variant<
          , x3::forward_ast<rexpr>
        using base_type::base_type;
        using base_type::operator=;

    typedef std::map<std::string, rexpr_value> rexpr_map;
    typedef std::pair<std::string, rexpr_value> rexpr_key_value;

    struct rexpr
        rexpr_map entries;

x3::variant is a support utility in Spirit X3 that extends Boost.Variant. Typically, you use Boost.Variant right out of the box and refer to a particular template instantiation using a typedef. For example:

typedef boost::variant<std::string, int> my_variant;

Instead of doing that, we create a class (or struct in the case) that subclasses from x3::variant. By making the variant a subclass, you have a distinct type in your namespace. You also have control of the constructors and assignment operators, as well as giving you the freedom to add more functionality.

rexpr_value has two variant elements. It can either be a std::string or a rexpr. Since rexpr recursively contains a rexpr_value, it has to be forward declared. This recursive data structure requires rexpr to be wrapped in a x3::forward_ast as shown in the declaration.

We need to tell fusion about our rexpr struct to make it a first-class fusion citizen:


So essentially, a rexpr_value value is either a std::string or a std::map<std::string, rexpr_value>.

Walking the AST

We add a utility to print out the AST:

int const tabsize = 4;

struct rexpr_printer
    typedef void result_type;

    rexpr_printer(int indent = 0)
      : indent(indent) {}

    void operator()(rexpr const& ast) const
        std::cout << '{' << std::endl;
        for (auto const& entry : ast.entries)
            std::cout << '"' << entry.first << "\" = ";
            boost::apply_visitor(rexpr_printer(indent+tabsize), entry.second);
        std::cout << '}' << std::endl;

    void operator()(std::string const& text) const
        std::cout << '"' << text << '"' << std::endl;

    void tab(int spaces) const
        for (int i = 0; i < spaces; ++i)
            std::cout << ' ';

    int indent;

Traversing the AST is a recursive exercise. rexpr_printer is a function object and the main entry point is void operator()(rexpr const& ast). Notice how it recursively calls an instance of itself for each of the key value pairs, using boost::apply_visitor. Before and after iterating through all the elements in the map, the braces are printed to surround the entire body, taking care of correct indentation at each point in the recursive traversal.

The operator() for std::string should be self explanatory. It simply prints the text inside double quotes.

The Grammar
namespace client { namespace parser
    namespace x3 = boost::spirit::x3;
    namespace ascii = boost::spirit::x3::ascii;

    using x3::lit;
    using x3::lexeme;

    using ascii::char_;
    using ascii::string;

    x3::rule<class rexpr_value, ast::rexpr_value>
        rexpr_value = "rexpr_value";

    x3::rule<class rexpr, ast::rexpr>
        rexpr = "rexpr";

    x3::rule<class rexpr_key_value, ast::rexpr_key_value>
        rexpr_key_value = "rexpr_key_value";

    auto const quoted_string =
        lexeme['"' >> *(char_ - '"') >> '"'];

    auto const rexpr_value_def =
        quoted_string | rexpr;

    auto const rexpr_key_value_def =
        quoted_string >> '=' >> rexpr_value;

    auto const rexpr_def =
        '{' >> *rexpr_key_value >> '}';

    BOOST_SPIRIT_DEFINE(rexpr_value, rexpr, rexpr_key_value);

We declare three rules rexpr_value, rexpr and rexpr_key_value. Same deal as before. The attributes declared for each rule are the same structures we declared in our AST above. These are the structures our rules will produce.

So, going top-down (from the start rule), rexpr is defined as zero or more rexpr_key_values enclosed inside the curly braces. That's the kleene star in action there: *rexpr_key_value.

[Note] Note

Take note of the convention: we use rexpr name as the rule name and rexpr_def as the rule definition name.

To make the grammar clean, we capture the quoted_string production using C++ auto.

rexpr_value is a quoted_string followed by the assignment operator '=', followed by a rexpr_value. rexpr_value is a quoted_string OR a rexpr. This uses the alternative operator |, and maps nicely to the variant AST the rule is associated with.

Finally, we associate the rules and their definitions:

BOOST_SPIRIT_DEFINE(rexpr_value, rexpr, rexpr_key_value);