Pull-based Lexing

In this case study, we show how to implement a pull-based lexer in terms of effect handlers.

Before we get started, we require a few imports to deal with strings and regular expressions.

module examples/casestudies/lexer

import text/string
import text/regex
import immutable/option
import immutable/list
import mutable/array

Tokens and Positions

First we define the datatypes to represent lexemes (tokens) and positions in the input stream:

record Position(line: Int, col: Int, index: Int)

type TokenKind { Number(); Ident(); Punct(); Space() }

record Token(kind: TokenKind, text: String, position: Position)

Tokens simply are tagged with a token type (distinguishing numbers, identifiers, and punctuation), the original text of the token and its position.

The Lexer Effect

Next, we define the interface to the lexer as an effect signature.

effect Lexer {
  def peek(): Option[Token]
  def next(): Token

it consists of two effect operations, one to inspect the next token without consuming it (peek) and one operation to advance in the stream of tokens. This describes the interface of a pull-based lexer as a stream of tokens. Lexemes are only processed on demand. An example program using the lexer effect is:

def example1() = {
  val t1 = next();
  val t2 = next();
  val t3 = next();
  (t1, t2, t3)

Handling the Lexer Effect with a given List

A dummy lexer reading lexemes from a given list can be implemented as a handler for the Lexer effect. The definition uses the effect LexerError to signal the end of the input stream:

effect LexerError[A](msg: String, pos: Position): A
val dummyPosition = Position(0, 0, 0)

def lexerFromList[R](l: List[Token]) { program: R / Lexer }: R / LexerError = {
  var in = l;
  try { program() } with Lexer {
    def peek() = in match {
      case Nil() => resume(None())
      case Cons(tok, _) => resume(Some(tok))
    def next() = in match {
      case Nil() => LexerError("Unexpected end of input", dummyPosition)
      case Cons(tok, _) => resume(tok)

We define a separate handler to report lexer errors to the console:

def report { prog: Unit / LexerError }: Unit / Console =
  try { prog() } with LexerError { (msg, pos) =>
    println(pos.line.show ++ ":" ++ pos.col.show ++ " " ++ msg)

Given a list of example tokens

val exampleTokens = [
  Token(Ident(), "foo", dummyPosition),
  Token(Punct(), "(", dummyPosition),
  Token(Punct(), ")", dummyPosition)

we can compose the two handlers to run our example consumer:

def runExample1() =
  report {
    exampleTokens.lexerFromList {

Handling the Lexer Effect by Processing a String

Of course, we can also implement a handler for our Lexer effect that actually processes an input and computes the tokens contained therein.

This time, we use a number of different regular expressions to recognize lexemes. First, we define the different token types as a list of pairs of regular expressions and token types.

record TokenRx(kind: TokenKind, rx: Regex)

val tokenDesriptors = [
  TokenRx(Number(), "^[0-9]+".regex),
  TokenRx(Ident(),  "^[a-zA-Z]+".regex),
  TokenRx(Punct(),  "^[=,.()\\[\\]{}:]".regex),
  TokenRx(Space(),  "^[ \t\n]+".regex)
def lexer[R](in: String) { prog: R / Lexer } : R / LexerError = {

Additionally, we keep track of the current position in the input stream, by maintaining three mutable variables for the zero based index, and one-based column and line position.

  var index = 0;
  var col = 1;
  var line = 1;

A few local helper functions ease the handling of the input stream. At the same time, we need to keep track of the line information.

  def position() = Position(line, col, index)
  def input() = in.substring(index)
  def consume(text: String): Unit = {
    val lines = text.split("\n")
    val len = lines.unsafeGet(lines.size - 1).length
    // compute new positions
    index = index + text.length
    line = line + lines.size - 1
    if (lines.size == 1) { col = col + text.length } else { col = len }
  def eos(): Boolean = index >= in.length

The function tryMatch applies a given token description to the current position of the input stream, without advancing it. Its companion tryMatchAll returns the first token matched by any of the matches in the given description list.

  def tryMatch(desc: TokenRx): Option[Token] =
      desc.rx.exec(input()).map { m => Token(desc.kind, m.matched, position()) }

  def tryMatchAll(descs: List[TokenRx]): Option[Token] = descs match {
    case Nil() => None()
    case Cons(desc, descs) => tryMatch(desc).orElse { tryMatchAll(descs) }

Now defining the lexer is trivial. We just need to use tryMatchAll and either consume the input, or not.

  try { prog() } with Lexer {
    def peek() = resume(tryMatchAll(tokenDesriptors))
    def next() =
      if (eos())
        do LexerError("Unexpected EOS", position())
      else {
        val tok = tryMatchAll(tokenDesriptors).getOrElse {
          do LexerError("Cannot tokenize input", position())

Running our above consumer with the string "foo()"

def runExample2() =
  report {
    lexer("foo()") {

yields the output:

//> (Token(Ident(), foo, Position(1, 1, 0)), Token(Punct(), (, Position(1, 4, 3)), Token(Punct(), ), Position(1, 5, 4)))

Whitespace Skipping

Interestingly, a whitespace skipping lexer can be implemented as a effect transformer. That is, a handler that (partially) re-raises effect operations.

def skipSpaces(): Unit / Lexer = peek() match {
  case None() => ()
  case Some(t) => if (t.kind == Space()) { next(); skipSpaces() } else ()

def skipWhitespace[R] { prog: R / Lexer }: R / Lexer =
  try { prog() } with Lexer {
    def peek() = { skipSpaces(); resume(peek()) }
    def next() = { skipSpaces(); resume(next()) }

The handler skipWhitespace simply skips all spaces by using the Lexer effect itself.

def runExample3() =
  report {
    lexer("foo (   \n  )") {
      skipWhitespace {

Running the Examples

To run this markdown file, simply supply its name as argument to the effekt binary.

def main() = {