Parsing in JavaCC

8 September 2014 Author: Erik Lievaart In the previous installment, I explained how to chunk a stream of characters into Tokens in JavaCC. In this article I will discuss validating the stream of Tokens created by the lexer. The parser has a fundamentally different role than the lexer. The lexer attempts to convert a stream of characters into a stream of words (Token Objects). The parser is no longer concerned with syntax, but with structure. The parser verifies that Tokens that are valid in a language, occur in an order that is meaningful.
Also, I want to discuss the relationship the lexer and the parser have. When I started writing code in JavaCC, I wrote multiple conflicting Token definitions. I expected the Token to be selected from the possibilities based on what Token the parser is expecting. This is not how it works. The lexer doesn't select its TOKENS depending on the current parser rule, because it doen't even know the parser exists. In practice the lexer may have a reference to the parser, but theoretically it doesn't. The lexer makes its decisions based on the characters it encounters, nothing else. Understanding that the lexer is a standalone entity might help you avoid some common mistakes.
I will discuss writing code in parser rules, but not generating code as a result of the parsing process. My main focus is on understanding JavaCC. Typically with JavaCC we create an AST. AST's are node structures used to store Tokens. It is a convenient format often used in compiler design. Generating your output format is highly application specific and out of the scope of this article. Examples of output include but are not limited to: assembly, bytecode and other programming languages. I will not discuss JJTree in this article, I plan to write a follow up article for using JJTree. In the rest of this article we will take a look at how we create parsers in JavaCC.

JavaCC Expansion Choices

Let's have a look at how we define parser rules in JavaCC. I wil start with simple parser rules and make them progressively more complex.
The simplest parser rule I can think of verifies the presence of a single Token:
void empty(): {} { <EOF> }
I will discuss the rest of the syntactic sugar later. Right now, I am only interested in the expansion choices, which is the part between the last two braces:
{ <EOF> }
If the only Token in the InputStream is the end of file Token, the parser rule passes. For any other Token a ParseException is thrown. It is possible to specify an inline throwaway Token:
void throwaway(): {} { "^" }
This rule will pass if the next character in the input is a "^" and none of the other Tokens defined matches. I will not pay much attention to such inline Tokens, because I believe it is good style to define them separately. There is one remark I do want to make. In the previous chapter I explained that the lexer will give higher priority to TOKENS defined first. Be aware that in extension inline TOKENS are of a lower priority than other TOKENS.

Before we look at more complex examples, some Token definitions:
SKIP : { " " | "\t" | "\r" | "\n" }

TOKEN : { <STRING: "\"" (~["\"", "\\"] | "\\\"" | "\\\\")* "\"" > }
TOKEN : { <VARIABLE: (["a"-"z", "A" - "Z"])+> }
TOKEN : { <OUTPUT: ">"> }
You should be able to understand all of these after reading the previous installment of this tutorial. Otherwise, you can find it here: Lexical Analysis in JavaCC Using these TOKENS I will create a simple language that can only assign STRINGS to VARIABLES and OUTPUT them. We can refer to the defined TOKENS by using their name in angular brackets:
void string() : {} { <STRING> }
When you specify multiple TOKENS in a row, the parser requires them in sequential order. For example:
void assignment() : {} { <VARIABLE> <ASSIGNMENT> <STRING> }
This parser rule will require a VARIABLE TOKEN, and an ASSIGNMENT TOKEN followed by a STRING TOKEN. Just like in lexical rules, you can use the bar '|' character to define multiple possible matches. This is called a choice point:
void assignmentOr() : {} { <VARIABLE> <ASSIGNMENT> (<STRING> | <VARIABLE>)  }
Use parentheses to group expressions as illustrated. This example will match VARIABLE ASSIGNMENT STRING or VARIABLE ASSIGNMENT VARIABLE. Say we want to create a new non-terminal for the last part:
We simply create a new rule containing this part of the expression:
void assignable() : {} { <STRING> | <VARIABLE>  }
Next we replace the last part in the original expression with a reference to the non-terminal:
void assignmentOrReference() : {} { <VARIABLE> <ASSIGNMENT> assignable()  }
We can specify multiplicity with the characters '?', '*', '+' in the same way as we we did in the lexer. The curly braces for n to m multiplicity '{n,m}' are not allowed. The following example specifies that a File should contain a series of statements.
void parseFile() : {} { (statement())* <EOF> }
Everything in the file must be a statement, right up until the end of the file. In the method we invoke on the parser it is useful to add the EOF TOKEN at the end of the rule. If we leave off the EOF TOKEN, then the parser might stop before the entire file is parsed.
Specifically, if the beginning of a statement does not match the rule of a statement, then parseFile would still complete. The following example would parse just fine:
The following example would throw an exception like we expect it to:
The parser enters the "statement" rule, but can't complete it because '^' doesn't match the last part of the rule. The following example would silently complete, even though it should fail:
a=b is a valid match for (statement())* so without EOF at the end parseFile() will complete without error. If there are errors in the file, they will simply not be found. Adding EOF to the end of the rule forces the parser to keep parsing until the entire document is parsed.

For completeness, here is the rest of the rules used for our imaginary language. A statement is either an assignment or an output expression:
void statement() : {} { (assignmentOr() | output()) }
And output is the OUTPUT Token followed by either a literal STRING or a VARIABLE:
void output() : {} { <OUTPUT> (<STRING> | <VARIABLE>) }

Nullable Choice Points

Let's look at somewhat more adanced problems in validation. Then I will move on to adding code to the parser, just like we did with the lexer.
There is one problem to be aware of when specifying multiplicity. At any choice point, the parser chooses the first path that has a valid match. If the parser is trying a path and that path is valid for the empty set, then it is always chosen. Trailing options will never be invoked. For example, if the output rule were specified as follows:
void output() : {} { <OUTPUT> ((<STRING>)* | <VARIABLE>) }
Then the following input would fail:
> variable
We want the input above to match <OUTPUT> <VARIABLE>, but that's not what happens. '>' would match OUTPUT and then the (<STRING>)* part would match zero tokens. Next the output non terminal returns and the variable will be used as the start of the next statement. If such a problem is found, JavaCC will issue the following warning:
This choice can expand to the empty token sequence
and will therefore always be taken in favor of the choices appearing later.
So always make sure that a nullable terminal is the last in a choice point. Alternatively, make sure it is not nullable and make the whole choice point optional like so:
void output() : {} { <OUTPUT> ((<STRING>)+ | <VARIABLE>)? }


By default JavaCC creates LL(1) parsers. In other words, when JavaCC decides which path to take at a decision point, it uses a single TOKEN to make the decision. Remember the assignmentOr non-terminal?
void assignmentOr() : {} { <VARIABLE> <ASSIGNMENT> (<STRING> | <VARIABLE>)  }
If this non-terminal were rewritten like so:
The grammar would still be correct, but it would not work in JavaCC. It would never choose the second path, because it only looks at the first Token. JavaCC will issue the following warning:
Warning: Choice conflict involving two expansions at
         line .., column .. and line .., column .. respectively.
         A common prefix is: <VARIABLE> "="
         Consider using a lookahead of 3 or more for earlier expansion.
The amount of Tokens JavaCC reads before making a decision is called the lookahead. So the parser warns you that it needs to lookahead 3 tokens to make an appropriate decision. You can specify a global lookahead with the LOOKAHEAD option. I wouldn't recommend solving the problem this way. There is a considerable performance overhead in doing so. If it is at all possible to factor out the problem and return to our original example:
void assignmentOr() : {} { <VARIABLE> <ASSIGNMENT> (<STRING> | <VARIABLE>)  }
Then that would be your best bet. There are problems where refactoring the grammar makes it complex to read. If there is code mixed in, then a different snippet of code might have to be executed. In either case, we have the option of specifying the lookahead at specific choice points. There are various ways to do this:
  1. Local LOOKAHEAD: we can specify the amount of tokens to look at at a choice point.
  2. Syntactic LOOKAHEAD: specify a set of tokens and or parser rules to check before making the decision.
  3. Semantic LOOKAHEAD: write Java code that evaluates to a boolean expression to make the decision.
  4. A combination of 2 or all of the above.
Don't worry if you didn't get that right away. I only wanted to illustrate the problem. There is a really good article on the topic in the official JavaCC documentation. It is accessible to read and should answer all of your questions:

Adding custom code to the parser

We can add our own custom Java code to the parser. This works similarly to how we added code to the TokenManager. We add the code in the beginning of the grammar file between the PARSER_BEGIN and PARSER_END blocks. For example, to add an attribute and a public getter to the grammar file:
package demo;

public class DemoParser {
	private Object attribute = new Object();

	public Object getAttribute(){
		return attribute;
The public getAttribute method above can be called from the class creating and invoking the parser. We can interact with the variables and methods we add from every rule in the parser. For example, if we're creating a syntax tree manually, we can store it as an attribute and retrieve it with the getter. JavaCC ships with a tool called JJTree, which can create the AST for us. For now I will work without JJTree, in order to gain a better understanding of how everything works. Let's examine the syntax of a parser rule in JavaCC:
It is important to understand that a rule in the grammar maps 1 to 1 to a method on the created parser. The method created with get the ACCESS_MODIFIER, RETURN_TYPE and NAME specified in the grammar. The method will take the specified ARGUMENTS and start with the code in JAVA_BLOCK. Finally, the EXPANSION_CHOICES will be converted to Java code and added to the body of the method. A simple example:
public void example(StringBuilder builder):
{ builder.append("Java Block"); }
{ <STRING> }
Would generate the following method in the parser:
final public void example(StringBuilder builder) throws ParseException {
  builder.append("Java Block");
By the way, the ACCESS_MODIFIER is public by default when not specified. We can add code in the EXPANSION_CHOICES block as well, as long as we place it in curly braces '{', '}':
void example(StringBuilder builder):
{ builder.append("Java Block"); }
	{ builder.append("Before String"); }
	{ builder.append("After String"); }
The rule above would generate the following code:
final public void example(StringBuilder builder) throws ParseException {
        builder.append("Java Block");
        builder.append("Before String");
        builder.append("After String");
Typically the JAVA_BLOCK section is used to initialize a Token variable. We can assign the Token variable using the following syntax:
Here is an example of a rule that initializes a Token variable assigns it to the Token parsed and then prints it:
void printToken():
{ Token token; }
{ token=<STRING> { System.out.println(token); } }
Once again the generated code:
final public void printToken() throws ParseException {
    Token token;
    token = jj_consume_token(STRING);
We have already seen how we can refer to other parser rules from within a parser rule. If we put it in the method signature of the referred rule, it is possible to pass arguments to the rule we refer to. Here is an example of a rule that takes an argument:
void takesArgument(Token token):
{ {System.out.println(token); } }
Here is an example that uses the rule above:
void passesArgument():
{ Token token; }
{ token=<STRING> takesArgument(token) }
By now, it should be pretty clear that the grammar is converted to java methods. It is possible to catch Exceptions that occur while parsing. The javacc grammar file allows us to insert try catch constructs. We don't need to add an extra pair of braces to go into java mode for this. It looks like this:
void exceptionHandling():
	try {
	} catch (ParseException pe) {
This is useful when we want to keep parsing even when an Exception occurs. Normally JavaCC stops when it encounters its first Exception. Often it helps us when we can see multiple problems in the input at once. Catching the Exception, moving on to the next semicolon, newline or curly brace will help us achieve that. There is a section of error recovery in the official documentation which covers this and other problems: Previous: Lexical Analysis Main Page