Introducing pest into glsl and hindsight about nom vs. pest (part 2)

Introducing pest into glsl and hindsight about nom vs. pest (part 2)

nom, past, parsing, glsl

2018-11-17 20:40:00 UTC, by Dimitri Sabadie

This is the second article about my experience at supporting pest in my glsl crate – without, for now, removing the nom parser.

You can read the first article here.

RY: DRY without D

I feel like I’m either doing something wrong… or that something is wrong with using pest to build typed ASTs. I spent a whole day writing the GLSL450 PEG. After having the compiler stop failing with left-recursion errors, I was finally able to test my crate!… or was I?

First thing first, I decided to write tests to see whether I can recognize identifiers. I’m a TDD enthusiast – don’t get the idea twisted: writing tests is boring; but writing tests will save your life and prevent small and cute kittens joining a project from drowning (true story).

I have a PEG rule for that, identifier. So the idea is the following:

// we set the error type to String for that first version
fn parse_identifier<'a, S>(input: S) -> Result<syntax::Identifier, String>
where S: Into<&'a str> {
  // here we get a set of pairs that match the identifier
  let pairs = Parser::parse(Rule::identifier, input.into()).map_err(|e| format!("{}", e))?;

  // since only a full string identifier would match, we can just simply ask to retrieve the string
  // that composes the pair

As you can see, we have lost the grammar information that states that the identifier rule outputs a single string – see in the code above how we get a Pairs object, assigned to pairs. This is my first concern: the Rule type should contain information about what kind of values it was matched against.

A more drastic example is the primary_expression rule, that defines expressions that can be either an identifier, a float_constant, int_constant, bool_constant or any general expression with parenthesis around. Its parser code would look like this:

fn parse_primary_expression<'a, S>(input: S) -> Result<syntax::Expr, String>
where S: Into<&'a str> {
  let pairs = Parser::parse(Rule::primary_expression, input.into()).map_err(|e| format!("{}", e))?;

  // we know we only have one expression, so this statement seems a bit out of nowhere here
  let pair =;

  // now, we know the primary expression is correctly tokenized, so we’re interested in “what’s
  // inside”; here, we HAVE to look at the grammar again to check what are the possible variants;
  // only one possible, let’s take the next pair then as well…
  let inner = pair.into_inner().next().unwrap();

  // here the pair represents the “real” and “useful” sub-rule that was matched; in order to write
  // that match block, we also have to look at the grammar to see all the possible variants
  match inner.as_rule() {
    Rule::identifier => {
      // the pair represents an identifier… we can just turn it to string and return it
      Ok(syntax::Expr::Variable(inner.as_str().to_owned())) // (1.)

    Rule::float_constant => {
      // the pair represents a float constant; let’s just parse it
      let f = inner.as_str().parse().unwrap();

    Rule::etcetc. => {
      // etc. etc.

    _ => unreachable!() // eeew (2.)

As you can see, we have several problems here

  1. We need to write our parsers taking as input Pair so that we can compose them… that strangely resembles how the nom parser is actually written… :)
  2. We just repeat the actual grammar! The whole PEG file is just a way to tell our lexer (pest) how to recognize tokens and how to store them in a tree. That’s all. All the parsing analysis must be done by repeating ourselves.
  3. Whenever we decide to change the grammar by, for instance, modifying the content of a rule (without changing its name), we’re lost. Done. Terminus. Destination fucked. Destination sneakily stabbed in the back. The code will still compile but now you will get a runtime error linked to Result::unwrap, a Parse::parse failure, etc.

Maybe I’m plain wrong and that there’s an easier way to do that, but I’ve been writing the parsers of only a few rules (on more than fifty) and I already cringe.

Two-stage parsers

All of this brings a brand new problem: since we’re smart developers and want to write the most reusable code, we want to be able to write the parser of primary_expression once and reuse it in other parsers that might need it – like postfix_expression, expression, etc. The current code that consumes Into<&str> doesn’t allow this as pest parses to Pairs. So let’s just write our functions to take Pair as inputs!

But… now we don’t have a proper public facing interface for our crate. Surely, I don’t want people to even see that pest is used – they’ll just see it as a dependency, but I don’t want any pest symbols in my public interface.

That problem can be solved by introducing a trait, Parse, for instance, that has the right parsing signature:

/// Class of types that can be parsed.
pub trait Parse: Sized {
  /// Parse an item from a string.
  /// Store errors as strings for convenience for now.
  fn parse<'a, S>(input: S) -> Result<Self, String> where S: Into<&'a str>;

Then, to support a new syntax symbol, we must:

  1. Write a Pair parser.
  2. Implement our Parse trait for this type, using the Pair parser from just above.
  3. Eventually reuse the Pair parser in the implementations of other Pair parsers if needed.

Is it the right way to go?

I must say: I’m astonished by the complexity and verbosity – and dangerosity! – of all of this. This is “on me” because I’ve constrained myself here:

My main problem here is that there’s no way to have pest behave as a scannerless parser: you will always have this two-phases lexer-parser:

  1. Run the lexer to tokenize the input string into a tree of tokens.
  2. Run a (type-blind) parser that somehow rediscovers the token tree.

I would be okay with this, however:

  1. Run the lexer to tokenize the input string into a typed tree of tokens.
  2. Run a full-type-aware parser that visits the token tree by following typed rules.
  3. It would be even easier if I could write the parser code inline, directly in the PEG rule.

Once compiled, a pest grammar is basically a very big and flat Rule type. If you have this PEG:


number = { ASCII_DIGIT+ }
op = { "-" | "+" | "*" }
expr = {
  number ~ (op ~ expr)? |
  "(" ~ expr ~ ")"

A possible AST – one I would definitely write – for that would be:

#[derive(Clone, Copy, Debug, Eq, Hash, PartialEq)]
enum Op {

#[derive(Clone, Debug, Eq, Hash, PartialEq)]
enum Expr {
  Op(Number, Op, Box<Expr>)

However, pest outputs something like this:

enum Rule {
  WHITESPACE, // very useful, thank you!

And implements the Parser trait to yield Pairs according to the variant of Rule you choose to parse with. Instead, a more practical encoding of rules would be:

struct Rule_number;
impl SuperMegaParser<i32> for Rule_number {}

struct Rule_op;
impl SuperMegaParser<Op> for Rule_op {}

struct Rule_expr;
impl SuperMegaParser<Expr> for Rule_expr {}

That is, Parser::parse(Rule_expr) wouldn’t yield Pairs anymore, but Expr. In order for this to be possible, we would need to tell our scannerless parser what to do when matching a rule:

WHITESPACE = _{ " " | NEWLINE } // who cares about whitespaces, seriously? they’re MUTED! :D

number: i32 = { ASCII_DIGIT+ => |s| s.parse().unwrap() }

op: Op = {
  "-" => Op::Minus |
  "+" => Op::Plus |
  "*" => Op::Mul

expr: Expr = {
  number ~ (op ~ expr)? => |(n, opt_op_expr)|{
    match opt_op_expr {
      Some((op, expr)) => Expr::Op(n, op, Box::new(expr)),
      None => Expr::Number(Number(n))

  "(" ~ expr ~ ")"

This would be perfect to me. And I reckon it’s pretty much what lalrpop uses.


I’ve been feeling on and off about pest lately, to be very honest. At first I was amazed at the PEG file, because, yeah, PEG is lovely to work with. However, I think GLSL450 is a really good candidate to test a lexer / parser and to that matter, the current vanilla pest is a nah to me. It makes the code terribly bloated and harder to maintain – while it should be easier! – than the reference nom implementation. The very reason to that is that even if I had to write thousands line of macros calls – yiiiik – with nom, those macros are correctly typed. The identifier nom parser is a function taking bytes and outputing… syntax::Identifier. Same thing for all other parsers.

I had to try pest. From my – limited – experience of it, I’d say it’s definitely not a parser. nom is – a scannerless parser. pest is a lexer that does a few parsing work to sort and fold the lexemes (tokens) into a tree. You can see pest’s output as a big regular acyclic tree holding pairs of pointers (representing tokens in the input source). That’s everything pest gives you. In order to turn that representation into a typed AST, a lot of work is awaiting you. I’ll take a few hours / days to think about what I should do and work on other projects in the meantime. I doubt I’ll keep going with pest because I feel like I’m going to spend entire days repeating myself by looking the grammar up to, frustrated, shout on IRC that I’m writing untyped code while I have static assurances (i.e. remember: the grammar is read at compile-time) that I will never have to look at the Rule::external_declaration while parsing a Rule::postfix_expression. And as I might be changing the grammar rule a bit when refactoring / fixing bugs, I really really don’t plan to pay a visit to destination fucked yet.

Someone on reddit suggested me to have a look at pest-ast. Even if this looks promising, it doesn’t seem finished and I think it should be merged into pest directly when done.

That’s all for me today. I might try a bit further to see if I find a way to make my pest experience less painful but if I don’t, I might try that lalrpop cutie in a few hours / days! As a final note, I don’t want to state that pest is bad, I think it’s pretty cool and that it does its job greatly, but my need (typed AST) might be off its scope. That’s all to note, I’d say. :)

Keep the vibes.