Parsing Ambiguity:
Type Argument v. Less Than


In C-family languages, type arguments are usually delimited with “angular” brackets, like this:


In an expression context, the angular brackets could be confused with infix comparison operators. Think about the difference between the following two expressions:

x = Foo<Bar>(1 + 2)

x = foo < bar > (1 + 2)

How should the parser determine that the first one is a constructor call, and the second one is two infix comparisons?

This problem can be solved on different levels:

First, let’s start with lexer-level solutions.

The lexer hack

We can make lexer keep track of type names. Every time we encounter a definition like class Foo, we add the type name to a symbol table. Next, when the lexer encounters an identifier, we check if this identifier is present in that symbol table. If it is present in the symbol table, we issue a TYPE_IDENTIFIER token, otherwise an IDENTIFIER token.

This removes the ambiguity for the parser since TYPE_IDENTIFIER '<' is clearly the start of a type expression, while IDENTIFIER '<' is a start of a comparison.

This solution is called the lexer hack. It was first used in C.

There are several problems with this solution:

For example, in C, type declarations can get quite complicated. Here is some standards-compliant code that shows this:

typedef int (*foo)(int bar, int, baz);

Of all the identifiers here, it is not trivial to determine that “foo” is the type being introduced. Especially during lexing. For this, you have to do some parsing in your lexer.

Lexer whitespace sensitivity

Depending on whitespace surrounding “<” and “>” symbols, the lexer can issue different tokens. For example, if the next token matches a "<\s" regular expression—issue LESS_THAN token. Otherwise, if it matches just "<"—issue LEFT_ANGLE_BRACKET.

The reality might be more complicated (or not). You need to consider cases like this:

Array</* hello! */String>

One language that takes this approach is Swift. Swift uses whitespace to assign meaning to operator tokens.

This solution can be considered a language-level since it affects the set and meaning of accepted programs. This solution is also well applicable to lexer-less parsing techniques, like PEG and classical parser combinators.

Now we move onto parser-level solutions.

Prioritized choice (PEG)

Parsing expression grammars have an interesting feature, the prioritized choice operator “/(forward slash). Unlike the regular choice operator “|(vertical bar), it allows one grammar rule to be prioritized over another.

For example, it allows you to say that we first consider “<” to start a type argument list, and if this interpretation fails to parse, we backtrack and try to interpret it as an infix comparison. Here’s how a simplified PEG grammar like that can look like:

constructor_call <-
  identifier '<' type_parameters '>' '(' parameters ')'

infix_expression <-
  identifier (('<' / '>') identifier)*

expression <-
  # constructor_call takes priority if ambiguity arises:
  constructor_call / infix_expression / '(' expression ')'

Generalized parsing

If PEG allows you to make a choice between two production rules, generalized parsers like GLR allow you to defer the choice until after parsing. In the case of syntactic ambiguity, a GLR parser will produce two parse trees: one for type expression, another for infix expression. At a later stage of compilation (for example, when you construct your symbol tables) you can make a choice of discarding one of the parse trees by looking up the identifier in a symbol table.

The disadvantage of this approach is that a GLR parser will produce multiple parse trees for all ambiguities in your grammar—whether you know about them in advance or not.

Hand-written parser

In case of a hand-written parser, you can do something similar to the lexer hack but at the parser level. As you parse, you construct a symbol table for types. Whenever you encounter an identifier, you look it up in the type symbol table.

This is how, for example, the hand-written Kotlin parser works.

Now let’s move onto the language-level solutions.

The root of our problem is the following: in the same context, we want to use “<” and “>” symbols as both infix operators and as distinct parenthesis-like delimiters. So the ambiguity is inherent to the problem.

A language-level solution would be to use a different syntax for the two cases.

Scala solution

One example of this is Scala, which uses square brackets as type parameters which avoids the problem altogether:

x = Foo[Bar](1 + 2)

x = foo < bar > (1 + 2

While “<” and “>” are always parsed as infix operators, “[” and “]” are always parsed as parenthesis-like matching delimiters. So there’s no confusion.

Rust solution

Rust is one of the languages that continues the tradition of using “<” and “>” symbols for both type parameters and infix comparison operators. However, in an expression context, it requires the programmer to explicitly disambiguate them by using a “::<” sequence. Consider:

let x: foo::Foo<Bar> = foo::Foo::<Bar>(1 + 2);

(Having both type annotations is not necessary here, but nevertheless…)

Inside the type annotation, you can write Foo<Bar>, because it is a type-only context. However, in an expression context, you need to write Foo::<Bar>.

You can classify the above solutions into syntactic and semantic ones.

Syntactic solutions are those that make the decision solely based on the syntax, in our case:

Both of these accept slightly different languages.

Semantic solutions are those that rely on a symbol table for types to disambiguate:

Thes three solutions accept the same language.

If you’re implementing an existing language, you should carefully read the spec (if one exists) to see which of the solutions could be applicable. However, if you’re designing a new language, you have the power to come up with a syntax that is not conceptually ambiguous. Scala and Rust are good examples of this approach.

This blog post was originally written by me for Datawire and is re-published here with permission (and minor changes).

Did you know, I’m writing a book about compilers?

Compiling to Assembly
from Scratch

— the book —

Vladimir Keleshev

TypeScript — ARM — Summer 2020