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MontiCore Best Practices - Concrete and Abstract Syntax

MontiCore provides a number of options to design languages, access and modify the abstract syntax tree, and produce output files.

This (currently unsorted and evolving) list of practices discusses solutions that we identified and applied as well as alternatives and their specific advantages and drawbacks. The list also mentions where the solutions have been found and where they have been applied first.

This file is partially temporary and also contains compact (incomplete) solutions. More detailed descriptions of best practices can be found in the MontiCore handbook. Some of the best practices here will also be incorporated in the next version of the reference manual.

Designing Concrete and Abstract Syntax

Specific keywords that shall be used as normal names elsewhere

  • A = "foo" B introduces foo as a keyword that cannot be used as an ordinary (variable) name anymore. To prevent that we may use:
  • A = key("foo") B instead, which introduces foo only at that specific point.
  • In general, we use all Java keywords as permanent, but abstain from other permanent keywords, especially if they are only used for a specific purpose in a composable sublanguage, like in in the OCL.
  • Defined by: BR

Complex Token clashing with other uses of sub-tokens

  • For example <- is supposed to be used as arrow, but in an expression 3<-10 is also syntactically allowed.
  • The problem: as soon as "<-" is defined as a token in any part of the current or any extended grammars, the expression 3<-10 would not be parsed as 3 < -10 anymore.
  • Solutions:
    1. We might decompose the token to "<" "-" which in its consequence means that we put more burden to the context-free parser and less to the regular scanner. ("scannerless parsing")
      • Drawback: spaces would now be allowed inbetween.
    2. Decompose the token to {noSpace(2)}? "<" "-". This (slightly hacking approach) prevents spaces between two tokens.
  • The challenge: when designing a language component, we don't know yet what further uses will bring. This may include sub-tokens to come up with new interactions. This would require an (already defined) grammar with the complex token to be adapted afterwards (and thus conflict with the library idea).
  • Remark: A forthcoming enhancement will provide an improved solution, keeping parsing efficiency and compositionality of grammars.
  • Defined by: BR

Extension forms in a component grammar

A component grammar is meant for extension. MontiCore therefore provides five(!) mechanisms that can be used when a sub-grammar shall extend a super-grammar. The solutions are briefly discussed here:

1. Interface in the super-grammar

  • Introduce an interface and allow building of sub-nonterminals in sub-grammars.
    component grammar A {  
      interface X;
      N = "bla" X "blubb";
    grammar B extends A {
      Y implements X = "specific" "thing"
  • Advantage: Multiple extensions are possible at the same time. An NT Y can also implement multiple interfaces (like in Java).
  • Disadvantage: the designer of A explicitly has to design the hole (extension point) X and add it into the production.

2. Overriding (empty) nonterminal from the super-grammar

  • Use a normal nonterminal X and override it in a sub-grammar.
    component grammar A {  
      X = "";
      N = "bla" X "blubb";
    grammar B extends A {
      X = "my" "thing";
  • Advantage: Default implementation "" exists, no explicit filling needed.
  • Disadvantage:
    1. The designer of A explicitly has to design the hole (extension point) X and inject it into other places.
    2. Only one overriding alternative possible (i.e. multiple overriding in subgrammars are allowed, but only the most specific resides).

3. Extending nonterminal from the super-grammar.

  • Use an empty normal nonterminal X and extend it in a sub-grammar.
    component grammar A {  
      X = ;
      N = "bla" X "blubb";
    grammar B extends A {
      Y extends X = "this";
  • Advantage: Default implementation "" exists, no explicit filling needed.
  • Disadvantage: The designer of A explicitly has to design the hole (extension point) X and inject it into other places.
  • Care: Extension still allows the (empty) alternative X.

4. Using external nonterminals in the super-grammar.

  • Mark nonterminal X as external.

    component grammar A {  
      external X;
      N = "bla" X "blubb";
    grammar B extends A {
      X = "your";

  • Advantage: Explicitely marks a nonterminal as hole (extension point) in the grammar.

    • Please observe that interface terminals may or not may be meant to be extended in sub-grammars. external is clearer here.
  • Disadvantage:
    1. Leads to more objects in the AST. Both classes a.X and b.X are instantiated and a.X only links to b.X.
    2. Only one filling of the hole is possible.

5. Overriding the whole production.

  • If you don't want to add a hole at any possible place of extension:
    component grammar A {  
      N = "bla" "blubb";
    grammar B extends A {
      N = "bla" "my" "blubb" "now";
  • Advantage: Compact definition. No "framework thinking" needed (no need to forecast all potential extension points)
  • Disadvantage:
    1. The entire production is overriden (some redundancy).
    2. Only one overriding alternative possible.
  • Combinations are possible. Dependent on the anticipated forms of adaptations option 1, 2, 3 and 5 are in use.
  • Defined by: BR

Avoid empty nonterminals (if body is known)

  • From the two variants:

    A = "bla" B? C*;
    B = "B's body" ;
    C = "C's body" ;
    A = "bla" B C;
    B = ("B's body")? ;
    C = ("C's body")* ;
    we generally prefer the first one, i.e. add multiplicities when using a nonterminal.

  • This is a matter of taste, but useful to keep this consistent.

  • Sometimes exceptions are useful.
  • Defined by: SVa, BR

Avoid complex tokens (1)

  • The token definitions can only define regular expressions. Furthermore, the token parser (i.e. the lexer) does not consider backtracking.
  • If combinations of characters may be split into several token sequences this leads to problems. E.g. in 3-2 and (-2) the - has different roles. Unfortunately these problems also occur when composing languages that make excessive use of (conflicting) token definitions.
  • Solution: instead of defining a complex token like
      token NegativeNat = "-" Digits;
    we split the token and allow individual parsing into nonterminals:
      NegativeNat = negative:["-"] Digits {noSpace()}? 
    (where we assume Digits is a given token).
  • As a workaround, we use the semantic predicate {noSpace()}? that ensures that between the two last processed token there is no space inbetween. If one of the tokens is optional we have to split the alternatives:

    SignedNatLiteral = 
            (negative:["-"]) Digits {noSpace()}? |

  • Adding a handcoded function like getValue() via astrule or the TOP-mechanism allows to use SignedNatLiteral like a token.

  • Scannerless parsing is a principle where the tokens are reduced to simple characters (or character classes, such as [a-z]). Scannerless parsing generally avoids this kinds of problems, but is way slower. This kind of solution tries to mediate between the two extremes benefitting from both approaches.
  • Defined by: MB, in: MCCommonLiterals.mc4 and other literals grammars.

Avoid complex tokens (2)

  • Same general problem. In language composition conflicting tokens may lead to issues.
  • For example Java allows 42. as a literal of type float. UML allows to define cardinalities like [42..44]. Composition clashes.
  • Solution: In a Java sublanguage we split the token:

    SignedBasicFloatLiteral =
       | Digits "." {noSpace()}? ... ;

  • This will ensure that [42..44] will be parsed like [ 42 .. 44 ] in a language composition as well.

  • It generally seems that overly complex composed tokens may lead to issues especially if the language allows compact models. Suboptimal tokens may be e.g. "[[" (vs. nested lists), or "<-" (vs. 3 < -2).
  • Defined by: MC team.

How to define keyword enumerations

  • A finite set of keyword-based alternatives can be defined in several forms:
  • Standard three keywords act as alternative:
    N = (["public"] | ["protected"] | ["private"]) ;
  • Effects:
    1. not extensible without overriding and repetition
    2. introduces boolean flags, where only one can be true at a time
  • Use an enumeration nonterminal
    enumeration E = "public" | "protected" | "private" ;
    N = E ;
  • Effects:
    1. not extensible
  • Use an interface and subclasses with almost empty body:
    interface E ;
    P1 implements E = "public"    ;
    P2 implements E = "protected" ;
    P3 implements E = "private"   ;
    N = E ;
  • Effects:
    1. very extensible in various ways (even beyond mere keywords)
    2. visitor can easily address the keywords (i.e. by visit(P1) ...)
    3. Disadvantage: Clumsy notation and visitors are always needed.
  • Defined by: SVa, BR.

Common AST-Access to Syntactically Similar Nonterminals

  • Sometimes the following occurs (e.g. in associations of CDs or interactions of SD):

    A = X Y Z;
    B = Z Y X;

  • The concrete syntax differs (in order), but the syntactic concepts are the same.

  • To allow common access, a common interface nonterminal is introduced that is not used in the grammar directly. This doesn't change the concrete syntax but allows common AST access:

    interface F = X Y Z;      // order is irrelevant
    A implements F = X Y Z;
    B implements F = Z Y X;

  • Defined by: BR.

How and when to use Names for Nonterminals

  • Normally names like expr:Exprcan be avoided which makes a grammar easier to read and more concise, i.e. Expr alone has the same effect.
  • There may be two reasons to use a name:
    1. Nonterminal X occurs several times and we want to distinguish: left:Expr "*" right:Expr
    2. We can also use the name to describe the purpose of the nonterminal, i.e.
       MyVariable implements Variable = Name "=" initial:Expression;
       MyParameter implements Variable = Name "=" default:Expression;
  • Defined by: BR.

Further Information