Parse Error Recovery in Sorbet: Part 3

Tools and Techniques for Debugging a (Bison) Parser

This is the third post in a series about “things I’ve learned while making improvements to Sorbet’s parser.” Previously I discussed high level questions like why it’s an important problem for Sorbet to solve and some approaches I decided not to take. This post switches gears to focus on specific tips and techniques I found useful while making parser changes.

With that all out of the way, let’s dive into the tips.

Read the docs

Haha! You probably thought that by Googling for things you’d be able to find something that lets you avoid reading the official docs. But it’s boring for me to repeat everything that’s in the docs, and honestly the Bison and Ragel docs are rather comprehensive as far as software documentation goes these days:

Ragel User Guide
Bison User Guide

But I will give you some tips for how to read the docs:

But that’s enough soapbox standing, now we return to regularly scheduled tips.

Enable traces, and make them good

Before I started working on this project, I treated Sorbet’s parser like a black box. In the spirit of “Computers can be understood,” the first thing I did was enable traces for our parser. Easy enough:

Here’s the PR in Sorbet, which might help to make these two steps more concrete.

The trace output looks something like this:

❯ sorbet --trace-parser -e 'def foo; end'
Starting parse
Entering state 0
Reading a token: Next token is token "def" ()
Shifting token "def" ()
Entering state 4
Reading a token: Next token is token tIDENTIFIER ()
Shifting token tIDENTIFIER ()
Entering state 184


The output is somewhat useful as is, but it can be better. First, all the trailing () on the “Next token is …” lines are present because there aren’t any %printer’s for those tokens–we can easily get the trace to not only show that it read a tIDENTIFIER token, but also what the name of that variable was. After adding one for tIDENTIFIER like this:

%printer { yyo << $$->view(); } tIDENTIFIER

The $$->view(); bit calls the view method on Sorbet’s token type, converting it to a string. Now our traces look better:

❯ sorbet --trace-parser -e 'def foo; end'
Starting parse
Entering state 0
Reading a token: Next token is token "def" ()
Shifting token "def" ()
Entering state 4
Reading a token: Next token is token tIDENTIFIER (foo)
Shifting token tIDENTIFIER (foo)
Entering state 184
Reading a token: Next token is token ";" ()
Reducing stack by rule 125 (line 1140):
   $1 = token tIDENTIFIER (foo)
-> $$ = nterm fname ()

So far I’ve been adding these %printers only as I encounter the tokens that show up, mostly because I’m too lazy to exhaustively define printers for all the tokens—Ruby has a lot of tokens. You’ll note that Bison even lets you register %printers for non-terminals (not pictured, but the same mechanism). You could use this to, like, print the currently reduced AST for that non-terminal, or some other summary.

The next step is to actually understand what these traces mean, because it looks like there’s a lot of magic names and numbers. The long answer is that you’ll have to look in the textual report that Bison generates about all the intermediate states in your parser. This is documented in the Understanding Your Parser section of the Bison docs.

But if you’re impatient, there’s a bit of a short cut that can work in many cases.

Diff traces for good and bad parses

This code is a syntax error in Ruby:

def foo(x,); end

Bison has a fancy error token that we can use to recover from cases like this, but it’s hard to know where to add that error token into the grammar. Printing the trace file would likely help us figure out where, but even when we’re staring at the trace file it’s not entirely clear.

Luckily there’s a short cut:

  1. Record a parser trace for the invalid parse.
  2. “Fix” the file so that it parses by only adding tokens, and record a trace for that parse.
    • This ensures that all the tokens present in the bad parse are also present in the good parse.
  3. diff (or vimdiff) the two traces, and add an error recovery rule to the place where the trace differs.

In our case, I want def foo(x,); end to parse as if the user had properly written two arguments, so that I can record the fact that the user started to introduce a second argument. I’ll record a trace for the program def foo(x, y); end, and diff it. The diff looks like this:

❯ sorbet --trace-parser -e 'def foo(x,); end' 2> trace-bad.txt;
  sorbet --trace-parser -e 'def foo(x, y); end' 2> trace-good.txt;
  diff -u trace-bad.txt trace-good.txt
--- trace-bad.txt       2022-01-16 14:40:51.168977798 -0800
+++ trace-good.txt      2022-01-16 14:40:51.728976581 -0800
@@ -53,45 +53,201 @@
 Next token is token "," ()
 Shifting token "," ()
 Entering state 752
+Reading a token: Next token is token tIDENTIFIER ()
+Shifting token tIDENTIFIER ()
+Entering state 541
+Reducing stack by rule 660 (line 3400):
+   $1 = token tIDENTIFIER ()
+-> $$ = nterm f_norm_arg ()
+Stack now 752 562 349 78 0
+Entering state 559
+Reducing stack by rule 661 (line 3408):
+   $1 = nterm f_norm_arg ()
+-> $$ = nterm f_arg_asgn ()
+Stack now 752 562 349 78 0
+Entering state 560
 Reading a token: Next token is token ")" ()
-Error: popping token "," ()
+Reducing stack by rule 662 (line 3414):
+   $1 = nterm f_arg_asgn ()
+-> $$ = nterm f_arg_item ()
+Stack now 752 562 349 78 0
+Entering state 901
+Reducing stack by rule 665 (line 3428):
+   $1 = nterm f_arg ()
+   $2 = token "," ()
+   $3 = nterm f_arg_item ()
+-> $$ = nterm f_arg ()
This example shows diff -u in the command line, but when I’m looking at these traces I almost exclusively use vimdiff, because it lets me expand surrounding context, search for keywords, etc. And it looks nicer.

Looking at the highlighted lines near the bottom, we see that eventually the good parse was able to reduce nterm f_arg by combining f_arg, ",", and f_arg_item. The trace tells us that this happened in rule 665 (line 2428). That line number is the actual source line number in our *.ypp grammar file.

All we have to do is go to that line and add an error case, which is pretty easy:

           f_arg: f_arg_item
                      $$ = driver.alloc.node_list($1);
                | f_arg tCOMMA f_arg_item
                      auto &list = $1;
                      $$ = list;
+               | f_arg tCOMMA error
+                   {
+                     $$ = $1;
+                   }

And now the parser reports the error but continues to recover from the error:

❯ sorbet -p parse-tree-whitequark -e 'def foo(x,); end'
s(:def, :foo,
    s(:arg, :x)), nil)
-e:1: unexpected token ")"
     1 |def foo(x,); end
Errors: 1

This technique of comparing the trace for “what it currently does” against “what I wish it did” has been super useful, because it often shows exactly the point where the trace diverged, along with the reason. In this example, the f_arg_item was never reduced, but sometimes the difference will be something like “the lexer didn’t read a token” or “the lexer read a token, but because of the state the lexer was in, it was the wrong token.” Whatever the cause, comparing traces usually shows the problem.

This particular example also showed an example of using Bison’s error token. I’ll talk more about what this error token means in the next post.

← Part 2: Why Recover from Syntax Errors

Part 4: Bison’s error Token →