Extending the Smalltalk Syntax

by Leandro Caniglia
President of FAST (Fundación Argentina de Smalltalk)

Story 1: Adding Squeak Braces

Does your dialect support Squeak Braces? To answer this question, try to evaluate the following expression:

{Date today. 3 + 4}

If you get an Array with the above two elements, today’s date and 7, it does. Otherwise, you would get a compilation error. In the latter case, you might be interested in extending the syntax of your dialect so to have what I call Squeak Braces.

Where to start? Here is the roadmap:

  1. Find the hierarchy of classes that model parse tree nodes.
  2. Add a new class for modeling brace arrays (let’s call it BraceNode or ArrayNode).
  3. Add an ivar to the class for holding the elements of the array (let’s call it elements).
  4. Add a method to the class for transforming the elements into a cascade node (see below).
  5. Add all other required methods that nodes need to implement, especially those that message nodes have.

Now let’s see some hints on how to accomplish the tasks above:

Task 1: Finding the AST hierarchy

The Abstract Syntax Tree (a.k.a. AST) is the object that models the decomposition of a piece of source code into its constituents. This typically includes nodes for both the whole method and also its parts: literals, blocks, variables, etc. Therefore I would start by trying to find a class that includes Literal or LiteralNode in its name. From this class, go to the top of the hierarchy and you will get the complete picture of the place where you will be working next.

Task 2: Adding the new class

It’s simple, just subclass from the root of the AST hierarchy a new class appropriately named, say, BraceNode.

Task 3: Adding the required ivars

For sure we will need an ivar to keep the elements of the array. So, add the elements ivar. We will likely add one more ivar later though.

Task 4: Transforming the node into a cascade node

The idea here is to add a new method, say asCascadeNode, whose job is to answer with the CascadeNode that results from the expression:

(Array with: n)
  at: 1 put: (elements at: 1);
  at: n put: (elements at: 2);

where n is elements size. To do this, you need to find the CascadeNode in the AST hierarchy and become familiar with it so you can create one instance of it for the method to return.

Task 5: Add other required methods

Typically, AST nodes implement the #acceptVisitor: message for supporting the Visitor pattern’s double dispatching mechanism. It’s implemenation is straightforward:

acceptVisitor: aVisitor
  aVisitor acceptBraceNode: self

You also need to find all visitors that you will need to enhance. To discover them look for implementors of visiting messages in the AST hierarchy such as visitCascadeNode:, etc. Writing each of the required implementor of visitCascadeNode: is also straightforward:

visitBraceNode: aBraceNode
  self visitCascadeNode: aBraceNode asCascadeNode

For other messages, take inspiration from the other nodes, especially, from CascadeNode.


Once you have all of this complete and tested, you may want to improve your implementation a little bit. For instance, some occurrences of these Squeak Braces are just literals. One example would be:

{3. $a. {'hello' 'world'}}

This is actually equivalent to:

#(3. $a. #('hello' 'world'))

However, our implementation would work as well if we had written:

(Array new: 3)
  at: 1 put: 3;
  at: 2 put: $a;
  at: 3 put: (
    (Array new: 2)
      at: 1 put: 'hello';
      at: 2 put: 'world';

which sends 9 messages instead of none! To avoid this waste, what we can do is to give literal arrays a special treatment. Here is how:

Task 6

At the top of the AST hierarchy, add the method isLiteral returning false (this might or might not be there already). Now repeat the same for LiteralNode except that this time answer with true.
Finally, add the isLiteral method to BraceNode on the lines of:

   ^elements conform: [:e | e isLiteral]

given that the elements of our BraceNode are themselves instances of AST nodes, this closes the circle.

Task 7

Next, add the asLiteralNode method to BraceNode on the lines of:

  ^LiteralNode new
    value: self literal;
    start: self start;
    stop: self stop

So, the only piece that is missing is the #literal message. Here it is:

  ^elements collect: [:e | e literal]


LiteralNode >> #literal
  ^self value

Task 8

Finally, modify your implementations of visitBraceNode: method like this:

visitBraceNode: aBraceNode
  aBraceNode isLiteral
    ifTrue: [self visitLiteralNode: aBraceNode asLiteralNode]
    ifFalse: [self visitCascadenode: aBraceNode asCascadNode]

Depending on the internals of your system, some additional tweaks might be required. Just make sure your testing coverage is high enough. I almost forgot! In Task 3, I said that we would likely add another ivar to BraceNode, remember? Well, I was thinking in a cache for the result of asCascadeNode or asLiteralNode, depending on the case. This will help to preserve the identity of the BraceNode substitute should the translation be required more than once. No need to do this in advance though. Just keep it in mind.

Published by smalltalkrenaissance

A non-profit advocacy organization whose mission is to promote and popularize Smalltalk.

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