Writing a Lisp, Part 8: ASTs

January 31, 2017

Heads up: this will be a bit of a long post compared to previous posts. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.

An Abstract Syntax Tree (AST) is a way of representing a program in a way that is easy for another program to manipulate. It gets rid of all the text nonsense and instead replaces it with datatypes from the programming language. For example:

(f 1 2 3)

might be represented by a tree that looks like:

Call(Var "f", [Fixnum 1; Fixnum 2; Fixnum 3])

which of course is longer, but it allows us to more easily

In this post, we’re going to

  1. add a new type to represent our AST
  2. add a new step in our interpreter that takes an S-expression (like Pair(Symbol "if", Pair(cond, Pair(iftrue, Pair(iffalse, Nil))))) and turns it into an AST (like If(cond, iftrue, iffalse))
  3. rip out and slim down our eval function
  4. and celebrate!

Adding the AST type

Creating a new type is not hard. We’ve already got lobject, and we can reuse that. I propose we add all the special forms as constructors for our new type:

type lobject =
  | Fixnum of int
  | Boolean of bool
  | Symbol of string
  | Nil
  | Pair of lobject * lobject
  | Primitive of string * (lobject list -> lobject)

and value = lobject
and name = string
and exp =
  | Literal of value
  | Var of name
  | If of exp * exp * exp
  | And of exp * exp
  | Or of exp * exp
  | Apply of exp * exp
  | Call of exp * exp list
  | Defexp of def

and def =
  | Val of name * exp
  | Exp of exp

The different types are recursively defined with and, which means they can reference one another (as exp and lobject/value do).

I’m introducing value as an alias for lobject because really we won’t be evaluating raw lobjects anymore. Instead we’ll use those as our self-evaluating values. That is, they can be evaluated repeatedly and they won’t change.

I’m introducing name as an alias for string purely for the aesthetics — I think it makes the code easier to read. It doesn’t change the type system at all, since OCaml will accept string in place of name anywhere.

exp is a rather large type that has a bunch of constructors. I’ll explain all of them briefly:

Okay, excellent. Now that we’ve modified an old type and added a couple of new ones, it’s time to put them to use. Our first step will be to write a function that takes an S-expression from the reader and transforms it into an AST.

Building an AST from S-expressions

Currently our REPL looks like this:

let rec repl stm env =
  print_string "> ";
  flush stdout;
  let sexp = read_sexp stm in
  let (result, env') = eval_sexp sexp env in
  print_sexp result;
  print_newline ();
  repl stm env';;

Let’s add in the AST transform:

let rec repl stm env =
  print_string "> ";
  flush stdout;
  let ast = build_ast (read_sexp stm) in
  let (result, env') = eval ast env in
  print_val result;
  print_newline ();
  repl stm env';;

Note that I’ve also changed the name of eval_sexp to just eval and print_sexp to print_val.

Now let’s go ahead and write build_ast! We know that we need to generate all of the different types of exp, so that will provide reasonable scaffolding for our function. In general: numbers, bools, and empty lists should all self-evaluate. Primitives and non-list pairs shouldn’t happen at this stage in the process. The others are special.

For example, a Symbol is probably a name, so should be a Var. Or there are several types of list (like (and #t #f)) that are special. Val is even more special in that it has to be wrapped in a Defexp. So there you have it:

exception ParseError of string

let rec build_ast sexp =
  match sexp with
  | Primitive _ -> raise ThisCan'tHappenError
  | Fixnum _ | Boolean _ | Nil -> Literal sexp
  | Symbol s -> Var s
  | Pair _ when is_list sexp ->
      (match pair_to_list sexp with
      | [Symbol "if"; cond; iftrue; iffalse] ->
          If (build_ast cond, build_ast iftrue, build_ast iffalse)
      | [Symbol "and"; c1; c2] -> And (build_ast c1, build_ast c2)
      | [Symbol "or"; c1; c2] -> Or (build_ast c1, build_ast c2)
      | [Symbol "val"; Symbol n; e] -> Defexp (Val (n, build_ast e))
      | [Symbol "apply"; fnexp; args] when is_list args ->
          Apply (build_ast fnexp, build_ast args)
      | fnexp::args -> Call (build_ast fnexp, List.map build_ast args)
      | [] -> raise (ParseError "poorly formed expression"))
  | Pair _ -> Literal sexp

I’ve also taken the liberty of introducing and and or as special forms. Also, introducing a special apply form so it’s easy to build lists of arguments to functions programmatically, as in: (apply + '(1 2)). For now, Apply and Call are separate forms that do roughly the same thing because I can’t think of an elegant way to make them work together with two different types of list (the Lisp kind and OCaml kind).

This should all be reasonably self-explanatory. If it’s not, take it apart. Poke at it. Run it on some user input. See what it produces. Better yet, pause here and try and write an AST printer (it’ll be good for debugging anyway).

If you’ve either done that and come back, or decided that you understand that enough, or decided that it’ll probably make more sense as we continue — great! Let’s keep on trucking.

Rewriting the evaluator

So we’ve got these two classes of expression. One class changes the environment and the other does not. I propose the following structure to manage this:

let rec repl stm env =
  let ast = build_ast (read_sexp stm) in
  let (result, env') = eval ast env in
  let () = print_endline (string_val result) in
  repl stm env'

Notice that we just have one evaleval can decide what kind of expression the AST represents, then delegate to the right kind of function, possibly mutating the environment in the process. Also notice I’ve swapped out print_sexp for string_of_value; it’s cleaner to transform to a string and then use print_endline than to write your own print function.

Let’s handle the delegating eval first:

let eval ast env =
  match ast with
  | Defexp d -> evaldef d env
  | e -> (evalexp e env, env)

Which is pretty clear. If the environment should change something, let it (evaldef will return an environment). Else, send it to evalexp, which just returns a value, and return the original environment unmodified.

Speaking of, let’s take a look at evaldef:

let evaldef def env =
  match def with
  | Val (n, e) -> let v = evalexp e env in (v, bind (n, v, env))
  | Exp e -> (evalexp e env, env)

Which looks pretty reasonable, right? If someone writes (val x 5) they should definitely expect x to be bound in the new environment.

And this brings us to evalexp. We should have a case for each constructor in exp, including Defexp — but that case should just raise ThisCan'tHappenError, since our program should never pass a Defexp to evalexp.

let rec evalexp exp env =
  let evalapply f es =
    match f with
    | Primitive (_, f) -> f es
    | _ -> raise (TypeError "(apply prim '(args)) or (prim args)")
  let rec ev = function
    | Literal l -> l
    | Var n -> lookup (n, env)
    | If (c, t, f) when ev c = Boolean true -> ev t
    | If (c, t, f) when ev c = Boolean false -> ev f
    | If _ -> raise (TypeError "(if bool e1 e2)")
    | And (c1, c2) ->
          match (ev c1, ev c2) with
          | (Boolean v1, Boolean v2) -> Boolean (v1 && v2)
          | _ -> raise (TypeError "(and bool bool)")
    | Or (c1, c2) ->
          match (ev c1, ev c2) with
          | (Boolean v1, Boolean v2) -> Boolean (v1 || v2)
          | _ -> raise (TypeError "(or bool bool)")
    | Apply (fn, e) -> evalapply (ev fn) (pair_to_list (ev e))
    | Call (Var "env", []) -> env
    | Call (e, es) -> evalapply (ev e) (List.map ev es)
    | Defexp d -> raise ThisCan'tHappenError
  in ev exp

There’s some fun with guards when evaluating If. Guards allow us to reduce the amount of match expressions. We could just as easily write this instead:

    | If (c, t, f) ->
            match ev c with
            | Boolean true -> ev t
            | Boolean false -> ev f
            | _ -> raise (TypeError "(if bool e1 e2)")

And that is perhaps even faster than the alternative, unless OCaml has some notion of function purity and automatically caches or does not recompute the result of ev c. That would be neat.

Also note that and and or are not short-circuiting here, but rather evaluate both expressions and then && the resulting booleans. That’s because I’m lazy and don’t want to write more code. In this language with no side effects, the only difference is in performance.

EDIT: The difference is not only in performance. That’s just plain wrong. Consider the following example:

(or #t (if your-mom 3 4))

With a short-circuting Lisp, there is no error. With an eagerly-evaluating Lisp, there is an error – since the condition must be a boolean expression, and your-mom isn’t even defined. No offense to your mother intended.

Also note that I added in a case for env, which would have otherwise been homeless in this new AST representation. Since env is more for debugging (at least for now), I didn’t think it was important enough to give it a constructor.

Last, note that Apply and Call use the same function, evalapply, to evaluate, so they are at least unified in the evaluation layer. Just not the AST layer.

In any case… that’s that! That’s our evaluator. Let’s give it a go:

$ ocaml 08_asts.ml
> (env)
((pair . #<primitive:pair>) (+ . #<primitive:+>) (list . #<primitive:list>))
> (+ 3 4)
> (and #t #f)
> (and #t #t)
> (or #f #f)
> (or #f #t)
> (if (and #t #f) 3 4)
> (if (or #t #f) 3 4)
> (val x 3)
> (env)
((x . 3) (pair . #<primitive:pair>) (+ . #<primitive:+>) (list . #<primitive:list>))
> (+ x 7)
> (apply pair (list 3 4))
(3 . 4)
> (pair 3 4)
(3 . 4)
> Exception: End_of_file.

Wait, what? What’s that list function? Oh, I took the liberty of adding it into the environment. Its primary purpose is to build lists easily:

let basis =
    let rec prim_list = function
        | [] -> Nil
        | car::cdr -> Pair(car, prim_list cdr)
    List.fold_left newprim Nil [
        ("list", prim_list);
        ("+", prim_plus);
        ("pair", prim_pair)

Download the code here if you want to mess with it.

Next up, quote.