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Author image Jeffrey Kegler
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Marpa::Algorithm - The Marpa Algorithm


Marpa is derived from the parser described by John Aycock and R. Nigel Horspool. Aycock and Horspool combined LR(0) precomputation with the general parsing algorithm described by Jay Earley in 1970.

Marpa combines several parsing techniques, and a full description would be most of a textbook on parsing. That might be fun to write someday, but for now I have to content myself with briefly describing the significant ideas that are new with Marpa. I have to assume that my reader is familiar with parsing in general, so that he understands terms like Earley set and Earley item.

A New Recognition Engine

Marpa takes the recognition engine as described by Horspool and Aycock and turns it inside out and upside down. In the Horspool and Aycock version of Earley's, the main loop iterated over each item of an Earley set, first scanning for tokens, then completing items in the set. Marpa turns this into two separate loops over the Earley items, the first of which completes the current earley set, and the second of which scans for tokens.

Prediction-driven Lexing and Earley Parsing

The advantage of this double inversion is that the lexical analysis can be put between the two loops -- after completion, but before scanning. This makes prediction-driven lexing possible. Prediction-driven lexing, when combined with Earley power, turns out to be very useful.


Marpa allows ambiguous lexing, including recognition of lexemes of different lengths starting at the same lexical position, and recognition of overlapping lexemes. To facilitate this, Marpa introduces the earleme (named after Jay Earley). Previous Earley implementations required the input to be broken up into tokens, usually by lexical analysis of the input using DFA's. (DFA's -- deterministic finite automata -- are the equivalent of regular expressions when that term is used in the strictest sense). Requiring that the first level of analysis be performed by a DFA hobbles a general parser like Earley's.

Marpa allows the scanning phase of Earley's algorithm to add items not just to the next Earley set, but to any later one. Alternative scans of the input can be put into the Earley sets, and the power of Earley's algorithm harnessed to deal with the indeterminism.

Marpa does this by allowing each scanned token to have a length in earlemes. The earleme is a unit of distance measured in Earley sets. If the length of a scanned token is L, and the current Earley set is C, a newly scanned Earley item is added to Earley set C+L. For example, if a token is 7 earlemes long, and it is to start at Earley set 35, then it is added to Earley set 42.

Lexing in earlemes is flexible. If an implementation defines an earleme so that the distances in earlemes are the same as distance in a token stream, then lexing in earlemes is exactly equivalent to traditional lexing. But distance in earlemes could also be defined as equivalent to string length, measured either in bytes or Unicode graphemes.

Chomsky-Horspool-Aycock Form

Another significant change to the Aycock and Horspool algorithm in Marpa is its internal rewriting of the grammar. Aycock and Horspool rewrote their grammars internally into what they called NNF (Nihilist Normal Form). Earley's original algorithm had serious issues with nullable symbols and productions, and the NNF rewrite fixes almost all of them. (As a reminder, a nullable symbol or production is one which derives the empty sentence.) Importantly, NNF also allows complete and easy mapping of the semantics of the original grammar to its NNF rewrite, so that NNF and the whole rewrite process can be made invisible to the user.

A problem with NNF is that the rewritten grammar is exponentially larger than the original in the theoretical worst case. I think cases would arise in practice where the NNF size explosion is a real problem. For example, any language in which whitespace is significant but optional could cause an NNF size explosion.

Marpa's solution is Chomsky-Horspool-Aycock Form (CHAF). This is Horspool and Aycock's NNF, but with the further restriction that no more than two nullable symbols may appear in any production. (The idea that any context-free grammar can be rewritten into productions of at most a small fixed size appears to originate, like so much else, with Noam Chomsky.) The shortened CHAF production maps back to the original grammar, so that like NNF, the CHAF rewrite can be made invisible to the user. With CHAF, the theoretical worst behavior is linear, and in those difficult cases likely to arise in practice the multiplier is much smaller.

Iterating Aycock-Horspool Parses

Aycock and Horspool give an algorithm for constructing a rightmost derivation from their version of the Earley sets. They suggest that in the case of multiple parses, their Earley sets could be iterated through, and they point out where the decision points occur in their algorithm.

But they give no algorithm to do that iteration. Marpa, of course, required an algorithm to actually produce and evaluate the parses it recognizes. Inventing that algorithm was the most difficult part of writing Marpa -- far more difficult than the modifications to the core Earley-Aycock-Horspool algorithm. Marpa sets itself up to iterate and evaluate parses by creating a parse bocage from the Earley sets.

Parse Bocages

A ambiguous parse is a set of parse trees, and in the parsing literature there is an efficient and compact means of storing a set of closely related parse trees. It is called, aptly, a parse forest.

Nodes in a parse forest are divided into and-nodes and or-nodes. And-nodes are individual pieces of parse trees. In conventional parse forests, each and-node represents a production. And-nodes in a parse forest are just like all the nodes in a parse tree -- they have the lhs as the parent node and the rhs symbols as child nodes.

Or-nodes represent choices among and-nodes. Each child of an or-node is one choice. A parse tree is generated from a parse forest by traversing the forest and selecting one child node at every or-node.

Marpa uses a modified form of parse forest, which I call a parse bocage. Marpa could not use standard parse forests for two reasons. First, parse forests not only contain trees, but a parse forest itself must take the form of a tree. However, the data produced by Marpa's recognizer may contain cycles. Therefore, the data structure Marpa needs is not a tree, strictly speaking, but a graph.

Second, the productions of the grammar are not repesented intact when the Marpa evaluator finds them in the Earley items. Instead, each production is broken up, and represented as links between Earley items.

This system of links comes from Aycock and Horspool. In Marpa's elaboration of the Aycock-Horspool scheme, each Earley item has a list of sources. Each source can have two elements: a predecessor and a cause.

The predecessor is optional. If present, it is a link to an Earley item. It's called a "predecessor link" because both the linking and the linked Earley item are pieces of the same production, and the linked Earley item is the "predecessor" or earlier part.

The cause element of the source is always present. It can be a token or a link to a child Earley item. The Earley item linked-to by the cause element is a child in the sense that if the productions from the two Earley items were represented in a parse tree, the production from the linking Earley item would be the parent, and the production from the linked-to Earley item would be the child.

In effect, the sources in the Earley items contain the original grammar rewritten into productions with at most two symbols on the right hand side. This is basically Chomsky Normal Form (CNF).

A CNF grammar can be represented conveniently as a binary tree. Marpa does not recreate and-nodes with the original, non-binary, structure of the grammar when it creates the parse bocage from the Earley items. Marpa could do so, but for two reasons, that doesn't make sense.

First, CNF, combined with Aycock and Horspool's split DFA states, produces a representation even more compact than a conventional parse forest. Secondly, code to traverse, iterate and evaluate binary nodes is considerably simpler than code which needs to deal with nodes which have an arbitrary number of children. Rather than rewrite the grammar into a form that's harder to process, it makes sense to leave the grammar the way it is found in the Earley items.

For these reasons, the and-nodes in parse bocages do not directly represent productions of the grammar. Instead productions are broken up, so that every and-node has at most two children.

The bocage forests of Normandy and Brittany are networks of dense hedgerows cultivated over centuries as a fence for livestock, but also for military defense. These hedges remained impressive obstacles even after the development of tanks. The Norman bocage played a major role in World War II. The term "parse bocage" seemed appropriate for the tactically-effective thicket that Marpa uses to store parses.


Copyright 2007-2010 Jeffrey Kegler, all rights reserved. Marpa is free software under the Perl license. For details see the LICENSE file in the Marpa distribution.