Using Happy

Users of Yacc will find Happy quite familiar. The basic idea is as follows:

  • Define the grammar you want to parse in a Happy grammar file.

  • Run the grammar through Happy, to generate a compilable Haskell module.

  • Use this module as part of your Haskell program, usually in conjunction with a lexical analyser (a function that splits the input into “tokens”, the basic unit of parsing).

Let’s run through an example. We’ll implement a parser for a simple expression syntax, consisting of integers, variables, the operators +, -, *, /, and the form let var = exp in exp. The grammar file starts off like this:

module Main where

At the top of the file is an optional module header, which is just a Haskell module header enclosed in braces. This code is emitted verbatim into the generated module, so you can put any Haskell code here at all. In a grammar file, Haskell code is always contained between curly braces to distinguish it from the grammar.

In this case, the parser will be a standalone program so we’ll call the module Main.

Next comes a couple of declarations:

%name calc
%tokentype { Token }
%error { parseError }

The first line declares the name of the parsing function that Happy will generate, in this case calc. In many cases, this is the only symbol you need to export from the module.

The second line declares the type of tokens that the parser will accept. The parser (i.e. the function calc) will be of type [Token] -> T, where T is the return type of the parser, determined by the production rules below.

The %error directive tells Happy the name of a function it should call in the event of a parse error. More about this later.

Now we declare all the possible tokens:

      let             { TokenLet }
      in              { TokenIn }
      int             { TokenInt $$ }
      var             { TokenVar $$ }
      '='             { TokenEq }
      '+'             { TokenPlus }
      '-'             { TokenMinus }
      '*'             { TokenTimes }
      '/'             { TokenDiv }
      '('             { TokenOB }
      ')'             { TokenCB }

The symbols on the left are the tokens as they will be referred to in the rest of the grammar, and to the right of each token enclosed in braces is a Haskell pattern that matches the token. The parser will expect to receive a stream of tokens, each of which will match one of the given patterns (the definition of the Token datatype is given later).

The $$ symbol is a placeholder that represents the value of this token. Normally the value of a token is the token itself, but by using the $$ symbol you can specify some component of the token object to be the value.

Like yacc, we include %% here, for no real reason.


Now we have the production rules for the grammar.

Exp   : let var '=' Exp in Exp  { Let $2 $4 $6 }
      | Exp1                    { Exp1 $1 }

Exp1  : Exp1 '+' Term           { Plus $1 $3 }
      | Exp1 '-' Term           { Minus $1 $3 }
      | Term                    { Term $1 }

Term  : Term '*' Factor         { Times $1 $3 }
      | Term '/' Factor         { Div $1 $3 }
      | Factor                  { Factor $1 }

      : int                     { Int $1 }
      | var                     { Var $1 }
      | '(' Exp ')'             { Brack $2 }

Each production consists of a non-terminal symbol on the left, followed by a colon, followed by one or more expansions on the right, separated by |. Each expansion has some Haskell code associated with it, enclosed in braces as usual.

The way to think about a parser is with each symbol having a “value”: we defined the values of the tokens above, and the grammar defines the values of non-terminal symbols in terms of sequences of other symbols (either tokens or non-terminals). In a production like this:

n   : t_1 ... t_n   { E }

whenever the parser finds the symbols t_1...t_n in the token stream, it constructs the symbol n and gives it the value E, which may refer to the values of t_1...t_n using the symbols $1...$n.

The parser reduces the input using the rules in the grammar until just one symbol remains: the first symbol defined in the grammar (namely Exp in our example). The value of this symbol is the return value from the parser.

To complete the program, we need some extra code. The grammar file may optionally contain a final code section, enclosed in curly braces.


All parsers must include a function to be called in the event of a parse error. In the %error directive earlier, we specified that the function to be called on a parse error is parseError:

parseError :: [Token] -> a
parseError _ = error "Parse error"

Note that parseError must be polymorphic in its return type a, which usually means it must be a call to error. We’ll see in Monadic Parsers how to wrap the parser in a monad so that we can do something more sensible with errors. It’s also possible to keep track of line numbers in the parser for use in error messages, this is described in Line Numbers.

Next we can declare the data type that represents the parsed expression:

data Exp
      = Let String Exp Exp
      | Exp1 Exp1
      deriving Show

data Exp1
      = Plus Exp1 Term
      | Minus Exp1 Term
      | Term Term
      deriving Show

data Term
      = Times Term Factor
      | Div Term Factor
      | Factor Factor
      deriving Show

data Factor
      = Int Int
      | Var String
      | Brack Exp
      deriving Show

And the data structure for the tokens…

data Token
      = TokenLet
      | TokenIn
      | TokenInt Int
      | TokenVar String
      | TokenEq
      | TokenPlus
      | TokenMinus
      | TokenTimes
      | TokenDiv
      | TokenOB
      | TokenCB
 deriving Show

… and a simple lexer that returns this data structure.

lexer :: String -> [Token]
lexer [] = []
lexer (c:cs)
      | isSpace c = lexer cs
      | isAlpha c = lexVar (c:cs)
      | isDigit c = lexNum (c:cs)
lexer ('=':cs) = TokenEq : lexer cs
lexer ('+':cs) = TokenPlus : lexer cs
lexer ('-':cs) = TokenMinus : lexer cs
lexer ('*':cs) = TokenTimes : lexer cs
lexer ('/':cs) = TokenDiv : lexer cs
lexer ('(':cs) = TokenOB : lexer cs
lexer (')':cs) = TokenCB : lexer cs

lexNum cs = TokenInt (read num) : lexer rest
      where (num,rest) = span isDigit cs

lexVar cs =
   case span isAlpha cs of
      ("let",rest) -> TokenLet : lexer rest
      ("in",rest)  -> TokenIn : lexer rest
      (var,rest)   -> TokenVar var : lexer rest

And finally a top-level function to take some input, parse it, and print out the result.

main = getContents >>= print . calc . lexer

After which we close the final code section:


And that’s it! A whole lexer, parser and grammar in a few dozen lines. Another good example is Happy’s own parser. Several features in Happy were developed using this as an example.

To generate the Haskell module for this parser, type the command happy example.y (where example.y is the name of the grammar file). The Haskell module will be placed in a file named example.hs. Additionally, invoking the command happy example.y -i will produce the file which contains detailed information about the parser, including states and reduction rules (see Info Files). This can be invaluable for debugging parsers, but requires some knowledge of the operation of a shift-reduce parser.

Returning other datatypes

In the above example, we used a data type to represent the syntax being parsed. However, there’s no reason why it has to be this way: you could calculate the value of the expression on the fly, using productions like this:

Term  : Term '*' Factor         { $1 * $3 }
      | Term '/' Factor         { $1 / $3 }
      | Factor                  { $1 }

The value of a Term would be the value of the expression itself, and the parser could return an integer.

This works for simple expression types, but our grammar includes variables and the let syntax. How do we know the value of a variable while we’re parsing it? We don’t, but since the Haskell code for a production can be anything at all, we could make it a function that takes an environment of variable values, and returns the computed value of the expression:

Exp   : let var '=' Exp in Exp  { \p -> $6 (($2,$4 p):p) }
      | Exp1                    { $1 }

Exp1  : Exp1 '+' Term           { \p -> $1 p + $3 p }
      | Exp1 '-' Term           { \p -> $1 p - $3 p }
      | Term                    { $1 }

Term  : Term '*' Factor         { \p -> $1 p * $3 p }
      | Term '/' Factor         { \p -> $1 p `div` $3 p }
      | Factor                  { $1 }

      : int                     { \p -> $1 }
      | var                     { \p -> case lookup $1 p of
                                        Nothing -> error "no var"
                        Just i  -> i }
      | '(' Exp ')'             { $2 }

The value of each production is a function from an environment p to a value. When parsing a let construct, we extend the environment with the new binding to find the value of the body, and the rule for var looks up its value in the environment. There’s something you can’t do in yacc :-)

Parsing sequences

A common feature in grammars is a sequence of a particular syntactic element. In EBNF, we’d write something like n+ to represent a sequence of one or more ns, and n* for zero or more. Happy doesn’t support this syntax explicitly, but you can define the equivalent sequences using simple productions.

For example, the grammar for Happy itself contains a rule like this:

prods : prod                   { [$1] }
      | prods prod             { $2 : $1 }

In other words, a sequence of productions is either a single production, or a sequence of productions followed by a single production. This recursive rule defines a sequence of one or more productions.

One thing to note about this rule is that we used left recursion to define it — we could have written it like this:

prods : prod                  { [$1] }
      | prod prods            { $1 : $2 }

The only reason we used left recursion is that Happy is more efficient at parsing left-recursive rules; they result in a constant stack-space parser, whereas right-recursive rules require stack space proportional to the length of the list being parsed. This can be extremely important where long sequences are involved, for instance in automatically generated output. For example, the parser in GHC used to use right-recursion to parse lists, and as a result it failed to parse some Happy-generated modules due to running out of stack space!

One implication of using left recursion is that the resulting list comes out reversed, and you have to reverse it again to get it in the original order. Take a look at the Happy grammar for Haskell for many examples of this.

Parsing sequences of zero or more elements requires a trivial change to the above pattern:

prods : {- empty -}           { [] }
      | prods prod            { $2 : $1 }

Yes — empty productions are allowed. The normal convention is to include the comment {- empty -} to make it more obvious to a reader of the code what’s going on.

Sequences with separators

A common type of sequence is one with a separator: for instance function bodies in C consist of statements separated by semicolons. To parse this kind of sequence we use a production like this:

stmts : stmt                   { [$1] }
      | stmts ';' stmt         { $3 : $1 }

If the ; is to be a terminator rather than a separator (i.e. there should be one following each statement), we can remove the semicolon from the above rule and redefine stmt as

stmt : stmt1 ';'              { $1 }

where stmt1 is the real definition of statements.

We might like to allow extra semicolons between statements, to be a bit more liberal in what we allow as legal syntax. We probably just want the parser to ignore these extra semicolons, and not generate a ``null statement’’ value or something. The following rule parses a sequence of zero or more statements separated by semicolons, in which the statements may be empty:

stmts : stmts ';' stmt          { $3 : $1 }
      | stmts ';'               { $1 }
      | stmt            { [$1] }
      | {- empty -}     { [] }

Parsing sequences of one or more possibly null statements is left as an exercise for the reader…

Using Precedences

Going back to our earlier expression-parsing example, wouldn’t it be nicer if we didn’t have to explicitly separate the expressions into terms and factors, merely to make it clear that '*' and '/' operators bind more tightly than '+' and '-'?

We could just change the grammar as follows (making the appropriate changes to the expression datatype too):

Exp   : let var '=' Exp in Exp  { Let $2 $4 $6 }
      | Exp '+' Exp             { Plus $1 $3 }
      | Exp '-' Exp             { Minus $1 $3 }
      | Exp '*' Exp             { Times $1 $3 }
      | Exp '/' Exp             { Div $1 $3 }
      | '(' Exp ')'             { Brack $2 }
      | int                     { Int $1 }
      | var                     { Var $1 }

but now Happy will complain that there are shift/reduce conflicts because the grammar is ambiguous — we haven’t specified whether e.g. 1 + 2 * 3 is to be parsed as 1 + (2 * 3) or (1 + 2) * 3. Happy allows these ambiguities to be resolved by specifying the precedences of the operators involved using directives in the header 2:

%right in
%left '+' '-'
%left '*' '/'

The %left or %right directive is followed by a list of terminals, and declares all these tokens to be left or right-associative respectively. The precedence of these tokens with respect to other tokens is established by the order of the %left and %right directives: earlier means lower precedence. A higher precedence causes an operator to bind more tightly; in our example above, because '*' has a higher precedence than '+', the expression 1 + 2 * 3 will parse as 1 + (2 * 3).

What happens when two operators have the same precedence? This is when the associativity comes into play. Operators specified as left associative will cause expressions like 1 + 2 - 3 to parse as (1 + 2) - 3, whereas right-associative operators would parse as 1 + (2 - 3). There is also a %nonassoc directive which indicates that the specified operators may not be used together. For example, if we add the comparison operators '>' and '<' to our grammar, then we would probably give their precedence as:

%right in
%nonassoc '>' '<'
%left '+' '-'
%left '*' '/'

which indicates that '>' and '<' bind less tightly than the other operators, and the non-associativity causes expressions such as 1 > 2 > 3 to be disallowed.

How precedence works

The precedence directives, %left, %right and %nonassoc, assign precedence levels to the tokens in the declaration. A rule in the grammar may also have a precedence: if the last terminal in the right hand side of the rule has a precedence, then this is the precedence of the whole rule.

The precedences are used to resolve ambiguities in the grammar. If there is a shift/reduce conflict, then the precedence of the rule and the lookahead token are examined in order to resolve the conflict:

  • If the precedence of the rule is higher, then the conflict is resolved as a reduce.

  • If the precedence of the lookahead token is higher, then the conflict is resolved as a shift.

  • If the precedences are equal, then

    • If the token is left-associative, then reduce

    • If the token is right-associative, then shift

    • If the token is non-associative, then fail

  • If either the rule or the token has no precedence, then the default is to shift (these conflicts are reported by Happy, whereas ones that are automatically resolved by the precedence rules are not).

Context-dependent Precedence

The precedence of an individual rule can be overridden, using context precedence. This is useful when, for example, a particular token has a different precedence depending on the context. A common example is the minus sign: it has high precedence when used as prefix negation, but a lower precedence when used as binary subtraction.

We can implement this in Happy as follows:

%right in
%nonassoc '>' '<'
%left '+' '-'
%left '*' '/'
%left NEG

Exp   : let var '=' Exp in Exp  { Let $2 $4 $6 }
      | Exp '+' Exp             { Plus $1 $3 }
      | Exp '-' Exp             { Minus $1 $3 }
      | Exp '*' Exp             { Times $1 $3 }
      | Exp '/' Exp             { Div $1 $3 }
      | '(' Exp ')'             { Brack $2 }
      | '-' Exp %prec NEG       { Negate $2 }
      | int                     { Int $1 }
      | var                     { Var $1 }

We invent a new token NEG as a placeholder for the precedence of our prefix negation rule. The NEG token doesn’t need to appear in a %token directive. The prefix negation rule has a %prec NEG directive attached, which overrides the default precedence for the rule (which would normally be the precedence of ‘-’) with the precedence of NEG.

The %shift directive for lowest precedence rules

Rules annotated with the %shift directive have the lowest possible precedence and are non-associative. A shift/reduce conflict that involves such a rule is resolved as a shift. One can think of %shift as %prec SHIFT such that SHIFT has lower precedence than any other token.

This is useful in conjunction with %expect 0 to explicitly point out all rules in the grammar that result in conflicts, and thereby resolve such conflicts.

Type Signatures

Happy allows you to include type signatures in the grammar file itself, to indicate the type of each production. This has several benefits:

  • Documentation: including types in the grammar helps to document the grammar for someone else (and indeed yourself) reading the code.

  • Fixing type errors in the generated module can become slightly easier if Happy has inserted type signatures for you. This is a slightly dubious benefit, since type errors in the generated module are still somewhat difficult to find.

  • Type signatures generally help the Haskell compiler to compile the parser faster. This is important when really large grammar files are being used.

The syntax for type signatures in the grammar file is as follows:

stmts   :: { [ Stmt ] }
stmts   : stmts stmt                { $2 : $1 }
    | stmt                      { [$1] }

In fact, you can leave out the superfluous occurrence of stmts:

stmts   :: { [ Stmt ] }
    : stmts stmt                { $2 : $1 }
    | stmt                      { [$1] }

Note that currently, you have to include type signatures for all the productions in the grammar to benefit from the second and third points above. This is due to boring technical reasons, but it is hoped that this restriction can be removed in the future.

It is possible to have productions with polymorphic or overloaded types. However, because the type of each production becomes the argument type of a constructor in an algebraic datatype in the generated source file, compiling the generated file requires a compiler that supports local universal quantification. GHC (with the -fglasgow-exts option) and Hugs are known to support this.

Monadic Parsers

Happy has support for threading a monad through the generated parser. This might be useful for several reasons:

  • Handling parse errors by using an exception monad (see Handling Parse Errors).

  • Keeping track of line numbers in the input file, for example for use in error messages (see Line Numbers).

  • Performing IO operations during parsing.

  • Parsing languages with context-dependencies (such as C) require some state in the parser.

Adding monadic support to your parser couldn’t be simpler. Just add the following directive to the declaration section of the grammar file:

%monad { <type> } [ { <then> } { <return> } ]

where <type> is the type constructor for the monad, <then> is the bind operation of the monad, and <return> is the return operation. If you leave out the names for the bind and return operations, Happy assumes that <type> is an instance of the standard Haskell type class Monad and uses the overloaded names for the bind and return operations.

When this declaration is included in the grammar, Happy makes a couple of changes to the generated parser: the types of the main parser function and parseError (the function named in %error) become [Token] -> P a where P is the monad type constructor, and the function must be polymorphic in a. In other words, Happy adds an application of the <return> operation defined in the declaration above, around the result of the parser (parseError is affected because it must have the same return type as the parser). And that’s all it does.

This still isn’t very useful: all you can do is return something of monadic type from parseError. How do you specify that the productions can also have type P a? Most of the time, you don’t want a production to have this type: you’d have to write explicit returnPs everywhere. However, there may be a few rules in a grammar that need to get at the monad, so Happy has a special syntax for monadic actions:

n  :  t_1 ... t_n          {% <expr> }

The % in the action indicates that this is a monadic action, with type P a, where a is the real return type of the production. When Happy reduces one of these rules, it evaluates the expression

<expr> `then` \result -> <continue parsing>

Happy uses result as the real semantic value of the production. During parsing, several monadic actions might be reduced, resulting in a sequence like

<expr1> `then` \r1 ->
<expr2> `then` \r2 ->
return <expr3>

The monadic actions are performed in the order that they are reduced. If we consider the parse as a tree, then reductions happen in a depth-first left-to-right manner. The great thing about adding a monad to your parser is that it doesn’t impose any performance overhead for normal reductions — only the monadic ones are translated like this.

Take a look at the Haskell parser for a good illustration of how to use a monad in your parser: it contains examples of all the principles discussed in this section, namely parse errors, a threaded lexer, line/column numbers, and state communication between the parser and lexer.

The following sections consider a couple of uses for monadic parsers, and describe how to also thread the monad through the lexical analyser.

Handling Parse Errors

It’s not very convenient to just call error when a parse error is detected: in a robust setting, you’d like the program to recover gracefully and report a useful error message to the user. Exceptions (of which errors are a special case) are normally implemented in Haskell by using an exception monad, something like:

data E a = Ok a | Failed String

thenE :: E a -> (a -> E b) -> E b
m `thenE` k =
   case m of
       Ok a     -> k a
       Failed e -> Failed e

returnE :: a -> E a
returnE a = Ok a

failE :: String -> E a
failE err = Failed err

catchE :: E a -> (String -> E a) -> E a
catchE m k =
   case m of
      Ok a     -> Ok a
      Failed e -> k e

This monad just uses a string as the error type. The functions thenE and returnE are the usual bind and return operations of the monad, failE raises an error, and catchE is a combinator for handling exceptions.

We can add this monad to the parser with the declaration

%monad { E } { thenE } { returnE }

Now, without changing the grammar, we can change the definition of parseError and have something sensible happen for a parse error:

parseError tokens = failE "Parse error"

The parser now raises an exception in the monad instead of bombing out on a parse error.

We can also generate errors during parsing. There are times when it is more convenient to parse a more general language than that which is actually intended, and check it later. An example comes from Haskell, where the precedence values in infix declarations must be between 0 and 9:

prec :: { Int }
      : int    {% if $1 < 0 || $1 > 9
                    then failE "Precedence out of range"
                else returnE $1

The monadic action allows the check to be placed in the parser itself, where it belongs.

Threaded Lexers

Happy allows the monad concept to be extended to the lexical analyser, too. This has several useful consequences:

  • Lexical errors can be treated in the same way as parse errors, using an exception monad.

  • Information such as the current file and line number can be communicated between the lexer and parser.

  • General state communication between the parser and lexer — for example, implementation of the Haskell layout rule requires this kind of interaction.

  • IO operations can be performed in the lexer — this could be useful for following import/include declarations for instance.

A monadic lexer is requested by adding the following declaration to the grammar file:

%lexer { <lexer> } { <eof> }

where <lexer> is the name of the lexical analyser function, and <eof> is a token that is to be treated as the end of file.

When using a monadic lexer, the parser no longer reads a list of tokens. Instead, it calls the lexical analysis function for each new token to be read. This has the side effect of eliminating the intermediate list of tokens, which is a slight performance win.

The type of the main parser function is now just P a — the input is being handled completely within the monad.

The type of parseError becomes Token -> P a; that is, it takes Happy’s current lookahead token as input. This can be useful, because the error function probably wants to report the token at which the parse error occurred, and otherwise the lexer would have to store this token in the monad.

The lexical analysis function must have the following type:

lexer :: (Token -> P a) -> P a

where P is the monad type constructor declared with %monad, and a can be replaced by the parser return type if desired.

You can see from this type that the lexer takes a continuation as an argument. The lexer is to find the next token, and pass it to this continuation to carry on with the parse. Obviously, we need to keep track of the input in the monad somehow, so that the lexer can do something different each time it’s called!

Let’s take the exception monad above, and extend it to add the input string so that we can use it with a threaded lexer.

data ParseResult a = Ok a | Failed String
type P a = String -> ParseResult a

thenP :: P a -> (a -> P b) -> P b
m `thenP` k = \s ->
   case m s of
       Ok a     -> k a s
       Failed e -> Failed e

returnP :: a -> P a
returnP a = \s -> Ok a

failP :: String -> P a
failP err = \s -> Failed err

catchP :: P a -> (String -> P a) -> P a
catchP m k = \s ->
   case m s of
      Ok a     -> Ok a
      Failed e -> k e s

Notice that this isn’t a real state monad — the input string just gets passed around, not returned. Our lexer will now look something like this:

lexer :: (Token -> P a) -> P a
lexer cont s =
    ... lexical analysis code ...
    cont token s'

the lexer grabs the continuation and the input string, finds the next token token, and passes it together with the remaining input string s' to the continuation.

We can now indicate lexical errors by ignoring the continuation and calling failP "error message" s within the lexer (don’t forget to pass the input string to make the types work out).

This may all seem a bit weird. Why, you ask, doesn’t the lexer just have type P Token? It was done this way for performance reasons — this formulation sometimes means that you can use a reader monad instead of a state monad for P, and the reader monad might be faster. It’s not at all clear that this reasoning still holds (or indeed ever held), and it’s entirely possible that the use of a continuation here is just a misfeature.

If you want a lexer of type P Token, then just define a wrapper to deal with the continuation:

lexwrap :: (Token -> P a) -> P a
lexwrap cont = real_lexer `thenP` \token -> cont token

Monadic productions with %lexer

The {% ... } actions work fine with %lexer, but additionally there are two more forms which are useful in certain cases. Firstly:

n  :  t_1 ... t_n          {%^ <expr> }

In this case, <expr> has type Token -> P a. That is, Happy passes the current lookahead token to the monadic action <expr>. This is a useful way to get hold of Happy’s current lookahead token without having to store it in the monad.

n  :  t_1 ... t_n          {%% <expr> }

This is a slight variant on the previous form. The type of <expr> is the same, but in this case the lookahead token is actually discarded and a new token is read from the input. This can be useful when you want to change the next token and continue parsing.

Line Numbers

Previous versions of Happy had a %newline directive that enabled simple line numbers to be counted by the parser and referenced in the actions. We warned you that this facility may go away and be replaced by something more general, well guess what? :-)

Line numbers can now be dealt with quite straightforwardly using a monadic parser/lexer combination. Ok, we have to extend the monad a bit more:

type LineNumber = Int
type P a = String -> LineNumber -> ParseResult a

getLineNo :: P LineNumber
getLineNo = \s l -> Ok l

(the rest of the functions in the monad follow by just adding the extra line number argument in the same way as the input string). Again, the line number is just passed down, not returned: this is OK because of the continuation-based lexer that can change the line number and pass the new one to the continuation.

The lexer can now update the line number as follows:

lexer cont s =
  case s of
     '\n':s  ->  \line -> lexer cont s (line + 1)
     ... rest of lexical analysis ...

It’s as simple as that. Take a look at Happy’s own parser if you have the sources lying around, it uses a monad just like the one above.

Reporting the line number of a parse error is achieved by changing parseError to look something like this:

parseError :: Token -> P a
parseError = getLineNo `thenP` \line ->
             failP (show line ++ ": parse error")

We can also get hold of the line number during parsing, to put it in the parsed data structure for future reference. A good way to do this is to have a production in the grammar that returns the current line number:

lineno :: { LineNumber }
        : {- empty -}      {% getLineNo }

The semantic value of lineno is the line number of the last token read — this will always be the token directly following the lineno symbol in the grammar, since Happy always keeps one lookahead token in reserve.


The types of various functions related to the parser are dependent on what combination of %monad and %lexer directives are present in the grammar. For reference, we list those types here. In the following types, t is the return type of the parser. A type containing a type variable indicates that the specified function must be polymorphic.

  • No ``%monad`` or ``%lexer``

    parse      :: [Token] -> t
    parseError :: [Token] -> a
  • with ``%monad``

    parse      :: [Token] -> P t
    parseError :: [Token] -> P a
  • with ``%lexer``

    parse      :: T t
    parseError :: Token -> T a
    lexer      :: (Token -> T a) -> T a

    where the type constructor T is whatever you want (usually T a = String -> a). I’m not sure if this is useful, or even if it works properly.

  • with ``%monad`` and ``%lexer``

    parse      :: P t
    parseError :: Token -> P a
    lexer      :: (Token -> P a) -> P a

The Error Token

Happy supports a limited form of error recovery, using the special symbol error in a grammar file. When Happy finds a parse error during parsing, it automatically inserts the error symbol; if your grammar deals with error explicitly, then it can detect the error and carry on.

For example, the Happy grammar for Haskell uses error recovery to implement Haskell layout. The grammar has a rule that looks like this:

close : '}'                  { () }
      | error            { () }

This says that a close brace in a layout-indented context may be either a curly brace (inserted by the lexical analyser), or a parse error.

This rule is used to parse expressions like let x = e in e': the layout system inserts an open brace before x, and the occurrence of the in symbol generates a parse error, which is interpreted as a close brace by the above rule.

Note for yacc users: this form of error recovery is strictly more limited than that provided by yacc. During a parse error condition, yacc attempts to discard states and tokens in order to get back into a state where parsing may continue; Happy doesn’t do this. The reason is that normal yacc error recovery is notoriously hard to describe, and the semantics depend heavily on the workings of a shift-reduce parser. Furthermore, different implementations of yacc appear to implement error recovery differently. Happy’s limited error recovery on the other hand is well-defined, as is just sufficient to implement the Haskell layout rule (which is why it was added in the first place).

Generating Multiple Parsers From a Single Grammar

It is often useful to use a single grammar to describe multiple parsers, where each parser has a different top-level non-terminal, but parts of the grammar are shared between parsers. A classic example of this is an interpreter, which needs to be able to parse both entire files and single expressions: the expression grammar is likely to be identical for the two parsers, so we would like to use a single grammar but have two entry points.

Happy lets you do this by allowing multiple %name directives in the grammar file. The %name directive takes an optional second parameter specifying the top-level non-terminal for this parser, so we may specify multiple parsers like so:

%name parse1 non-terminal1
%name parse2 non-terminal2

Happy will generate from this a module which defines two functions parse1 and parse2, which parse the grammars given by non-terminal1 and non-terminal2 respectively. Each parsing function will of course have a different type, depending on the type of the appropriate non-terminal.


Users of yacc will find this familiar, Happy’s precedence scheme works in exactly the same way.