Backtracking parsers

Backtracking parsers are a second alternative of stream parsers and functional parsers.

Backtracking parsers are close to functional parsers: they use the same stream type, "Fstream.t", and their syntax is almost identical, its introducing keyword being "bparser" instead of "fparser".

The difference is that they are implemented with full backtracking and that they return values of the type "option" of the triplet: 1/ value, 2/ remaining stream and 3/ continuation.

  1. Syntax
  2. Semantics
  3. Example


The syntax of backtracking parsers is added together with the syntax of functional parsers, when the kit "pa_fstream.cmo" is loaded. It is:

          expression ::= bparser
                       | match-with-bparser
             bparser ::= "bparser" pos-opt "[" parser-cases "]"
                       | "bparser" pos-opt parser-case
  match-with-bparser ::= "match" expression "with" bparser
        parser-cases ::= parser-cases parser-case
                       | <nothing>
         parser-case ::= "[:" stream-pattern ":]" pos-opt "->" expression
                       | "[:" ":]" pos-opt "->" expression
      stream-pattern ::= stream-patt-comp
                       | stream-patt-comp ";" stream-pattern
    stream-patt-comp ::= "`" pattern
                       | "`" pattern "when" expression
                       | pattern "=" expression
                       | pattern
                       | "when" expression
             pos-opt ::= pattern
                       | <nothing>



The backtracking parsers, like classical parsers and functional parsers, use a recursive descent algorithm. But:

For example, the following grammar:

   E -> X Y
   X -> a b | a
   Y -> b

works, with the backtracking algorithm, for the input "a b".

Parsing with the non-terminal "E", the non-terminal "X" first accepts the input "a b" with its first rule. Then when "Y" is called, the parsing fails since nothing remains in the input stream.

In the rule "X Y" of the non-terminal "E", the non-terminal "Y" having failed, the control is given the the continuation of the non-terminal "X". This continuation is its second rule containing only "a". Then "Y" is called and accepted.

This case does not work with functional parsers since when the rule "a b" of the non-terminal "X" is accepted, it is definitive. If the input starts with "a b", there is no way to apply its second rule.

Backtracking parsers are strictly more powerful than functional parsers.


A backtracking parser whose stream elements are of type "t1", and whose semantic actions are of some type "t2", is of type:

   Fstream.t t1 -> option (t * Fstream.t t1 * Fstream.kont t1 t2)

If the backtracking parsers fails, its returning value is "None".

If it succeeds, its returning value is "Some (x, strm, k)" where "x" is its result, "strm" the remaining stream, and "k" the continuation.

The continuation is internally used in the backtracking algorithm, but is can also be used in the main call to compute the next solution, using the function "Fstream.bcontinue".

It is also possible to directly get the list of all solutions by calling the function "Fstream.bparse_all".

Syntax errors

Like for functional parsers, in case of syntax error, the error position can be found by using the function "Fstream.count_unfrozen", the token in error being the last unfrozen element of the stream.

A syntax error is not really an error: for the backtracking parsers, like for functional parsers, it is viewed as a "non-working" case and another solution is searched.

In the backtracking algorithm, depending on the grammar and the input, the search of the next solution can be very long. A solution is proposed for that in the extensible grammars system when the parsing algorithm is set to "backtracking".


Here is an example which just shows the backtracking algorithm but without parsing, an empty stream being given as parameter and never referred.

It creates a list of three strings, each of them being choosen between "A", "B" and "C".

The code is:

  #load "pa_fstream.cmo";
  value choice = bparser [ [: :] -> "A" | [: :] -> "B" | [: :] -> "C" ];
  value combine = bparser [: x = choice; y = choice; z = choice :] -> [x; y; z];

The function "combine" returns the first solution:

  # combine (fstream [: :]);
  - : option (list string * Fstream.t '_a * Fstream.kont '_a (list string)) =
  Some (["A"; "A"; "A"], <abstr>, Fstream.K <fun>)

The function "Fstream.bparse_all" returns the list of all solutions, showing the interest of the backtracking:

  # Fstream.bparse_all combine (fstream [: :]);
  - : list (list string) =
  [["A"; "A"; "A"]; ["A"; "A"; "B"]; ["A"; "A"; "C"]; ["A"; "B"; "A"];
   ["A"; "B"; "B"]; ["A"; "B"; "C"]; ["A"; "C"; "A"]; ["A"; "C"; "B"];
   ["A"; "C"; "C"]; ["B"; "A"; "A"]; ["B"; "A"; "B"]; ["B"; "A"; "C"];
   ["B"; "B"; "A"]; ["B"; "B"; "B"]; ["B"; "B"; "C"]; ["B"; "C"; "A"];
   ["B"; "C"; "B"]; ["B"; "C"; "C"]; ["C"; "A"; "A"]; ["C"; "A"; "B"];
   ["C"; "A"; "C"]; ["C"; "B"; "A"]; ["C"; "B"; "B"]; ["C"; "B"; "C"];
   ["C"; "C"; "A"]; ["C"; "C"; "B"]; ["C"; "C"; "C"]]

Copyright 2007-2012 Daniel de Rauglaudre (INRIA)

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