Handwritten Parsers & Lexers in Go

Handwritten Parsers & Lexers in Go

In these days of web apps and REST APIs it seems that writing parsers is a dying art. You may think parsers are a complex undertaking only reserved for programming language designers but I’d like to dispel this idea. Over the past few years I’ve written parsers for JSON, CSS3, and database query languages and the more that I write parsers the more that I love them.

The Basics

Let’s start off with the basics: what is a lexer and what is a parser? When we parse a language (or, technically, a “formal grammar”) we do it in two phases. First we break up series of characters into tokens. For a SQL-like language these tokens may be “whitespace”, “number”, “SELECT”, etc. This process is called lexing (or tokenizing or scanning).

Take this simple SQL SELECT statement as an example:

SELECT * FROM mytable

When we tokenize this string we’d see it as:

`SELECT` • `WS` • `ASTERISK` • `WS` • `FROM` • `WS` • `STRING<"mytable">`

This process, called lexical analysis, is similar to how we break up words in a sentence when we read. These tokens then get fed to a parser which performs semantic analysis.

The parser’s job is to make sense of these tokens and make sure they’re in the right order. This is similar to how we derive meaning from combining words in a sentence. Our parser will construct an abstract syntax tree (AST) from our series of tokens and the AST is what our application will use.

In our SQL SELECT example, our AST may look like:

type SelectStatement struct {
	Fields []string
	TableName string

Parser Generators

Many people use parser generators to automatically write a parser and lexer for them. There are many tools made to do this: lex, yacc, ragel. There’s even a Go implementation of yacc built into the go toolchain.

However, after using parser generators many times I’ve found them to be problematic. First, they involve learning a new language to declare your language format. Second, they’re difficult to debug. For example, try reading the Ruby language’s yacc file. Eek!

After watching a talk by Rob Pike on lexical scanning and reading the implementation of the go standard library package, I realized how much easier and simpler it is to hand write your parser and lexer. Let’s walk through the process with a simple example.

Writing a Lexer in Go

Defining our tokens

Let’s start by writing a simple parser and lexer for SQL SELECT statements. First, we need to define what tokens we’ll allow in our language. We’ll only allow a small subset of the SQL language:

// Token represents a lexical token.
type Token int

const (
	// Special tokens
	ILLEGAL Token = iota

	// Literals
	IDENT // fields, table_name

	// Misc characters
	COMMA    // ,

	// Keywords

We’ll use these tokens to represent series of characters. For example, WS will represent one or more whitespace characters and IDENT will represent an identifier such as a field name or a table name.

Defining character classes

It’s useful to define functions that will let us check the type of character. Here we’ll define two functions: one to check if a character is whitespace and one to check if the character is a letter.

func isWhitespace(ch rune) bool {
	return ch == ' ' || ch == '\t' || ch == '\n'

func isLetter(ch rune) bool {
	return (ch >= 'a' && ch <= 'z') || (ch >= 'A' && ch <= 'Z')

It’s also useful to define an “EOF” rune so that we can treat EOF like any other character:

var eof = rune(0)

Scanning our input

Next we’ll want to define our Scanner type. This type will wrap our input reader with a bufio.Reader so we can peek ahead at characters. We’ll also add helper functions for reading and unreading characters from our underlying reader.

// Scanner represents a lexical scanner.
type Scanner struct {
	r *bufio.Reader

// NewScanner returns a new instance of Scanner.
func NewScanner(r io.Reader) *Scanner {
	return &Scanner{r: bufio.NewReader(r)}

// read reads the next rune from the bufferred reader.
// Returns the rune(0) if an error occurs (or io.EOF is returned).
func (s *Scanner) read() rune {
	ch, _, err := s.r.ReadRune()
	if err != nil {
		return eof
	return ch

// unread places the previously read rune back on the reader.
func (s *Scanner) unread() { _ = s.r.UnreadRune() }

The entry function into Scanner will be the Scan() method which return the next token and the literal string that it represents:

// Scan returns the next token and literal value.
func (s *Scanner) Scan() (tok Token, lit string) {
	// Read the next rune.
	ch := s.read()

	// If we see whitespace then consume all contiguous whitespace.
	// If we see a letter then consume as an ident or reserved word.
	if isWhitespace(ch) {
		return s.scanWhitespace()
	} else if isLetter(ch) {
		return s.scanIdent()

	// Otherwise read the individual character.
	switch ch {
	case eof:
		return EOF, ""
	case '*':
		return ASTERISK, string(ch)
	case ',':
		return COMMA, string(ch)

	return ILLEGAL, string(ch)

This entry function starts by reading the first character. If the character is whitespace then it is consumed with all contiguous whitespace characters. If it’s a letter then it’s treated as the start of an identifier or keyword. Otherwise we’ll check to see if it’s one of our single character tokens.

Scanning contiguous characters

When we want to consume multiple characters in a row we can do this in a simple loop. Here in scanWhitespace() we’ll consume whitespace characters until we hit a non-whitespace character:

// scanWhitespace consumes the current rune and all contiguous whitespace.
func (s *Scanner) scanWhitespace() (tok Token, lit string) {
	// Create a buffer and read the current character into it.
	var buf bytes.Buffer

	// Read every subsequent whitespace character into the buffer.
	// Non-whitespace characters and EOF will cause the loop to exit.
	for {
		if ch := s.read(); ch == eof {
		} else if !isWhitespace(ch) {
		} else {

	return WS, buf.String()

The same logic can be applied to scanning our identifiers. Here in scanIdent() we’ll read all letters and underscores until we hit a different character:

// scanIdent consumes the current rune and all contiguous ident runes.
func (s *Scanner) scanIdent() (tok Token, lit string) {
	// Create a buffer and read the current character into it.
	var buf bytes.Buffer

	// Read every subsequent ident character into the buffer.
	// Non-ident characters and EOF will cause the loop to exit.
	for {
		if ch := s.read(); ch == eof {
		} else if !isLetter(ch) && !isDigit(ch) && ch != '_' {
		} else {
			_, _ = buf.WriteRune(ch)

	// If the string matches a keyword then return that keyword.
	switch strings.ToUpper(buf.String()) {
	case "SELECT":
		return SELECT, buf.String()
	case "FROM":
		return FROM, buf.String()

	// Otherwise return as a regular identifier.
	return IDENT, buf.String()

This function also checks at the end if the literal string is a reserved word. If so then a specialized token is returned.

Writing a Parser in Go

Setting up the parser

Once we have our lexer ready, parsing a SQL statement becomes easier. First let’s define our Parser:

// Parser represents a parser.
type Parser struct {
	s   *Scanner
	buf struct {
		tok Token  // last read token
		lit string // last read literal
		n   int    // buffer size (max=1)

// NewParser returns a new instance of Parser.
func NewParser(r io.Reader) *Parser {
	return &Parser{s: NewScanner(r)}

Our parser simply wraps our scanner but also adds a buffer for the last read token. We’ll define helper functions for scanning and unscanning so we can use this buffer:

// scan returns the next token from the underlying scanner.
// If a token has been unscanned then read that instead.
func (p *Parser) scan() (tok Token, lit string) {
	// If we have a token on the buffer, then return it.
	if p.buf.n != 0 {
		p.buf.n = 0
		return p.buf.tok, p.buf.lit

	// Otherwise read the next token from the scanner.
	tok, lit = p.s.Scan()

	// Save it to the buffer in case we unscan later.
	p.buf.tok, p.buf.lit = tok, lit


// unscan pushes the previously read token back onto the buffer.
func (p *Parser) unscan() { p.buf.n = 1 }

Our parser also doesn’t care about whitespace at this point so we’ll define a helper function to find the next non-whitespace token:

// scanIgnoreWhitespace scans the next non-whitespace token.
func (p *Parser) scanIgnoreWhitespace() (tok Token, lit string) {
	tok, lit = p.scan()
	if tok == WS {
		tok, lit = p.scan()

Parsing the input

Our parser’s entry function will be the Parse() method. This function will parse the next SELECT statement from the reader. If we had multiple statements in our reader then we could call this function repeatedly.

func (p *Parser) Parse() (*SelectStatement, error)

Let’s break this function down into small parts. First we’ll define the AST structure we want to return from our function:

stmt := &SelectStatement{}

Then we’ll make sure there’s a SELECT token. If we don’t see the token we expect then we’ll return an error to report the string we found instead.

if tok, lit := p.scanIgnoreWhitespace(); tok != SELECT {
	return nil, fmt.Errorf("found %q, expected SELECT", lit)

Next we want to parse a comma-delimited list of fields. In our parser we’re just considering identifiers and an asterisk as possible fields:

for {
	// Read a field.
	tok, lit := p.scanIgnoreWhitespace()
	if tok != IDENT && tok != ASTERISK {
		return nil, fmt.Errorf("found %q, expected field", lit)
	stmt.Fields = append(stmt.Fields, lit)

	// If the next token is not a comma then break the loop.
	if tok, _ := p.scanIgnoreWhitespace(); tok != COMMA {

After our field list we want to see a FROM keyword:

// Next we should see the "FROM" keyword.
if tok, lit := p.scanIgnoreWhitespace(); tok != FROM {
	return nil, fmt.Errorf("found %q, expected FROM", lit)

Then we want to see the name of the table we’re selecting from. This should be an identifier token:

tok, lit := p.scanIgnoreWhitespace()
if tok != IDENT {
	return nil, fmt.Errorf("found %q, expected table name", lit)
stmt.TableName = lit

If we’ve gotten this far then we’ve successfully parsed a simple SQL SELECT statement so we can return our AST structure:

return stmt, nil

Congrats! You’ve just built a working parser!

Diving in deeper

You can find the full source of this example (with tests) at:


This parser example was heavily influenced by the InfluxQL parser. If you’re interested in diving deeper and understanding multiple statement parsing, expression parsing, or operator precedence then I encourage you to check out the repository:


If you have any questions or just love chatting about parsers, please find me on Twitter at @benbjohnson.

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