AST and Grammar Design Discussion

These are open (design) questions that should be answered by the thesis.

Structural and Visual Aspects

Currently the validation grammar and the visual grammar are stored in the same model. This is bad and must change, but whats a better approach?

Apart from beeing visually pleasing in its formal grammar representation it must also be meaningfully convertible in HTML. This sadly excludes the simplest possibility of simply inserting virtual linebreaks, because this doesn’t work nicely with CSS flexboxes, see minimal_indent.html. for an example how this fails. A more or less straightforward HTML layout is proposed at row-col.html.

Example grammars (whithout visual aspects)

  • Can’t be meaningfully transformed into a block language, terminal symbols are missing
grammar "xml_1" {
  node "xml"."element" {
    prop "name" { string }
    children "elements" ::= element*
    children "attributes" ::= attribute*

  node "xml"."attribute" {
    prop "name" { string }
    prop "value" { string }
grammar "json_1" {
  typedef "json"."value" ::= string | number | boolean | object | array | null
  node "json"."string" {
    prop "value" { string }
  node "json"."number" {
    prop "value" { integer }
  node "json"."boolean" {
    prop "value" { boolean }
  node "json"."object" {
    children allowed "values" ::= key-value*
  node "json"."key-value" {
    children allowed "key" ::= string
    children allowed "value" ::= value
  node "json"."array" {
    children allowed "values" ::= value*
  node "json"."null" { }

Example XML grammar (with terminal symbols, current state)c

  • Helpful: Syntax-aspects of XML are now known to the block editor
  • Terminal symbols not enough information to turn into a block language: * Missing structural information line breaks or “horizontal” / “vertical” layouts. * No possibility to define “separators” between children
  • Therefore: children command adds seperator
grammar "xml_2" {
  node "xml"."element" {
    terminal "tag-open-begin" "<"
    prop "name" { string }
    children "attributes" ::= attribute*
    terminal "tag-open-end" ">"
    children "elements" ::= element*
    terminal "tag-close" "<name/>"

  node "xml"."attribute" {
    prop "name" { string }
    terminal "equals" "="
    terminal "quot-begin" "\"
    prop "value" { string }
    terminal "quot-end" "\""

Idea: Seperate definition for “Visual Grammar”

  • Is a visual grammar and must provide visualization for all instances of node mentioned in the visualized language.
  • Adds a new type of command called block
  • Allows to interpolate properties using {{ }}
  • Inserts children using the {{#children}} directive.
  • Problem: Nesting of row elements not straightforward.
grammar "xml_3" visualizes "xml_1" {
  block "xml"."attribute" {

  block "xml"."element" {
    <row>&lt;{{name}}{{#children attributes, sep=" "}}&gt;</row>
    <indent>{{#children elements}}</indent>

Merging grammars

Sometimes languages are interweaved with one another, especially on the: HTML may contain CSS and JavaScript, many languages allow embedded JSON structures. It would possibly save lots of effort to allow grammars to be combined, e.g. to use the same CSS and JavaScript grammars that are already provided when describing HTML.

On a fundamental level, the grammars and the syntaxtrees have already been designed with this merging in mind: The language namespace is part of all definitions. The tricky part is the actual connection: How do we

Linked Trees

References between code fragments happen all the time: HTML documents reference CSS stylesheets, JavaScript files or other HTML documents, Ruby code requires other files, C loads them using #include … The same should be possible with syntaxtrees in a hopefully generic manner, so that all block editors can either display the referenced resource inline or at least allow navigation to it.

Drop Target Resolution

  • Each block introduces a new drop target, dropping something on it could mean “insert in here” or “append here”.
    • Especially tricky with constructs like if were both operations are sensible.
  • Current default:
    • Dropping on a block prioritizes the “append” operation, insertion happens only on demand * Great for SELECT of SQL: Children have different type then siblings
    • children introduce drop targets, may or may not be allowed to be empty

Implemented drop strategies

Allows a drop if the given drop location allows the insert, great (and default) for purposefully inserted drop markers.
Allow the dropped thing to “embrace” the node at the given location, effectively replacing it. This is great for things like parentheses and unary or binary expressions, but can lead to bad conflicts with e.g. function calls (which are of course the general case of unary or binary expressions).
Allow the dropped thing to take the place of the node at the given deletion, effectively deleting it. This is useful if a location is a hole of length 1, e.g. replacing is the only syntactically sound option.
Treat the drop as if it happened somewhere after the drop location (on a sibling level, not the child level). This is basically the default behavior of almost any visual and it is useful for lists of statements in imperative programming languages or lists of tables in SQL or lists of list items in JSON, …
Walks up the tree and checks all child groups of each parent whether an insertion would be possible. This is helpful in quite strongly typed grammars. In the current implementation of SQL it e.g. allows to drop the SQL`-components (``SELECT, FROM, WHERE, GROUP BY, …) virtually anywhere, because there is exactly one meaningful place that they could fit. In less strictly typed grammars this is probably not as useful.

Common drop problems and ambiguities

Appending vs Embracing in expressions in Lists
If a non-leaf expression appears in a list of expressions, dropping something on that expression could mean append (add a new expression afterwards), embrace (e.g. negating the expression) or insertAtChild (e.g. adding a function call argument). The last option is not currently implemented as a strategy, because children are inserted using holes and allowExact. This strategy gets tricky however if e.g. a function (like COUNT in SQL or every function call in JavaScript) can take any number of arguments. The ambiguity regarding this can be reduced with a stronger type system.
Missing root nodes

Synthetic nodes are a tricky thing to display, but are usually required at the root level. The “visual” roots of an SQL statement are either SELECT, INSERT, UPDATE or DELETE, but these components are actually child nodes of an querySelect, queryInsert, … But the user doesn’t want to drop those synthetic nodes ever, so there are two possibilities:

  1. Create the synthetic root node together with the tree and never allow the user to change or delete it.
  2. Don’t actually drop a single node, but offer a list of semantically equivalent options.

Option #2 is what is currently implemented. When e.g. a SELECT component is dragged from the sidebar, two trees are actually tested for dropping: Nothing but the SELECT node or the SELECT node wrapped in the synthetic querySelect root node.

Type changes on dragging
Dragging e.g. a function definition into a statement could be interpeted as “call this function”. This however requires a change of the dragged type. The same happens in SQL when dragging a named expression from the SELECT component: The user probably doesn’t want to insert <expr> as <name> into the GROUP BY component, but reference <name> there.

Dealing with ambiguity

Combing the drop strategies mentioned above may result in more then a single operation that could be carried out. It is probably not possible in all cases to resolve every ambiguity automatically, so this requires at least a nice UI.

  • A simple but sort of “brutal” version would be to simply show a modal popup with all alternatives. The minimal implementation of this is very straightforward, as the validation process generates trees for all strategies anyway. Quite a lot nicer would be a “diff” of the trees and then only the subsequent display of differences to chose from.
  • A possibly nicer version would be to leave “drop ghosts” in the tree: Instead of a single proper node, multiple feint ‘ghost node’ are inserted into the tree. These nodes require one more user interaction (e.g. a click) to actually be manifested into a proper node. This manifestations also removes all other ghosts that could possibly have been inserted, the user has therefor cleared up the ambiguity.

Structural Tree Choices

There are often many different ways to describe structurally different but semantically identical trees.