How To Write an Interpreter for a Lambda-Calculus-Based Language

Domain-specific languages are very useful, and ones that allow computation are more useful still. And as it turns out, they are not that difficult to write. Assuming you are competent in Haskell, I’ll walk you through the basic steps of writing an interpreter for such a language, and you can fill in the details.

Our language will be

  • interpreted,
  • based on the lambda calculus, with variable references, function applications, and function abstractions,
  • lexically scoped, meaning that names are resolved at their use in the source code,
  • dynamically-typed (or unityped as Robert Harper might say), meaning that there is one type for all values that is a sum of various useful types for text, numbers, lists, etc., and most importantly, functions,
  • pure, meaning that functions have no side-effects, although it’s not hard to adapt this to IO or some other monad if you want.

I won’t spend much time on syntax, but for familiarity, any examples of the language itself will look roughly like Haskell where possible.

1. Value type

You’ll need a type to represent the values your language works on, a sum of all the types of values you want to work with. Since the language is based on the lambda calculus, it will need to include a constructor for functions. For example:

Note that we’re handling errors as a kind of value (VError), but there are other approaches to error-handling.

2. Apply function

This is a function takes a “function” value and an “argument” value and applies them. It’ll probably look something like this:

Note how we pass through errors that are being used as functions. if we want to, we could also pass through errors that are being used as arguments, making all functions “strict”.

3. The expression type

You’ll need a type for expressions. An expressions has some set of free (unbound) variables, which can then be bound in composition with other expressions. For example:

f a 3 has free variables f a
let p=q in p has free variables q
(\a -> a) 1 has no free variables

Expressions with no free variables are “closed”, those with one or more are “open”.

Here’s the magic type for expressions with lexical scope:

There are lots of variations and generalisations of this type, but this is the basic form. (Name is of course the type of names of variables, probably a synonym for String or Text.) Here’s how it represents expressions, all of type Expr Value:

text value
4 ClosedExpr $ VInt 4
a OpenExpr "a" $ ClosedExpr $ \a -> a
f 1 OpenExpr "f" $ ClosedExpr $ \f -> vapply f (VInt 1)
f a OpenExpr "f" $ OpenExpr "a" $ ClosedExpr $ \f a -> vapply f a — be careful about argument order

4. instance Applicative Expr

You’ll need to create Functor and Applicative instances for your expression type, which I’ll leave for you to do. It’s easy to get the argument ordering wrong, but we’ll catch this with tests. The (<*>) function gives you the “application” operation of the lambda calculus, while pure creates constant expressions.

5. var, abstract and let

You’ll need to create functions for the other lambda calculus operations:

It’s easy to write exprLet using exprAbstract, you simply make this transformation:

Again, if you implement these wrong your tests will catch them.

6. Recursive let-binding

Of course, this let-binding operation doesn’t allow recursion. The definition cannot refer to the name being defined, nor can you have a set of definitions that refer to each other cyclically. This might be what you want, but if it isn’t, no worries, Haskell is a lazy language and it’s straightforward to implement recursive let-binding (letrec) in terms of sequential let-binding (letseq).

To show how, let’s first see how it works in the case of a single binding. It’s simply this transformation:

Now for a set of bindings, the idea is to gather them together into a single binding, and perform the same transformation:

Of course, you’ll need to determine a suitable type for vars, with corresponding join and extractN functions, paying attention to strictness and irrefutability in matching.

7. Evaluation

Evaluation is turning an expression into a resulting value. This is pretty easy: if an expression is closed, you have a result; if it’s open, then variables have been left unbound:

8. Parsing, generally

So now you’ll need to parse text into expressions. The parsec library is well-suited for this; the Parser monad basically does what you want. The main caveat is how it handles failure in choice:

p <|> q: if p fails and consumed no input, then q  (otherwise propagate p’s failure)
try p <|> q: if p fails then q

The key is to pay attention to the first character to be parsed in each branch of a choice. If they’re all different, you don’t need to use try.

9. Parsing whitespace

First thing is to create a parser for whitespace, including comments, which we’ll call readWS. After that, you can use the convention that all parsing functions munch trailing (but not leading) whitespace. I generally find these functions useful:

Of course, your top-level parser will also have to munch leading whitespace.

10. Parsing identifiers

It’s up to you of course, but names of variables and other identifiers typically start with a letter, followed by zero-or-more alphanumeric characters. You might want to also include underscores and some other characters. Use the character-test functions in Data.Char and you’ll get Unicode support for free.

If you have keywords in your language then you must specifically test and exclude them from identifiers, otherwise you’re going to have a bad time.

Don’t forget to add a trailing readWS!

11. Parsing expressions

You’ll want to pay careful attention to ambiguity and precedence, with functions for parsing “loose” and “tight” expressions. For numerical and other infix expressions, you can use the notion of “terms” (which contribute to a sum) and “factors” (which contribute to a product). For example, the sum a + b * c is compose of two terms, the latter of which is a product of two factors. For example:

12. Predefined functions

You’ll probably want to supply a set of bindings to useful functions, that you’ll need to convert to your Value type. The easiest way to do this is to create FromValue and ToValue classes:

Then you can create a system of instances that allows easy conversions of Haskell functions.

… etc.

You can then let-bind your library of values to expressions created by the user.

13. Putting it all together

Now you have all the pieces, the pipeline looks like this:

  • Parse the user’s text to get an expression (of type Expr Value).
  • Let-bind the library of predefined values.
  • Evaluate the result to get a value (of type Value).

And that’s it!

14. Tests

You’ll want hundreds of these. I use tasty-hunit as a basic test framework. The good news is that it’s very easy to write lots, as the basic form is just a language string and an expected result (fail, or pass with this value). The only awkwardness is that you probably don’t have an instance Eq Value, because of its function constructor, so you’ll need to create a value-comparison function, or even an orphan Eq instance just for testing.

Be sure to test

  • whitespace,
  • comments,
  • boolean literals,
  • text literals,
  • numeric literals,
  • list construction,
  • parsing ambiguity,
  • function abstraction,
  • function application,
  • let-binding,
  • recursive let-binding,
  • scoping,
  • predefined functions,
  • error propagation,
  • anything else you can think of…

And if you’re really serious, you can use QuickCheck to generate language strings and expected results.

With-Resource Puzzle

If you want to use a file in Haskell, you have two options. You can open and close the file yourself:

… or you can use a function that takes care of the open-close lifecycle:

Which is the better interface? It’s a trade-off: withFile  guarantees that every open file is closed, while openFile and hClose allow you to open and close files in any order.

Let’s create types to represent these two kinds of interface:

Is it possible to convert between the two? Here’s how to obtain a With  interface from an OpenClose  interface:

It’s also possible to obtain an OpenClose  interface from a With  interface. Can you see how?

(answer here)

(first posted here)

Haskell Maxims and Arrows

I’ve been writing Haskell on and off since about 2001, including three years as a full-time job. This is what I’ve learnt…

  1. Haskell is the promise that you can write it as cleanly as your understanding of it. Have faith.
  2. Always be looking for patterns. Abstract them always and only when it simplifies.
  3. Persevere in getting an abstraction just right. When you find it, everything will magically fall into place.
  4. The implementation is the design.
  5. Hide whatever the caller shouldn’t care about. In particular, you can remove type parameters with appropriate quantification.
  6. There’s a reason fst3, snd3, thd3 are not in base. Triple or bigger: create a data type with fields instead.
  7. Never make an instance unless it morally follows the class’s rules.
  8. Instances of simpler classes are more valuable than of more complex generalisations.
  9. Monoid: not a flashy class, but still definitely worthwhile.
  10. Applicative: hugely underappreciated, and good for types that have “static information”. Lets you do deep magic with traverse and sequenceA.
  11. Monad: potential instances are usually easy to spot.
  12. The fewer type parameters in a class, the better. Can you turn any into associated types? Can you split the class into two classes? Can you hive off some of the parameters into a superclass?
  13. Don’t worry about strictness until it’s time to optimise.
  14. Intuition about optimisation tends to be bad. Before profiling, limit yourself to reasoning about complexity classes.
  15. An orphan instance is a very minor wart.
  16. Types themselves are weightless (i.e., erased). For example, * dropped from kind to type (with TypeInType) carries no information.
  17. You probably won’t need IORef.
  18. Template Haskell comes with a high cost in intelligibility. Sometimes it’s worth it.

— Ashley Yakeley

There is No Haskell Topology

Hey, it’s Haskell Hwednesday! For those learning Haskell who are already educated in mathematics, or vice versa, the experience can be a bit of a rollercoaster.

We first discover the category of Haskell types and functions, predictably called Hask. This is a very nice sort of category: it has a terminal object (the unit type), products (pair tuple types) and exponentiation (function types), indeed a well-known sort of category known as Cartesian closed. For good measure, it also has sums (Either types) and an initial object (any empty type). Fabulous! A programming language with the beauty and rigour of mathematics.

Then we discover that almost none of this is true. Hask is indeed a category, but it does not have products or sums, and the unit type is not a terminal object, and there is no initial object. It turns out we actually had a different category in mind, a kind of IdealHask. In our IdealHask, typically, all functions terminate. In the actual Hask, every object is a Haskell type, and every Haskell type includes “bottom values” representing non-termination and other awkward conditions. (There’s actually a faithful functor from IdealHask to Hask that allows us to write our programs.)

Oh dear. These “extra” values have ruined everything. Dan Piponi was right, you shouldn’t have even asked.

But wait! As it happens, simple non-termination can be represented by topologies, which are awesome. We associate a topology with every type, and the definable functions are exactly the continuous ones. For example, the type Bool nominally has two values, True and False. We add non-termination as a third value bottom. The topology we define on this has these open sets: {{}, {True}, {False}, {True, False}, {True, False, bottom}}. The eleven definable functions are the nine strict ones (i.e., where f bottom = bottom):

and the two non-strict ones:

These are precisely the continuous functions from our topological space to itself. And it seems perhaps straightforward to generalise this to any type?

Yay topology! We have some of our mathematicalliness back! We think.

Ah, but Haskell types are more complicated than this. There are many different bottom values, that are included in every type. Non-termination is one, but there are also exceptions. Plus, there’s a function called mapException that can inspect exception values and arbitrarily map them to bottom values. Can we create a topology for each Haskell type such that the definable functions are exactly the continuous ones?

Sadly, we cannot. To show this, let us consider different models of Haskell’s unit type (), and what can happen when we attempt to evaluate a term of that type, which we’ll collectively refer to as possibilities. We’ll define the models as types in Haskell, specifying exactly which functions are definable. Then we’ll search exhaustively for topologies that match. You’ll need to install the countable package, which among other things includes an extensional “instance Eq (a -&gt; b)”.

First some set theory:

And this is how we do topology:

Now we need to model Haskell types in Haskell:

The simplest model of the unit type has only one possibility, termination with the unit value, in a language where all functions terminate. We’ll call that model U1, and its sole possibility T1. The only possible function there can be maps T1 to T1, and it is definable:

Our second model, U2, adds a non-termination possibility N2 (termination with the unit value is T2). A function is definable if either

  • it ignores its input and behaves the same whatever it is passed
  • it examines its input and therefore doesn’t terminate when the input doesn’t terminate

Our third model, U3, adds an “exception” possibility. An exception is a termination, but still considered by Haskell to be “bottom”. The previous rule applies, but in addition, Haskell ensures that if a function examines its input, it must yield a bottom when passed a bottom. However, it’s allowed to map exception to a different bottom using mapException.

Now we want to search for topologies. Thanks to the countable package, we can do this exhaustively.

And that’s it. This is what we get when we run our program:

U1 has the one-point topology. U2 has the Sierpiński topologies. But there is no matching topology for U3.

So what about the actual Haskell unit type? Consider the equivalence relation R with three equivalence classes: the unit value, non-termination, and all exceptions, corresponding to the possibilities of U3. For each “definable” function U3 -> U3, we can define a Haskell function () -> () that corresponds to it under R. For “disallowed” functions, we cannot.

So if there were a topology X on the Haskell unit type such that the continuous functions were the definable ones, then X/R would be a quotient topology on U3 where the continuous functions were the definable ones. But this doesn’t exist, so that doesn’t either.