Part 2 - Handling Spaces, Repetition


In the previous chapter we defined a parser that could identify the different parts of an addition, separate out the numbers, and return their sum:

>>> from lepl import *
>>> number = Real() >> float
>>> add = number & ~Literal('+') & number > sum
>>> add.parse('12+30')

(remember that I will not repeat the import statement in the examples below).

An obvious problem with this parser is that it does not handle spaces:

>>> add.parse('12 + 30')
[...] The match failed in <string> at '+ 30' (line 1, character 4).

So in this section we’ll look at the various ways we can handle spaces (and learn more about other features of Lepl along the way).

Explicit Spaces

The simplest way to handle spaces is to add them to the parser. Lepl includes the Space() matcher which recognises a single space:

>>> number = Real() >> float
>>> add = number & ~Space() & ~Literal('+') & ~Space() & number > sum
>>> add.parse('12 + 30')

But now our parser won’t work without spaces!

>>> add.parse('12+30')
[...] The match failed in <string> at '30' (line 1, character 4).

The Star Matcher

To fix the problem described above, where we can match only a single space, we would like to match any number of spaces. There are various ways of doing this. If you are used to using regular expressions you may realise that this is what the “*” symbol does. And in Lepl we have something similar.

The Star() matcher repeats its argument as many times as necessary (including none at all). This is what we need for our spaces:

>>> number = Real() >> float
>>> spaces = ~Star(Space())
>>> add = number & spaces & ~Literal('+') & spaces & number > sum
>>> add.parse('12 + 30')
>>> add.parse('12+30')
>>> add.parse('12+     30')

Note that I included a ~ in the definition of spaces so that they are dropped from the results.


As well as Star(), Lepl supports a more general way of specifying repetitions. This uses Python’s array syntax, which looks a bit odd at first, but turns out to be a really neat, compact, powerful way of describing what we want.

The easiest way to show how this works is with some examples.

First, here’s how we specify that exactly three things are matched:

>>> a = Literal('a')
>>> a[3].parse('aaa')
['a', 'a', 'a']

and here’s how we specify that 2 to 4 should be matched:

>>> a[2:4].parse('aa')
['a', 'a']
>>> a[2:4].parse('aaaa')
['a', 'a', 'a', 'a']
>>> list(a[2:4].parse_all('aaaa'))
[['a', 'a', 'a', 'a'], ['a', 'a', 'a'], ['a', 'a']]

As we saw earlier parse_all() returns a generator (which we convert to a list) that contains all the different possible combinations: 2, 3 and 4 letters, while parse() returns just the first result (repetition with [] returns the largest number of matches first).

If we give a range with a missing start value then the minimum number of matches is zero:

>>> list(a[:1].parse_all('a'))
[['a'], []]

so here we have 0 or 1 matches (zero matches means we get an empty list of results — that’s not the same as failing to match).

And if the end value is missing as many as possible will be matched:

>>> list(a[4:].parse_all('aaaaa'))
[['a', 'a', 'a', 'a', 'a'], ['a', 'a', 'a', 'a']]

Finally, we can get the shortest number of matches first by specifying an array index “step” of 'b' (short for “breadth–first search”; the default is 'd' for “depth–first”):

>>> a24 = Literal('a')[2:4:'b']
>>> a24.config.no_full_first_match()
>>> list(a24.parse_all('aaaa'))
[['a', 'a'], ['a', 'a', 'a'], ['a', 'a', 'a', 'a']]

Putting all that together, Star() is the same as [:] (which starts at zero, takes as many as possible, and returns the longest match first).

So we can write our parser like this:

>>> number = Real() >> float
>>> spaces = ~Space()[:]
>>> add = number & spaces & ~Literal('+') & spaces & number > sum
>>> add.parse('12 + 30')
>>> add.parse('12+30')
>>> add.parse('12+     30')

That’s perhaps not as clear as using Star(), but personally I prefer this approach so I’ll continue to use it below.

More Repetition

While we are looking at [] I should quickly explain two extra features which are often useful.

First, including ... will join together the results:

>>> a[3].parse('aaa')
['a', 'a', 'a']
>>> a[3,...].parse('aaa')

Second, we can specify a “separator” that is useful when matching lists. This is used to match “in-between” whatever we are repeating. For example, we might have a sequence of “a”s separated by “x”s, which we want to ignore:

>>> a[3,Drop('x')].parse('axaxa')
['a', 'a', 'a']


Enough about repetition; let’s return to our main example.

The solution above works fine, but it gets a bit tedious adding spaces everywhere. It would be much easier if we could just say that they should be added wherever there is a &. Luckily, we can do that in Lepl:

>>> number = Real() >> float
>>> spaces = ~Space()[:]
>>> with Separator(spaces):
...   add = number & ~Literal('+') & number > sum
>>> add.parse('12 + 30')
>>> add.parse('12+30')

Which works as before, but can save some typing in longer programs.

Separator() redefines the & and [] operators to include spaces. The matcher associated with any operator can be redefined in Lepl, but doing so is pretty advanced and outside the scope of this tutorial.

Because Separator() changes everything “inside” the “with” it’s usually best to define matchers that don’t need spaces beforehand.


Separator() only modifies & and [], which can lead to (at least) two surprising results.

First, there’s nothing added before or after any pattern that’s defined. For that, you still need to explicitly add spaces as described earlier. Separator() only adds spaces between items joined with &.

Second, if you specify at least one space (rather than zero or more) then every & in the separator’s context must have a space. This can be surprising if you have, for example, & Eos() because it means that there must be a space before the end of the stream.

You can avoid spaces in two ways. Either define matchers that don’t need spaces before you use Separator(), or use And() instead.

Finally, because this is so common, DroppedSpace(), is pre–defined:

>>> number = Real() >> float
>>> with DroppedSpace():
...   add = number & ~Literal('+') & number > sum
>>> add.parse('12 + 30')
>>> add.parse('12+30')

Regular Expressions

I’m going to take a small diversion now to discuss regular expressions. Once I’ve finished I’ll return to the issue of spaces with a different approach.

Regular expressions are like “mini-parsers”. They are used in a variety of languages, and Python has a module that supports them. I don’t have space here (or the time and energy) to explain them in detail, but the basic idea is that you can write description (an “expression”) for a sequence of letters to be matched. This expression can contain things like ”.” which matches any letter, or “[a-m]” which matches any letter between “a” and “m”, for example.

So regular expressions are very like a parser. But a parser can usually (exact details depend on the language and parser) describe more complicated structures and tends to be easier to use for “big” problems.

That doesn’t mean that regular expressions don’t play a part in Lepl. In fact, Lepl supports three kinds of regular expressions, and I will describe these below. But please note that all the options below have limitations — Lepl is a parser in its own right and does not need powerful regular expressions.


The Regexp() matcher calls the Python regular expression library. So if you are experienced at using that you may find it useful.

However, there are some limitations. First, the interface exposed by Lepl doesn’t include all Python’s options (it would make things too complicated and Lepl has other ways of doing things — sorry!).

Second, the expression is only matched against the “current line”. Exactly what the “current line” is depends on some internal details (sorry again), but you should work on the assumption that the regular expression will only receive data up to the next newline character.

The reason for this second limitation is that Lepl is quite careful about how it manages memory. In theory it should be possible to process huge amounts of text, because only a section of the document is held in memory at any one time. Unfortunately that doesn’t play well with Python’s regular expressions, which expect all the data to be in a single string.

Here are some examples showing what is possible:

>>> matcher = Regexp('a+')
>>> matcher.config.no_full_first_match()
>>> matcher.parse('aaabb')
>>> matcher = Regexp(r'\w+')
>>> matcher.config.no_full_first_match()
>>> matcher.parse('abc def')
>>> matcher = Regexp('a*(b*)c*(d*)e*')
>>> matcher.config.no_full_first_match()
>>> matcher.parse('abbcccddddeeeeee')
['bb', 'dddd']

The last example above shows how groups can be used to define results.


The DfaRegexp() matcher calls Lepl’s own regular expression library. It understands simple regular expressions, but it does not support grouping, references, etc.

>>> matcher = DfaRegexp('a*b')
>>> matcher.config.no_full_first_match()
>>> matcher.parse('aabbcc')


This is implemented by Lepl’s own regular expression library and, like DfaRegexp(), is limited in what it supports.

NfaRegexp() differs from “normal” regular expressions in that it can return multiple matches (usually a regular expression returns only the “longest match”):

>>> list(NfaRegexp('a*').parse_all('aaa'))
[['aaa'], ['aa'], ['a'], ['']]
>>> list(DfaRegexp('a*').parse_all('aaa'))
>>> list(Regexp('a*').parse_all('aaa'))

Tokens (First Attempt)

Now that we have discussed regular expressions I can explain the final alternative for handling spaces.

This approach uses regular expressions to classify the input into different “tokens”. It then lets us match both the token type and, optionally, the token contents.

By itself, this doesn’t make handling spaces any simpler, but we can also tell Lepl to ignore certain values. So if we define tokens for the different “words” we will need, we can then tell Lepl to discard any spaces that occur between (in fact, by default, spaces are discarded, so we don’t need to actually say that below).

For more detailed information on tokens, see Lexer in the manual.

First, let’s define the tokens we will match. We don’t have to be very precise here because we can add more conditions later — it’s enough to identify the basic types of input. For our parser these will be values and symbols:

>>> value = Token(Real())
>>> symbol = Token('[^0-9a-zA-Z \t\r\n]')

I said that we defined tokens with regular expressions, but the definition of value above seems to use the matcher Real(). This is because Lepl can automatically convert some matchers into regular expressions, saving us the work (it really does convert them, piece by piece, so it is not limited to the built–in matchers, but it is limited by how the matcher is constructed – it cannot see “inside” arbitrary function calls, for example, so any matcher that includes > or >> won’t work).

The second token, defined with the regular expression “[^0-9a-zA-Z \t\r\n]” means “any single character that is not a digit, letter, or space”. Obviously we will need to add extra conditions for matching “+” and, later, “*”, “-”, etc.

With those tokens we can now try to rewrite our parser:

>>> number = value >> float
>>> add = number & ~symbol('+') & number > sum
>>> add.parse('12+30')
[...] The match failed in <string> at '+30' (line 1, character 3).

Ooops. That is not what we wanted!

Before we fix the problem, though, I need to explain a detail above.

The matcher, symbol('+') is the same as symbol(Literal('+')) and means that we require a symbol token and that the text in that token matches “+” (this is what I was referring to when I said that we match both the type of token and it’s contents). A token used like this can contain any Lepl matcher as a constraint (well, anything except Token() itself).


What went wrong in the example above?

There is a clue in the error message — when we use tokens the “match failed at” message shows the token: The match failed in <string> at '+30' (line 1, character 3).

That means that we have a token whose value is “+30”, which is not what we were expecting. We expected that the tokens would be “12”, “+”, and “30”. Instead, it seems that the tokens generated are “12” and “+30”.

So we can see that the lexer (the part of Lepl that generates the tokens) is identifying two Real() matches. Matching “+” as a symbol is ignored because the lexer chooses the token with the longest match and “+30” is longer than “+”.

In a little more detail: the lexer takes the input and breaks it down into tokens, from left to right. So in this case it starts with “12+30”, tries matching the various tokens, and finds that “12” is the longest (and only) match. It then starts again with what remains, “+30” and finds a match of “+” for symbol and a match of “+30” for value. It chooses the latter because it is longest, and is done.

This illustrates an important restriction on the use of tokens: you have to be careful to avoid ambiguity. This might make them seem pointless, but in practice their advantages — in particular, simplifying handling spaces — often make them worthwhile.

Tokens (Second Attempt)

We can avoid the problem above by using unsigned numbers. But that means that we need to worry about signs that are “part of the number” in the parser itself. Since people don’t really care about a leading “+” I’ve only included the “-” case (negative numbers) below:

>>> value = Token(UnsignedReal())
>>> symbol = Token('[^0-9a-zA-Z \t\r\n]')
>>> number = Optional(symbol('-')) + value >> float
>>> add = number & ~symbol('+') & number > sum
>>> add.parse('12+30')
>>> add.parse('12 + -30')

The important changes here are:

  • value is changed to an UnsignedReal()
  • number has an Optional() minus (we could also have written this symbol('-')[0:1])
  • the + joins the optional - and value together into a single string, so that when passed to float() a negative number will be created

Alternative Spaces

Finally, it is worth noting that you can specify an alternative regular expression that will be used to match spaces between tokens. The way that Lepl works is as follows:

  1. An attempt is made to match a token.
  2. If no token matches, an attempt is made to match spaces.
  3. If no spaces could be matched, an error is raised.

The spaces matched in step 2 are defined via a regular expression, which can be passed to the Configuration (the discard parameter to .config.lexer()). If no value value is given, “[\r\n\t ]+” is used.


What more have we learnt?

  • To handle spaces, we can specify them explicitly.
  • The [] syntax for repetition is compact and powerful.
  • Separator() can automate the addition of spaces wherever we use & or [].
  • Regular expressions are supported, in various different ways.
  • Lepl has an optional lexer, which generates tokens using regular expressions.
  • Because regular expressions are “greedy”, always matching the longest amount of text possible, we need to be careful exactly how we define our tokens.
  • In particular, we should worry when two different tokens overlap (in our case, a possible symbol, “+”, was also the start of a valid value, “+3.0”).