Lesson 1.12: Syntactic Lists

The purpose of this lesson is to explain how K provides support for syntactic repetition through the use of the List{} and NeList{} constructs, generally called syntactic lists.

The List{} construct

Sometimes, when defining a grammar in K, it is useful to define a syntactic construct consisting of an arbitrary-length sequence of items. For example, you might wish to define a function call construct, and need to express a way of passing arguments to the function. You can in theory simply define these productions using ordinary constructors, but it can be tricky to get the syntax exactly right in K without a lot of tedious glue code.

For this reason, K provides a way of specifying that a non-terminal represents a syntactic list (lesson-12-a.k):

module LESSON-12-A-SYNTAX imports INT-SYNTAX syntax Ints ::= List{Int,","} endmodule module LESSON-12-A imports LESSON-12-A-SYNTAX endmodule

Note that instead of a sequence of terminals and non-terminals, the right hand side of the Ints production contains the symbol List followed by two items in curly braces. The first item is the non-terminal which is the element type of the list, and the second item is a terminal representing the separator of the list. As a special case, lists which are separated only by whitespace can be specified with a separator of "".

This List{} construct is roughly equivalent to the following definition (lesson-12-b.k):

module LESSON-12-B-SYNTAX imports INT-SYNTAX syntax Ints ::= Int "," Ints | ".Ints" endmodule module LESSON-12-B imports LESSON-12-B-SYNTAX endmodule

As you can see, the List{} construct represents a cons-list with an element at the head and another list at the tail. The empty list is represented by a . followed by the sort of the list.

However, the List{} construct provides several key syntactic conveniences over the above definition. First of all, when writing a list in a rule, explicitly writing the terminator is not always required. For example, consider the following additional module (lesson-12-c.k):

module LESSON-12-C imports LESSON-12-A imports INT syntax Int ::= sum(Ints) [function] rule sum(I:Int) => I rule sum(I1:Int, I2:Int, Is:Ints) => sum(I1 +Int I2, Is) endmodule

Here we see a function that sums together a non-empty list of integers. Note in particular the first rule. We do not explicitly mention .Ints, but in fact, the rule in question is equivalent to the following rule:

  rule sum(I:Int, .Ints) => I

The reason for this is that K will automatically insert a list terminator anywhere a syntactic list is expected, but an element of that list appears instead. This works even with lists of more than one element:

  rule sum(I1:Int, I2:Int) => I1 +Int I2

This rule is redundant, but here we explicitly match a list of exactly two elements, because the .Ints is implicitly added after I2.

Parsing Syntactic Lists in Programs

An additional syntactic convenience takes place when you want to express a syntactic list in the input to krun. In this case, K will automatically transform the grammar in LESSON-12-B-SYNTAX into the following (lesson-12-d.k):

module LESSON-12-D imports INT-SYNTAX syntax Ints ::= #NonEmptyInts | #IntsTerminator syntax #NonEmptyInts ::= Int "," #NonEmptyInts | Int #IntsTerminator syntax #IntsTerminator ::= "" endmodule

This allows you to express the usual comma-separated list of arguments where an empty list is represented by the empty string, and you don't have to explicitly terminate the list. Because of this, we can write the syntax of function calls in C very easily (lesson-12-e.k):

module LESSON-12-E syntax Id ::= r"[a-zA-Z_][a-zA-Z0-9_]*" [token] syntax Exp ::= Id | Exp "(" Exps ")" syntax Exps ::= List{Exp,","} endmodule


Write a function concat which takes a list of String and concatenates them all together. Do not worry if the function is O(n^2). Test your implementation using the syntactic sugar for lists added by the parser.

Then write some function call expressions using identifiers in C and verify with kast that the above grammar captures the intended syntax. Make sure to test with function calls with zero, one, and two or more arguments.

The NeList{} construct

One limitation of the List{} construct is that it is always possible to write a list of zero elements where a List{} is expected. While this is desirable in a number of cases, it is sometimes not what the grammar expects.

For example, in C, it is not allowable for an enum definition to have zero members. In other words, if we were to write the grammar for enumerations like so (lesson-12-f.k):

module LESSON-12-F syntax Id ::= r"[a-zA-Z_][a-zA-Z0-9_]*" [token] syntax Exp ::= Id syntax EnumSpecifier ::= "enum" Id "{" Ids "}" syntax Ids ::= List{Id,","} endmodule

Then we would be syntactically allowed to write enum X {}, which instead, ought to be a syntax error.

For this reason, we introduce the additional NeList{} construct. The syntax is identical to List{}, except with NeList instead of List before the curly braces. When parsing rules, it behaves identically to the List{} construct. However, when parsing inputs to krun, the above grammar, if we replaced syntax Ids ::= List{Id,","} with syntax Ids ::= NeList{Id,","}, would become equivalent to the following (lesson-12-g.k):

module LESSON-12-G syntax Id ::= r"[a-zA-Z_][a-zA-Z0-9_]*" [token] syntax Exp ::= Id syntax EnumSpecifier ::= "enum" Id "{" Ids "}" syntax Ids ::= Id | Id "," Ids endmodule

In other words, only non-empty lists of Id would be allowed.


  1. Modify the sum function in LESSON-12-C so that the Ints sort is an NeList{}. Verify that calling sum() with no arguments is now a syntax error.

  2. Write a modified sum function with the List construct that can also sum up an empty list of arguments. In such a case, the sum ought to be 0.

Next lesson

Once you have completed the above exercises, you can continue to Lesson 1.13: Basics of K Rewriting.