Applicative option parser

There are quite a few option parsing libraries on Hackage already, but they either depend on Template Haskell, or require some boilerplate. Although I have nothing against the use of Template Haskell in general, I’ve always found its use in this case particularly unsatisfactory, and I’m convinced that a more idiomatic solution should exist.

In this post, I present a proof of concept implementation of a library that allows you to define type-safe option parsers in Applicative style.

The only extension that we actually need is GADT, since, as will be clear in a moment, our definition of Parser requires existential quantification.

import Control.Applicative

Let’s start by defining the Option type, corresponding to a concrete parser for a single option:

data Option a = Option
  { optName :: String
  , optParser :: String -> Maybe a

instance Functor Option where
  fmap f (Option name p) = Option name (fmap f . p)

optMatches :: Option a -> String -> Bool
optMatches opt s = s == '-' : '-' : optName opt

For simplicity, we only support “long” options with exactly 1 argument. The optMatches function checks if an option matches a string given on the command line.

We can now define the main Parser type:

data Parser a where
  NilP :: a -> Parser a
  ConsP :: Option (a -> b)
        -> Parser a -> Parser b

instance Functor Parser where
  fmap f (NilP x) = NilP (f x)
  fmap f (ConsP opt rest) = ConsP (fmap (f.) opt) rest

instance Applicative Parser where
  pure = NilP
  NilP f <*> p = fmap f p
  ConsP opt rest <*> p =
    ConsP (fmap uncurry opt) ((,) <$> rest <*> p)

The Parser GADT resembles a heterogeneous list, with two constructors.

The NilP r constructor represents a “null” parser that doesn’t consume any arguments, and always returns r as a result.

The ConsP constructor is the combination of an Option returning a function, and an arbitrary parser returning an argument for that function. The combined parser applies the function to the argument and returns a result.

The definition of (<*>) probably needs some clarification. The variables involved have types:

opt :: Option (a -> b -> c)
rest :: Parser a
p :: Parser b

and we want to obtain a parser of type Parser c. So we uncurry the option, obtaining:

fmap uncurry opt :: Option ((a, b) -> c)

and compose it with a parser for the (a, b) pair, obtained by applying the (<*>) operator recursively:

(,) <$> rest <*> p :: Parser (a, b)

This is already enough to define some example parsers. Let’s first add a couple of convenience functions to help us create basic parsers:

option :: String -> (String -> Maybe a) -> Parser a
option name p = ConsP (fmap const (Option name p)) (NilP ())
optionR :: Read a => String -> Parser a
optionR name = option name p
    p arg = case reads arg of
      [(r, "")] -> Just r
      _       -> Nothing

And a record to contain the result of our parser:

data User = User
  { userName :: String
  , userId :: Integer
  } deriving Show

A parser for User is easily defined in applicative style:

parser :: Parser User
parser = User <$> option "name" Just <*> optionR "id"

To be able to actually use this parser, we need a “run” function:

runParser :: Parser a -> [String] -> Maybe (a, [String])
runParser (NilP x) args = Just (x, args)
runParser (ConsP _ _) [] = Nothing
runParser p (arg : args) =
  case stepParser p arg args of
    Nothing -> Nothing
    Just (p', args') -> runParser p' args'

stepParser :: Parser a -> String -> [String] -> Maybe (Parser a, [String])
stepParser p arg args = case p of
  NilP _ -> Nothing
  ConsP opt rest
    | optMatches opt arg -> case args of
        [] -> Nothing
        (value : args') -> do
          f <- optParser opt value
          return (fmap f rest, args')
    | otherwise -> do
        (rest', args') <- stepParser rest arg args
        return (ConsP opt rest', args')

The idea is very simple: we take the first argument, and we go over each option of the parser, check if it matches, and if it does, we replace it with a NilP parser wrapping the result, consume the option and its argument from the argument list, then call runParser recursively.

Here is an example of runParser in action:

ex1 :: Maybe User
ex1 = fst <$> runParser parser ["--name", "fry", "--id", "1"]
{- Just (User {userName = "fry", userId = 1}) -}

The order of arguments doesn’t matter:

ex2 :: Maybe User
ex2 = fst <$> runParser parser ["--id", "2", "--name", "bender"]
{- Just (User {userName = "bender", userId = 2}) -}

Missing arguments will result in a parse error (i.e. Nothing). We don’t support default values but they are pretty easy to add.

ex3 :: Maybe User
ex3 = fst <$> runParser parser ["--name", "leela"]
{- Nothing -}

I think the above Parser type represents a pretty clean and elegant solution to the option parsing problem. To make it actually usable, I would need to add a few more features (boolean flags, default values, a help generator) and improve error handling and performance (right now parsing a single option is quadratic in the size of the Parser), but it looks like a fun project.

Does anyone think it’s worth adding yet another option parser to Hackage?


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