A Patch for Literate Programming with GNU Guile

I wrote previously about why I’m trying literate programming. This post is a more about how I’m doing it. One of the requirements for doing literate programming is support for the #line compiler directive. Typically one sees these in generated source files.

int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {
    #line 360 "hello-world.nw"
    printf("Hello, World!\n");

This tells the compiler to report errors relative to that line in hello-world.nw instead of hello-world.c. This is indispensable when doing literate programming. If one must find the error in the generated source file then find the error again in the literate source, literate programming becomes too frustrating and cumbersome to use, at least for me.

I’m using GNU Guile Scheme for my Google Summer of Code project Emacsy. Guile doesn’t have built-in support for #line directives. But more importantly it does have support for reader macros. Reader macros allow you to define your own syntax. Macro is an overloaded term, so let me try to disambiguate it.

  • C Macros allow one to use C Preprocessor cpp as a limited metaprogramming facility, but they are tricky to get right because of the language impedance mismatch of C and cpp.

  • Lisp macros are an entirely different beast. They allow one to write code that writes code. Whenever you find yourself writing boilerplate code a second or third time, a macro is waiting to be born. Macros allow the user to extend the compiler in a principled way. Lisp macros work on S-expressions. They provide instructions how to transform a given S-expression to some other S-expression.

  • Reader macros, or reader extensions, are pieces of code that transform some arbitrary stream of characters into S-expressions. They allow one to express themselves in something other than S-expressions. For instance, maybe you want a hashmap literal in Guile. You can write a reader macro that makes hashes look like your favorite language.

(define hash #{a => 1, b => 2})

The above might be translated into something that looks like this:

(define hash (let ((h (make-hash-table)))
               (hashq-set! h 'a 1)
               (hashq-set! h 'b 2)

Armed with reader macros, we can extend the syntax of our language. One constraint with reader macros is that it must start with a # character, which is good because it lets the reader know that a reader macro is in play. Conveniently the # character as the start of reader macros is the same as that typically used for compiler derectives.

Implementing #line as a Reader Macro

Given that we can extend the syntax of our language by using a reader macro, it seems like we should be able to write a #line pragma quite easily. Here was my first attempt.

 (lambda (char port)
   (let* ((ine (read port))
          (lineno (read port))
          (filename (read port)))
     (if (not (eq? ine 'ine))
           "Expected '#line <line-number> <filename>'; got '#~a~a ~a \"~a\"'." 
            char ine lineno filename)))
     (set-port-filename! port filename)
     (set-port-line! port lineno)
     (set-port-column! port 0)

So the following code

(define (f x)
#line 314 "increment-literately.nw"
  (+ x 1))

will turn into

(define (f x)
  (+ x 1))

In this case, that zero-length string won’t cause much of problem, and it will work for top-level definitions because the strings will just be ignored, but consider this following bit of code.

(+ 1
#line 628 "incrementally-literate.nw"

This bit of code will become (+ 1 "" 2 3), which will throw an exception and does not preserve the original meaning of the code. Basically, we want a reader macro that emits nothing. We want a reader macro whose output is treated like a comment.

I had hoped that the other commenting facilities in Guile like S-expression comments (+ 0 #;(+ 1 2) 3) => 3; or block comments, e.g. #| this is a comment |# were implemented as reader extensions. However, it turns out these are not and could not be implemented as reader extensions in Scheme. Luckily, Guile is Free Software so we can go spelunking and fix it.

I found them both implemented in libguile/read.c. The reason we can’t implement these as reader extensions is because whatever the reader extension procedure returns is treated as being from (read ...). So we need some way to tell it that nothing was read. There are many ways to try to represent this.

  • One could have a sentinel value that is treated as though it were nothing, e.g. any reader extension that emits the symbol 'no-reader-output is one such solution. But what if the reader macro has output that coincides with the symbol?

  • One could attach some property to the reader extension procedure to signify that this reader extension emits nothing. This is how my patch is implemented. The downside of this is that a procedure may not choose to emit or not during its evaluation. As I wrote this article I realized I had missed a really good option.

  • The question is, what is the best is a way to represent no value or nothing in Scheme? At first I thought, “This was impossible. All Scheme procedures return some value. Some return multiple values.” Then it hit me, the values procedure can be used to return one, more, or no values. Sigh. Well, I guess I ought to change my patch.

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