OCaml Programming Patterns


This package contains some random programming tricks, "design patterns", and other helpful or at least inspiring ideas of achieving a high level of abstraction in OCaml programs that I have come across over time. Some may demonstrate how to implement concepts of more or less theoretical interest (e.g. arrows, monads), others show more practical hints on how to structure code to make it more reusable (e.g. abstract lexers, extensible ASTs).


The package currently contains the following:

Abstract Lexer

Quick introduction to syntactic analysis

The first step in the process of compilation or interpretation of computer programs or other formal languages is typically lexical and syntactic analysis, or in other terms:

  1. Lexing
  2. Parsing

The process of lexing transforms a stream of characters (e.g. ANSI, Unicode, etc.) to a stream of tokens, thus providing a more accessible representation of the elements in the input. This step might, for example, identify keywords, numbers, operators, etc. The process of parsing assigns a grammatical structure to these elements, thus grouping them in ways that allow us to interpret the input more easily.

Purpose of the abstract lexer

The purpose of the abstract lexer is to fully separate steps one and two above when using ocamllex to generate lexers.

Programmers typically implement lexers such that they generate a token stream for a particular parser. This is usually all they need so there is no problem with that. But sometimes requirements change and we may want to use different parsers with the same lexer.

For example, the requirement for one parser might be optimum efficiency. It may not want to deal with comments in an input file and rather ignore those already during lexing. We may want to avoid having to implement grammar rules that take into account comment syntax in that case. Other parsers, however, might want to keep comments, for example to pretty-print transformed input without losing this valuable information.

The abstract lexer achieves this separation by wrapping lexers generated by ocamllex into a functor that abstracts over the types of values ("tokens") returned by the lexer.

A lexer specification usually consists of several rules (functions). These functions take the current state of the lexer, which specifies the position in the input stream, and try to match one ore more patterns (regular expressions) at the current location in the input stream. If a pattern matches, an associated action will be executed.

Instead of returning a specific parser token from within an action, which would be the usual thing to do, abstract lexers call a function in the functor argument and pass it whatever lexeme (or relevant part of a lexeme) the lexer has just identified. This function may then return a parser token for whatever parser it is intended for.

Sometimes lexer rules may also call other lexer rules recursively. In the abstract lexer design, however, we never call other rules explicitly. There is hence no explicit recursion. This is important, because some parsers may want to just let the lexer continue matching further input rather than return a token, whereas others might want to see a token to relate it grammatically to others.

Example implementation

The abstract_lexer directory contains the following files:

The ocamllex file lexer.mll demonstrates how to wrap a lexer into a functor. The signature of the functor argument is Spec. This specification introduces a module for each rule in the lexer (e.g. Any_char) containing an abstract type t. All rule actions have to return the same type anyway, and here this type is completely abstract rather than a particular type of parser tokens.

Now we introduce a function for each pattern action, e.g. Any_char.handle_char. It has to take the current lexbuf as argument so that an instance of the lexer can extract additional lexeme information (e.g. location information if required), or to allow recursive calls to other lexer rules. We may often want to also pass additional arguments, e.g. particular parts of the lexeme that we have already extracted. This is useful if, for example, we attach identifiers to sub-patterns in the lexer rule.

The functor in lexer.mll is introduced in the header part of the lexer specification and closed in the trailer, thus wrapping the automatically generated lexer code into its body.

An example instance of this lexer is given in file lexers.ml. It is called Lexers.Alternating and demonstrates how to specify recursive lexer rules. This is achieved by making the module Alternating itself recursive.

The file main.ml will start lexing from standard input with rule Lexers.Alternating.any_char. Valid example input can be found in file test.dat. You can compile and test the example by going to the abstract_lexer directory and executing:

ocamlbuild main.native
./main.native < test.dat


It seems recommendable to write new lexers in an abstract style as demonstrated above. This will allow you to completely and cleanly separate the stages of lexical and syntactic analysis. If, for example, future requirements ask for a new parser, you won't have to pollute old parser specifications with new tokens and dummy rules.

The performance impact of this abstraction will generally be neglible, assuming the lexer is well-written. This requires that as much work as possible is assigned to the lexing engine rather than to pattern actions. E.g. rules containing a pattern that matches a single character and which are called recursively to handle input in this piece-wise fashion should be rewritten to match one complex pattern and perform one action only instead. This will generally give a great boost to lexer performance, especially if it is abstract.

Extensible ASTs

This simple example shows how to implement extensible abstract syntax trees (ASTs). It uses polymorphic variants to achieve open recursion and to easily compose multiple recursive "languages".

See the file ast.ml in directory extensible_ast, which you can compile as follows:

ocamlbuild ast.native


This project in directory arrows mostly translates the Haskell-code presented in the following paper to OCaml:

Generalising Monads to Arrows
John Hughes
Science of Computer Programming 37, pp67-111, May 2000

The project contains the following files:

The module Arrow has a fully documented API and provides several simple implementations for arrows, which can be extended to arrows with more convenience functions. The signature of simple arrows specifies the type of arrows and the following functions:

The arr-function and composition operator are at the core of arrows, but are not sufficient to give them the same power as e.g. monads. Adding arrow application restores this power and allows us to enrich them with numerous other functions that provide useful programming idioms, e.g. for dealing with tuples or choice. Please refer to the above-mentioned paper for details.

The simplest arrow implementation in module SimpleArrow just uses ordinary functions as representation of arrows. It suffers from stack overflows if arrow composition is nested too deeply. The module SimpleContArrow fixes this problem by representing arrows with continuations. Module SimpleDataContArrow uses sum tags for representing the structure of arrows and their compositions. It also uses continuations to avoid stack overflows.

The functor MkArrow takes a simple arrow and enriches it with more functions as described in John Hughes' paper. Module Arrow finally also implements monads by showing how we can obtain one from an arrow supporting arrow application and vice versa, thus proving their equivalence in terms of expressive power.

Union find

The example in directory union_find demonstrates how to implement the union-find algorithm. The example uses Generalized Algebraic Datatypes (GADTs) together with mutable inline records to implement highly efficient datastructures with fewer indirections and a smaller memory footprint than usual records and algebraic datatypes would allow. You will need at least OCaml 4.04 to unbox away unnecessary data.

You can build the code using:

ocamlbuild test_union_find.native

Contact Information and Contributing

In the case of bugs, feature requests, contributions and similar, you can contact me here: markus.mottl@gmail.com

Up-to-date information concerning this tool should be available at: https://mmottl.github.io/ocaml-prog-pats


Markus Mottl on September 21, 2016