Writing a DSL in Lua


DSLs, or domain specific languages, are programming languages that are designed to implement a set of features specific to a particular problem or field. An example could be Make, the build tool, which is a specially designed language for combining commands and files while managing dependencies.


* Dropping the parenthesis
* Chaining
* Using function environments
* Implementing the HTML builder
* Closing
A lot of modern programming languages have so much flexibility in their syntax that it’s possible to build libraries that expose their own mini-languages within the host language. The definition of DSL has broadened to include these kinds of libraries.

很多现代编程语言,语法非常的灵活,用库的形式,在宿主语言中构他们自己的迷你语言。 用DSL扩展自己的库。

In this guide we'll build a DSL for generating HTML. It looks like this:


[code] html { body { h1 “Welcome to my Lua site”, a { href = “http://leafo.net”, “Go home” } }} [/code]

Before jumping in, here are some DSL building techniques:


Dropping the parenthesis One of the cases for Lua as described in its initial public release(1996) is that it makes a good configuration language. That’s still true to this day, and Lua is friendly to building DSLs.


A unique part about Lua’s syntax is parenthesis are optional in some scenarios when calling functions. Terseness is important when building a DSL, and removing superfluous characters is a good way to do that.


When calling a function that has a single argument of either a table literal or a string literal, the parenthesis are optional.


[code] print “hello” –> print(“hello”)my_function { 1,2,3 } –> my_function({1,2,3})

– whitespace isn’t needed, these also work:


print”hello” –> print(“hello”) my_function{ 1,2,3 } –> my_function({1,2,3}) [/code]

This syntax has very high precedence, the same as if you were using parenthesis:

这是个高优先级的语法, 类似于用括号。

[code] tonumber “1234” + 5 – > tonumber(“1234”) + 5 [/code]

ChainingParenthesis-less invocation can be chained as long as each expression from the left evaluates to a function (or a callable table). Here’s some example syntax for a hypothetical web routing framework:

–>()运操符调用, 链是从一个左值表达式函数(或是一个可调用的表)。这有一个假设的web路由框架的语法的例子。

[code] match “/post-comment” { GET = function () – render the form end,

POST = function () – save to database end}


If it’s not immediately obvious what’s going on, writing the parenthesis in will clear things up. The precedence of the parenthesis-less invocation goes from left to right, so the above is equivalent to:

如果还是不能立马说明问题,写一个括号就一目了然了。 –>符的调用优先级是从左到右的,与上面的效果一样。

[code] match(“/post-comment”)({ … }) [/code]

The pattern we would use to implement this syntax would look something like this:


[code] local function match(path) print(“match:”, path)

return function(params) print(“params:”, params) – both path and params are now availble for use here end end


Using a recursive function constructor it’s possible to make chaining work for any length.


Using function environments When interacting with a Lua module you regularly have to bring any functions or values into scope using require. When working with a DSL, it’s nice to have all the functionality available without having to manually load anything.


One option would be to make all the functions and values global variables, but it’s not recommended as it might interfere with other libraries.


A function environment can be used to change how a function resolves global variable references within its scope. This can be used to automatically expose a DSL’s functionality without polluting the regular global scope.


For the sake of this guide I'll assume that setfenv exists in the version of Lua we're using. If you're using 5.2 or above you'll need to provide you own implementation:


Implementing setfenv in Lua 5.2, 5.3, and above Here’s a function run_with_env that runs another function with a particular environment.

[code] local function run_with_env(env, fn, …) setfenv(fn, env) fn(…)end [/code]

The environment passed will represent the DSL:


[code] local dsl_env = { move = function(x,y) print(“I moved to”, x, y) end,

speak = function(message) print(“I said”, message) end}

run_with_env(dsl_env, function() move(10, 10) speak(“I am hungry!”)end)


In this trivial example the benefits might not be obvious, but typically your DSL would be implemented in another module, and each place you invoke it is not necessary to bring each function into scope manually, but rather activate the whole sscope with run_with_env.


Function environments also let you dynamically generate methods on the fly. Using the __index metamethod implemented as a function, any value can be programmatically created. This is how the HTML builder DSL will be created.


Implementing the HTML builder Our goal is to make the following syntax work:



html { body { h1 “Welcome to my Lua site”, a { href = “http://leafo.net”, “Go home” } }}


Each HTML tag is represented by a Lua function that will return the HTML string representing that tag with the correct attribute and content if necessary.

每个HTML标签被用一个lua函数表示, 将会返回HTML字符串表示标签正确的属性和正文,如果必要。

Although it would be possible to write code to generate all the HTML tag builder functions ahead of time, a function __index metamethod will be used to generate them on the fly.

虽然它可能提前写代码来生成所有的HTML标签生成器函数, __index函数方法用于快速的生成它。

In order to run code in the context of our DSL, it must be packaged into a function. The render_html function will take that function and convert it to a HTML string:

为了运行我们的DSL正文中代码,它必须打包到函数中。 render_html函数将会把这个函数转换成HTML字符串。

[code] render_html(function() return div { img { src = “http://leafo.net/hi” } }end) – > <div></div> [/code]

The img tag is self-closing, it has no separate close tag. HTML calls these “void elements”. These will be treated differently in the implementation.


render_html might be implemented like this:


[code] local function render_html(fn) setfenv(fn, setmetatable({}, { __index = function(self, tag_name) return function(opts) return build_tag(tag_name, opts) end end }))

return fn() end [/code]

The build_tag function is where all actual work is done. It takes the name of the tag, and the attributes and content as a single table.


This function could be optimized by caching the generated functions in the environment table.


The void elements, as mentioned above, are defined as a simple set:

空元素, 如上所述,定义一个简单的设置:

[code] local void_tags = { img = true, – etc…} [/code]

The most efficient way to concatenate strings in regular Lua is to accumulate them into a table then call table.concat. Many calls to table.insert could be used to append to this buffer table, but I prefer the following function to allow multiple values to be appended at once:


[code] local function append_all(buffer, …) for i=1,select(“#”, …) do table.insert(buffer, (select(i, …))) endend [/code]

– example:–
[code] local buffer = {}–
append_all(buffer, “a”, “b”, c)– buffer now is {“a”, “b”, “c”} [/code]

append_all uses Lua’s built in function select to avoid any extra allocations by querying the var args object instead of creating a new table.

append_all 使用lua的构建于函数选择避免任何额外分配,用查询的变理参数对象代替创建新表。

Now the implementation of build_tag:


[code] local function build_tag(tag_name, opts) local buffer = {“<”, tag_name} if type(opts) == “table” then for k,v in pairs(opts) do if type(k) ~= “number” then append_all(buffer, “ “, k, ‘=”’, v, ‘”’) end end end

if void_tags[tag_name] then append_all(buffer, “ />”) else append_all(buffer, “>”) if type(opts) == “table” then append_all(buffer, unpack(opts)) else append_all(buffer, opts) end append_all(buffer, “</”, tag_name, “>”) end

return table.concat(buffer)end [/code]

There are a couple interesting things here:


The opts argument can either be a string literal or a table. When it’s a table it takes advantage of the fact that Lua tables are both hash tables and arrays at the same time. The hash table portion holds the attributes of the HTML element, and the array portion holds the contents of the element.


Checking if the key in a pairs iteration is numeric is a quick way to approximate isolating array like elements. It’s not perfect, but will work for this case.


[code] for k,v in pairs(opts) do if type(k) ~= “number” then – access hash table key and values endend [/code]

When the content of the tag is inserted into the buffer for the table based opts, the following line is used:


[code] append_all(buffer, unpack(opts)) [/code]

Lua’s built in function unpack converts the array values in a table to var args. This fits perfectly into the append_all function defined above.


unpack is table.unpack in Lua 5.2 and above. Closing This simple implementation of an HTML builder that should give you a good introduction to building your own DSLs in Lua.


The HTML builder provided performs no HTML escaping. It’s not suitable for rendering untrusted input. If you're looking for a way to enhance the builder then try adding html escaping. For example:


[code] local unsafe_text = [[]]

render_html(function() return div(unsafe_text)end)

– should not return a functional script tag:–





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