10 Jul 2019

LISP in Two Days with Rust

As a sidetrack from the development of my programming language I’ve spent some time developing a LISP. The plan is to use the language as a testing ground for experimentation with transforming an AST in Rust. The syntax of LISP is simple and was developed to be easy to parse. I figured it would make a good starting point for an experimental compiler.

The language I’ll be developing here is heavily inspired by the lispy Scheme derivative. Some elements of behaviour are cribbed directly from Emacs LISP as it was the LISP implementation I had to hand. By the end we should have a language capable of evaluating expressions like the following:

	(define foo 1007)
	(define bar 330)
	(print (+ foo bar))) ; ~> prints 1337

Step One - Read

The first step on the road to any programming language is parsing. We will begin by splitting the job of recognising source code like (+ 1 foo) into two parts. Divide and conquer! The first step is to split the string into a list of tokens. This step is called lexical analysis in the fancy pants programming language world, where each of the tokens are called lexemes. Tokens is good enough for us though and easier to type. We’ll call it a tokeniser.

Our tokeniser works logically by running a set of regular expressions over the source text and choosing the token kind based on which expression matched. For our use case though we don’t need a full regex engine and can make do with a state machine built from a few match statements. For a more in-depth discussion check out my previous blogpost on this.


The tokens we need to recognise for LISP are pretty simple:

We begin by defining the states that our tokeniser can be in. In Rust this is best modelled as an enum:

enum TokeniseState {

The signature of the tokenise function is pretty simple. It accepts a borrowed string and returns a vector of tokens.

fn tokenise(source: &str) -> Vec<ast::Token>

It’s probably time to define what a token is. It might be tempting at first to model a token as an enum too. You can do this but it sometimes becomes cumbersome. There’s often state that’s shared between all tokens. To solve this we split the token into two parts. First a kind which is an enum containing the token’s type along with any token-type-specific data such as the value of a Number token. The rest of the common fields are collected along with the kind into a struct:

#[derive(Debug, PartialEq)]
pub enum TokenKind {

#[derive(Debug, PartialEq)]
pub struct Token {
    pub kind: TokenKind,
    span: Span<ByteIndex>,

Note that the kind is public to allow for ergonomic matching over tokens later. We’re using the codespan crate for source position and span information.

With all that in place it’s time to tackle the body of the tokenise method. We loop collecting tokens and do a two-level dispatch, first on our current state then on the next character:

loop {
    let mut state = Start;
    let mut end = start;

    for c in source[start..].chars() {
        let next = match state {
            Start => match c {
                '(' => Some(Lparen),
                ')' => Some(Rparen),
                '0'...'9' => Some(Number),
                'a'...'z' => Some(Symbol),
                c if c.is_whitespace() => Some(Whitespace),
                _ => None,
            Lparen | Rparen => None,
            Number => match c {
                '0'...'9' => Some(Number),
                _ => None,
            Symbol => match c {
                'A'...'Z' | '0'...'9' => Some(Symbol),
                _ => None,
            Whitespace => {
                if c.is_whitespace() {
                } else {

        // If we transitioned then accept the character
        // by moving on our `end` index.
        if let Some(next_state) = next {
            state = next_state;
            end += c.len_utf8();
        } else {

    let token_str = &source[start..end];
    let span = Span::new(start, end);

    start = end;

    let kind = match state {
        Start => break,
        Lparen => ast::TokenKind::LeftBracket,
        Rparen => ast::TokenKind::RightBracket,
        Number => ast::TokenKind::Number(token_str.parse().unwrap()),
        Symbol => ast::TokenKind::Symbol(token_str.into()),
        // Skip whitespace for now
        Whitespace => continue,

        kind,|s| ByteIndex(s as u32 + 1)),

Here I’ve elided some of the characters that can make up symbols for readability.

This should transform an input text such as (+ 1 foo) into a list of tokens:

	Token { kind: TokenKind::LeftBracket, ... },
	Token { kind: TokenKind::Symbol("+"), ... },
	Token { kind: TokenKind::Number(1), ... },
	Token { kind: TokenKind::Symbol("foo"), ... },
	Token { kind: TokenKind::RightBracket, ... },

The next step is to take the list of tokens and construct a syntax tree. Each node in the tree is represented by, you guessed it, an enum. In LISP there are two kinds of nodes in a syntax tree: atoms, and forms. The atoms in our LISP are Numbers and Symbols. Forms are parameterised S-expressions containing a list of forms or atoms. We could make do with a syntax tree node with just these two members. Our language has two special forms however: if for conditional execution, and define to introduce variable bindings. We will model these strongly in our tree too.

#[derive(Debug, PartialEq)]
pub enum Expr {
    /// A direct reference to a variable symbol
    Symbol(Token, String),
    /// A numeric literal
    Number(Token, i64),
    /// A conditional expression
    If(Token, Token, Box<Expr>, Box<Expr>, Box<Expr>, Token),
    /// A variable declaration
    Define(Token, Token, Token, Box<Expr>, Token),
    /// A funciton call expression
    Call(Token, Token, Vec<Expr>, Token),

Note that we’re including all the tokens in the tree, not just the ones which have important values. This is so we have more position information available later when running linters or syntax formatters. This technique, called full-fidelity trees, is used by many compilers such as C#’s Roslyn compiler and the Swift compiler. If we were to produce an IDE integration at a later date this extra metadata would prove invaluable.

We can recognise LISP with just a single token of lookahead. We will use the Rust Peekable iterator for this. To begin with the peekable list of tokens is all that our parser needs:

struct ParseState<I: Iterator<Item = ast::Token>>(std::iter::Peekable<I>);

Our top level parse function examines the next token. If it is an atom then we parse it directly, otherwise we delegate to parse_form to read the body of a form.

fn parse_expr(&mut self) -> ast::Expr {
    if let Some(token) = {
        use ast::TokenKind::*;
        match token.kind {
            LeftBracket => self.parse_form(token),
            RightBracket => panic!("unexpected token!"),
            Number(n) => ast::Expr::Number(token, n),
            Symbol(ref s) => {
                let sym = s.clone();
                ast::Expr::Symbol(token, sym)
    } else {
        panic!("invalid expression.")

It’s a bit panic!y. A production grade parser would recover more gracefully from those errors either by returning a Result, or by buffering a diagnostic and stubbing out the missing tokens. The latter approach allows the parser to extract some syntactic information from any source text. This is becoming a far more common approach with the continued rise of the IDE.

fn parse_form(&mut self, open: ast::Token) -> ast::Expr {
    use ast::TokenKind::*;
    match self.0.peek() {
        Some(&ast::Token {
            kind: Symbol(ref sym),
        }) => match &sym[..] {
            "if" => {
                let if_tok =;
                let cond = self.parse_expr();
                let if_true = self.parse_expr();
                let if_false = self.parse_expr();
                let close =;
            "define" => {
                let define_tok =;
                let sym_tok =;
                let value = self.parse_expr();
                let close =;
                ast::Expr::Define(open, define_tok, sym_tok, Box::new(value), close)
            _ => {
                let sym_tok =;
                let mut args = Vec::new();
                while let Some(token) = self.0.peek() {
                    if token.kind == RightBracket {
                let close =;
                ast::Expr::Call(open, sym_tok, args, close)
        _ => panic!("invalid expression"),

The parse_form method takes a similar approach. It attempts to mach one of our known special forms falling back to recognising a generic Call expression. With all this in place we can write a high-level parse method that our REPL will use to read source text into ast::Exprs:

pub fn parse(source: &str) -> ast::Expr {
    let tokens = tokenise(source);

Step Two - Eval

Now we have a syntax tree parsed it’s time to move on to evaluating it. Our eval method will take an Expr and produce a Value. Because evaluation can encounter errors we return a Result type:

#[derive(Debug, PartialEq, Copy, Clone)]
pub enum Value {

type Callable = fn(Vec<Value>) -> EvalResult;

pub struct EvalError(String);

pub type EvalResult = Result<Value, EvalError>;

pub fn eval(expr: ast::Expr) -> EvalResult {
    eval_with_env(expr, &mut make_global_env())

Values can contain either a number or a callable function. We will not only return these as the result of evaluation but also store them in our environment.

There’s not much code in eval, but two interesting things are going on. First we call make_global_env to create a new global environment. The main evaluation takes place in eval_with_env.

The evaluation environment for our LISP is just a HashMap of Symbol to Value. The make_global_env function just creates a new map and inserts the functions we want to be globally visible:

pub fn make_global_env() -> HashMap<String, Value> {
    let mut env = HashMap::new();

        Value::Callable(|values| Ok(last_or_nil(values))),
        Value::Callable(|values| {
            let mut sum = 0;
            for value in values.iter() {
                sum += value.into_num();
        Value::Callable(|values| {
            Ok(if let Some((first, rest)) = values.split_first() {
                let mut sum = first.into_num();
                if rest.len() == 0 {
                } else {
                    for value in rest {
                        sum -= value.into_num();
            } else {
                // (-) ~> 0 ; apparently
        Value::Callable(|values| {
            if let Some((first, rest)) = values.split_first() {
                let mut res = first.into_num();
                Ok(if rest.len() == 0 {
                    Value::Number(1 / res)
                } else {
                    for value in rest {
                        res /= value.into_num();
            } else {
                Err(EvalError("Wrong number of arguments: /, 0".into()))
        Value::Callable(|values| {
            let res = values.iter().fold(1, |acc, v| acc * v.into_num());


With the environment taken care of evaluation is fairly simple. Number atoms evaluate to themselves. Symbols are looked up in the environment:

use ast::Expr::*;
match expr {
    Symbol(_, s) => env
        .ok_or_else(|| EvalError(format!("eval: Undefined symbol {}", s))),
    Number(_, n) => Ok(Value::Number(n)),

If evaluates the condition expression and then chooses which branch to evaluate based on the result:

    If(_, _, cond, then, elz, _) => Ok(if eval_with_env(*cond, env)?.is_truthy() {
        eval_with_env(*then, env)?
    } else {
        eval_with_env(*elz, env)?

Define evaluates its expression and inserts the result into the environment hashmap:

    Define(_, _, sym, value, _) => {
        let value = eval_with_env(*value, env)?;
        let sym = to_sym(sym)?;
        env.insert(sym, value.clone());

For function calls we search for a Callable in the environment, evaluate all of the arguments, and make the call:

    Call(_, sym, args, _) => {
        let sym = to_sym(sym)?;
        match env.get(&sym) {
            Some(Value::Callable(c)) => c(args
                                          .map(|a| eval_with_env(a, env))
                                          .collect::<Result<Vec<_>, _>>()?),
            _ => Err(EvalError(format!("eval: Invalid function {}", sym))),

Since our Expr type is simple that’s all the cases we need to deal with. This is the advantage of LISP. The syntax is small. The real power comes from the way it can be combined.

Step Three - Print

With parsing and evaluation in place we’re almost at a functioning read, execute, print loop. Printing the result of evaluation is pretty simple:

fn print(result: eval::EvalResult) {
    match result {
        Ok(value) => println!(" ~> {}", value),
        Err(error) => println!(" !! {}", error),

To read in our source line we first need a prompt:

fn read() -> ast::Expr {
    let mut buff = String::new();
    print!(" > ");
    std::io::stdin().read_line(&mut buff).unwrap();

The final REPL is then pretty simple to construct:

let mut env = eval::make_global_env();
loop {
    print(eval::eval_with_env(read(), &mut env));

Note that the global environment is initialised before the loop so state from each REPL entry is available to following entries.

 > (define foo 100)
 ~> 100
 > (define bar 99)
 ~> 99
 > (+ foo (- foo bar))
 ~> 101

Step Four - Experiment

With the basics in place it’s time to experiment. It’s easy to add new callable functions to the “standard library” by including them in the global scope. The language outlined in this post doesn’t have support for user-defined functions or any form of loops. Another big LISP feature missing is the ability to quote and eval forms to turn them from source code into data and back.

The source for the programming language experiment behind this post is available on GitHub.