DEV Community

Daniel Imfeld
Daniel Imfeld

Posted on • Originally published at on

Create a Parser with Rust and Nom

Writing a parser can seem intimidating if you haven’t done it before. It conjures visions of obscure grammars fed into arcane tools to generate thousands of lines of unreadable code.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Parser combinator libraries such as nom present a library of small functions that each do one thing, and then allow you to put them together to create a full parser.

I recently built a utility to export a Roam Research graph to HTML, and part of this task involved parsing the Roam markdown-like format. The experience of writing the parser was quite nice, and so I’ve annotated the parser file here so you can see how it all fits together.

First we just import all the parsers and combinators.

use nom::{
    bytes::complete::{is_not, tag, take_until, take_while1},
    character::complete::{char, multispace0},
    character::{is_newline, is_space},
    combinator::{all_consuming, map, map_parser, opt, recognize},
    sequence::{delimited, pair, preceded, separated_pair, terminated, tuple},
use urlocator::{UrlLocation, UrlLocator};

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

The input to the parser is the markup for a single block, and the output is a Vec<Expression>. Some expressions, such as Bold, contain other expressions. Other expressions such as Image just render out straight HTML.

The actual rendering of most of these expressions into HTML isn’t particularly interesting, but I can cover that another time if anyone cares.

#[derive(Debug, PartialEq, Eq)]
pub enum Expression<'a> {
    Text(&'a str),
    RawHyperlink(&'a str),
    Image {
        alt: &'a str,
        url: &'a str,
    BraceDirective(&'a str),
    PageEmbed(&'a str),
    BlockEmbed(&'a str),
    TripleBacktick(&'a str),
    SingleBacktick(&'a str),
    Hashtag(&'a str, bool),
    Link(&'a str),
    MarkdownLink {
        title: &'a str,
        url: &'a str,
    BlockRef(&'a str),
    Attribute {
        name: &'a str,
        value: Vec<Expression<'a>>,

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

First, a small utility function to match on any non-whitespace character.

fn nonws_char(c: char) -> bool {
    !is_space(c as u8) && !is_newline(c as u8)

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

Our first parser, word, just gets a single word. take_while1(nonws_char) creates a parser that reads at least one character matching nonws_char.

Each parser follows this format. It takes the input as an argument and returns a IResult<REM, DATA>, where REM is the remaining unparsed portion of the string, and DATA is the type that a parser returns. The built-in parsers also work with this type of return value, so we don’t have to do anything special here.

For this parser, the inputs are all strings, but nom is also made to work with binary formats, so &[u8] is commonly seen in other uses.

fn word(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, &str> {

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

The fenced parser handles strings surrounded by a particular pattern, such as [[a title]]. It uses the tuple combinator, which matches if it sees the parsers inside it in order. So this one looks for a string matching start and grabs the input until it sees a string matching end. The final tag(end) just makes sure that the parser consumes the ending pattern as well. Once that matches, the map combinator pulls out just the text between the fence tokens, which is the middle item captured by take_until.

This is also an example of a combinator: a function that doesn’t parse input itself, but generates another parser. The combinators inside nom look very similar. They take some options and return a new parser function.

Nom provides a delimited parser that works similarly to our fenced parser, but fenced works better when the ending pattern is more than one character and we are just taking any characters until we see the ending.

fn fenced<'a>(start: &'a str, end: &'a str) -> impl FnMut(&'a str) -> IResult<&'a str, &'a str> {
    map(tuple((tag(start), take_until(end), tag(end))), |x| x.1)

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

style is a combinator to generate parsers for styles like **bold** and __italic__, which are delimited by characters and then can have arbitrary other expressions inside them.

For this we use map_parser, which works much like Rust’s Result::and_then. It takes the result of the first parser and tries to apply the second parser to it. If both parsers succeed, then it returns the value. The parse_inline parser is a general parser for almost any expression, and we define it later in this file.

fn style<'a>(boundary: &'a str)
      -> impl FnMut(&'a str)
          -> IResult<&'a str, Vec<Expression<'a>>> {
    map_parser(fenced(boundary, boundary), parse_inline)

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

link is for links to internal Roam pages, and just uses the fenced parser.

fn link(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, &str> {
    fenced("[[", "]]")(input)

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

markdown_link is for external links. It uses the pair combinator which works like tuple but for just two parsers next to each other. This returns a tuple consisting of the link title and the URL.

fn markdown_link(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, (&str, &str)> {
        fenced("[", "]"),
        delimited(char('('), is_not(")"), char(')')),

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

Some Roam directives, such as hashtags, can look like either #hashtag or #[[hashtag]]. For this we have the link_or_word parser, which can extract either of these formats. The alt combinator tries to run each parser listed, and returns the result of the first one that matches.

fn link_or_word(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, &str> {
    alt((link, word))(input)

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

Sometimes we need a particular link_or_word inside a directive such as {{table}} or {{[[table]]}}. fixed_link_or_word handles that case.

fn fixed_link_or_word<'a>(word: &'a str) -> impl FnMut(&'a str) -> IResult<&'a str, &'a str> {
    alt((tag(word), delimited(tag("[["), tag(word), tag("]]"))))

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

hashtag parses #tag or #[[tag]. It also handles the special #.tag syntax, using the opt combinator to mark the . as optional, and returns the presence of the dot as a bool.

fn hashtag(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, (&str, bool)> {
        preceded(char('#'), pair(opt(tag(".")), link_or_word)),
        |(has_dot, tag)| (tag, has_dot.is_some()),

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

Now that we’ve built up our own small library of combinators, it’s easy to set them up for various types of syntax.

fn triple_backtick(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, &str> {

", "


fn single_backtick(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, &str> {
    delimited(char('`'), is_not("`"), char('`'))(input)

// Parse `((reference))`
fn block_ref(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, &str> {
    fenced("((", "))")(input)

fn bold(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, Vec<Expression>> {

fn italic(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, Vec<Expression>> {

fn strike(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, Vec<Expression>> {

fn highlight(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, Vec<Expression>> {

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

Special handling for the contents of certain {{...}} directives. Anything we don’t handle just ends up as a BraceDirective.

fn brace_directive_contents(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, Expression> {
        map(fixed_link_or_word("table"), |_| Expression::Table),
                terminated(tag(":"), multispace0),
                    map(block_ref, Expression::BlockEmbed),
                    map(link, Expression::PageEmbed),
            |(_, e)| e,
        map(link_or_word, Expression::BraceDirective),

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

This one finds brace directives and uses the above brace_directive_contents to extract the inside. The all_consuming combinator used here indicates that the parser it wraps must use the entire input.

fn brace_directive(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, Expression> {
            map(take_until("}}"), |inner: &str| {
                // Try to parse a link from the brace contents. If these fail, just return the raw contents.
                let inner = inner.trim();
                    .map(|x| x.1)
                    .unwrap_or_else(|_| Expression::BraceDirective(inner))
        |x| x.1,

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

preceded is like delimited, but without any parser at the end. Here we use it to look for a markdown image, which is an ! followed by a link.

/// Parses `![alt](url)`
fn image(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, (&str, &str)> {
    preceded(char('!'), markdown_link)(input)

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

The raw_url parser uses another library to parse a particular string, rather than just the ones built in to nom. Here we are looking for URLs that occur in the content but are not explicitly tagged as such.

It iterates through the characters in the input, and uses the UrlLocatorcrate at each step to see if we have found a URL. Once we have made a decision, we return an Ok with the URL contents, or a nom::error::Error, which indicates that the parser did not match. I cheated a little bit here and just reused one of the built-in nom error codes instead of creating a custom error type.

/// Parses urls not inside a directive
fn raw_url(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, &str> {
    let mut locator = UrlLocator::new();
    let mut end = 0;
    for c in input.chars() {
        match locator.advance(c) {
            UrlLocation::Url(s, _e) => {
                end = s as usize;
            UrlLocation::Reset => break,
            UrlLocation::Scheme => {}

    if end > 0 {
        Ok((&input[end..], &input[0..end]))
    } else {

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

Getting close to the end! The directive function combines a bunch of the above parsers together into a single parser that can find various types of directives.

fn directive(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, Expression> {
        map(triple_backtick, Expression::TripleBacktick),
        map(single_backtick, Expression::SingleBacktick),
        map(hashtag, |(v, dot)| Expression::Hashtag(v, dot)),
        map(link, Expression::Link),
        map(block_ref, Expression::BlockRef),
        map(image, |(alt, url)| Expression::Image { alt, url }),
        map(markdown_link, |(title, url)| Expression::MarkdownLink {
        map(context("bold", bold), Expression::Bold),
        map(italic, Expression::Italic),
        map(strike, Expression::Strike),
        map(highlight, Expression::Highlight),
        map(raw_url, Expression::RawHyperlink),

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

This is probably the most complex of all the parsers. nom's included parsers don’t do well with the case of “parse plain text until you find any valid directive,” so this function accomplishes that.

For each character, we see if it matches any of the directive parsers. If so, then we add two items to our list of expressions: all the plain text preceding the directive, and the directive itself. If not, then we just go on to the next character and try again.

At the end, we check one more time to see if there’s any text after the most recent directive, and add that text as well. Then we return the entire list.

When examining the IResult type, we see that Ok indicates a parser match, Err(nom::Err::Error(e))indicates that the parser did not match anything, and any other error indicates a fatal error. Our parser doesn’t return any fatal errors, but this might be used, for example, in a JSON parser that encounters invalid syntax.

When parsing a stream, the parser can also return Err(nom::Err::Incomplete(e)), which indicates that the parser needs more input to be able to properly parse the input. Again, in this particular parser we don’t encounter that case.

/// Parse a line of text, counting anything that doesn't match a directive as plain text.
fn parse_inline(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, Vec<Expression>> {
    let mut output = Vec::with_capacity(4);

    let mut current_input = input;

    while !current_input.is_empty() {
        let mut found_directive = false;
        for (current_index, _) in current_input.char_indices() {
            // println!("{} {}", current_index, current_input);
            match directive(&current_input[current_index..]) {
                Ok((remaining, parsed)) => {
                    // println!("Matched {:?} remaining {}", parsed, remaining);
                    let leading_text = &current_input[0..current_index];
                    if !leading_text.is_empty() {

                    current_input = remaining;
                    found_directive = true;
                Err(nom::Err::Error(_)) => {
                    // None of the parsers matched at the current position, so this character is just part of the text.
                    // The iterator will go to the next character so there's nothing to do here.
                Err(e) => {
                    // On any other error, just return the error.
                    return Err(e);

        if !found_directive {

    Ok(("", output))

/// Parses `Name:: Arbitrary [[text]]`
fn attribute(input: &str) -> IResult<&str, (&str, Vec<Expression>)> {
    // Roam doesn't trim whitespace on the attribute name, so we don't either.
    separated_pair(is_not(":`"), tag("::"), preceded(multispace0, parse_inline))(input)

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

Finally, there are a few directives that are only valid if they constitute the entire line. The --- horizontal rule directive must be alone in a block, and the > blockquote directive must be the start of a block. We put these in the top-level parse function and surround them with all_consuming to make sure that they actually use the entire line.

pub fn parse(input: &str) -> Result<Vec<Expression>, nom::Err<nom::error::Error<&str>>> {
        map(all_consuming(tag("---")), |_| vec![Expression::HRule]),
        map(all_consuming(preceded(tag("> "), parse_inline)), |values| {
        map(all_consuming(attribute), |(name, value)| {
            vec![Expression::Attribute { name, value }]
    .map(|(_, results)| results)

Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

And that’s it! From there, the utility just calls parse on each block in a page of the Roam graph and renders them. I’m using this utility to generate most of the notes on my website.

This is a long file, but it actually wasn’t too hard to put together a piece at a time. Overall, I quite liked building a parser this way and I will definitely look to using nom again whenever I have a similar need.

Top comments (1)

ashoutinthevoid profile image
Full Name

Parser combinators (and every other subset of functional combinators) are super cool. One of my favorite examples of the elegant power of composition.

Thank you for sharing the article!