Playing with Nom and parser combinators

I usually write parsers by starting from a grammar and either coding a lexer/parser by hand or relying on tools such as the fantastic Antlr. However, a friend recently introduced me to parser combinators, which I found to be very interesting and useful. It’s not a recent idea, but it was new to me, and I have found it to be very interesting and useful.

I have played a bit with a great Rust library called nom, and I had a lot of fun with it. In this post, I will try to explain the core ideas of parser combinators and the nom library by building a tiny JSON parser.

Introduction to nom

Basic parsing functions

The idea behind parser combinators is to start by building small functions that will either recognize a basic elements or return an error. Then, you combine them with higher-level functions and voilà, you have parsed the whole input. nom comes with a lot of small functions and general-purpose combinators already built.

Let’s start with an example. We want to recognize the string "null":

fn tag_sample(json: &str) -> IResult<&str, &str> {

The tag function in nom is a higher-level function - it takes a string as argument, and will return a parser function that can recognize that string as input. Then, we apply the resulting function to the input string.

The result of a parser in nom is an IResult, which is simply a Result<(T1, T2), Err>. If the parser fails, nom’s built-in parsers will return an error with information about the input location and the problem.

If the parser succeeds, it will return a tuple, where the first element will be the “remainder” of the input, i.e. the new position in the input string. The remainder will be used to invoke the following parser, until everything has been consumed. The second element of the tuple will be the parsed value. We will see later how to use this to generate your model or AST.

Let’s write a simple test for the function above to clarify:

fn test_tag_sample() {
    assert_eq!(Ok(("", "null")), tag_sample("null"));
    assert_eq!(Ok((" rest", "null")), tag_sample("null rest"));
    assert!(tag_sample("not null").is_err());

In the first case, the parser matches the whole input, so the remainder returned is simply the empty string. In the second case, we have some remainder. The last case tests what happens when recognition fails.

Combining parsers

So far, so good. But, the real power comes from combining parsers. A typical example is to parse two or more things in a sequence: this can be done via the tuple combinator (or pair if you have exactly two elements):

// Note: not idiomatic code, we'll improve it later
fn parse_hello_world(json: &str) -> IResult<&str, ()> {
    let hello = tag("hello");
    let space = tag(" ");
    let world = tag("world");
    let mut hello_world = tuple((hello, space, world));

    let value = hello_world(json)?;
    Ok((value.0, ()))

Here we first build three different parsers using tag, and then build a new one, called hello_world, by combining them. The combined parser will succeed only if all the three basic ones succeed in a row, i.e. if we can recognize the sequence hello world. Otherwise, it will fail. Notice that we need to pass a tuple to tuple, which is why we have the double set of parentheses.

Obviously, this is not very interesting, because we could have just used a tag("hello world") parser. So, let’s see a more intriguing combinator:

fn recognize_boolean(json: &str) -> IResult<&str, &str> {

alt is a very useful parser - it will attempt to execute all the given parsers in order and stop whenever one succeeds. Therefore, this parser is capable of recognizing either the string true or false.

Another useful combinator is delimited, which can be used like this:

delimited(char('('), take(2), char(')'))

This will parse a string that starts with (, then has two characters, and ends with ). The result of the parser will be the two characters in the middle, so for (ab)cd it will return Ok(("cd", "ab")) (i.e. the resulting value will not contain the delimiters).

There are a lot of basic parser functions and combinators built-in in nom; you can check out a very helpful cheat sheet here.

Mapping values

There are a couple of very useful functions that I haven’t discussed yet. The first one is map. This function takes a parser and a function and will apply the function to the result of the parser, i.e. the second value of the tuple if the underlying parser returned Ok. For example:

fn parse_boolean(json: &str) -> IResult<&str, bool> {
      map(tag("true"), |_| true), 
      map(tag("false"), |_| false))

fn can_parse_boolean() {
    assert_eq!(Ok(("", true)), parse_boolean("true"));
    assert_eq!(Ok(("", false)), parse_boolean("false"));
    assert!(parse_boolean("not a bool").is_err());

Since we are not really using the value returned by the underlying parser here, rather than using map and the _ placeholder we can also use the value combinator (which for some reason the argument swapped with respect to map):

fn parse_boolean(json: &str) -> IResult<&str, bool> {
      value(true, tag("true")), 
      value(false, tag("false")))

Parsing JSON with nom

Let us now apply this basic knowledge of the nom library and try to write a JSON parser. Let’s start with the model:

/// Representation of a node in the json tree
#[derive(Debug, PartialEq, Clone)]
enum JsonNode<'a> {
    Object(Box<IndexMap<&'a str, JsonNode<'a>>>),
    String(&'a str),

I’m using IndexMap here because we want to preserve the order of the keys in the object. I’m also using an 'a explicit lifetime to inform the borrow checker that we are not doing allocations or string copies, but just relying on slices of the original input.

Parsing JSON is quite simply done via the alt combinator:

fn parse_json(json: &str) -> IResult<&str, JsonNode> {

Let’s start with the simple ones:

fn parse_null(json: &str) -> IResult<&str, JsonNode> {
    // Simplest case: a literal value
    value(JsonNode::Null, tag("null"))(json)

fn parse_boolean(json: &str) -> IResult<&str, JsonNode> {
    // A boolean is the literal true or false
        value(JsonNode::Boolean(true), tag("true")),
        value(JsonNode::Boolean(false), tag("false")),

/// Parses a string and wraps it into a JsonNode
fn parse_string(json: &str) -> IResult<&str, JsonNode> {
    map(parse_string_inner, JsonNode::String)(json)

/// Parses a string and returns it "raw", without building a JsonNode
fn parse_string_inner(json: &str) -> IResult<&str, &str> {
    // A string is delimited by quote marks. Here we do
    // not handle Unicode or escape characters, but 
    // take a look at
    delimited(tag("\""), take_until("\""), tag("\""))(json)

Hopefully, take_until is self-explanatory. Now, let’s focus on arrays:

fn parse_array(json: &str) -> IResult<&str, JsonNode> {
        // An array is delimited by []
            // and contains a list of entries separated
            // by comma (','), optionally empty
              delimited(multispace0, tag(","), multispace0),

Here we are using separated_list0 and multispace0 - these and quite other functions exist in two variants, where 0 generally means “zero or more times”, whereas 1 requires at least one occurrence.

Finally, we can take a look at parsing objects:

fn parse_object(json: &str) -> IResult<&str, JsonNode> {
        // An object is delimited by {}
            // and contains a list of entries separated
            // by comma (','), optionally empty
                // each entry is made of two parts:
                // key and value, separated by colon (':')
                    delimited(multispace0, parse_string_inner, multispace0),
                    delimited(multispace0, parse_json, multispace0),
        |v| JsonNode::Object(Box::new(v.into_iter().collect())),

Here we are using the super powerful Rust standard function collect to transform the result of the parsing, which will be a Vec of tuples where the first entry will be the key and the second the value, into an IndexMap.

You can see the complete code here.


nom is a very interesting library. It can be used to parse not only strings, as we have done, but also binary formats by simply using things like &[u8] instead of &str. The idea takes a bit to get used to (unless you are an expert in functional programming I guess), but it is very powerful - and fun! Its documentation is also very good, and there are a lot of examples in the repository.

As usual, thanks for reading this post. 🙏