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AST Builder Support










Hamlet D'Arcy



Last modification:



Groovy 1.6 introduced the ability to perform local and global AST (Abstract Syntax Tree) transformations, allowing users to read and modify the AST of Groovy code as it is being compiled. Reading information in the AST is relatively easy in Groovy. The core library provides a strongly typed visitor called GroovyCodeVisitor. Nodes can be read and modified using the API provided through the subtypes of ASTNode. Writing new AST nodes is not as simple. The AST generated from source is not always obvious, and using constructor calls to generate trees of nodes can be verbose. This GEP proposes an ASTBuilder object that allows users to easily create AST.

The ASTBuilder object allows AST to be created from Strings containing Groovy source code, from a closure containing Groovy source, and from a closure containing an AST creation DSL.


ASTNode from String

The simplest approach to implement is to provide an AST Builder with an API that takes a String and returns ASTNode (or List<ASTNode>).

  • phase property tells the builder from which phase to return AST
  • returnScriptBodyOnly property tells the builder to discard any generated top level ClassNode elements
  • source property is the String to use as input

The above example produces the following AST:


  • Is there a logical default on which CompilePhase is used? Providing a default cleans up the API for the common case, but is there a logical default?
  • Compiling a code snippet typically results in a Script subclass being generated. Should we provide a way to discard this? A "returnScriptBodyOnly" property on the builder could be used to discard the Script ClassNode.
  • Often the builder will return an ASTNode object. But if classes are defined in the script then several ASTNode objects will need to be returned. Should the build() method always return a List<ASTNode>, or sometimes returns an ASTNode and sometimes returns a List<ASTNode>. Are covariant return types acceptable? It seems like List<ASTNode> is the most useful return type.
  • Is some sort of AST Template needed? Consider the following example:

ASTNode from Code Block

A useful API would be creating AST from code blocks.

  • Expressing Groovy source within Groovy source seems the most natural way to write it (as opposed to putting Groovy source into a String). 
  • Some IDE support is naturally available (highlighting, etc), but IDE warnings will be misleading for variable scoping rules
  • Same issues and rules for phase and returnScriptBodyOnly properties apply to this version
  • Provides similar API as builder from String, except the code property accepts any block of code

The above example produces the following AST:


  • Is it possible to capture the code in the compiler without a marker annotation?  
  • Multi-line statements would need to be wrapped in braces, which would trigger the ASTBuilder to create a Closure node around any multi-line statement. Do we need a property to control this?

ASTNode from psuedo-specification

Building AST conditionally, such as inserting an if-statement or looping, is not easily accomplished in the String or code based builders. Consider this example:

This library class is useful for several reasons:

  • Using conditionals or looping within an AST Builder will probably be a common occurrence
  • Simply using the @Newify annotation does not sufficiently improve the syntax
  • This construct alleviates the need to distinguish between Statement and Expressions, since those words are dropped from the method names


  • Constructor parameter lists can be lengthy on ASTNode subtypes, and this approach removes the possibility for an IDE to help.


Template Haskell and Boo provide a special syntax for AST building statements. Quasi-quote (or Oxford quotes) can be used to trigger an AST building operation:

 Those languages also supply a splice operator $(...) to turn AST back into code.


Mailing-list discussions

JIRA issues

  • Pending

Reference Implementation

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