Macro Resolution

The Enso macro system is responsible for translating the structured token stream from the lexer and resolving it into the output ast that represents the Enso language.

The macro system is of key importance to the operation of Enso, providing the IDE with detailed information on how users can interact with each and every portion of the syntax. This has myriad benefits over a traditional parser, allowing the IDE to handle all portions of the language’s syntax in a seamless way; the macro matchers describe the Enso syntax in a way that allows the IDE to extract information about extension points and other crucial metadata.

Nevertheless, the macro system also serves as the language’s parser, implementing a sophisticated resolution algorithm that is able to turn the token stream into the language AST.

Furthermore, the macro system can be extended in future to allow users to define their own hygienic macros in Enso itself. This will allow them to manipulate their programs syntactically using exactly the same mechanism as used in the Enso parser itself.

Resolving Macros

Conceptually, the macro resolution process builds a tree out of the user-defined macros, segmenting the token-space based on the types of tokens expected by the various definitions. Resolution then proceeds to walk the tree, pruning the possible cases until either:

  1. An unambiguous resolution is found.
  2. An ambiguous resolution is found and an error emitted.

Resolution then recurses, continuing to apply the macro resolution process against the non-matchable segments in the macro.

Consider, for example, the macros defined as follows:

let if_then      = "if" >> Matcher::Expr >> "then" >> Matcher::Expr
let if_then_else = "if" >> Matcher::Expr >> "then" >> Matcher::Expr >> "else" >> Matcher::Expr

These generate a tree as follows:

                       │ "if" │
                           ▼                 ▼
                   ┌───────────────┐     ┌───────┐
                   │ Matcher::Expr │     │ Other │
                   └───────────────┘     └───────┘
                           │                 │
                           │                 │
                           ▼                 ▼
                       ┌──────┐          ┌──────┐
                       │"then"│          │ Fail │
                       └──────┘          └──────┘
                           ▼                 ▼
                   ┌───────────────┐     ┌───────┐
                   │ Matcher::Expr │     │ Other │
                   └───────────────┘     └───────┘
                           │                 │
       ┌───────────────────┤                 │
       ▼                   ▼                 ▼
  ┌─────────┐          ┌──────┐          ┌──────┐
  │ Succeed │          │"else"│          │ Fail │
  └─────────┘          └──────┘          └──────┘
                           ▼                 ▼
                   ┌───────────────┐     ┌───────┐
                   │ Matcher::Expr │     │ Other │
                   └───────────────┘     └───────┘
                           │                 │
                           │                 │
                           ▼                 ▼
                      ┌─────────┐        ┌──────┐
                      │ Succeed │        │ Fail │
                      └─────────┘        └──────┘

Within each of the patterns, the macro resolution continues recursively, thus allowing the macros to match nested uses of themselves (e.g. if a then if b then c).

In reality, this is not how it actually takes place. Applying one macro to completion and then starting again on all remaining segments provides abysmal complexity. As a result, the process instead operates on a stack of resolution contexts, performing its resolution in a linear scan over the token stream.

Macro Segments

Macros are described in terms of segments. A segment consists of three main components:

  1. An optional preceding section that uses matchers to describe what they match until encountering the literal in 2. This can only occur with the first segment.
  2. A literal that must be matched for that segment to apply.
  3. An optional associated matcher that consumes certain types of token.

Segments determine how a given macro matches on the input token stream, and are used to generate the tree for performing resolution.


When a match occurs, the resultant segments are passed to a function that can perform some action based on those segments. This function is responsible for manipulating the output of the macro resolver, and hence manipulates the AST.

As the function may assert additional properties on the match not able to be ascertained by the segment definitions themselves,

Macro Matchers

The matchers describe the kinds of tokens that can be reasoned about within a macro definition. These fall across a set of categories as follows.

The boundary matchers are:

  • Start: Matches the start of the line.
  • End: Matches the end of the line.

Structural matchers:

  • Nothing: Never matches on any token.
  • Any: Matches on any token. This may become a family of tokens (e.g. AnyExpr), and so on, for performance.
  • Seq: Matches on the contained matches in sequence.
  • Or: Matches on one of the contained matches.
  • Many: Matches on multiple of the given match.
  • Except: Matches on everything but the given pattern.

Meta matchers:

  • Build: Performs AST resolution on the match, but this must become implicit.
  • Err: Allows ascribing a user-defined error to the failure of the contained matcher.
  • Tag: Does nothing, but attaches string metadata to the result. This is very useful for syntax highlighting.
  • Exact: Matches on an explicit AST.

Identifier matchers:

  • Referent: Matches on a referent identifier.
  • Variable: Matches on a variable identifier.
  • External: Matches on an external identifier.
  • Blank: Matches the blank identifier (_).
  • Operator: Matches on an operator identifier.
  • Modifier: Matches on a modifier identifier.
  • Annotation: Matches on an annotation identifier.

Literal matchers:

  • Number: Matches on a literal number.
  • Text: Any text literal.
  • TextLine: Matches a single-line textual literal.
  • TextInlineBlock: Matches an inline-block textual literal.
  • TextBlock: Matches a block text literal.

Comment matchers:

  • DisableComment: Matches a standard disable comment.
  • DocComment: Matches an Enso doc comment.

Structural matchers:

  • Block: Matches an Enso block.

Error matchers:

  • DanglingBase: Matches an erroneous base for a number literal.
  • TextError: Matches tokens representing error states during textual lexing.
  • InvalidSuffix: Matches an erroneous suffix token.
  • Unrecognized: Matches an unrecognised token.

In addition, it is highly likely that some of these will be combined into aggregate matchers that match one of many kinds of token.

Relative Precedence Matchers

Where relevant, the matchers above may take an optional “maximum precedence” of operator that they may match. This effectively serves to implement differing precedences on either side of a literal operator being implemented via a macro, and is important for correctly resolving the function arrow ->.

Named Macros

In addition to the basic matcher described above, we also need a Named, matcher. The intent behind this matcher is that it allows you to refer to existing macro definitions by name, and also provides for better error messages.

By convention, we aim for these names to be treated as qualified, based on the package in which they’re declared. This convention should be followed for the built-in macros as well, even if they can’t be overridden, as they may appear in error messages.

Macro Resolution Errors

Due to the incredibly structured nature of the resolver it is quite possible for the macro system to produce very detailed errors when resolution fails. This is because it knows the path it took to get to the failure, and the expected tokens or kinds of tokens at the failure site.

In addition, the resolver allows users to define their own errors through the use of the Err matcher mentioned above.

Macro Errors as Parser Errors

The wealth of information in a failed macro resolution brings the necessary tools for the compiler to produce informative and detailed parsing errors.

The actionables for this section are:

  • Determine how we ensure provision of failure information to the engine in a useful format.

User-Defined Macros

In the future we want to provide an Enso-level syntax that allows the user to define syntactic macros for their programs, similar to how Rust exposes the macro_rules! construct.

The actionables for this section are:

  • Determine what this should look like in surface Enso.
  • Determine exactly how the round-trip mechanic between the runtime and parser should function.


All components of the macro resolver are accompanied by comprehensive benchmarks in order to protect the performance-crucial code against regressions. These benchmarks are written using, and cover all of the performance critical functionality of the macro resolver.

Baseline Commit: TBC (use the latest for now)

The benchmarking process for the macro resolver is as follows:

  1. Check out the current baseline commit, listed above.
  2. In each of the benchmark files, change the configuration line reading .retain_baseline to .save_baseline. This will save the current baseline (taken on your machine).
  3. In change the line that reads .retain_baseline to instead read .save_baseline. This will save the current baseline (taken on your machine).
  4. Run the benchmarks using cargo bench.
  5. Once the baseline run has completed, change the above-mentioned lines back to .retain_baseline. This will disable overwriting the saved baseline, and will perform its regression reporting against it.
  6. Make your changes.
  7. Run the benchmark suite again. It will report any performance regressions in the benchmark report, measured against your saved baseline.

Unfortunately, the use of time-based benchmarks means that we can’t commit the baseline to the repository. There is far too much variance between machines for this to be useful.

Running a Subset of the Benchmarks

The benchmarks are very comprehensive, testing all performance-critical paths of the macro resolver. However, it can often be useful to run a subset of these.

There are two main tuning points for this:

  1. The sizes of inputs being executed on, where relevant.
  2. The benchmarks being executed.

While it is possible to tune the benchmarking config to decrease benchmarking time, this is not recommended. The current settings are tuned to provide reliable results.

Changing the Macro Resolver

When changing the macro resolver the full benchmark suite must be run against the current baseline before the changes can be merged. This suite run must use the provided settings for the benchmarking library, and should be performed using the process described above.