Fun with the recovery feature

Published on February 19, 2016, last updated July 20, 2019

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The text here may be obsolete. See this tutorial instead.

The withRecovery primitive allows to recover from parse errors “on-the-fly” and report several errors after parsing is finished or ignore them altogether. In this tutorial, we will learn how to use it.

Language that we will parse

For the purposes of this tutorial, we will write parser for a simple functional language that consists only of equations with a name on the left hand side and arithmetic expression on the right hand side of =:

y = 10
x = 3 * (1 + y)

result = x - 1 # answer is 32

Here, it can only calculate arithmetic expressions, but if we were to design something more powerful, we could introduce more interesting operators to grab input from console, etc., but since our aim is to explore a new parsing feature, this language will do.

First, we will write a parser that can parse entire program in this language as a list of ASTs representing equations. Then we will make it failure-tolerant in a way, so when it cannot parse a particular equation, it does not stop, but continues its work until all input is analyzed.

Parser without recovery

The first version of the parser is very easy to write. We will need the following imports:

{-# LANGUAGE FlexibleContexts #-}
{-# LANGUAGE TypeFamilies     #-}

module Main (main) where

import Control.Applicative (empty)
import Control.Monad (void)
import Control.Monad.Combinators.Expr
import Data.Scientific (toRealFloat)
import Data.Void
import Text.Megaparsec
import Text.Megaparsec.Char
import qualified Text.Megaparsec.Char.Lexer as L

To represent AST of our language we will use these definitions:

type Program = [Equation]

data Equation = Equation String Expr
  deriving (Eq, Show)

data Expr
  = Value          Double
  | Reference      String
  | Negation       Expr
  | Sum            Expr Expr
  | Subtraction    Expr Expr
  | Multiplication Expr Expr
  | Division       Expr Expr
  deriving (Eq, Show)

A program in our language is collection of equations, where every equation gives a name to an expression which in turn can be simply a number, reference to other equation, or some math involving those things.

We parse input stream in the form of a String and we don’t need custom error messages, so we’ll use the following definition of Parser:

type Parser = Parsec Void String

As usual, the first thing that we need to handle is white space. We will have two space-consuming parsers:

  • scn—consumes newlines and white space in general. We will use it for white space between equations, which will start with a newline (since equations are newline-delimited).

  • sc—this does not consume newlines and is used to define lexemes, i.e. things that automatically eat white space after them.

Here is what I’ve got:

lineComment :: Parser ()
lineComment = L.skipLineComment "#"

scn :: Parser ()
scn = space1 lineComment empty

sc :: Parser ()
sc = (void $ takeWhile1P Nothing f) lineComment empty
    f x = x == ' ' || x == '\t'

lexeme :: Parser a -> Parser a
lexeme = L.lexeme sc

symbol :: String -> Parser String
symbol = L.symbol sc

Consult Haddocks for description of, L.lexeme, and L.symbol. In short, is a helper to quickly put together a general-purpose space-consuming parser. We will follow this strategy: assume no white space before lexemes and consume all white space after lexemes. There may be some white space before the first lexeme, but that will be dealt with specially, see below.

We also need a parser for equation names (x, y, and result in the first example). Like in many other programming languages, we will accept alpha-numeric sequences that do not start with a number:

name :: Parser String
name = lexeme ((:) <$> letterChar <*> many alphaNumChar) <?> "name"

To accept integers as well as floating point numbers we use the scientific combinator. It returns Scientific number (arbitrary precision space efficient numbers provided by the scientific package) which we convert to Double using the toRealFloat function:

float :: Parser Double
float = lexeme (Sci.toRealFloat <$> L.scientific)

All too easy. Parsing of expressions could slow us down, but there is a solution out-of-box in the Control.Monad.Combinators.Expr module from (parser-combinators):

expr :: Parser Expr
expr = makeExprParser term table <?> "expression"

term :: Parser Expr
term = parens expr
  <|> (Reference <$> name)
  <|> (Value     <$> float)

table :: [[Operator Parser Expr]]
table =
  [ [Prefix (Negation <$ symbol "-") ]
  , [ InfixL (Multiplication <$ symbol "*")
    , InfixL (Subtraction    <$ symbol "/") ]
  , [ InfixL (Sum            <$ symbol "+")
    , InfixL (Division       <$ symbol "-") ]

parens :: Parser a -> Parser a
parens = between (symbol "(") (symbol ")")

We just wrote a fairly complete parser for expressions in our language! If you’re new to all this stuff I suggest you load the code into GHCi and play with it a bit. Use the parseTest function to feed input into the parser:

λ> parseTest expr "5"
Value 5.0
λ> parseTest expr "5 + foo"
Sum (Value 5.0) (Reference "foo")
λ> parseTest expr "(x + y) * 5 + 7 * z"
  (Multiplication (Sum (Reference "x") (Reference "y")) (Value 5.0))
  (Multiplication (Value 7.0) (Reference "z"))

What remains are the parsers for equations and entire program:

equation :: Parser Equation
equation = Equation <$> (name <* symbol "=") <*> expr

prog :: Parser Program
prog = between scn eof (sepEndBy equation scn)

Note that we need to consume leading white-space in prog explicitly. Try the prog parser—it’s a complete solution that can parse language we described in the beginning. Parsing “end of file” eof explicitly makes the parser consume all input and fail loudly if it cannot do it, otherwise it would just stop on the first problematic token and return what it has parsed so far.

Making use of the recovery feature

Our parser is really dandy, it has nice error messages and does its job well. However, every expression is clearly separated from the others by a newline. This separation makes it possible to analyze many expressions independently, even if one of them is malformed, we have no reason to stop and not to check the others. Reporting multiple parse errors at once may be a more efficient method of communication with the programmer who needs to fix them than when she has to recompile the program every time to get to the next error. In this section we will make our parser failure-tolerant and able to report multiple error messages at once.

Let’s add one more type synonym—RawData:

type RawData s e = [Either (ParseError s e) Equation]

The type represents a collection of equations, just like Program, but every one of them may be malformed: in that case we get an error message in Left, otherwise we have a properly parsed equation in Right.

You will be amazed just how easy it is to add recovering to an existing parser:

rawData :: Parser (RawData Char Void)
rawData = between scn eof (sepEndBy e scn)
    e = withRecovery recover (Right <$> equation)
    recover err = Left err <$ manyTill anySingle eol

Let try it, here is the input:

foo = (x $ y) * 5 + 7.2 * z
bar = 15


[ Left
       { sourceName = ""
       , sourceLine = Pos 1
       , sourceColumn = Pos 10 } :| [])
     (Just (Tokens ('$' :| "")))
     (fromList [ Tokens (')' :| "")
               , Label ('o' :| "perator")
               , Label ('t' :| "he rest of expression") ]))
, Right (Equation "bar" (Value 15.0)) ]

How does it work? withRecovery r p primitive runs the parser p as usual, but if it fails, it takes its ParseError and provides it as an argument to r. In r, we start right were p failed—no backtracking happens, because it would make it harder to find position from where to start normal parsing again. Here we have a chance to consume some input to advance the parser’s textual position. In our case it’s as simple as eating all input up to the next newline, but it might be trickier.

You probably want to know now what happens when recovering parser r fails as well. The answer is: your parser fails as usual, as if no withRecovery was used. It’s by design that recovering parser cannot influence error messages in any way, or it would lead to quite confusing error messages in some cases, depending on logic of the recovering parser.

Now it’s up to you what to do with RawData. You can either take all error messages and print them one by one, or ignore errors altogether and filter only valid equations to work with.


When you want to use withRecovery the main thing to remember that parts of text that you want to allow to fail should be clearly separated from each other, so recovering parser can reliably skip to the next part if the current part cannot be parsed. In a language like Python, you could use indentation levels to tell apart high-level definitions. In every case you should use your judgment and creativity to decide how to make use of withRecovery.