How to parse code-like elements from free-form text?

Partial programs such as uncompilable incomplete code snippets appear in discussion forums, emails, and such informal communication media. A wealth of information is available in such places and we want to parse such partial programs from informal documentation. Lightweight regular expressions can be used based on our knowledge of naming conventions of API elements or other programming constructs. Miler is a technique based on the regex idea. But Miler’s precision is only 33% and varies based on programming language.

Another tool used in this problem of parsing parts of source code is Island Parser. The idea is to see certain parts of code (as Islands) and parse them out ignoring text and rest of content (the water). To parse a snippet, you do not need to know the whole grammar. Unimportant parts can be defined in very relaxed terms such as just a collection of characters. Parsers based on such grammars are known as island parsers. ACE tool uses island parsers that are heuristics based implemented as a bunch of ordered regular expressions. But instead of depending on a collection of source code elements as in the normal regex-based parsers, ACE uses large collections of documents as input. In ACE tool, parts of language that specify control flow are ignored (such as if, for, while). ACE uses island parser to capture code-like elements such as fully qualified API names. In Java, API names are of the form SomeType.someMethod(). For example, SAXParseException.getLineNumber(). Knowledge of such heuristics can help identify code-like elements from text.

Once extracted, ACE attempts to map these items to language elements such as package, class, method, type and variables. It uses specification document to match known items to parsed items. If a match cannot be found, the parsed items are dropped.

Island parsers as implemented in ACE can only find code-like elements which are remarkably different in presentation than normal text. For instance, there is no way we can differentiate a variable “flag” from a word in free-form text, “flag”. ACE website as of today claims that it works on postgres form of stackoverflow only. While the idea should apply to any free-form text, if you wish to play around with this state of the art, you must be ready to make your hands dirty with some setup of their source code.

Hope the programming language design community takes note of this problem and makes it easier to write high quality island parsers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s