Antlr Notes

I started from scratch to implementing an antlr lexer/parser following the tutorial highlight syntax and check errors. It was very helpful as was its author, so I thought I'd add some notes on what I learned in the process.

Antlr & AntlrWorks

I found AntlrWorks an amazing IDE for developing the lexer and parser. The debugger and the visual depiction of NFA/DFA rules and parse trees made the job so much easier than I remember. Both can be downloaded for free from

To integrate antlr into a project, create a library wrapper module with the appropriate jar file. Note that the project cannot be a module, but must be a module suite as far as I know. I also suggest that if you use antlr use the antlr-runtime.jar and if you use antlrWorks use the whole antlrworks-x.x.x.jar to avoid a version mismatch.

In the original tutorial Jeff uses constructs like this to define the tokenIDs

            new SqlTokenId ("WHERE", "keyword", 6),
            new SqlTokenId ("LETTER", "character", 21),
            new SqlTokenId ("NULL", "keyword", 18),

The only problem with this is that antlr assigns the numeric token values in a seemingly random order. Adding or deleting a token can change many values so I use the following code to do it symbolically:

        new UnoTokenId (unoidlParser.tokenNames[UnoidlLexer.AND], "idl-text", unoidlLexer.AND),
        new UnoTokenId (unoidlParser.tokenNames[UnoidlLexer.ANY], "idl-type", unoidlLexer.ANY),
        new UnoTokenId (unoidlParser.tokenNames[UnoidlLexer.ATTRIBUTE], "idl-keyword", unoidlLexer.ATTRIBUTE),

When antlr compiles a grammar it produces a file called <grammarName>.tokens that contains the token numbers:


A simple awk script can create the TokenId contructors:

sort output/unoidl.tokens | \
awk --field-separator "=" '{print ("new UnoTokenId (unoidlParser.tokenNames[unoidlLexer." \
$1 "], \"idl-keyword\", unoidlLexer." $1 "),");}' | vi -

Include the output in your LanguageHierarchy class and edit the "idl-keyword" part to assign a coloring class to each token.

We need to be cautious when adding a token to the grammar. An unknown token type will return a null object to the Syntax Coloring module causing an exception reporting dialog. However when we delete a token we get a syntax error in LanguageHierarchy class marking the line to delete.

The FontAndColors.xml file

It is also possible to specify your default colors and font styles in this file. For example:

<!DOCTYPE fontscolors PUBLIC "-//NetBeans//DTD Editor Fonts and Colors settings 1.1//EN" "">
    <fontcolor name="idl-attr"          foreColor="blue" default="default">
        <font style="italic" />
    <fontcolor name="idl-bracket"       foreColor="blue" default="default"/>
    <fontcolor name="idl-char"          foreColor="ff00aa00" default="default"/>
    <fontcolor name="idl-comment"       foreColor="gray" default="default"/>
    <fontcolor name="idl-exception"     foreColor="magenta" default="default">
        <font style="bold" />
    <fontcolor name="idl-function"      foreColor="black" default="default">
        <font style="bold" />

Syntax Error Highlights

To highlight the token causing an error, add the following code to your grammar:

@members {
	public List<SyntaxError> syntaxErrors = new ArrayList<SyntaxError>();

    	public String getErrorMessage(RecognitionException e, String[] tokenNames) {
    		String message = super.getErrorMessage(e, tokenNames);
    		SyntaxError syntaxError = new SyntaxError();
    		syntaxError.exception = e;
    		syntaxError.message = message;

                CommonToken token =  (CommonToken) e.token;

                syntaxError.line = e.token.getLine();
                syntaxError.charPositionInLine = e.token.getCharPositionInLine();
                syntaxError.start = token.getStartIndex();

                syntaxError.stop = token.getStopIndex()+1;
    		return message;

    	public static class SyntaxError {
    		public RecognitionException exception;
    		public String message;
    		public int line;
    		public int charPositionInLine;
                public int start,stop;

The difference between this and Jeff's code is the cast of the token contained in the exception to a CommonToken which allows access to the getStartIndex and getStopIndex methods. These are offsets into the document being parsed. Note the stop index is incremented. Then in the SyntaxErrorsHighlightingTask replace the call to createErrorDescription with:

                ErrorDescription errorDescription = ErrorDescriptionFactory.createErrorDescription(

Handling C-Style Comments /* ... */

This took me weeks to figure out the mystic incantation to get this to work while you type. The problem is once you type the opening /* you comment out the rest of the file and the lexer returns an end of file but no token. This causes an exception complaining that we consumed character and return null.

The change needed is in the nextToken method of our lexer (the one between the NetBeans Lexer and the Antlr Lexer).

    public org.netbeans.api.lexer.Token<UnoTokenId> nextToken() {
        Token token = unoLexer.nextToken();

        org.netbeans.api.lexer.Token<UnoTokenId> createdToken = null;

        if (token.getType() != unoidlParser.EOF) {
            UnoTokenId tokenId = UnoEditorLanguageHierarchy.getToken(token.getType());
            createdToken = info.tokenFactory().createToken(tokenId);
        else if (info.input().readLength() > 0)
        {   // we have an incomplete token
            UnoTokenId tokenId = UnoEditorLanguageHierarchy.getToken(unoidlParser.TraditionalComment);
            createdToken = info.tokenFactory().createToken(tokenId, info.input().readLength(),
        return createdToken;

By testing the readLength we can see if the situation where an incomplete token eats the rest of the input. I do want to separate documentation comments (/**) from other comments of this form but this code assumes that we have only 1 token that will do this. If there were multiple types of tokens like this several modifications would be needed to determine which type. Note that this means strings cannot contain newlines between quotes without escape characters. What's important here is the different call to createToken that includes the length and PartType.

To help, here is the grammar I use that defines the comment and a string literal.

// multiple-line comments
	:	MLCOMMENTSTART (options {greedy=false;} : .)* MLCOMMENTEND 
fragment StringCharacter
	:	~('\r' | '\n' | '\u000C' | '<br>' | '"');
    :  	QUOTE ( EscapeSequence | StringCharacter )* QUOTE
fragment QUOTE	:	'\"';
fragment MLCOMMENTSTART  :	'/*';
fragment MLCOMMENTEND    :	'*/';

Joe Areeda

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