RFC: Emacs tree-sitter integration

Tree-sitter is a incremental parser that can provide a concrete syntax tree for the source code and is fast enough to parse on each key press. It has supported a wide range of languages, and support for more languages is on the way.

I’ve been working on a integration of tree-sitter library into Emacs’ core. The integration consists of two parts, first the direct translate of tree-sitter’s API, second the integration with Emacs’ font-lock and indent system. The first part is completed and is rather uncontentious. I’d appreciate comments on the second: Is the interface easy to understand? Is it easy to use? Is it flexible enough for every language?

Whether you are a major mode author or just a interested Emacs user, I invite you to try hacking with this tree-sitter integration—recreate existing major mode features (font-lock, indent), create new features (structured editing, etc)—and tell me how well it works. Better yet, provide some suggestions on improving the interface.

Building Emacs with tree-sitter support

Install tree-sittter

First, install libtree-sitter, either by a package manager, or from source:

git clone https://github.com/tree-sitter/tree-sitter.git
cd tree-sitter
make install

This should install libtree-sitter in standard location.

Build Emacs

Then, build Emacs from my GitHub repository. Make sure you clone the ts branch.

git clone https://github.com/casouri/emacs.git --branch ts

No need for special configure flags, tree-sitter is enabled automatically if libtree-sitter is present on the system. Now Emacs can be started by


Get language definitions

To use tree-sitter features in any meaningful way, we also need the language definition, eg, libtree-sitter-c for C. I wrote a script for automatically retrieving and compiling some of the libraries. The following commands

git clone https://github.com/casouri/tree-sitter-module.git
cd tree-sitter-module

should produce libraries for C, JSON, Go, HTML, JavaScript, CSS and Python and store them in dist directory. From there you can copy these libraries to a standard path, or add that directory to LD_LIBRARY_PATH.

You can also find pre-built libraries in the release page: tree-sitter-module release v2.0.

Basic tree-sitter features

I suggest reading the tree-sitter node in the manual first, it covers how to create a parser, how to retrieve a node, how to pattern match nodes, and more. You can access the manual by typing

C-h i m elisp RET g Parsing Program Source RET

The command(s) above opens the Info reader, goes to Elisp Reference Manual, and opens the “Parsing Program Source” node, which contains manual for tree-sitter. Alternatively, you can read the tree-sitter node that I clipped from the HTML manuel.

Once you’ve read the manual, you can (require 'tree-sitter) and hack away!

The manual only documents basic features of tree-sitter, leaving out font-lock and indent integration, because I expect the latter to change. They are instead documented below.

Font-lock interface

(From now on, I assume you have read the manual and I will use concepts introduced in the manual without explanation.)

If you are familiar with font-lock in Emacs, you know it is primarily configured by font-lock-defaults: major mode sets this variable with language-specific configuration, font-lock takes that variable and populate font-lock-keywords, which directly defines the pattern to fontify.


Tree-sitter1 provides two analogues variables, tree-sitter-font-lock-defaults and tree-sitter-font-lock-settings. tree-sitter-font-lock-settings is a list of SETTINGs where each SETTING looks like


LANGUAGE is the language this setting should use, and QUERY is either a string or a sexp query. Each capture name in QUERY is either a face name, in which case the captured node is fontified in that face, or a function name, in which case the captured node is passed to the function for fontification. Specifically, the function is passed three arguments (BEG END NODE), where BEG and END is the beginning and end position of the node in the buffer, for convenience.

An example SETTING for C is

(tree-sitter-c ; LANGUAGE
 ((null) @font-lock-constant-face
  (true) @font-lock-constant-face
  (false) @font-lock-constant-face)) ; QUERY
From now on, “tree-sitter” refers to the Emacs integration of tree-sitter.


Tree-sitter font-lock, like font-lock, support fontification at different levels of decoration (controlled by font-lock-maximum-decoration). And this is the primary purpose of tree-sitter-font-lock-defaults. Its value is a list of


Where each DEFAULT may be a symbol or a list of symbols. The symbol should be either a variable containing (LANGUAGE QUERY), or a function that returns that. If DEFAULT is a list, each symbol corresponds to a decoration level. For example, if I want to implement three levels of decoration for C, I would populate tree-sitter-font-lock-defaults with


where c-font-lock-settings-1 would contain, say,

 ((null) @font-lock-constant-face
  (true) @font-lock-constant-face
  (false) @font-lock-constant-face))

for those who need no more. And the other two levels could be for the rest mortals. As for :KEYWORD and VALUE, they are analogues to that in font-lock-defaults, used for specifying other configurations. Currently they are not used for tree-sitter font-lock.

To enable tree-sitter font-lock, a major mode should first assign tree-sitter-font-lock-defaults, then call tree-sitter-font-lock-enable. For example,

(define-derived-mode ts-c-mode prog-mode "tree-sitter C"
  (setq-local tree-sitter-font-lock-defaults


In Emacs, indentation is provided by indent-line-function. Tree-sitter provides a convenient system, tree-sitter-simple-indent, to simplify the implementation of a indenting function. To use it, bind indent-line-function to tree-sitter-indent, and fill in indentation configurations in tree-sitter-simple-indent-rules.

tree-sitter-simple-indent-rules is a list of rules, and each rule looks like


When indenting, tree-sitter-simple-indent finds the largest node that starts at the beginning of the current line, and matches it against each MATCHER in tree-sitter-simple-indent-rules. If MATCHER matches that node, ANCHOR and OFFSET determines how to indent—find the column of ANCHOR (which represents a point), and add OFFSET to it.

By now you must be wondering what the heck is MATCHER. It is a function that takes (NODE PARENT BOL &rest _) as arguments, if the rule should apply to NODE, it returns non-nil. PARENT and BOL (position of beginning of line) are provided just for convenience. The “&rest _” part is required to allow the possibility to extend the interface in the future.

This function can do anything: check the type of that node, check the type of its parent, check whether this node is the first child node of its parent, etc. ANCHOR is also a function that takes theses arguments, but it returns a point, the “anchor”. If the rule determines that the node should be indented two columns inward comparing to its parent, ANCHOR should return the start of the parent node, and OFFSET should be 2.

For example, the following rule matches any line that starts with the null keyword, and indents the line inwards by two columns against the null’s parent node.

((lambda (n p bol &rest _)
   (equal (tree-sitter-node-type n) "null")) ; MATCHER
 (lambda (n p bol &rest _)
    (tree-sitter-node-parent n))) ; ANCHOR
 2) ; OFFSET

Of course, it is terribly tedious to write out every MATCHER and ANCHOR explicitly. tree-sitter-simple-indent provides some predefined MATCHER and ANCHOR functions. Most of them are higher-order functions: they takes an argument and returns a function.

MATCHER presets:

(parent-is TYPE)
Check that the parent has type TYPE.
(node-is TYPE)
Check that node has type TYPE.
NODE-TYPE checks for node’s type, PARENT-TYPE checks for parent’s type, NODE-FIELD checks for the field name for node int the parent, NODE-INDEX-MIN and NODE-INDEX-MAX limits the node’s index in the parent. Any argument left as nil are not checked. For example, to match the node that is the first child and has a parent of type argument_list, use
(match nil "argument_list" nil nil 0 0)
(query QUERY)
Queries the parent with QUERY. Matches if the node is captured by any capture name.
Matches null node. When the current line is empty, there is no node at the beginning, so the node is nil.

ANCHOR presets:

Finds the first sibling of node, ie, the first child of the parent.
Finds the parent node.
Finds node’s first sibling.
Do nothing, don’t indent. This is useful for a indenting a line inside a multiline string, where masterful inactivity is most preferred.
Find the named node on the previous line. This can be used when indenting an empty line: just indent like the previous node.

Some handy tools

I have two handy tools for you to work with tree-sitter more easily: first, tree-sitter-inspect-mode will show the relevant information of the node at point in the mode-line; second, tree-sitter-check-indent can check the indent result against a stock major mode. Check out their docstring for more detail.


You can send a message to emacs-devel, or open an issue on the GitHub repository.

An example

All these must be pretty confusing without seeing a concrete example, so here it is. This example code is for a demo C major mode, ts-c-mode, defined in the “;;; Lab” section in tree-sitter.el. (Here is a link to the file on GitHub.)


(defvar ts-c-tree-sitter-indent-rules
     ;; Empty line.
     (no-node prev-line 0)

     ;; Function/struct definition body {}.
     ((match nil "function_definition" "body") parent 0)
     ((node-is "field_declaration_list") parent 0)

     ;; Call expression.
     ((parent-is "call_expression") parent 2)

     ;; If-else.
     ((match nil "if_statement" "condition") parent 2)
     ((match nil "if_statement" "consequence") parent 2)
     ((match nil "if_statement" "alternative") parent 2)
     ((match nil "switch_statement" "condition")  parent 2)
     ((node-is "else") parent 0)

     ;; Switch case.
     ((parent-is "case_statement") parent 2)
     ((node-is "case_statement") parent 0)

     ;; { and }.
     ((node-is "compound_statement") parent 2)
     ((node-is "}") parent 0)

     ;; Multi-line string.
     ((parent-is "string_literal") no-indent 0)

     ;; List.
     ,@(cl-loop for type in '("compound_statement" "initializer_list"
                              "argument_list" "parameter_list"
                collect `((match nil ,type nil 0 0) parent 2)
                collect `((match nil ,type nil 1) first-sibling 0)))))


(defvar ts-c-tree-sitter-settings-1
    ((null) @font-lock-constant-face
     (true) @font-lock-constant-face
     (false) @font-lock-constant-face

     (comment) @font-lock-comment-face

     (system_lib_string) @ts-c-fontify-system-lib

      operator: _ @font-lock-negation-char-face)

     (string_literal) @font-lock-string-face
     (char_literal) @font-lock-string-face

      declarator: (identifier) @font-lock-function-name-face)

      declarator: (identifier) @font-lock-function-name-face)

      declarator: (identifier) @font-lock-function-name-face)

      declarator: (identifier) @font-lock-variable-name-face)

      declarator: (identifier) @font-lock-variable-name-face)

      name: (identifier) @font-lock-variable-name-face)

      name: (identifier) @font-lock-variable-name-face)

     (field_identifier) @font-lock-variable-name-face

       (identifier) @font-lock-variable-name-face))

      declarator: (identifier) @font-lock-variable-name-face)

      declarator: (identifier) @font-lock-variable-name-face)

      name: (identifier) @font-lock-variable-name-face
      parameters: (preproc_params
                   (identifier) @font-lock-variable-name-face))

     (type_identifier) @font-lock-type-face
     (primitive_type) @font-lock-type-face

     "auto" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "break" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "case" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "const" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "continue" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "default" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "do" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "else" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "enum" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "extern" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "for" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "goto" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "if" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "register" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "return" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "sizeof" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "static" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "struct" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "switch" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "typedef" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "union" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "volatile" @font-lock-keyword-face
     "while" @font-lock-keyword-face

     "long" @font-lock-type-face
     "short" @font-lock-type-face
     "signed" @font-lock-type-face
     "unsigned" @font-lock-type-face

     "#include" @font-lock-preprocessor-face
     "#define" @font-lock-preprocessor-face
     "#ifdef" @font-lock-preprocessor-face
     "#ifndef" @font-lock-preprocessor-face
     "#endif" @font-lock-preprocessor-face
     "#else" @font-lock-preprocessor-face
     "#elif" @font-lock-preprocessor-face