AstBuilder AST Templates








The approach used in Groovy macros was pursued instead


Hamlet D’Arcy



Last modification 



The AstBuilder was introduced in Groovy 1.7 as a way to ease the task of writing AST transformations. The "fromCode" approach allows you to generate the AST from a piece of code. Currently, the AstBuilder fromCode API accepts a closure as a parameter, and the code within the closure it transformed to AST. A limitation of the AstBuilder is that the closure parameter does not allow variables in the surrounding context to be referenced: there is no way to pass a parameter into the code block. It was initially discussed but the idea was deemed too much effort to fit into 1.7.

This AST Template feature allows you to pass parameters into the AstBuilder. Similar to how a $ works in GString interpolation, there needs to be a way to bind a variable from the enclosing scope into an AstBuilder closure. The syntax proposed is to use oxford brackets (see below). An AstBuilder closure containing GEP 4 - AstBuilder AST Templates will have the variable within the brackets bound in.


The oxford brackets are used to bind, or quasi-quote, variables from the enclosing scope into an AstBuilder parameter.

Example 1: String concatenation

def constant = new ConstantExpression("World")
List<ASTNode> greeting = AstBuilder.buildFromCode { "Hello" + [ | constant | ]  }

Produces the AST

-> ExpressionStatement
   -> BinaryExpression +
      -> ConstantExpresssion - Hello
      -> ConstantExpression - World

Example 2: Producing a println

new AstBuilder().buildFromCode { println([ | message | ]) }[0]

is equivalent to invoking this method:

private Statement createPrintlnAst(String message) {
   return new ExpressionStatement(
       new MethodCallExpression(
           new VariableExpression("this"),
           new ConstantExpression("println"),
           new ArgumentListExpression(
               new ConstantExpression(message)

Example 3: Memoization of a method

Presumably, you would have the existing method AST in a variable called "methodNode":

def methodNode = ...
def parameters = methodNode.parameters

def newMethod = new AstBuilder().buildFromCode {
 if (cache.contains([ | parameters | ])) {
   return cache.get([ | parameters | ])
 def result = [ | methodNode.code | ]
 cache.put([ | parameters | ])
 return result

methodNode.code = newMethod[0]


There are many syntax alternatives:

  • Lisp uses ยด and ,

  • Template Haskell uses something similar to oxford brackets but with slightly different semantics

  • Boo uses GEP 4 - AstBuilder AST Templates and $ but with slightly different semantics

A $ was considered but cannot be used as it is already a meaningful identifier. Boo Metamethod Comparison The Boo Metamethod feature overlaps with the Groovy AST Transformation features. Instead of an @AstTransformation interface with a separately defined AstTransformation subclass, Boo offers Meta methods, where the AST Transformation is called and generated at compile time.

While Groovy offers AstBuilder to turn code into AST, Boo uses the oxford brackets. And while GEP-4 proposed oxford brackets to signify an AST variable templating, Boo uses the $. Consider a simple println AST in Groovy

new AstBuilder().buildFromCode {
    println([ | message | ])

Compared to a similar construct in Boo:

static def methodname(expr as Expression):
    [| println($expr) |]

GEP-4 proposes the opposite syntax from Boo: oxford brackets for AST Templating instead of the $. The $ is already a character in Java, and can be part of a variable name.

There are no real drawbacks to having an opposite syntax. The number of Boo AST Transformation writers migrating to Groovy is most likely quite low.

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Update history

1 (2010-02-16)

Version as extracted from Codehaus wiki

2 (2018-10-14)

Numerous minor tweaks