I was writing again today about the possibility of interestingly useful diffs produced using a lexer (tokenizer) from a syntax highlighting library. I wrote a simple proof-of-concept prototype and thought it might be interesting to someone. Interestingly it ended up being shorter than I expected thanks in large part to Python's standard library difflib.
From time to time on the darcs mailing list the idea comes up to use something (or several somethings) for smarter, more meaningful diffs (than the defacto line-based diffs that every SCS, and many similar tools, have used since just about the dawn of time). The idea to go smarter is to help better separate out "meaningful" changes to the code and less meaningful changes such as whitespace reformatting. A strong example is an XML diff tool that picks up changes in the DOM tree rather than at the text/formatting level. The problem with such a strong example is that it is very domain specific (each format has its own AST and few formats use the same tools to get that AST), and fragile (both documents have to be well-formed, complete, or otherwise parsable).
I think that I've come up with the idea that there is a good, pragmatic compromise position between the "stupid" line-based diff and the "smart" domain-specific parser diff: diffs based upon the token streams of syntax highlighter lexers. Most syntax highlighter libraries are designed to be general purpose and reusable, and often have strong libraries of lexers for major languages. These lexers are also built to be rough and tumble and to do their best with all sorts of unfinished, malformed, or otherwise "junk" input. These lexers are not going to be a "perfect" match for what the language's tools expect of the language, but my contention is that if they are good enough for reasonable syntax highlighting in an editor or other environment they are good enough for usefully informative diffs.
I wanted a test bed for this hypothesis and so to start with I wanted a simple "proof-of-concept" tool that could produce a simple token-based diff of two files, using Pygments, which is the very useful syntax highlighter library for Python. Once I discovered Python's standard library's difflib module it turned out to be a reasonably straightforward tool to build. Behold:
#!/usr/bin/env python # Copyright 2009 Max Battcher <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Licensed under the MS-PL. from difflib import SequenceMatcher import pygments import pygments.lexers import sys """ This is a simple diff utility based upon pygments' lexer token streams. """ if len(sys.argv) != 4: print "Usage: tokdiff.py lexername file1 file2" sys.exit(1) tool, lexname, f1, f2 = sys.argv lexer = pygments.lexers.get_lexer_by_name(lexname) a = list(pygments.lex(file(f1).read(), lexer)) b = list(pygments.lex(file(f2).read(), lexer)) sm = SequenceMatcher(None, a, b) for op, a1, a2, b1, b2 in sm.get_opcodes(): if op == 'equal': for item in a[a1:a2]: print " %s: %s" % item elif op == 'replace': print "~~~" for item in a[a1:a2]: print "- %s: %s" % item for item in b[b1:b2]: print "+ %s: %s" % item print "~~~" elif op == 'insert': for item in b[b1:b2]: print "+ %s: %s" % item elif op == 'delete': for item in a[a1:a2]: print "- %s: %s" % item else: print "<<%s>>" % op # vim: ai et ts=4 sts=4 sw=4
Next steps would be to come up with a useful "compact" diff output and putting it to the test with a tokenized patch tool. There are probably still a lot of questions that would need to be answered and tests to perform before such a tool might usefully be used as the basis of a source control system or source control system add-on, but my few tests with this tool already are showing some of the results that I had hoped for.