This is the first post in a two-part series that takes a tutorial-based approach to exploring the Go compiler. The compiler is large and would require a small book to describe properly, so the idea of these posts is to provide a quick depth-first dive instead. I plan to write more descriptive posts on specific areas of the compiler in the future.

We're going to change the Go compiler to add a new (toy) language feature, and build a modified compiler to play with.

The task - adding a new statement

Many languages have a while statement, which in Go is expressed with for:

for <some-condition> {
  <loop body>

Adding a while statement to Go is rather trivial, therefore - we simply translate it to for. So I chose a slightly more challenging task, adding until. until is the same as while except that the condition is negated. For example, this code:

i := 4
until i == 0 {
  fmt.Println("Hello, until!")

Is equivalent to:

i := 4
for i != 0 {
  fmt.Println("Hello, until!")

In fact, we could even use an initializer in the loop declaration as follows:

until i := 4; i == 0 {
  fmt.Println("Hello, until!")

Our implementation will support this.

A mandatory disclaimer - this is just a toy exercise. I don't think adding until to Go is a good idea at all, because Go's minimalism is an absolutely correct design choice.

High-level structure of the Go compiler

The default Go compiler (gc) has a fairly traditional structure that should be immediately familiar if you worked on other compilers before:

Go gc compiler flow

Relative to the Go repository root, the compiler implementation lives in src/cmd/compile/internal; all the code paths mentioned later in the post are going to be relative to this directory. It's all written in Go and the code is fairly readable. Throughout this post we're going to examine these stages one by one, as we add the required code to support an until statement.

Check out the README file in src/cmd/compile for a nice step-by-step description of the compilation steps. That file is a good companion to this blog post.


The scanner (also known as lexer) breaks up source code text into discrete entities for the compiler. For example, the word for becomes the constant _For; the characters ... become _DotDotDot, while . on its own becomes _Dot, and so on.

The scanner is implemented in the syntax package. All we need from it here is to understand a new keyword - until. The file syntax/tokens.go has a list of all tokens understood by the compiler, and we'll add a new one:

_Fallthrough // fallthrough
_For         // for
_Until       // until
_Func        // func

The comment on the right-hand side of the token constant is important, as it's used to identify the token in text. This is done by means of code generation from syntax/tokens.go, which has this line above the list of tokens:

//go:generate stringer -type token -linecomment

go generate has to be run manually and the output file (syntax/token_string.go) is checked into the Go source repository. To regenerate it I ran the following command from the syntax directory:

GOROOT=<src checkout> go generate tokens.go

The GOROOT setting is essential as of Go 1.12, and has to point to the root of the source checkout where we're modifying the compiler.

Having run the code generator and verified that syntax/token_string.go now has the new token, I tried rebuilding the compiler and ran into a panic:

panic: imperfect hash

It comes from this code in syntax/scanner.go:

// hash is a perfect hash function for keywords.
// It assumes that s has at least length 2.
func hash(s []byte) uint {
  return (uint(s[0])<<4 ^ uint(s[1]) + uint(len(s))) & uint(len(keywordMap)-1)

var keywordMap [1 << 6]token // size must be power of two

func init() {
  // populate keywordMap
  for tok := _Break; tok <= _Var; tok++ {
    h := hash([]byte(tok.String()))
    if keywordMap[h] != 0 {
      panic("imperfect hash")
    keywordMap[h] = tok

The compiler tries to build a "perfect" hash table to perform keyword string to token lookups. By "perfect" it means it wants no collisions, just a linear array where every keyword maps to a single index. The hash function is rather ad-hoc (it only looks at the contents of the first characters of the string token, for example) and it's not easy to debug why a new token creates collisions. To work around it, I increased the lookup table size by changing it to [1 << 7]token, thus changing the size of the lookup array from 64 to 128. This gives the hash function much more space to distribute its keys, and the collision went away.


Go has a fairly standard recursive-descent parser, which converts a stream of tokens produced by the scanner into a concrete syntax tree. We'll start by adding a new node type for until in syntax/nodes.go:

UntilStmt struct {
  Init SimpleStmt
  Cond Expr
  Body *BlockStmt

I borrowed the overall structure from ForStmt, which is used for for loops. Similarly to for, our until statement has several optional sub-statements:

until <init>; <cond> {

Both <init> and <cond> are optional, though it's not common to omit <cond>. The UntilStmt.stmt embedded field is used for all syntax tree statements and contains position information.

The parsing itself is done in syntax/parser.go. The parser.stmtOrNil method parses a statement in the current position. It looks at the current token and makes a decision of which statement to parse. Here's an excerpt with the code we're adding:

switch p.tok {
case _Lbrace:
  return p.blockStmt("")

// ...

case _For:
  return p.forStmt()

case _Until:
  return p.untilStmt()

And this is untilStmt:

func (p *parser) untilStmt() Stmt {
  if trace {
    defer p.trace("untilStmt")()

  s := new(UntilStmt)
  s.pos = p.pos()

  s.Init, s.Cond, _ = p.header(_Until)
  s.Body = p.blockStmt("until clause")

  return s

We reuse the existing parser.header method which parses a header for if and for statements. In its most general form, it supports three parts (separated by semicolons). In for statements the third part can be used for the "post" statement, but we're not going to support this for until so we're only interested in the first two. Note that header accepts the source token to be able to differentiate between the kinds of statements it's serving; for example it would reject a "post" statement for if. We should explicitly reject it for until too, though I haven't bothered to implement this right now.

These are all the changes we need for the parser. Since until is so similar structurally to existing statements, we could reuse much of the functionality.

If we instrument the compiler to dump out the syntax tree (using syntax.Fdump) after parsing and run it on:

i = 4
until i == 0 {
  fmt.Println("Hello, until!")

We'll get this fragment for the until statement:

 84  .  .  .  .  .  3: *syntax.UntilStmt {
 85  .  .  .  .  .  .  Init: nil
 86  .  .  .  .  .  .  Cond: *syntax.Operation {
 87  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  Op: ==
 88  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  X: i @ ./useuntil.go:13:8
 89  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  Y: *syntax.BasicLit {
 90  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  Value: "0"
 91  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  Kind: 0
 92  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  }
 93  .  .  .  .  .  .  }
 94  .  .  .  .  .  .  Body: *syntax.BlockStmt {
 95  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  List: []syntax.Stmt (2 entries) {
 96  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  0: *syntax.AssignStmt {
 97  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  Op: -
 98  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  Lhs: i @ ./useuntil.go:14:3
 99  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  Rhs: *(Node @ 52)
100  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  }
101  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  1: *syntax.ExprStmt {
102  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  X: *syntax.CallExpr {
103  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  Fun: *syntax.SelectorExpr {
104  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  X: fmt @ ./useuntil.go:15:3
105  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  Sel: Println @ ./useuntil.go:15:7
106  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  }
107  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  ArgList: []syntax.Expr (1 entries) {
108  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  0: *syntax.BasicLit {
109  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  Value: "\"Hello, until!\""
110  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  Kind: 4
111  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  }
112  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  }
113  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  HasDots: false
114  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  }
115  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  }
116  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  }
117  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  Rbrace: syntax.Pos {}
118  .  .  .  .  .  .  }
119  .  .  .  .  .  }

Create AST

Now that it has a syntax tree representation of the source, the compiler builds an abstract syntax tree. I've written about Abstract vs. Concrete syntax trees in the past - it's worth checking out if you're not familiar with the differences. In case of Go, however, this may get changed in the future. The Go compiler was originally written in C and later auto-translated to Go; some parts of it are vestigial from the olden C days, and some parts are newer. Future refactorings may leave only one kind of syntax tree, but right now (Go 1.12) this is the process we have to follow.

The AST code lives in the gc package, and the node types are defined in gc/syntax.go (not to be confused with the syntax package where the CST is defined!)

Go ASTs are structured differently from CSTs. Instead of each node type having its dedicated struct type, all AST nodes are using the syntax.Node type which is a kind of a discriminated union that holds fields for many different types. Some fields are generic, however, and used for the majority of node types:

// A Node is a single node in the syntax tree.
// Actually the syntax tree is a syntax DAG, because there is only one
// node with Op=ONAME for a given instance of a variable x.
// The same is true for Op=OTYPE and Op=OLITERAL. See Node.mayBeShared.
type Node struct {
  // Tree structure.
  // Generic recursive walks should follow these fields.
  Left  *Node
  Right *Node
  Ninit Nodes
  Nbody Nodes
  List  Nodes
  Rlist Nodes

  // ...

We'll start by adding a new constant to identify an until node:

// statements
// ...
OFALL     // fallthrough
OFOR      // for Ninit; Left; Right { Nbody }
OUNTIL    // until Ninit; Left { Nbody }

We'll run go generate again, this time on gc/syntax.go, to generate a string representation for the new node type:

// from the gc directory
GOROOT=<src checkout> go generate syntax.go

This should update the gc/op_string.go file to include OUNTIL. Now it's time to write the actual CST->AST conversion code for our new node type.

The conversion is done in gc/noder.go. We'll keep modeling our changes after the existing for statement support, starting with stmtFall which has a switch for statement types:

case *syntax.ForStmt:
  return p.forStmt(stmt)
case *syntax.UntilStmt:
  return p.untilStmt(stmt)

And the new untilStmt method we're adding to the noder type:

// untilStmt converts the concrete syntax tree node UntilStmt into an AST
// node.
func (p *noder) untilStmt(stmt *syntax.UntilStmt) *Node {
  var n *Node
  n = p.nod(stmt, OUNTIL, nil, nil)
  if stmt.Init != nil {
  if stmt.Cond != nil {
    n.Left = p.expr(stmt.Cond)
  return n

Recall the generic Node fields explained above. Here we're using the Init field for the optional initializer, the Left field for the condition and the Nbody field for the loop body.

This is all we need to construct AST nodes for until statements. If we dump the AST after construction, we get:

.   .   UNTIL l(13)
.   .   .   EQ l(13)
.   .   .   .   NAME-main.i a(true) g(1) l(6) x(0) class(PAUTO)
.   .   .   .   LITERAL-0 l(13) untyped number
.   .   UNTIL-body
.   .   .   ASOP-SUB l(14) implicit(true)
.   .   .   .   NAME-main.i a(true) g(1) l(6) x(0) class(PAUTO)
.   .   .   .   LITERAL-1 l(14) untyped number

.   .   .   CALL l(15)
.   .   .   .   NONAME-fmt.Println a(true) x(0) fmt.Println
.   .   .   CALL-list
.   .   .   .   LITERAL-"Hello, until!" l(15) untyped string


The next step in compilation is type-checking, which is done on the AST. In addition to detecting type errors, type-checking in Go also includes type inference, which allows us to write statements like:

res, err := func(args)

Without declaring the types of res and err explicitly. The Go type-checker does a few more tasks, like linking identifiers to their declarations and computing compile-time constants. The code is in gc/typecheck.go. Once again, following the lead of the for statement, we'll add this clause to the switch in typecheck:

case OUNTIL:
  ok |= ctxStmt
  typecheckslice(n.Ninit.Slice(), ctxStmt)
  n.Left = typecheck(n.Left, ctxExpr)
  n.Left = defaultlit(n.Left, nil)
  if n.Left != nil {
    t := n.Left.Type
    if t != nil && !t.IsBoolean() {
      yyerror("non-bool %L used as for condition", n.Left)
  typecheckslice(n.Nbody.Slice(), ctxStmt)

It assigns types to parts of the statement, and also checks that the condition is valid in a boolean context.

Analyze and rewrite AST

After type-checking, the compiler goes through several stages of AST analysis and rewrite. The exact sequence is laid out in the gc.Main function in gc/main.go. In compiler nomenclature such stages are usually called passes.

Many passes don't require modifications to support until because they act generically on all statement kinds (here the generic structure of gc.Node comes useful). Some still do, however. For example escape analysis, which tries to find which variables "escape" their function scope and thus have to be allocated on the heap rather than on the stack.

Escape analysis works per statement type, so we have to add this switch clause in Escape.stmt:

case OUNTIL:

Finally, gc.Main calls into the portable code generator (gc/pgen.go) to compile the analyzed code. The code generator starts by applying a sequence of AST transformations to lower the AST to a more easily compilable form. This is done in the compile function, which starts by calling order.

This transformation (in gc/order.go) reorders statements and expressions to enforce evaluation order. For example it will rewrite foo /= 10 to foo = foo / 10, replace multi-assignment statements by multiple single-assignment statements, and so on.

To support until statements, we'll add this to Order.stmt:

case OUNTIL:
  t := o.markTemp()
  n.Left = o.exprInPlace(n.Left)
  o.out = append(o.out, n)

After order, compile calls walk which lives in gc/walk.go. This pass collects a bunch of AST transformations that helps lower the AST to SSA later on. For example, it rewrites range clauses in for loops to simpler forms of for loops with an explicit loop variable [1]. It also rewrites map accesses to runtime calls, and much more.

To support a new statement in walk, we have to add a switch clause in the walkstmt function. Incidentally, this is also the place where we can "implement" our until statement by rewriting it into AST nodes the compiler already knows how to handle. In the case of until it's easy - we just rewrite it into a for loop with an inverted condition, as shown in the beginning of the post. Here is the transformation:

case OUNTIL:
  if n.Left != nil {
    init := n.Left.Ninit
    n.Left = nod(ONOT, walkexpr(n.Left, &init), nil)
    n.Left = addinit(n.Left, init.Slice())
    n.Op = OFOR

Note that we replace n.Left (the condition) with a new node of type ONOT (which represents the unary ! operator) wrapping the old n.Left, and we replace n.Op by OFOR. That's it!

If we dump the AST again after the walk, we'll see that the OUNTIL node is gone and a new OFOR node takes its place.

Trying it out

We can now try out our modified compiler and run a sample program that uses an until statement:

$ cat useuntil.go
package main

import "fmt"

func main() {
  i := 4
  until i == 0 {
    fmt.Println("Hello, until!")

$ <src checkout>/bin/go run useuntil.go
Hello, until!
Hello, until!
Hello, until!
Hello, until!

It works!

Reminder: <src checkout> is the directory where we checked out Go, changed it and compiled it (see Appendix for more details).

Concluding part 1

This is it for part 1. We've successfully implemented a new statement in the Go compiler. We didn't cover all the parts of the compiler because we could take a shortcut by rewriting the AST of until nodes to use for nodes instead. This is a perfectly valid compilation strategy, and the Go compiler already has many similar transformations to canonicalize the AST (reducing many forms to fewer forms so the last stages of compilation have less work to do). That said, we're still interested in exploring the last two compilation stages - Convert to SSA and Generate machine code. This will be covered in part 2.

Appendix - building the Go toolchain

Please start by going over the Go contribution guide. Here are a few quick notes on reproducing the modified Go compiler as shown in this post.

There are two paths to proceed:

  1. Clone the official Go repository and apply the modifications described in this post.
  2. Clone my fork of the Go repository and check out the adduntil branch, where all these changes are already applied along with some debugging helpers.

The cloned directory is where <src checkout> points throughout the post.

To compile the toolchain, enter the src/ directory and run ./make.bash. We could also run ./all.bash to run many tests after building it. Running make.bash invokes the full 3-step bootstrap process of building Go, but it only takes about 50 seconds on my (aging) machine.

Once built, the toolchain is installed in bin alongside src. We can then do quicker rebuilds of the compiler itself by running bin/go install cmd/compile.

[1]Go has some special "magic" range clauses like a range over a string which splits its up into runes. This is where such transformations are implemented.