Example: JSON

JSON is a popular format for data serialization that is derived from the syntax of JavaScript. JSON documents are tree-like and potentially recursive — two data types, objects and arrays, can contain other values, including other objects and arrays.

Here is an example JSON document:

    "nesting": { "inner object": {} },
    "an array": [1.5, true, null, 1e-6],
    "string with escaped double quotes" : "\"quick brown foxes\""

Let's write a program that parses the JSON to an Rust object, known as an abstract syntax tree, then serializes the AST back to JSON.


We'll start by defining the AST in Rust. Each JSON data type is represented by an enum variant.

enum JSONValue<'a> {
    Object(Vec<(&'a str, JSONValue<'a>)>),
    String(&'a str),

To avoid copying when deserializing strings, JSONValue borrows strings from the original unparsed JSON. In order for this to work, we cannot interpret string escape sequences: the input string "\n" will be represented by JSONValue::String("\\n"), a Rust string with two characters, even though it represents a JSON string with just one character.

Let's move on to the serializer. For the sake of clarity, it uses allocated Strings instead of providing an implementation of std::fmt::Display, which would be more idiomatic.

fn serialize_jsonvalue(val: &JSONValue) -> String {
    use JSONValue::*;

    match val {
        Object(o) => {
            let contents: Vec<_> = o
                .map(|(name, value)|
                     format!("\"{}\":{}", name, serialize_jsonvalue(value)))
            format!("{{{}}}", contents.join(","))
        Array(a) => {
            let contents: Vec<_> = a.iter().map(serialize_jsonvalue).collect();
            format!("[{}]", contents.join(","))
        String(s) => format!("\"{}\"", s),
        Number(n) => format!("{}", n),
        Boolean(b) => format!("{}", b),
        Null => format!("null"),

Note that the function invokes itself recursively in the Object and Array cases. This pattern appears throughout the parser. The AST creation function iterates recursively through the parse result, and the grammar has rules which include themselves.

Writing the grammar

Let's begin with whitespace. JSON whitespace can appear anywhere, except inside strings (where it must be parsed separately) and between digits in numbers (where it is not allowed). This makes it a good fit for pest's implicit whitespace. In src/json.pest:

WHITESPACE = _{ " " | "\t" | "\r" | "\n" }

The JSON specification includes diagrams for parsing JSON strings. We can write the grammar directly from that page. Let's write object as a sequence of pairs separated by commas ,.

object = {
    "{" ~ "}" |
    "{" ~ pair ~ ("," ~ pair)* ~ "}"
pair = { string ~ ":" ~ value }

array = {
    "[" ~ "]" |
    "[" ~ value ~ ("," ~ value)* ~ "]"

The object and array rules show how to parse a potentially empty list with separators. There are two cases: one for an empty list, and one for a list with at least one element. This is necessary because a trailing comma in an array, such as in [0, 1,], is illegal in JSON.

Now we can write value, which represents any single data type. We'll mimic our AST by writing boolean and null as separate rules.

value = _{ object | array | string | number | boolean | null }

boolean = { "true" | "false" }

null = { "null" }

Let's separate the logic for strings into three parts. char is a rule matching any logical character in the string, including any backslash escape sequence. inner represents the contents of the string, without the surrounding double quotes. string matches the inner contents of the string, including the surrounding double quotes.

The char rule uses the idiom !(...) ~ ANY, which matches any character except the ones given in parentheses. In this case, any character is legal inside a string, except for double quote " and backslash \, which require separate parsing logic.

string = ${ "\"" ~ inner ~ "\"" }
inner = @{ char* }
char = {
    !("\"" | "\\") ~ ANY
    | "\\" ~ ("\"" | "\\" | "/" | "b" | "f" | "n" | "r" | "t")
    | "\\" ~ ("u" ~ ASCII_HEX_DIGIT{4})

Because string is marked compound atomic, string token pairs will also contain a single inner pair. Because inner is marked atomic, no char pairs will appear inside inner. Since these rules are atomic, no whitespace is permitted between separate tokens.

Numbers have four logical parts: an optional sign, an integer part, an optional fractional part, and an optional exponent. We'll mark number atomic so that whitespace cannot appear between its parts.

number = @{
    ~ ("." ~ ASCII_DIGIT*)?
    ~ (^"e" ~ ("+" | "-")? ~ ASCII_DIGIT+)?

We need a final rule to represent an entire JSON file. The only legal contents of a JSON file is a single object or array. We'll mark this rule silent, so that a parsed JSON file contains only two token pairs: the parsed value itself, and the EOI rule.

json = _{ SOI ~ (object | array) ~ EOI }

AST generation

Let's compile the grammar into Rust.

use pest::Parser;
use pest_derive::Parser;

#[grammar = "json.pest"]
struct JSONParser;

We'll write a function that handles both parsing and AST generation. Users of the function can call it on an input string, then use the result returned as either a JSONValue or a parse error.

use pest::error::Error;

fn parse_json_file(file: &str) -> Result<JSONValue, Error<Rule>> {
    let json = JSONParser::parse(Rule::json, file)?.next().unwrap();

    // ...

Now we need to handle Pairs recursively, depending on the rule. We know that json is either an object or an array, but these values might contain an object or an array themselves! The most logical way to handle this is to write an auxiliary recursive function that parses a Pair into a JSONValue directly.

fn parse_json_file(file: &str) -> Result<JSONValue, Error<Rule>> {
    // ...

    use pest::iterators::Pair;

    fn parse_value(pair: Pair<Rule>) -> JSONValue {
        match pair.as_rule() {
            Rule::object => JSONValue::Object(
                    .map(|pair| {
                        let mut inner_rules = pair.into_inner();
                        let name = inner_rules
                        let value = parse_value(inner_rules.next().unwrap());
                        (name, value)
            Rule::array => JSONValue::Array(pair.into_inner().map(parse_value).collect()),
            Rule::string => JSONValue::String(pair.into_inner().next().unwrap().as_str()),
            Rule::number => JSONValue::Number(pair.as_str().parse().unwrap()),
            Rule::boolean => JSONValue::Boolean(pair.as_str().parse().unwrap()),
            Rule::null => JSONValue::Null,
            | Rule::EOI
            | Rule::pair
            | Rule::value
            | Rule::inner
            | Rule::char
            | Rule::WHITESPACE => unreachable!(),

    // ...

The object and array cases deserve special attention. The contents of an array token pair is just a sequence of values. Since we're working with a Rust iterator, we can simply map each value to its parsed AST node recursively, then collect them into a Vec. For objects, the process is similar, except the iterator is over pairs, from which we need to extract names and values separately.

The number and boolean cases use Rust's str::parse method to convert the parsed string to the appropriate Rust type. Every legal JSON number can be parsed directly into a Rust floating point number!

We run parse_value on the parse result to finish the conversion.

fn parse_json_file(file: &str) -> Result<JSONValue, Error<Rule>> {
    // ...



Our main function is now very simple. First, we read the JSON data from a file named data.json. Next, we parse the file contents into a JSON AST. Finally, we serialize the AST back into a string and print it.

use std::fs;

fn main() {
    let unparsed_file = fs::read_to_string("data.json").expect("cannot read file");

    let json: JSONValue = parse_json_file(&unparsed_file).expect("unsuccessful parse");

    println!("{}", serialize_jsonvalue(&json));

Try it out! Copy the example document at the top of this chapter into data.json, then run the program! You should see something like this:

$ cargo run
  [ ... ]
{"nesting":{"inner object":{}},"an array":[1.5,true,null,0.000001],"string with escaped double quotes":"\"quick brown foxes\""}