Language Details

Tokens and Grammar

The Martian language’s tokens are defined by regular expressions in its lexical scanner.

The Martian syntax is specified as a YACC grammar.

UTF-8 is the assumed encoding for all source files, as well as for the json parameter files passed between mrp and stage processes.

Symbols and Scope

Symbols in Martian are identifiers for stages, pipelines, and parameters. They may comprise uppercase and lowercase letters, numeric digits, and underscores. A symbol may not begin with a numeric digit, which is reserved for number literals. Identifiers beginning with two underscores are reserved as well. The Martian lexer’s regular expression for symbols is ^_?[a-zA-Z][a-zA-z0-9_]*\\b.

Martian defines three scopes within which symbol names must be unique:

  1. Within the scope of one pipeline invocation, which encompasses all recursively included MRO files, no two stages or pipelines may share the same name. This is considered the global scope of a pipestance.
  2. Within the scope fo one pipeline definition, not including parent or child pipelines, the names assigned to calls must be unique.
  3. Within the scope of a stage declaration, no two input parameters of a given stage can have the same name, and same for output parameters.

Naming Conventions

The following naming conventions are strongly recommended for consistency and readability, but are not currently enforced by the compiler.

Stage and pipeline names should written in ALL CAPS SNAKE_CASE.

  • Stage names should be a subject and verb: FIND_DIPS, CALL_VARIANTS
  • Pipelines names should be “actor nouns”: COIN_SORTER, DYSON_SPHERE_DETECTOR, SV_CALLER
  • Names of pipelines intended to serve as subpipelines should be prefixed with an underscore: _METRICS_REPORTER
  • Names of struct data types should use PascalCase.

Parameter names should be written in all lowercase snake_case.

Parameter Binding

This section describes the rules associated with parameter binding, the mechanism by which inputs and outputs of stages and pipelines are connected together.

Whenever a stage is called, each of its input parameters must be bound to either an output parameter of another stage, or an input parameter of the enclosing pipeline. Parameter bindings use a dotted notation where the left-hand term is either the name of a stage, or self when binding to an input of the pipeline itself.

Each output parameter of the pipeline must also be bound to an output of one of its called stages. This is done using a return statement, as shown above.

Martian enforces type matching on parameter bindings, statically verifying that two parameters bound together have the same type.


Built-in types

Martian supports the following built-in types:

Type Description
string A string. String literals support escaping using json syntax: \", \\, \b, \n, \r, \t, and \uxxxx (unicode U+xxxx). Other escape sequences are undefined behavior - the parser may accept them but the formatter will convert them to standard notation.
int A signed 64-bit integer.
float A double-precision floating point number. Literal values may use exponential notation.
bool A boolean flag whose valid values are true and false.
path A string meant to be interpreted as a filesystem path to a directory. All paths should be absolute, as each stage runs in its own working directory.
file A string meant to be interpreted as a filesystem path to a regular file. In most cases, a user-defined file type should be preferred.
map A JSON-compatible data structure whose top-level type is an object (dictionary) with string keys. In most cases, a typed container should be preferred.

Implicit conversion from string to file or path is permitted, as well as from int to float (though not the reverse).

User-defined file types

Martian also supports user-defined filetypes. The name of the file types controls the file extension for the default filename pre-populated in the outs. Martian enforces compile-time binding type matching between user-defined file types, but allows implicit casting between user-defined file types and generic “string” or “file” types. A filetype is defined and referenced like this:

filetype txt;

stage SORT(
    in  txt  unsorted_txt,
    in  bool case_sensitive,
    out txt  sorted_txt,
    src py   "stages/sort",

This allows pipelines to be more clear about the format of files being passed around, and to exploit the type checking to ensure that files are being used conistently as they are passed around. Note however that martian does not attempt to validate that a file’s content matches the declared type.

Structured data types (Martian 4.0 preview)

A struct is related to the same concepts in other languages like C, a named tuple in Python, or an object in javascript. They can be declared,

struct MyType(
    int   foo,
    float bar,

Members of a struct can be extracted using the familiar . syntax, e.g.

call FOO(
    foo =,

The output of a stage or pipeline is always a struct. Because of this, the name of a stage or pipeline can be used as a type, to indicate a structure with the same members and types as the outputs of the stage or pipeline, e.g.

stage STAGE1(
    in  int    in1,
    out file   out1,
    out string out2,
    out float  out3,

stage STAGE2(
    in  STAGE1 in1,
    out string out1,

This is convenient particularly for strictly sequential parts of pipelines where all of the outputs of one stage become inputs to the next stage, but care should be taken to limit the use of this type of typing to stages whose development is tightly coupled. In particular, stages which are not called from within the same pipeline should probably not use each other’s names as types.

Martian structures support a form of “duck typing”. If one has a struct MyType as declared above, and another type

struct MyBiggerType(
    int    foo,
    int    bar,
    string baz,

then a value of type MyBiggerType may be used for the input to a stage or pipeline which asks for a MyType. This is because for every field in MyType there is a field with the same name in MyBiggerType, and that field in MyBiggerType has a type that is assignable to the type for that field in MyType. Because of this, one can easily take a subset of the data from a struct with only the values one actually needs. Values with struct types may also always be used for untyped map values.

As an additional convenience, martian supports a “wildcard expansion” of a struct value when calling a stage, e.g.

call STAGE2(
    foo =,
    *   = STAGE1,

This is equivalent to input = STAGE1.output for every output of STAGE1 that is an input to STAGE2. To prevent ambiguity, only one wildcard expansion is allowed for each call, and it is an error if one of the outputs of STAGE1 was already assigned in the input call explicitly (e.g. foo in the example).

Collection types

Martian also supports collections of values as arrays or typed maps. These are declared using a syntax that is familar to users of C-style languages. Arrays are declared as for example int[]. Typed maps (available in the martian 4.0 preview) always have string keys, and are declared as for example map<int>. These can be combined as for example map<int[][]>[].

In order to prevent confusing data flows, maps cannot be directly nested. That is, map<map<int>> is not permitted, nor is it permitted to nest untyped maps, e.g. map<map>. It is permitted to have a map of structs, and those structs may contain further maps.

A struct can be assigned to a typed map value if every field in the struct has a type that can be assigned to the type of the map. For example a struct with only int and float fields may be assigned to a value of type map<float>.

Typed maps may be converted to untyped maps, and map<T> may be converted to map<U> if type T is convertible to type U. The same applies for arrays, e.g. converting T[] to U[].

Because the type system has no way to enforce the length of an array or the keys of a map, there is no support for indexing into one. If one knows the keys ahead of time, use a struct.

A very important convenience is “projection” through structs. Using the MyType example struct from the previous section, if we have a value FOO of type map<MyType[]> then has type map<float[]>. To put it another way, using the syntax of a Python list comprehension, if A is an array of struct values then A.b == [a.b for a in A]