CodeMirror’s mode system

A CodeMirror mode is a module that helps CodeMirror, a code editor, highlight and optionally smart-indent text in a specific programming language or other kind of structured text format.

Code editors take widely different approaches to the way syntax highlighting styles are defined. An elegantly simple approach is outlined in Patrick Walton’s Common JavaScript Syntax Highlighting Specification, basically defining a state machine with regular expressions as its edges. Unfortunately, this proposal was never widely adopted. ACE uses a similar, though incompatible system. Other, more heavyweight, and often downright obscure, systems are found in EmacsVim, or Kate.

The interruptable, resumable parser

CodeMirror takes its own unconventional approach to mode definition. It grew more or less organically out of my fondness for crazy hacks at the time I was writing the first version of CodeMirror.

The original approach modeled a mode as a transforming iterator (iterator in the Python sense)—an iterator that lazily got its input from another iterator, and outputted some transformed form of this input. It took the characters in the document as input, and produced a stream of tokens. Inside this iterator, any amount of state and complexity could be hidden (the JavaScript mode was, and still is, almost a full parser).

To avoid having to re-parse the whole document every time a character was typed, such iterators had to support a copy operation, which basically extracted their state so that they could later be restarted on a new input iterator.

This was, all in all, a very neat abstraction, and also, from the outside, easy to work with. Unfortunately such iterators were quite hard to write, and the iterator abstraction that was used, which relies on exceptions to signal end-of-stream, had quite a high overhead—especially if you stack it several levels deep.

Take two: first class state

CodeMirror 2 addresses those two problems by separating the state from the iterator. Instead of, in order to maintain, copy, and restore state, having to perform weird tricks with closures, a mode author now simply defines a function that initializes the start-of-document state, and a function that takes such a state, along with a character stream, and advances the stream past one token, updating its state if necessary, and returning the style of that token.

This, while not quite as cute as the ‘everything is an iterator’ model, makes it much easier to write modes. Not just for people who aren’t familiar with closures, but also for me. It also makes it much easier to write performant modes, because the abstractions don’t call for quite as much indirection.


An example might make this set-up clearer. Here is a very simple mode that highlights only double-quoted strings (which may span multiple lines):

CodeMirror.defineMode("strings", function() {
  return {
    startState: function() {return {inString: false};},
    token: function(stream, state) {
      // If a string starts here
      if (!state.inString && stream.peek() == '"') {;            // Skip quote
        state.inString = true;    // Update state

      if (state.inString) {
        if (stream.skipTo('"')) { // Quote found on this line
;          // Skip quote
          state.inString = false; // Clear flag
        } else {
           stream.skipToEnd();    // Rest of line is string
        return "string";          // Token style
      } else {
        stream.skipTo('"') || stream.skipToEnd();
        return null;              // Unstyled token

Let’s quickly walk through it. CodeMirror.defineMode registers a mode under a given name. It registers a constructor function to allow configuring the mode when loading it (which this trivial mode doesn’t use).

The mode constructor returns an object containing the functions that make up this mode. This one defines only startState and token, others often define more, for example indentation to derive the correct indentation from a given state.

Our state only holds a single property, inString. This is needed because strings may span multiple lines, and CodeMirror tokens can’t, so when finding a string that continues to the next line we have to communicate the fact that we’re still in a string to the next call to token.

The token function first handles the case where we are at the start of a string (not currently in one, but right before a double quote character). If so, it consumes the quote and sets the inStringflag.

Next, if we’re in a string, we look for a closing quote on this line. If one is found, we unset theinString flag. Then we return "string" to indicate that the current token is a string.

If we’re not in a string, we just skip to either the next double quote or the end of the line, and return null, to mark the token (the text skipped over) as unstyled.

State management

To be able to quickly and efficiently re-highlight a piece of text as it is being edited, CodeMirror stores copies of state objects in its representation of the document. Whenever a line needs to be rendered, it looks for a state object in the lines before it, going backwards until it finds one or hits the start of the document (at which point it can call startState to produce a state). If it has to go too far back (current limit is 100 lines), it will, to save time, simply take the line (within that limit) with the smallest indentation, and assign a blank (starting) state to it.

Once it has a state, it runs the tokenizer over the lines that were skipped, feeding them that state object, which they will update. And finally, it runs the tokenizer over the line itself, and uses its output to assign CSS classes to the individual tokens.

Apart from the process described above, which is synchronous because it is needed to render a line (right now), there’s another, asynchronous (background) parsing process that ensures the highlighting stays consistent. For example, a change at the start of a document could open a comment block or string, which would cause the whole document to be styled differently.

The background parser uses setTimeout along with a check that bails it out when it has been running for a given number milliseconds, to act as a kind of background thread. It keeps a ‘frontier’, a point up to which it knows the highlighting is consistent, which is adjusted whenever the document is modified (or a new mode is chosen). As it runs, parsing lines and assigning them a state, it adjusts this frontier forwards.

To preserve memory, the background parser doesn’t go beyond the end of the currently visible (scrolled into view) part of the document. That means that, if you open a huge document and never scroll down, no state is accumulated for the whole document. It also means that most background parsing runs are short, since there’ll be no more than a few hundred lines between the part of the document that you’re currently editing and the bottom of the visible view port.


The string highlighting example above could have been (slightly) more succinctly written with a regular expression state machine. In fact, it’s would probably be a good thing for CodeMirror to come with a wrapper that adapts such a state machine to CodeMirror’s token function interface. I’ve been waiting for a common standard for such specifications to emerge, but not much progress seems to be made there.

Still, lots of syntaxes have features that are difficult, painful, or even impossible to express in regular expressions. Take, for example, recognizing the difference between regular expressions and division operators in JavaScript code.

And, even better, when the syntax highlighter is a real program that runs over the code in a well-defined, complete way, you can do all kinds of neat clever things with it. For example, the JavaScript mode recognizes local variables, and colors them differently. The auto-completiondemo fetches this information from the mode state and uses it to complete local variable names. The XML mode will highlight mismatched tags for you.


Because modes are simply tokenizers, with a very straightforward interface, they can be run in different contexts. One example is the runMode add-on, which simply runs a tokenizer over a piece of text and, through a callback, gives you back the tokens.

In fact, the syntax highlighting on this blog is powered by CodeMirror modes, driven by a browserless node.js version of runMode.

Another useful consequence of modular modes is that they are easy to compose. For example themixed HTML mode composes the JavaScript, CSS, and XML modes (the latter has a configuration option that makes it handle HTML). Internally, it initializes all three modes, and when tokenizing, it multiplexes between them—feeding the current input to the sub-mode that is active, and switching to a different sub-mode when it encounters something that looks like ascript or style tag.

In fact, there’s a utility shim, the mode multiplexer, that makes it easy to combine modes in such a way, when they are separated by fixed, context-independent strings.

Another, similar shim, the overlay mode, combines modes in a different way. It takes a base mode and an overlay mode, and runs both over the whole document, combining their styling information in the actual tokens it outputs. This can be used, for example, to highlight specific characters (say, tabs) in the editor, by overlaying a mode that simply finds such characters and assigns them a style. Or you could write a spell-checking overlay, which looks up each word it finds in a dictionary, and styles the ones it doesn’t recognize.

Detailed context information

Defining useful code-editor functionality often requires understanding the the context at a given position. For example, when matching brackets, you want to match brackets that fulfill the same role in the document. A brace in a string or comment should not match a ‘real’ brace that actually delimits a block of code.

For that, we simply take the token style of each brace we find as we are looking for a match, and compare it to the style of the brace we started from. Sometimes, it is useful to not only look at the token style, but also the parser state. I mentioned the example of auto-completing local variables earlier.

One area where this is used pervasively is smart indentation. All ‘serious’ CodeMirror modes keep context information—such as which blocks and parentheses are currently open—in their state objects. From that information, an indentation can easily (and reliably) be derived. Contrast the the terrifying regular expression hacks that some Emacs modes use to guess indentation levels—which often still get it wrong.

Another example is that, just last week, I was writing a system that needed to display a list of arguments below the editor whenever the user was typing an argument list for a known function. Figuring out that the cursor is in an argument list, and at which argument it is, would be a rather complex task, involving knowledge of brackets and quotes, if I had to do it myself. But I could simply rig the mode, which was already tracking contexts, to store that information in its state, and get easy (and fast) access to it whenever the cursor was placed in a new position.

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