5 Operator Precedence and Associativity

Instead of attaching a numeric precedence to each operator, as in Honu, each operator declares its precedence relative to other operators. That is, an operator can declare that its precedence is stronger than certain other operators, weaker than certain other operators, the same as certain other operators (implicitly including the operator itself), and the same as certain other operators when in a specific order (e.g., * is not allowed to the right of /). An infix operator’s associativity is relevant only for operators at the same precedence (including the operator itself), as either left-associative, right-associative, or non-associative.

Our example <> definition did not specify any precedence relationships, so it cannot be used next to *:

1 <> 2 * 3 // not allowed

In this example, enforestation would report that <> and * are unrelated, so parentheses are needed somewhere. Rhombus supports precedence declarations through a ~weaker_than keyword:

operator (x <> y):

  ~weaker_than: * / + -

  Posn(x, y)


1 <> 2 * 3 // same as Posn(1, 6)

Unlike a system based on numeric precedence levels, precedence in the Rhombus expander is not a complete or partial order. It’s not even transitive. Operators A and B have a precedence relationship only if either A indicates a relationship to B or B indicates a relationship to A. This approach turns out to work fine with a Pratt-style parser (as used in Honu), which only ever needs to work with precedence when it has two specific operators to compare. A potential advantage of non-transitive precedence is avoiding an order among operands that make no sense next to each other. An operator can declare a default precedence relationship to other operators, but it must declare the default explicitly.

If two operators both claim a precedence relationship to each other, the relationship must be consistent; for example, A cannot claim to have stronger precedence than B if B claims stronger precedence than A. Also, if one or both operators claim a same precedence strength to the other, the operators must have the same associativity. The consistency of precedence claims between A and B is checked only at the point where A and B are compared by the enforesting expander, and inconsistent claims trigger a syntax error at that point.

Procedurally, precedence is relevant when enforestation encounters an infix operator on the right-hand side of some other operator. Precedence determines whether the terms in between the two operators form an argument to the earlier operator (on the way to producing an argument for the later operator) or whether those terms form an argument to the newly encountered operator (on the way to producing an argument for the earlier operator). Note that when a prefix operator is involved in a precedence comparison, the other operator is always a later infix operator.