Creating a C Documentation Generator - Part 2

Welcome to part 2 of a series in which we design and implement cdoc - a source code documentation tool for the C programming language. In part 1 we created the skeleton for our program and stubbed out the documentation code with a cat clone. In this post we will define the shape of our documentation language and add documentation comments to our example file.

Ripping off Borrowing from Doxygen

Over the past few years of using Doxygen I have settled into a particular documentation style that I would like to replicate in cdoc.

Take for example an idiomatic swap function:

void swap(void* p1, void* p2, size_t size);

I would write a Doxygen doc for swap as:

//! Exchange two objects of equal size.
//! @param p1
//!     Pointer to the first object.
//! @param p2
//!     Pointer to the second object.
//! @param size
//!     The sizeof both objects.
//! @note
//!     Objects @p1 and @p2 may point to overlapping memory.
//!     E.g `swap(&foo, &foo, sizeof(foo))` is valid.
void swap(void* p1, void* p2, size_t size);

using //! comment blocks and Javadoc style tags[1]. I also prefer to write section text indented starting on the line after a tag because to me:

//! @param p1
//!     Pointer to the first object.

is easier to read than:

//! @param p1 Pointer to the first object.

This documentation style would work well for cdoc because it seems fairly straightforward to parse[2] and uses a syntax that many developers are already familiar with. To make our lives easier during parsing we are also going to say that every section of a doc must start with a tag line. As a convention the first section of a doc should have a tag that describes the C construct being documented[3] (where applicable). The brief section in our Doxygen example above:

//! Exchange two objects of equal size.      <--- brief section
//! @param whatever                          <--+ section
//! ...bla                                      |
//! ...bla                                   <--+
//! @param something                         <--+ section
//! ...bla                                      |
//! ...bla                                   <--+
void swap(void* p1, void* p2, size_t size);  <--- code

would be written in cdoc as:

//! @function swap                           <--+ section
//!     Exchange two objects of equal size.  <--+
//! @param whatever                          <--+ section
//! ...bla                                      |
//! ...bla                                   <--+
//! @param something                         <--+ section
//! ...bla                                      |
//! ...bla                                   <--+
void swap(void* p1, void* p2, size_t size);  <--- code

All together the cdoc documentation for swap would look like:

//! @function swap
//!     Exchange two objects of equal size.
//! @param p1
//!     Pointer to the first object.
//! @param p2
//!     Pointer to the second object.
//! @param size
//!     The sizeof both objects.
//! @note
//!     Objects p1 and p2 may point to overlapping memory.
//!     E.g swap(&foo, &foo, sizeof(foo)) is valid.
void swap(void* p1, void* p2, size_t size);

Informal Grammar

In order to parse cdoc doc-comments we are going to need to specify rules defining what counts as valid documentation. Real computer scientists™ describe these rules using a formal grammar, perhaps in a notation such as Bacus-Naur form. If we were producing a formal language specification or writing a non-trivial parser then coming up with a rigorous grammar would certainly be necessary. But we are in more of an exploratory "hack it together and see what works" phase, so I would rather describe our language in simple English and see how far that can get us.

For now we will loosely define the cdoc documentation language as such:

Pretty straightforward right?

Revamping the Example File

Now that we have a rough idea of what cdoc documentation will look like we should update our example.c file with doc-comments. In part 1 we threw together our example file without putting a whole lot of thought into it. In retrospect I realize that the file is missing a lot of C constructs (macros, variables, typedefs, etc.), so while we are adding comments we might as well just overhaul the entire thing. With a little bit of work the revamped file (with added doc-comments) has a lot more going on and should be a good test file to write a parser against:

//! @file example.c
//!     This is a C source file used to test cdoc.
//! @license 0BSD

#include <stddef.h> // size_t
#include <stdint.h> // [u]intN_t

//! @function swap
//!     Exchange two objects of equal size.
//! @param p1
//!     Pointer to the first object.
//! @param p2
//!     Pointer to the second object.
//! @param size
//!     The sizeof both objects.
//! @note
//!     Objects p1 and p2 may point to overlapping memory.
//!     E.g swap(&foo, &foo, sizeof(foo)) is valid.
void swap(void* p1, void* p2, size_t size);

//! @struct string
//!     POD type representing an array-of-char with a known size.
struct string
{
    char* data;
    size_t size;
};

//! @union foobar
//!     A data packet sent over the wire from FooBar Inc.
union foobar
{
    uint32_t foo;
    float bar;
};

//! @enum color
//! @todo
//!     Add more colors.
typedef enum
{
    RED = 0,
    BLUE = 1,
    GREEN = 2
} color;

//! @typedef colour
//!     Convenient typedef for non-American software engineers.
typedef color colour;

//! @function get_color
//! Cdoc should be lenient with whitespace.
//!     Any amount of indenting should be allowed.
//!	Even with tabs.
//! @return
//!     My favorite color.
color get_color(void)
{
    return RED;
}

//! @macro M_PER_KM
#define M_PER_KM 1000

//! @macro KM
//!     Convert meters into kilometers.
#define KM(meters) (meters * M_PER_KM)

//! @macro NUM_FOOBAR
//!     256 is a computer-ish number, right?
#define NUM_FOOBAR 256
//! @variable foobars
union foobar foobars[NUM_FOOBAR];

Putting it all Together

We now have an informal grammar describing our documentation language and a relatively solid source file we can use as a reference/test-file while constructing the cdoc parser. In the next post we attempt to get a minimum-viable-product of cdoc completed by transforming cdoc documentation into HTML! I hope to see you then!

The source code for this blog post can be found here.

Footnotes

[1]: Doxygen uses the term command for @foo or \foo, but I have always heard these referred to as tags. I am going to use "tag" for this series because I think it is a much clearer name.

[2]: Spoiler - I have actually already written the parser for cdoc, so my intuition on what should and should not be in the documentation language is a more a product of trial and error over many weekends rather than any sort of informed parsing wisdom.

[3]: Although most of cdoc's documentation language is "borrowed" from Doxygen the convention to use the first tag as a description of the construct being documented is being lifted from NaturalDocs, another high quality documentation generator. If the Doxygen/Javadoc/Cdoc documentation style is not your cup of tea then I would give NaturalDocs a look.