Write your own lexer

If a lexer for your favorite language is missing in the Pygments package, you can easily write your own and extend Pygments.

All you need can be found inside the pygments.lexer module. As you can read in the API documentation, a lexer is a class that is initialized with some keyword arguments (the lexer options) and that provides a get_tokens_unprocessed() method which is given a string or unicode object with the data to parse.

The get_tokens_unprocessed() method must return an iterator or iterable containing tuples in the form (index, token, value). Normally you don’t need to do this since there are numerous base lexers you can subclass.


A very powerful (but quite easy to use) lexer is the RegexLexer. This lexer base class allows you to define lexing rules in terms of regular expressions for different states.

States are groups of regular expressions that are matched against the input string at the current position. If one of these expressions matches, a corresponding action is performed (normally yielding a token with a specific type), the current position is set to where the last match ended and the matching process continues with the first regex of the current state.

Lexer states are kept in a state stack: each time a new state is entered, the new state is pushed onto the stack. The most basic lexers (like the DiffLexer) just need one state.

Each state is defined as a list of tuples in the form (regex, action, new_state) where the last item is optional. In the most basic form, action is a token type (like Name.Builtin). That means: When regex matches, emit a token with the match text and type tokentype and push new_state on the state stack. If the new state is '#pop', the topmost state is popped from the stack instead. (To pop more than one state, use '#pop:2' and so on.) '#push' is a synonym for pushing the current state on the stack.

The following example shows the DiffLexer from the builtin lexers. Note that it contains some additional attributes name, aliases and filenames which aren’t required for a lexer. They are used by the builtin lexer lookup functions.

from pygments.lexer import RegexLexer
from pygments.token import *

class DiffLexer(RegexLexer):
    name = 'Diff'
    aliases = ['diff']
    filenames = ['*.diff']

    tokens = {
        'root': [
            (r' .*\n', Text),
            (r'\+.*\n', Generic.Inserted),
            (r'-.*\n', Generic.Deleted),
            (r'@.*\n', Generic.Subheading),
            (r'Index.*\n', Generic.Heading),
            (r'=.*\n', Generic.Heading),
            (r'.*\n', Text),

As you can see this lexer only uses one state. When the lexer starts scanning the text, it first checks if the current character is a space. If this is true it scans everything until newline and returns the parsed data as Text token.

If this rule doesn’t match, it checks if the current char is a plus sign. And so on.

If no rule matches at the current position, the current char is emitted as an Error token that indicates a parsing error, and the position is increased by 1.

Adding and testing a new lexer

To make pygments aware of your new lexer, you have to perform the following steps:

First, change to the current directory containing the pygments source code:

$ cd .../pygments-main

Next, make sure the lexer is known from outside of the module. All modules in the pygments.lexers specify __all__. For example, other.py sets:

__all__ = ['BrainfuckLexer', 'BefungeLexer', ...]

Simply add the name of your lexer class to this list.

Finally the lexer can be made publically known by rebuilding the lexer mapping:

$ make mapfiles

To test the new lexer, store an example file with the proper extension in tests/examplefiles. For example, to test your DiffLexer, add a tests/examplefiles/example.diff containing a sample diff output.

Now you can use pygmentize to render your example to HTML:

$ ./pygmentize -O full -f html -o /tmp/example.html tests/examplefiles/example.diff

Note that this explicitely calls the pygmentize in the current directory by preceding it with ./. This ensures your modifications are used. Otherwise a possibly already installed, unmodified version without your new lexer would have been called from the system search path ($PATH).

To view the result, open /tmp/example.html in your browser.

Once the example renders as expected, you should run the complete test suite:

$ make test

Regex Flags

You can either define regex flags in the regex (r'(?x)foo bar') or by adding a flags attribute to your lexer class. If no attribute is defined, it defaults to re.MULTILINE. For more informations about regular expression flags see the regular expressions help page in the python documentation.

Scanning multiple tokens at once

Here is a more complex lexer that highlights INI files. INI files consist of sections, comments and key = value pairs:

from pygments.lexer import RegexLexer, bygroups
from pygments.token import *

class IniLexer(RegexLexer):
    name = 'INI'
    aliases = ['ini', 'cfg']
    filenames = ['*.ini', '*.cfg']

    tokens = {
        'root': [
            (r'\s+', Text),
            (r';.*?$', Comment),
            (r'\[.*?\]$', Keyword),
             bygroups(Name.Attribute, Text, Operator, Text, String))

The lexer first looks for whitespace, comments and section names. And later it looks for a line that looks like a key, value pair, separated by an '=' sign, and optional whitespace.

The bygroups helper makes sure that each group is yielded with a different token type. First the Name.Attribute token, then a Text token for the optional whitespace, after that a Operator token for the equals sign. Then a Text token for the whitespace again. The rest of the line is returned as String.

Note that for this to work, every part of the match must be inside a capturing group (a (...)), and there must not be any nested capturing groups. If you nevertheless need a group, use a non-capturing group defined using this syntax: r'(?:some|words|here)' (note the ?: after the beginning parenthesis).

If you find yourself needing a capturing group inside the regex which shouldn’t be part of the output but is used in the regular expressions for backreferencing (eg: r'(<(foo|bar)>)(.*?)(</\2>)'), you can pass None to the bygroups function and it will skip that group will be skipped in the output.

Changing states

Many lexers need multiple states to work as expected. For example, some languages allow multiline comments to be nested. Since this is a recursive pattern it’s impossible to lex just using regular expressions.

Here is the solution:

from pygments.lexer import RegexLexer
from pygments.token import *

class ExampleLexer(RegexLexer):
    name = 'Example Lexer with states'

    tokens = {
        'root': [
            (r'[^/]+', Text),
            (r'/\*', Comment.Multiline, 'comment'),
            (r'//.*?$', Comment.Singleline),
            (r'/', Text)
        'comment': [
            (r'[^*/]', Comment.Multiline),
            (r'/\*', Comment.Multiline, '#push'),
            (r'\*/', Comment.Multiline, '#pop'),
            (r'[*/]', Comment.Multiline)

This lexer starts lexing in the 'root' state. It tries to match as much as possible until it finds a slash ('/'). If the next character after the slash is a star ('*') the RegexLexer sends those two characters to the output stream marked as Comment.Multiline and continues parsing with the rules defined in the 'comment' state.

If there wasn’t a star after the slash, the RegexLexer checks if it’s a singleline comment (eg: followed by a second slash). If this also wasn’t the case it must be a single slash (the separate regex for a single slash must also be given, else the slash would be marked as an error token).

Inside the 'comment' state, we do the same thing again. Scan until the lexer finds a star or slash. If it’s the opening of a multiline comment, push the 'comment' state on the stack and continue scanning, again in the 'comment' state. Else, check if it’s the end of the multiline comment. If yes, pop one state from the stack.

Note: If you pop from an empty stack you’ll get an IndexError. (There is an easy way to prevent this from happening: don’t '#pop' in the root state).

If the RegexLexer encounters a newline that is flagged as an error token, the stack is emptied and the lexer continues scanning in the 'root' state. This helps producing error-tolerant highlighting for erroneous input, e.g. when a single-line string is not closed.

Advanced state tricks

There are a few more things you can do with states:

  • You can push multiple states onto the stack if you give a tuple instead of a simple string as the third item in a rule tuple. For example, if you want to match a comment containing a directive, something like:

    /* <processing directive>    rest of comment */

    you can use this rule:

    tokens = {
        'root': [
            (r'/\* <', Comment, ('comment', 'directive')),
        'directive': [
            (r'[^>]*', Comment.Directive),
            (r'>', Comment, '#pop'),
        'comment': [
            (r'[^*]+', Comment),
            (r'\*/', Comment, '#pop'),
            (r'\*', Comment),

    When this encounters the above sample, first 'comment' and 'directive' are pushed onto the stack, then the lexer continues in the directive state until it finds the closing >, then it continues in the comment state until the closing */. Then, both states are popped from the stack again and lexing continues in the root state.

    New in version 0.9: The tuple can contain the special '#push' and '#pop' (but not '#pop:n') directives.

  • You can include the rules of a state in the definition of another. This is done by using include from pygments.lexer:

    from pygments.lexer import RegexLexer, bygroups, include
    from pygments.token import *
    class ExampleLexer(RegexLexer):
        tokens = {
            'comments': [
                (r'/\*.*?\*/', Comment),
                (r'//.*?\n', Comment),
            'root': [
                (r'(function )(\w+)( {)',
                 bygroups(Keyword, Name, Keyword), 'function'),
                (r'.', Text),
            'function': [
                (r'[^}/]+', Text),
                (r'/', Text),
                (r'}', Keyword, '#pop'),

    This is a hypothetical lexer for a language that consist of functions and comments. Because comments can occur at toplevel and in functions, we need rules for comments in both states. As you can see, the include helper saves repeating rules that occur more than once (in this example, the state 'comment' will never be entered by the lexer, as it’s only there to be included in 'root' and 'function').

  • Sometimes, you may want to “combine” a state from existing ones. This is possible with the combine helper from pygments.lexer.

    If you, instead of a new state, write combined('state1', 'state2') as the third item of a rule tuple, a new anonymous state will be formed from state1 and state2 and if the rule matches, the lexer will enter this state.

    This is not used very often, but can be helpful in some cases, such as the PythonLexer‘s string literal processing.

  • If you want your lexer to start lexing in a different state you can modify the stack by overloading the get_tokens_unprocessed() method:

    from pygments.lexer import RegexLexer
    class MyLexer(RegexLexer):
        tokens = {...}
        def get_tokens_unprocessed(self, text):
            stack = ['root', 'otherstate']
            for item in RegexLexer.get_tokens_unprocessed(text, stack):
                yield item

    Some lexers like the PhpLexer use this to make the leading <?php preprocessor comments optional. Note that you can crash the lexer easily by putting values into the stack that don’t exist in the token map. Also removing 'root' from the stack can result in strange errors!

  • An empty regex at the end of a state list, combined with '#pop', can act as a return point from a state that doesn’t have a clear end marker.

Using multiple lexers

Using multiple lexers for the same input can be tricky. One of the easiest combination techniques is shown here: You can replace the token type entry in a rule tuple (the second item) with a lexer class. The matched text will then be lexed with that lexer, and the resulting tokens will be yielded.

For example, look at this stripped-down HTML lexer:

from pygments.lexer import RegexLexer, bygroups, using
from pygments.token import *
from pygments.lexers.web import JavascriptLexer

class HtmlLexer(RegexLexer):
    name = 'HTML'
    aliases = ['html']
    filenames = ['*.html', '*.htm']

    flags = re.IGNORECASE | re.DOTALL
    tokens = {
        'root': [
            ('[^<&]+', Text),
            ('&.*?;', Name.Entity),
            (r'<\s*script\s*', Name.Tag, ('script-content', 'tag')),
            (r'<\s*[a-zA-Z0-9:]+', Name.Tag, 'tag'),
            (r'<\s*/\s*[a-zA-Z0-9:]+\s*>', Name.Tag),
        'script-content': [
             bygroups(using(JavascriptLexer), Name.Tag),

Here the content of a <script> tag is passed to a newly created instance of a JavascriptLexer and not processed by the HtmlLexer. This is done using the using helper that takes the other lexer class as its parameter.

Note the combination of bygroups and using. This makes sure that the content up to the </script> end tag is processed by the JavascriptLexer, while the end tag is yielded as a normal token with the Name.Tag type.

As an additional goodie, if the lexer class is replaced by this (imported from pygments.lexer), the “other” lexer will be the current one (because you cannot refer to the current class within the code that runs at class definition time).

Also note the (r'<\s*script\s*', Name.Tag, ('script-content', 'tag')) rule. Here, two states are pushed onto the state stack, 'script-content' and 'tag'. That means that first 'tag' is processed, which will parse attributes and the closing >, then the 'tag' state is popped and the next state on top of the stack will be 'script-content'.

The using() helper has a special keyword argument, state, which works as follows: if given, the lexer to use initially is not in the "root" state, but in the state given by this argument. This only works with a RegexLexer.

Any other keywords arguments passed to using() are added to the keyword arguments used to create the lexer.

Delegating Lexer

Another approach for nested lexers is the DelegatingLexer which is for example used for the template engine lexers. It takes two lexers as arguments on initialisation: a root_lexer and a language_lexer.

The input is processed as follows: First, the whole text is lexed with the language_lexer. All tokens yielded with a type of Other are then concatenated and given to the root_lexer. The language tokens of the language_lexer are then inserted into the root_lexer‘s token stream at the appropriate positions.

from pygments.lexer import DelegatingLexer
from pygments.lexers.web import HtmlLexer, PhpLexer

class HtmlPhpLexer(DelegatingLexer):
    def __init__(self, **options):
        super(HtmlPhpLexer, self).__init__(HtmlLexer, PhpLexer, **options)

This procedure ensures that e.g. HTML with template tags in it is highlighted correctly even if the template tags are put into HTML tags or attributes.

If you want to change the needle token Other to something else, you can give the lexer another token type as the third parameter:

DelegatingLexer.__init__(MyLexer, OtherLexer, Text, **options)


Sometimes the grammar of a language is so complex that a lexer would be unable to parse it just by using regular expressions and stacks.

For this, the RegexLexer allows callbacks to be given in rule tuples, instead of token types (bygroups and using are nothing else but preimplemented callbacks). The callback must be a function taking two arguments:

  • the lexer itself
  • the match object for the last matched rule

The callback must then return an iterable of (or simply yield) (index, tokentype, value) tuples, which are then just passed through by get_tokens_unprocessed(). The index here is the position of the token in the input string, tokentype is the normal token type (like Name.Builtin), and value the associated part of the input string.

You can see an example here:

from pygments.lexer import RegexLexer
from pygments.token import Generic

class HypotheticLexer(RegexLexer):

    def headline_callback(lexer, match):
        equal_signs = match.group(1)
        text = match.group(2)
        yield match.start(), Generic.Headline, equal_signs + text + equal_signs

    tokens = {
        'root': [
            (r'(=+)(.*?)(\1)', headline_callback)

If the regex for the headline_callback matches, the function is called with the match object. Note that after the callback is done, processing continues normally, that is, after the end of the previous match. The callback has no possibility to influence the position.

There are not really any simple examples for lexer callbacks, but you can see them in action e.g. in the compiled.py source code in the CLexer and JavaLexer classes.

The ExtendedRegexLexer class

The RegexLexer, even with callbacks, unfortunately isn’t powerful enough for the funky syntax rules of some languages that will go unnamed, such as Ruby.

But fear not; even then you don’t have to abandon the regular expression approach. For Pygments has a subclass of RegexLexer, the ExtendedRegexLexer. All features known from RegexLexers are available here too, and the tokens are specified in exactly the same way, except for one detail:

The get_tokens_unprocessed() method holds its internal state data not as local variables, but in an instance of the pygments.lexer.LexerContext class, and that instance is passed to callbacks as a third argument. This means that you can modify the lexer state in callbacks.

The LexerContext class has the following members:

  • text – the input text
  • pos – the current starting position that is used for matching regexes
  • stack – a list containing the state stack
  • end – the maximum position to which regexes are matched, this defaults to the length of text

Additionally, the get_tokens_unprocessed() method can be given a LexerContext instead of a string and will then process this context instead of creating a new one for the string argument.

Note that because you can set the current position to anything in the callback, it won’t be automatically be set by the caller after the callback is finished. For example, this is how the hypothetical lexer above would be written with the ExtendedRegexLexer:

from pygments.lexer import ExtendedRegexLexer
from pygments.token import Generic

class ExHypotheticLexer(ExtendedRegexLexer):

    def headline_callback(lexer, match, ctx):
        equal_signs = match.group(1)
        text = match.group(2)
        yield match.start(), Generic.Headline, equal_signs + text + equal_signs
        ctx.pos = match.end()

    tokens = {
        'root': [
            (r'(=+)(.*?)(\1)', headline_callback)

This might sound confusing (and it can really be). But it is needed, and for an example look at the Ruby lexer in agile.py.

Filtering Token Streams

Some languages ship a lot of builtin functions (for example PHP). The total amount of those functions differs from system to system because not everybody has every extension installed. In the case of PHP there are over 3000 builtin functions. That’s an incredible huge amount of functions, much more than you can put into a regular expression.

But because only Name tokens can be function names it’s solvable by overriding the get_tokens_unprocessed() method. The following lexer subclasses the PythonLexer so that it highlights some additional names as pseudo keywords:

from pygments.lexers.agile import PythonLexer
from pygments.token import Name, Keyword

class MyPythonLexer(PythonLexer):
    EXTRA_KEYWORDS = ['foo', 'bar', 'foobar', 'barfoo', 'spam', 'eggs']

    def get_tokens_unprocessed(self, text):
        for index, token, value in PythonLexer.get_tokens_unprocessed(self, text):
            if token is Name and value in self.EXTRA_KEYWORDS:
                yield index, Keyword.Pseudo, value
                yield index, token, value

The PhpLexer and LuaLexer use this method to resolve builtin functions.


Do not confuse this with the filter system.