Developer’s Guide

So you want to extend Flycheck, but have no idea where to start? This guide will give you an overview of Flycheck internals, and take you through adding a syntax checker to Flycheck.

An overview of Flycheck internals

The goal of Flycheck is to display errors from external checker programs directly in the buffer you are editing. Instead of you manually invoking make or the compiler for your favorite language, Flycheck takes care of it for you, collects the errors and displays them right there in the buffer.

How Flycheck works is rather straightforward. Whenever a syntax check is started (see Check buffers), the following happens:

  1. First, Flycheck runs the external program as an asynchronous process using start-process. While this process runs, Flycheck simply accumulates its output.
  2. When the process exits, Flycheck parses its output in order to collect the errors. The raw output is turned into a list of flycheck-error objects containing, among others, the filename, line, column, message and severity of the error.
  3. Flycheck then filters the collected errors to keep only the relevant ones. For instance, errors directed at other files than the one you are editing are discarded. The exact sementics of which errors are relevant is defined in flycheck-relevant-error-p.
  4. Relevant errors are highlighted by Flycheck in the buffer, according to user preference. By default, each error adds a mark in the fringe at the line it occurs, and underlines the symbol at the position of the error using overlays.
  5. Finally, Flycheck rebuilds the error list buffer.

Flycheck follows this process for all the many different syntax checkers that are provided by default.

Note

Specifically, the above describes the process of command checkers, i.e., checkers that run external programs. All the checkers defined in flycheck-checkers are command checkers, but command checkers are actually instances of generic checkers. Many external packages, such as dafny-mode, fstar-mode, etc. use generic checkers, which allow you more flexibility, including running Flycheck with persistent subprocess such as language servers. See flycheck-ocaml for an example of how to use a generic checker.

See also

Asynchronous Processes(elisp)
How to run and control asynchronous processes from inside Emacs.
Overlays(elisp)
How to add temporary annotations to a buffer.

Adding a syntax checker to Flycheck

To add a syntax checker to Flycheck, you need to answer a few questions:

  • How to invoke the checker? What is the name of its program, and what arguments should Flycheck pass to it?
  • How to parse the error messages from the checker output?
  • What language (or languages) will the checker be used for?

For instance, if I were to manually run the Scala compiler scalac on the following hello.scala file:

object {
  println("Hello, world")
}

Here is the output I would get:

$ scalac hello.scala
hello.scala:1: error: identifier expected but '{' found.
object {
       ^
one error found

The compiler reports one syntax error from the file hello.scala, on line 3, with severity error, and the rest of the line contains the error message.

So, if we want to instruct Flycheck to run scalac on our Scala files, we need to tell Flycheck to:

  • Invoke scalac FILE-NAME
  • Get errors from output lines of the form: file-name:line: error:message

Writing the checker

Once you have answered these questions, you merely have to translate the answers to Emacs Lisp. Here is the full definition of the scala checker you can find in flycheck.el:

(flycheck-define-checker scala
  "A Scala syntax checker using the Scala compiler.

See URL `https://www.scala-lang.org/'."
  :command ("scalac" "-Ystop-after:parser" source)
  :error-patterns
    ((error line-start (file-name) ":" line ": error: " (message) line-end))
  :modes scala-mode
  :next-checkers ((warning . scala-scalastyle)))

The code is rather self-explanatory; but we’ll go through it nonetheless.

First, we define a checker using flycheck-define-checker. Its first argument, scala, is the name of the checker, as a symbol. The name is used to refer to the checker in the documentation, so it should usually be the name of the language to check, or the name of the program used to do the checking, or a combination of both. Here, scalac is the program, but the checker is named scala. There is another Scala checker using scalastyle, with the name scala-scalastyle. See flycheck-checkers for the full list of checker names defined in Flycheck.

After the name comes the docstring. This is a documentation string answering three questions: 1) What language is this checker for? 2) What is the program used? 3) Where can users get this program? Nothing more. In particular, this string does not include user documentation, which should rather go in the manual (see Supported Languages).

The rest of the arguments are keyword arguments; their order does not matter, but they are usually given in the fashion above.

  • :command describes what command to run, and what arguments to pass. Here, we tell Flycheck to run scalac -Ystop-after:parser on source. In Flycheck, we usually want to get error feedback as fast as possible, hence we will pass any flag that will speed up the invocation of a compiler, even at the cost of missing out on some errors. Here, we are telling scalac to stop after the parsing phase to ensure we are getting syntax errors quickly.

    The source argument is special: it instructs Flycheck to create a temporary file containing the content of the current buffer, and to pass that temporary file as argument to scalac. That way, scalac can be run on the content of the buffer, even when the buffer has not been saved. There are other ways to pass the content of the buffer to the command, e.g., by piping it through standard input. These special arguments are described in the docstring of flycheck-substitute-argument.

  • :error-patterns describes how to parse the output, using the rx regular expression syntax. Here, we expect scalac to return error messages of the form:

    file:line: error: message
    

    This is a common output format for compilers. With the following :error-patterns value:

    ((error line-start (file-name) ":" line ": error: " (message) line-end))
    

    we tell Flycheck to extract three parts from each line in the output that matches the pattern: the file-name, the line number, and the message content. These three parts are then used by Flycheck to create a flycheck-error with the error severity.

  • :modes is the list of Emacs major modes in which this checker can run. Here, we want the checker to run only in scala-mode buffers.

That’s it! This definition alone contains everything Flycheck needs to run scalac on a Scala buffer and parse its output in order to give error feedback to the user.

Note

rx.el is a built-in Emacs module for declarative regular expressions. Look for the documentation of the rx function inside Emacs for its usage. Flycheck extends rx with a few constructs like line, file-name and message. You can find them the full list in the docstring for flycheck-rx-to-string.

Registering the checker

Usually, you’ll want to register the checker so that it is eligible for automatic selection. For that, you just need to add the checker symbol to flycheck-checkers. The order of checkers does matter, as only one checker can be enabled in a buffer at a time. Usually you want to put the most useful checker as the first checker for that mode. For instance, here are the JavaScript checkers provided by Flycheck:

javascript-eslint
javascript-jshint
javascript-gjslint
javascript-jscs
javascript-standard

If a buffer is in js-mode, Flycheck will try first to enable javascript-eslint before any other JavaScript checker.

There are other factors governing checker selection in a buffer, namely whether a checker is disabled by user configuration (see Disable syntax checkers), and whether this checker can be enabled (see the :enabled property in flycheck-define-generic-checker).

See also

flycheck-get-checker-for-buffer
This is the function that looks through flycheck-checkers to find a valid checker for the buffer.

Writing more complex checkers

Here are two examples of more complex checkers:

(flycheck-define-checker protobuf-protoc
  "A protobuf syntax checker using the protoc compiler.

See URL `https://developers.google.com/protocol-buffers/'."
  :command ("protoc" "--error_format" "gcc"
            (eval (concat "--java_out=" (flycheck-temp-dir-system)))
            ;; Add the file directory of protobuf path to resolve import directives
            (eval (concat "--proto_path=" (file-name-directory (buffer-file-name))))
            source-inplace)
  :error-patterns
  ((info line-start (file-name) ":" line ":" column
         ": note: " (message) line-end)
   (error line-start (file-name) ":" line ":" column
          ": " (message) line-end)
   (error line-start
          (message "In file included from") " " (file-name) ":" line ":"
          column ":" line-end))
  :modes protobuf-mode
  :predicate (lambda () (buffer-file-name)))
(flycheck-define-checker sh-shellcheck
  "A shell script syntax and style checker using Shellcheck.

See URL `https://github.com/koalaman/shellcheck/'."
  :command ("shellcheck"
            "--format" "checkstyle"
            "--shell" (eval (symbol-name sh-shell))
            (option-flag "--external-sources"
                         flycheck-shellcheck-follow-sources)
            (option "--exclude" flycheck-shellcheck-excluded-warnings list
                    flycheck-option-comma-separated-list)
            "-")
  :standard-input t
  :modes sh-mode
  :error-parser flycheck-parse-checkstyle
  :error-filter (lambda (errors)
                  (flycheck-remove-error-file-names "-" errors))
  :predicate (lambda () (memq sh-shell '(bash ksh88 sh)))
  :verify
  (lambda (_)
    (let ((supported (memq sh-shell '(bash ksh88 sh))))
      (list (flycheck-verification-result-new
             :label (format "Shell %s supported" sh-shell)
             :message (if supported "yes" "no")
             :face (if supports-shell 'success '(bold warning))))))
  :error-explainer
  (lambda (err)
    (let ((error-code (flycheck-error-id err))
          (url "https://github.com/koalaman/shellcheck/wiki/%S"))
      (and error-code `(url . ,(format url error-code))))))

The :command forms are longer, as the checkers pass more flags to protoc and shellcheck. Note the use of eval, option, and option-flag for transforming Flycheck checker options into flags for the command. See the docstring for flycheck-substitute-argument for more info, and look at other checkers for examples.

The shellcheck checker does no use source nor source-inplace: instead, it passes the buffer contents on standard input, using :standard-input t.

The protoc checker has three patterns in :error-patterns; the first one will catch notes from the compiler and turn them into flycheck-error objects with the info severity; the second is for errors from the file being checked, and the third one is for errors from other files. In the shellcheck checker, on the other hand, :error-parser replaces :error-patterns: shellcheck outputs results in the standard CheckStyle XML format, so the definition above uses Flycheck’s built-in CheckStyle parser, and an :error-filter to replace - by the current buffer’s filename.

Both checkers use a new :predicate property to determine when the checker can be called. In addition to the :mode property which restricts the protoc checker to buffers in protobuf-mode, the :predicate property ensures that protoc is called only when there is a file associated to the buffer (this is necessary since we are passing the file associated to the buffer protobuf using source-inplace in :command; in contrast, the shellcheck checker can run in all buffers, because it sends buffer contents through a pipe). The second checker has a more complex :predicate to make sure that the current shell dialect is supported, and a :verify function to help users diagnose configuration issues ( :verify is helpful for giving feedback to users; its output gets included when users invoke flycheck-verify-setup)

Finally, the shellcheck checker includes an error explainer, which opens the relevant page on the ShellCheck wiki when users run flycheck-explain-error-at-point.

There are other useful properties, depending on your situation. Most important is :enabled, which is like :predicate but is run only once; it is used to make sure a checker has everything it needs before being allowed to run in a buffer (this is particularly useful when the checks are costly: running an external program and parsing its output, checking for a plugin, etc.).

See also

flycheck-define-generic-checker
For the full documentation of all the properties you can pass to flycheck-define-checker. Look also in the docstring for flycheck-define-command-checker for additional properties.

Note

Don’t be afraid to look into the flycheck.el code. The existing checkers serve as useful examples you can draw from, and all core functions are documented.

Sharing your checker

Once you have written your own syntax checker, why not submit a pull request to integrate it into Flycheck? If it’s useful to you, it may be useful for someone else! Please do check out our Contributor’s Guide to learn how we deal with pull requests.

Issues with auto-quoting in flycheck-define-checker

You may have noticed that lists passed to the :command or :error-patterns in the snippets above are not quoted. That is because flycheck-define-checker is a macro which automatically quotes these arguments (not unlike use-package and other configuration macros).

While this makes for less noisy syntax, it unfortunately prevents you from defining a checker with compile-time arguments. For example, you may be tempted to have a custom checker in your Emacs configuration written like this:

(flycheck-define-checker my-foobar-checker
  :command ("foobar" source)
  :error-patterns ((error …))
  :modes `(foobar-mode ,my-other-foobar-mode))

The idea is that you know statically one mode that you want to use the checker in: foobar-mode, but another mode can be given via the variable my-other-foobar-mode before the checker is defined. This won’t work, because the :modes property is auto-quoted by flycheck-define-checker. The issue arises not just with :modes:, but with almost all the other properties since they are also auto-quoted.

If you do find yourself in need to define such a checker, there is a solution though. The flycheck-define-checker macro is just a convenience over flycheck-define-command-checker, so you could define the checker above as follows:

(flycheck-def-executable-var my-foobar-checker "foobar")
(flycheck-define-command-checker 'my-foobar-checker
  :command '("foobar" source)
  :error-patterns '((error …))
  :modes `(foobar-mode ,my-other-foobar-mode))

Using flycheck-define-command-checker, you now need to quote all the list arguments, but now with the confidence that no auto-quoting will take place, since flycheck-define-command-checker is just a function. Also note that you need to explicitly define the executable variable for the checker. Using flycheck-define-command-checker is the recommended way to define a checker with compile-time arguments.

Note

The flycheck-define-checker macro is an autoload, so using it inside a with-eval-after-load form will load all of Flycheck. While this ensures the macro is correctly expanded, it also defeats the purpose of using with-eval-after-load.

For the background behind this state of affairs, see issue 1398.