ppx_sexp is a ppx preprocessor for embedding S-expressions in OCaml programs.

For example, this:

[%sexp (define a "hi there!")]

is translated into:

`List [`Symbol "define"; `Symbol "a"; `String "hi there"]

You can unquote, or insert regular OCaml expressions inside of the S-expression that will be evaluated instead of converted to atoms (e.g. List, Symbol) using the [%in ...] syntax:

let a = [%sexp (title "Hello, world!")] in
[%sexp (html
             [%in a])
             (p "Hi there!")))]

When inserting values, you must make sure to contain them in the appropriate polymorphic variant (the names correspond directly to OCaml's AST constant types, with the exception of Bool):

 [%sexp (print [%in `String "S-expressions: abbreviated sexp"])]

The %in syntax is intended to be used for embedding other S-expressions. If you are embedding atoms, there is a streamlined syntax:

 [%sexp (print [%string "S-expressions: sexp"])]

If you have an S-expression list that you'd like to splice, there is the [%sp ...] syntax:

let x = [%sexp (b c d)] in
[%sexp (a [%sp x] e)]

which evaluates to

`List [`Symbol "a"; `Symbol "b"; `Symbol "c"; `Symbol "d"; `Symbol "e"]

If you instead have a list of S-expressions, you can splice it using the [%spls ...] syntax.

Why is this useful?

Well, Scheme has a very cool set of specifications and tooling called SXML that lets you write XML documents using S-expressions. With some specific serialization rules, you can serialize SXML to HTML. This is incredibly powerful in Scheme particularly because you can then use quasiquotation to seamlessly integrate macros, procedures, variables, etc. inside of documents, for example to render a website. Quasiquotation allows you to write lists constants and unquote expressions inside. In effect, SXML provides you a templating language with the full power of Scheme (and one that is a lot cleaner than XML and other templating languages, in my opinion). You have lexical scoping, can dynamically generate subtemplates (no need to use a new import or expression system just for templates), etc.

Unfortunately, OCaml doesn't have quotation/quasiquotation syntax. Whereas in Scheme you could write a HTML document that shows a user's name like this: (note that ,name is the syntax for quasi-unquotation)

(html (@ (lang "en"))
    (title "Hi there!"))
    (h1 "Hello, " ,name "!")
    (p "Great to see you.")))

In OCaml you end up with a lot more noise, because there is no way to enter a mode in which 'symbols' are quoted by default. Here we use a Y variant to identify symbols, an S variant to identify strings, and an L variant to identify lists:

[`Y "html"; `L [`Y "@"; `L [`Y "lang"; `S "en"]];
 `L [`Y "head";
     `L [`Y "title"; `S "Hi there!"]];
 `L [`Y "body";
     `L [`Y "h1"; `S "Hello, "; `S name; `S "!"];
     `L [`Y "p"; `S "Great to see you."]]]

This is very ugly.

With the ppx_sexp syntax extension, we can regain much of the expressiveness of S-expressions and quasiquotations inside of OCaml:

   (html ((@) (lang "en"))
         (title "Hi there!"))
         (h1 "Hello, " [%in name] "!")
         (p "Great to see you.")))]

Note that [%in name] is used to unquote the name variable. To be properly typed, it would have to be of the form String "Some Name". (The String constructor should be that of the polymorphic variant, not the normal variant -- Markdown formatting is messing with displaying the backtick. Sorry.)


ppx preprocessors accept an AST as input and return a mutated AST. As a result, the "S-expressions" inside of [%sexp ...] must actually be valid OCaml syntax. This works for most S-expressions -- for example, OCaml sees (title "Hi there!") as the application of a procedure identified by title to the string constant "Hi there!". However, you cannot use OCaml keywords inside of ppx_sexp expressions. Furthermore, parentheses do not themselves make a list -- they can only give applications precedence. For example, you sadly cannot write:

   (let ((a 8))
      (/ a 2))]

First, let is an OCaml keyword, so the parser will throw a syntax error even before the AST is passed to ppx_sexp. Second, ((a 8)) is in OCaml syntax identical to (a 8), so that is what ppx_sexp will see in the AST it is given. (To express this, you could write ([a 8]) or [(a 8)].) Third, (/ a 2) will trigger an unmatched parentheses syntax error.

These are pretty ponderous restrictions if the goal is to embed Scheme code in OCaml. However, my goal in writing this extension was allow for SXML-like expressions. HTML documents do not often include let or / tags, so ppx_sexp works well enough for this use-case.

Note that you should also watch out for OCaml's operator precedence and associativity rules.


You can use the included ./install script to install ppx_sexp using ocamlfind. ./uninstall will uninstall ppx_sexp similarly.

Type of Generated S-expressions

Generated S-expressions have the type PpxSexp.sexp. PpxSexp is a module and interface containing only that type installed by ./install.