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This document covers the syntax for references, how they are implemented, how they fit into the link system, and special references.

References are a way of tying structures together in meaningful ways so as to replicate and synchronize data or use established structs as a type in certain situations. These are similar to pointers and references in other languages but provide some additional benefits that its imperative language relatives do not.


The basic tokens are that at sign (@) initiator, the optional brackets (round or square), the initial struct name, then a sequence of subscriptions. There are three subscriptors: list index, key name, and substruct.

A reference is delimited by one of these forms:

Inside of a reference, it must either begin with a struct name or a substruct subscriptor, then it may be followed by any subscriptor. The struct name has the same restrictions as any struct name. The subscriptors have the following forms.

Putting it together in eBNF:

Reference = "@" ( "(" Body ")" | "[" Body "]" | Body )
Body = ( StructName | SubscriptSubstruct ) Subscriptor*
Subscriptor = SubscriptKey | SubscriptIndex | SubscriptSubstruct

SubscriptKey = ("." | "-" | "─" | "->") KeyName
SubscriptIndex = "[" (Number | Reference) "]"
SubscriptSubstruct = "{" StructName "}" | "/" StructName

There may be spacing (including newlines) or even comments between each token.

Note that this syntax is written in terms of semantic validity, what is allowed and makes sense, rather than how a parser should interpret it. Syntax parsing should not fail if a reference is, for instance, missing a Body between two brackets. This is a semantic error that should give clearer errors than a grammar parser would.

At this point it may be unclear what some of these constructions actually do. That will be discussed in the following sections.

What they do and how they work

Referencing common static data

One can store data in a static struct and have other structs reference it by name. This is similar to consts in other languages. This also demonstrates the key subscriptor.

static Const {
    namesize: size(10 bytes)

string Name1 {
    size: @Const.namesize

string Name2 {
    size: @Const.namesize

Thus both Name1 and Name2 have a size of 10 bytes.

List index subscriptor

static Const {
    names: [Lorem, Ipsum]

string Name1 {
    name: @Const.names[0]  # Lorem

Substruct subscriptor

In normal substruct subscription, we start from the initial struct, check all its children for that name, and if that fails, enter any nameless substructs and check those for that name, and continue until it’s found or there are no more nameless substructs (in which case the reference fails).

static Example {
    static Child1 {
        a: 1

    static {
        static Child2 {
            a: 2

static {
    ac1: @Example{Child1}.a  # 1
    ac2: @Example{Child2}.a  # 2
    ac3: @Example{Child3}.a  # exception

If there is no base, it first checks the substructs of the struct that this reference is inside of, and if none of those match, it then checks the parent’s substructs, and so forth. It does not descend into substructs.

static Grandparent {
    name: Gertrude

    static Parent {
        name: Walter

        static Me {
            gaga: @{Grandparent}.name           # Gertrude
            papa: @{Parent}.name                # Walter
            sisy: @{Sister}.name                # Jenny
            baby: @{Child}.name                 # Kylie
            lil1: @{Grandchild}.name            # exception
            nephew: @{Sister}/        # Abe
            gnephew: @{Sister}/  # exception

            static Child {
                name: Kylie

                static Grandchild {
                   name: Billy

            static {
                name: for demonstration purposes

                static Grandchild {
                   name: this doesn't work either

        static Sister {
            name: Jenny

            static Child {
                name: Abe

            static {
                static Grandchild {
                    name: this doesn't work with /

In order to descend, one can use this to select a known parent and use further substruct subscriptors to access those, such as in nephew, or use relative references described in the Special references section.

For the slash subscriptor, it only checks direct children of the current child, and doesn’t go into nameless children. It also can’t be used as the first element in a reference.

Referencing dynamic data

References can act as a way to tie two or more keys together so that their values must always be equivalent in a way that respects their keys’ normalization schemes. For example:

number A {
    size: 4

bin B {

bin’s size normalizes what it’s provided into a size type, converting bare numbers into the equivalent size in bytes. When this description is used for extracting information from a binary file, the first four bytes are read into A, then B.size interprets this number as the number of bytes to read into B. When using this to instead construct a binary blob, some data may be provided to B which would set its size to the number of bytes that data takes up as a size type value, say size(10 bytes), then that, in turn, would set the value of A to the number type of that value, 10.

Propagating clones

References can also use a struct as a type and act as a means of propagating cloning, such as in this example:

bin Header {
    number count { size: 2 }
    list indexes { type: @Index, length: @{count} }
    # ^ use Index as a type
    # "parent" is a relative reference, referring to "Header"

bin Index {
    string name { size: 10 }
    number size { size: 2 }

bin File {
    # These propagate cloning.
    name: @Index/name
    size: @Index/size

In this example, Index is used as a type in Headers{indexes}, which causes Index to be cloned the specified number of times. Because there is no one Index for File to refer to, File is instead cloned the same number of times as Index with a 1:1 relationship. That is, for every Index there is a File such that Index0 <- File0, Index1 <- File1, … IndexN <- FileN, and ordered like Index0…IndexN File0…FileN, since the base isn’t specified.

For the link structure it’s important for the system to know all members of a reference set. For instance in the following:

# A.a <- B.a && A.a <- C.b
static A { a: 1 }
static B { a: @A.a }
static C { a: @A.a }

# D.a <- E.a <- F.a
static D { a: 1 }
static E { a: @D.a }
static F { a: @E.a }

While the normalization system would potentially treat these cases differently, the link system will group treat both groups in the same manner, all three keys of that group holds the same data.

When a member of a group has its value changed, all group members’ caches must be invalidated. There doesn’t necessarily have to be an origin point insofar as there may be cycles:

bin A { data: @C }
bin B { data: @A }
bin C { data: @B }

Cycles are almost always an indication of an improper description, but because a binary is another source of data which is linked into this cycle, the cycle itself doesn’t actually matter. At most, it should cause a warning. However, a cycle should cause an error if the normalized interpretation of the target data does not match what it was set to, after the data is propagated through the cycle. For instance:

string A { data: @C }
number B { data: number(@A) }
size   C { data: @B }

If we set A to “10”, B then casts this to the number 10, C interprets that as the size of 10 bytes, and A requests the string value of C which is “10 bytes”. Since “10” != “10 bytes”, this causes an error. While it would be ideal if the system stabalized at “10 bytes” (maybe not in this specific case, since that can’t be cast to a number), this runs up against the halting problem and cannot be done effectively.

The established links must be visible for two primary reasons: if a key that is not a reference itself but has references to it must pull data from one of those references, it must be able to; and in Imperial Exchange it must be able to determine what data it can instruct other structs to not export if exporting that data is optional to it. This latter case is about this sort of description:

bin Header {
    number something { size: 4 }
    number width { size: 2 }
    number height { size: 2 }

graphic Image {
    dimensions: [@Header/width, @Header/height]
    pixel: 0bw  # 1 bpp, on is black

In this example, Exchange should export Image.png with the graphical information, but Header.json should only contain something, not width or height, because those two are necessarily exported by Image and can be inferred from that export. This makes it so that when reimporting that data after editing it, one does not need to edit Header.json as well when the width or height changes.

Special references

There are some special, reserved names that can be used in place of the initial struct name or in the key name only if that key subscription is directly following one such reserved name.

Relative references

Relative references use a hierarchical model strictly defined by when curly braces are used. So in static A { static B { c: [ HERE ] }} A is the parent of B, and at the location marked “HERE”, B is considered this, despite “HERE” being contained in a list which is contained in c.

The following is reserved, without definition:


Rather than a reserved name exactly, Defs is more like a static that is always defined, even if it was not explicitly defined in a description. Its keys are meant to represent arbitrary values defined on the command-line similar to -D name=definition in GCC. If a description defines a struct named Defs, it MUST be a static and it MUST NOT have any substructs besides meta substructs. Any values defined in Defs act as defaults and may be overwritten by the user.