Parsing XML with Prolog

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“I have a hard time arguing that anything in XML is generically useful any more except for the basic syntax, which lets us apply some very handy low-level tools like parsers and XSLT. The rest (XLink, schemas, etc.) has been a pointless trip into complexity.” Simon St.Laurent

“My own experience is that having Prolog, Scheme, and Haskell available it'll take a gun pointed at my head or an extremely large bribe to make me use XSLT for anything.” Richard A. O'Keefe

Background is a module for parsing XML with Prolog, which provides Prolog applications with a simple Document Value Model interface to XML documents. It has been used successfully in a number of applications.

It supports a subset of XML suitable for XML Data and Worldwide Web applications but it is neither as strict nor as comprehensive as the XML 1.0 Specification mandates.

  • It is not as strict because, while the specification must eliminate ambiguities, not all errors need to be regarded as faults, and some reasonable examples of real XML usage would have to be rejected if they were.
  • It is not as comprehensive because, where the XML specification makes provision for more or less complete DTDs to be provided as part of a document, actions the local definition of ENTITIES only. Other DTD extensions are treated as commentary.

Download the XML Module ( and plxml) and plxml, a small Windows application which embodies, have been placed into the public domain to encourage the use of Prolog with XML. I hope that they will be useful to you, but they are not supported, and they are provided without any warranty of any kind.


Three predicates are exported by the module: xml_parse/[2,3], xml_subterm/2 and xml_pp/1 .

xml_parse( {+Controls,} +?Chars, ?+Document )

parses Chars, a list of character codes, to/from Document, a data structure of the form xml(Attributes, Content), where: Attributes is a list of Name=CharData attributes from the (possibly implicit) XML signature of the document. Content is a (possibly empty) list comprising occurrences of:

An XML comment;
namespace(URI, Prefix, Element)
a Namespace
element(Tag, Attributes, Content)
<Tag>..</Tag> encloses Content or <Tag/> if Content is empty [].
instructions(Name, CharData)
A PI <?Name CharData?>
doctype(Tag, DoctypeId)

The conversions are not completely symmetrical in that weaker XML is accepted than can be generated. Specifically, in-bound (Chars -> Document) parsing does not require strictly well-formed XML. If Chars does not represent well-formed XML, Document is instantiated to the term malformed(Attributes, Content).

The Content of a malformed/2 structure can include:

unparsed( CharData )
Text which has not been parsed
<Tag> is not closed

in addition to the parsed-term types.

Out-bound (Document -> Chars) parsing does require that Document defines well-formed XML. If an error is detected, a 'domain' exception is raised. The domain exception will attempt to identify the particular sub-term in error, and will list the ancestor elements of the sub-term in error as Tag{(Id)} terms - where Id is the value of any attribute named id.

The Controls applying to in-bound (Chars -> Document) parsing are:

Use the extended character entities for XHTML (default true).
Remove layouts when no non-layout character data appears between elements (default true).
Remove redundant prefixes from attributes - i.e. prefixes denoting the namespace of the parent element (default false).
Allow unescaped ampersand characters (&) to occur in PCDATA (default false).

For out-bound (Document -> Chars) parsing, the only available option is:

Indent the element content, (default true)


An atom naming an element
An atom, not naming an element
An atom giving the URI of a Namespace
A "string": list of character codes.
one of: public(CharData, CharData {, DTDLiterals}), system(CharData {, DTDLiterals}) or local{(DTDLiterals)}
A non-empty list of dtd_literal(CharData) terms - e.g. attribute-list declarations.
one of true or false

xml_subterm( +XMLTerm, ?Subterm )

unifies Subterm with a sub-term of XMLTerm. This can be especially useful when trying to test or retrieve a deeply-nested subterm from a document, as demonstrated in the XML Query Use Cases with examples. Note that XMLTerm is a sub-term of itself.

xml_pp( +XMLDocument )

"pretty prints" XMLDocument on the current output stream.


On this site, you can download the XML Module.

The module is also supplied as a library with the following Prologs:

XML Query Use Cases with provides examples of the ways that the code can be used.

Features of

The xml/2 data structure has some useful properties.


Using a native Prolog representation of XML, in which terms represent document 'nodes', makes the parser reusable for any XML application. In effect, encapsulates the application-independent tasks of document parsing and generation, which is essential where documents have components from more than one Namespace.

Same Structure

The Prolog term representing a document has the same structure as the document itself, which makes the correspondence between the literal representation of the Prolog term and the XML source readily apparent. For example, this simple SVG image:

<?xml version="1.0" standalone="no"?>
 <!DOCTYPE svg PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD SVG 1.0//EN" ""
     <!ENTITY redblue "fill: red; stroke: blue; stroke-width: 1">
 <svg xmlns="" width="500" height="500">
  <circle cx=" 25 " cy=" 25 " r=" 24 " style="&redblue;"/>

... translates into this Prolog term:

xml( [version="1.0", standalone="no"],
     doctype( svg, public( "-//W3C//DTD SVG 1.0//EN", "" ) ),
     namespace( '', "",
         element( svg,
             [width="500", height="500"],
             element( circle,
                 [cx="25", cy="25", r="24", style="fill: red; stroke: blue; stroke-width: 1"],
                 [] )
             ] )
     ] ).

Efficient Manipulation

Each type of node in an XML document is represented by a different Prolog functor, while data, (PCDATA, CDATA and Attribute Values), are left as "strings", (lists of character codes). The use of distinct functors for mark-up structures enables the efficient recursive traversal of a document, while leaving the data as strings facilitates the application-specific parsing of data content (aka Micro-parsing). For example, to turn every CDATA node into a PCDATA node with tabs expanded into spaces:

cdata_to_pcdata( cdata(CharsWithTabs), pcdata(CharsWithSpaces) ) :-
    tab_expansion( CharsWithTabs, CharsWithSpaces ).
cdata_to_pcdata( xml(Attributes, Content1), xml(Attributes, Content2) ) :-
    cdata_to_pcdata( Content1, Content2 ).
cdata_to_pcdata( namespace(URI,Pfx,Content1), namespace(URI,Pfx,Content2) ) :-
    cdata_to_pcdata( Content1, Content2 ).
cdata_to_pcdata( element(Name,Atts,Content1), element(Name,Atts,Content2) ) :-
    cdata_to_pcdata( Content1, Content2 ).
cdata_to_pcdata( [], [] ).
cdata_to_pcdata( [H1|T1], [H2|T2] ) :-
    cdata_to_pcdata( H1, H2 ),
    cdata_to_pcdata( T1, T2 ).
cdata_to_pcdata( pcdata(Chars), pcdata(Chars) ).
cdata_to_pcdata( comment(Chars), comment(Chars) ).
cdata_to_pcdata( instructions(Name, Chars), instructions(Name, Chars) ).
cdata_to_pcdata( doctype(Tag, DoctypeId), doctype(Tag, DoctypeId) ).

The above uses no 'cuts', but will not create any choice points with ground input.


The resolution of entity references and the decomposition of the document into distinct nodes means that the calling application is not concerned with the occasionally messy syntax of XML documents. For example, the clean separation of namespace nodes means that Namespaces, which are useful in combining specifications developed separately, have similar usefulness in combining applications developed separately.