Choosing a proper parser in ctags

Universal-ctags has multiple ways to guess the language of input files.

Modeline based parser selection

Exuberant-ctags has the ability to choose a proper parser based on shebang lines (e.g. #!/bin/sh).

Editors like Vim and Emacs recognize special patterns in files called modelines. These lines are inserted by a user of the text editor and can be used to set the file type (Vim) or mode (Emacs).

Universal-ctags also recognizes these modelines and selects a language parser based on them if --guess-language-eagerly (or -G) is given.

ctags recognizes the following patterns used in Emacs:

  • at the head of the input file or at the line after the shebang line:

    -*- mode: MODE; -*-


    -*- MODE -*-
  • at the end of input file:

    Local Variables:
    mode: MODE

ctags recognizes the following patterns used in Vim:

  • at the end of input file:

    vim:set filetype=SYNTAX


    ex:se ft=SYNTAX

ctags recognizes the following patterns and matches the input file as a Z-Shell script:

  • at the head of input file:



    #compdef ....

NOTE: This feature comes with a performance hit; it opens the input file once to detect the file type and a second time to process the file with the detected parser. For this reason, this feature is enabled only if the --guess-language-eagerly option is used. This option can be placed in the .ctags file to have this feature always enabled.

Better parser selection for template files

The suffix .in is popularly used for template files. A well-known example is used in GNU Autotools.

Consider an input file name In this case the suffix indicates nothing about the language used in the input file. So, in order to select the appropriate parser, ctags first removes the suffix .in and then matches against the new filename suffix .c.

Specialized language selectors

In some cases, a special function may be used to figure out which parser to choose. (For example, Perl 6 files may have extension .pm, just like Perl files do.) To implement such selector, set selectLanguage in each of the possibly conflicting parsers to the same selection function (which you are to implement). By convention, the function should begin with “selectBy”. Then, if there is more than one parser candidate for a file and they all have selectLanguage set to the same selector function, this function will be called to pick the language.

Dry running

The parser selector of ctags can be tested with --print-language. e.g.:

$ ./ctags --print-language main.c
main.c: C

If no parser is selected, NONE is printed as the parser name.

Guessing from keywords

Not implemented.

Some parsers have a keywords table. We can utilize these to guess the language of input files.