Building The Conversation

Converting HTML to Markdown with Upmark

Here at The Conversation we run a Job Board that requires parsing a whole bunch of job descriptions in HTML and converting them to Markdown. When we originally built the Job Board we looked around for a HTML to Markdown converter library written in Ruby but unfortunately we couldn’t find one, so we built our own: Upmark.

Upmark allows you to easily convert HTML documents to Markdown format:

require "upmark"
html = "<p>messenger <strong>bag</strong> skateboard</p>"
markdown = Upmark.convert(html)
puts markdown
"messenger **bag** skateboard"

It can handle most HTML tags and anything that isn’t able to be converted to Markdown is passed through as HTML.

How does it work?

Upmark does all the heavy lifting using a parser transformer built using the excellent Parslet library. Parslet allows you to define a grammar in plain ruby that is used to parse a document into a syntax tree. The syntax tree can then be arbitrarily transformed, in our case it is transformed into a Markdown document.

The whole process looks something like this:

Author provided

Parse it!

The first phase of the process is parsing the input into a syntax tree. To parse a HTML document we first need to define a grammar. A grammar contains the individual rules for parsing the different parts of a document. Rules for parsing simpler elements can be combined together to parse more complex structures.

Parslet provides us with the Parslet::Parser class which we extend to define parser:

class MyParser < Parslet::Parser
  # all the rules go here
end

In the case of Upmark, we first define rules for parsing the more complex parts of a HTML document, like an element. The rule for parsing an element is then decomposed into rules for parsing tags and attributes. These rules are then further broken down into combinations of simpler rules for text, numbers, and whitespace.

Consider the following snippet of HTML:

<p>hello world!</p>
<img src="lol.gif" />
<ol>
  <li>one</li>
  <li>two</li>
  <li>three</li>
</ol>

This document is just a series of HTML elements, so the first rule we define might be:

rule(:element) do
  start_tag.as(:start_tag) >> # e.g. "<p>"
  children.as(:children) >>
  end_tag.as(:end_tag) # e.g. "</p>"
end

This rule says that in order to parse an element we need a start_tag, some children, and finally an end_tag. The as modifiers define how they are labelled in the resulting syntax tree.

Okay, so now what? Let’s break it down further and add the next rule to our parser. To parse a start_tag we need a < character, a name, zero or more attributes (separated by whitespace), some optional whitespace, and finally a > character.

rule(:start_tag) do
  str('<') >>
  name.as(:name) >>
  (space >> attribute).repeat.as(:attributes) >>
  space? >>
  str('>')
end

According to the XML spec, a name is just a string limited to a particular range of characters:

rule(:name) do
  match(/[a-zA-Z_:]/) >> match(/[\w:\.-]/).repeat
end

Here are the rules for parsing whitespace:

rule(:space) { match(/\s/).repeat(1) }
rule(:space?) { space.maybe }

I’ll leave defining the rules for parsing children and attributes as an exercise for the reader (or you can cheat and just look in the Upmark source code).

Finally, this is how we apply our parser to the input:

tree = MyParser.new.parse(html)

Once our parser is applied to a document, a syntax tree is generated.

Transform it!

The second phase of the whole process is to transform the syntax tree into some desired output. Parslet syntax trees are represented as an array of nested hashes. For example:

tree = [
  {
    element: {
      name: "img",
      attributes: [{name: "src", value: "http://example.com/lol.gif"}],
      children: []
    }
  }
]

Given the above syntax tree, let’s write a transform which traverses the syntax tree and converts it to Markdown. Again, Parslet makes transforming easier for us by providing the Parslet::Transform class to extend:

class MyTransform < Parslet::Transform
  rule(
      element: {
      name: "img",
      attributes: subtree(:attributes)
    }
  ) do |img|
    src = img[:attributes].find {|attribute| attribute["name"] == "src" }["value"]
    "![](#{src})"
  end
end

The MyTransform transform matches an img element with a subtree of attributes. It then plucks out the src attribute and returns the Markdown for an image.

This is how we apply the transform to the syntax tree:

markdown = MyTransform.new.apply(tree)
puts markdown
"![](http://example.com/lol.gif)"

Turtles all the way down

So how did we write a parser that converts an entire HTML document to Markdown? The answer is simple: it’s turtles all the way down. By combining multiple rules and transforms, we can break a big problem down into a series of smaller problems.

Hopefully this gives you some insight into how to write your own parser using Parslet, and if you happen to need a handy HTML to Markdown converter then please check out Upmark.

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