Literate Haskell with Markdown and Syntax Highlighting

This post describes the scripts I (used to) use to turn a literate Haskell programme (with Markdown formatted literate comments) into HTML and PDFs using Pandoc. Posted by Thomas Sutton on December 8, 2008

There are two schools of thought when it comes to documenting programs and libraries: some embed fragments of code within the documentation (so called “literate programming”) and others embed fragments of documentation in their code (i.e. comments). The “comments” approach makes it easy to generate API documentation and the like (a feature built-in to Haskell’s Hackage system) but help me write blog posts and other documents containing code, which is where literate programming shines. Happily, Haskell supports both of these approaches and has a few rather useful tools available to make both easier. In this post, I’ll describe how to take literate Haskell with Markdown formatted text and produce syntax highlighted documents in HTML and PDF.

The basic idea of literate programming is that my document is a sequence of code “chunks” and documentation “chunks”. Haskell tools can ignore the documentation chunks when compiling the code and documentation tools can ignore or, hopefully, prettyify the code when preparing the document for publishing. The Haskell 98 report describes two ways to denote code chunks in a literate Haskell file: the TeX way and with “Bird tracks”. In the TeX way, each block of code is wrapped with TeX macros:

whereas with “Bird tracks” each code line begins with a >:

TeX style code chunks are excellent when my document is a TeX (common for academic papers), and “Bird tracks” are more convenient when I’m writing pretty much anything else (such as blog posts).

Markdown is a simple plain text syntax created by John Gruber designed to resemble the conventions of e-mail so the “Bird tracks” style of literate Haskell is a good fit. It’s reasonably simply to learn so I won’t bother to say any more about Markdown itself.

Once I’ve got some literate Haskell all documented in Markdown I’m ready to produce a document. The first step is to add syntax highlighting to the code chunks using hscolour. hscolour can generate its output in several formats, but we’ll use HTML with CSS styles. I’m a UNIX person, so I usually use hscolour as a filter:

This pipeline takes blah.lhs, performs syntax highlighting on it (interpreting it as literate Haskell), generates HTML for use with CSS and stores the result in blah.mkd. I’ve now got a file with with literate chunks untouched (they’re still Markdown) and the code chunks converted into HTML. The next step is to convert this Markdown+HTML file into “pure” HTML for publishing.

There are a few ways to convert Markdown into HTML: use the pandoc Haskell program, use the original markdown perl program, rely on your blogging software (many packages support PHP Markdown), etc. pandoc is a Haskell program, very fast, and can generate more than just HTML output, so I use it quite a bit. Again, I tend to use pandoc as a filter:

This pipeline takes blah.mkd, translates it from Markdown to HTML (both options are the implicit defaults) and puts the result into blah.html. It also uses fancy typography (-S), creates a complete document (‘-s’), includes a link to the hscolour.css stylesheet, and does not wrap the code. This last point is essential if the document contains hscolour output – if it does wrap the code, then the highlighted Haskell code will be displayed incorrectly.

I often combine both steps into a single pipeline:

Generating a PDF by way of LaTeX is simple – just change the output format for both hscolour and pandoc:

and then do whatever you normally do to get a PDF:

But I usually cram all of this into a Makefile:

And call make to sort it all out for me:

This post was published on December 8, 2008 and last modified on September 4, 2020. It is tagged with: haskell, literate programming, markdown, syntax, pandoc, latex.