Xtext Hint: Identifiers conflicting with keywords

By default it is not possible to use identifiers for naming elements with a name that collides with a DSL's keyword. In regular programming languages this is also not possible. For example, it is not allowed in Java to name a variable, field or other element class, since it is a reserved verb.

This article shows a pattern that allows to use keywords as identifiers. The source code for this example is available in our GitHub repository.

In general, it is recommended to avoid situations like the one pictured above by designing a DSL in a way that it is clear where a keyword is used and that is unlikely to come to such conflicts. One way to minimize the chance for conflicts is to have a DSL which only uses few keywords. The more verbose a DSL is and the more keywords are used, the higher the chance for conflicts is.

To circumvent this issue, Xtext allows to resolve such name collisions by prefixing an identifier with the caret character ^. However, this looks often disturbing in a DSL model, and we have seen several DSLs where it is desired to use identifiers which are named like keywords in the DSL.

So how do we come around to using keywords as identifiers without running into problems?

Example DSL

As an example we create a small DSL that allows to define Datatypes and Entities:

grammar org.xtext.example.Keywords with org.eclipse.xtext.common.Terminals

generate keywords "http://www.xtext.org/example/Keywords"


Type: DataType | Entity;

    'Type' name=ID

    'Entity' name=ID

The DSL defines the keywords Type and Entity, which are followed by the type's name in the DSL code. This allows to define types with any name, but a type named Entity leads to an error:


The conflict is resolved by prefixing the name with ^:


But that is not what we want. It is required that the previous DSL code is valid. Now let's see how we can achieve this.

Grammar Modification

The main trick to achieve this is not to use the terminal rule ID for the name attributes directly. Instead, we define a datatype rule ValidID which allows to use an ID or any keyword. For the list of keywords an additional datatype rule KEYWORD is introduced. The list could be declared directly in ValidID alternatively.

The modified grammar looks now like this:


    'Type' name=ValidID

    'Entity' name=ValidID


KEYWORD: 'Type'|'Entity';

After regenerating the DSL's implementation, the desired text becomes valid code.


But we still have one problem left: the identifier is now highlighted like a keyword.

Syntax Coloring

The identifier Entity is highlighted like a keyword by the Lexical Highlighting. To correct the highlighting in these situations we have to customize the Semantic Hightlighting for the DSL.

To do so, we create a class KeywordsSemanticHighlightingCalculator.xtend which subclasses the default implementation DefaultSemanticHighlightingCalculator. The class is placed in the DSL's .ide project, since the highlighting computation is independend of the concrete UI integration. In this class the method highlightElement is overloaded and assigns the DEFAULT_ID style to the name feature:

class KeywordsSemanticHighlightingCalculator extends DefaultSemanticHighlightingCalculator {
    @Inject package KeywordsGrammarAccess grammar

    override protected boolean highlightElement(EObject object, IHighlightedPositionAcceptor acceptor,
        CancelIndicator cancelIndicator) {
        switch (object) {
            Type: {
                highlightFeature(acceptor, object, KeywordsPackage.eINSTANCE.type_Name, HighlightingStyles.DEFAULT_ID)
                return true
            default: false

The new class has to be registered in the DSL's UI module:

class KeywordsUiModule extends AbstractKeywordsUiModule {
    def Class<? extends ISemanticHighlightingCalculator> bindISemanticHighlightingCalculator () {

With this modification the DSL code now looks as it should:



A DSL should be designed to avoid conflicts of identifiers with keywords, but sometimes is required to allow it. This requires to use a datatype rule instead of using directly the ID terminal rule. Further a customization to the semantic hightlighting is required.

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About The Author

Karsten is a software architect at itemis and part of the Xtext team. He strongly believes that Model Driven Software Development helps to be more efficient in mission critical projects.