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  1. JDK
  2. JDK-8316039

JEP 467: Markdown Documentation Comments

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Details

    • JEP
    • Resolution: Unresolved
    • P2
    • None
    • tools
    • None
    • Feature
    • Open
    • JDK
    • javadoc dash dev at openjdk dot org
    • 467

    Description

      Summary

      Enable JavaDoc documentation comments to be written in Markdown rather than solely in a mixture of HTML and JavaDoc @-tags.

      Goals

      • Make API documentation comments easier to write and easier to read in source form by introducing the ability to use Markdown syntax in documentation comments, alongside HTML elements and JavaDoc tags.

      • Do not adversely affect the interpretation of existing documentation comments.

      • Extend the Compiler Tree API to enable other tools that analyze documentation comments to handle Markdown content in those comments.

      Non-Goals

      • It is not a goal to enable automated conversion of existing documentation comments to Markdown syntax.

      Motivation

      Documentation comments are stylized comments appearing in source code, near to the declarations that they serve to document. Documentation comments in Java source code use a combination of HTML and custom JavaDoc tags to mark up the text.

      The choice of HTML for a markup language was reasonable in 1995. HTML is powerful, standardized, and was very popular at the time. But while it is no less popular today as a markup language consumed by web browsers, in the years since 1995 HTML has become much less popular as markup that is manually produced by humans because it is tedious to write and hard to read. These days it is more commonly generated from some other markup language that is more suitable for humans. Because HTML is tedious to write, nicely-formatted documentation comments are also tedious to write, and even more tedious since many new developers are not fluent in HTML due to its decline as a human-produced format.

      Inline JavaDoc tags, such as {@link} and {@code}, are also cumbersome and are even less familiar to developers, often requiring the author to consult the documentation for their usage. A recent analysis of the documentation comments in the JDK source code showed that over 95% of the uses of inline tags were for code fragments and links to elsewhere in the documentation, suggesting that simpler forms of these constructs would be welcome.

      Markdown is a popular markup language for simple documents that is easy to read, easy to write, and easily transformed into HTML. Documentation comments are typically not complicated structured documents, and for the constructs that typically appear in documentation comments, such as paragraphs, lists, styled text, and links, Markdown provides simpler forms than HTML. For those constructs that Markdown does not directly support, Markdown allows the use of HTML as well.

      Introducing the ability to use Markdown in documentation comments would bring together the best of both worlds. It would allow concise syntax for the most common constructs and reduce the need for HTML markup and JavaDoc tags, while retaining the ability to use specialized tags for features not available in Markdown. It would make it easier to write and easier to read documentation comments in source code, while retaining the ability to generate the same sort of generated API documentation as before.

      Description

      As an example of the use of Markdown in a documentation comment, consider the comment for java.lang.Object.hashCode:

      /**
       * Returns a hash code value for the object. This method is
       * supported for the benefit of hash tables such as those provided by
       * {@link java.util.HashMap}.
       * <p>
       * The general contract of {@code hashCode} is:
       * <ul>
       * <li>Whenever it is invoked on the same object more than once during
       *     an execution of a Java application, the {@code hashCode} method
       *     must consistently return the same integer, provided no information
       *     used in {@code equals} comparisons on the object is modified.
       *     This integer need not remain consistent from one execution of an
       *     application to another execution of the same application.
       * <li>If two objects are equal according to the {@link
       *     #equals(Object) equals} method, then calling the {@code
       *     hashCode} method on each of the two objects must produce the
       *     same integer result.
       * <li>It is <em>not</em> required that if two objects are unequal
       *     according to the {@link #equals(Object) equals} method, then
       *     calling the {@code hashCode} method on each of the two objects
       *     must produce distinct integer results.  However, the programmer
       *     should be aware that producing distinct integer results for
       *     unequal objects may improve the performance of hash tables.
       * </ul>
       *
       * @implSpec
       * As far as is reasonably practical, the {@code hashCode} method defined
       * by class {@code Object} returns distinct integers for distinct objects.
       *
       * @return  a hash code value for this object.
       * @see     java.lang.Object#equals(java.lang.Object)
       * @see     java.lang.System#identityHashCode
       */

      The same comment can be written by expressing its structure and styling in Markdown, with no use of HTML and just a few JavaDoc inline tags:

      /// Returns a hash code value for the object. This method is
      /// supported for the benefit of hash tables such as those provided by
      /// [java.util.HashMap].
      ///
      /// The general contract of `hashCode` is:
      ///
      ///   - Whenever it is invoked on the same object more than once during
      ///     an execution of a Java application, the `hashCode` method
      ///     must consistently return the same integer, provided no information
      ///     used in `equals` comparisons on the object is modified.
      ///     This integer need not remain consistent from one execution of an
      ///     application to another execution of the same application.
      ///   - If two objects are equal according to the
      ///     [equals]equals(Object) method, then calling the
      ///     `hashCode` method on each of the two objects must produce the
      ///     same integer result.
      ///   - It is _not_ required that if two objects are unequal
      ///     according to the [equals]equals(Object) method, then
      ///     calling the `hashCode` method on each of the two objects
      ///     must produce distinct integer results.  However, the programmer
      ///     should be aware that producing distinct integer results for
      ///     unequal objects may improve the performance of hash tables.
      ///
      /// @implSpec
      /// As far as is reasonably practical, the `hashCode` method defined
      /// by class `Object` returns distinct integers for distinct objects.
      ///
      /// @return  a hash code value for this object.
      /// @see     java.lang.Object#equals(java.lang.Object)
      /// @see     java.lang.System#identityHashCode

      (For the purpose of this example, cosmetic changes such as reflowing the text are deliberately avoided, to aid in before-and-after comparison.)

      Key differences to observe:

      • The use of Markdown is indicated by a new form of documentation comment in which each line begins with /// instead of the current /** ... */ syntax.

      • The HTML <p> element is not required; a blank line indicates a paragraph break.

      • The HTML <ul> and <li> elements are replaced by Markdown bullet-list markers, using - to indicate the beginning of each item in the list.

      • The HTML <em> element is replaced by using underscores (_) to indicate the font change.

      • Instances of the {@code ...} tag are replaced by backticks (`...`) to indicate the monospace font.

      • Instances of {@link ...} to link to other program elements are replaced by extended forms of Markdown reference links.

      • Instances of block tags, such as @implSpec, @return, and @see, are generally unaffected except that the content of these tags is now also in Markdown, for example here in the backticks of the @implSpec tag.

      Here is a screenshot highlighting the differences between the two versions, side by side:

      Syntax

      Markdown documentation comments are written in the CommonMark variant of Markdown. There are enhancements to links, to allow convenient linking to other program elements. Simple GFM pipe tables are supported, as are all JavaDoc tags.

      Links

      You can create a link to an element declared elsewhere in your API by using an extended form of Markdown reference link, in which the label for the reference is derived from a standard JavaDoc reference to the element itself.

      To create a simple link whose text is derived from the identity of the element, simply enclose a reference to the element in square brackets. For example, to link to java.util.List, you can write [java.util.List], or just [List] if there is an import statement for java.util.List in the code. The text of the link will be displayed in the monospace font. The link is equivalent to using the standard JavaDoc {@link ...} tag.

      You can link to any kind of program element:

      /// - a module [java.base/]
      /// - a package [java.util]
      /// - a class [String]
      /// - a field String#CASE_INSENSITIVE_ORDER
      /// - a method String#chars()

      To create a link with alternative text, use the form [text][element]. For example, to create a link to java.util.List with the text a list, you can write [a list][List]. The link will be displayed in the current font, although you can use formatting markup within the text. The link is equivalent to using the standard JavaDoc {@linkplain ...} tag.

      For example:

      /// - [the `java.base` module][java.base/]
      /// - [the `java.util` package][java.util]
      /// - [a class][String]
      /// - [a field]String#CASE_INSENSITIVE_ORDER
      /// - [a method]String#chars()

      In reference links, you must escape any use of square brackets. This might occur in a reference to a method with an array parameter; for example, a link to String.copyValueOf(char[]) is written as [String#copyValueOf(char\[\])].

      You can use all other forms of Markdown links, including links to URLs, but links to other program elements are likely to be the most common.

      Tables

      Simple tables are supported, using the syntax of GitHub Flavored Markdown. For example:

      /// | Latin | Greek |
      /// |-------|-------|
      /// | a     | alpha |
      /// | b     | beta  |
      /// | c     | gamma |

      Captions and other features that may be required for accessibility are not supported. In such situations, the use of HTML tables is still recommended.

      JavaDoc tags

      JavaDoc tags, both inline tags such as {@inheritDoc} and

      block<br /> tags

      such as @param and @return, may be used in Markdown documentation comments:

      /// {@inheritDoc}
      /// In addition, this methods calls wait().
      ///
      /// @param i the index
      public void m(int i) ...

      JavaDoc tags may not be used within literal text, such as code spans (`...`) or code blocks, that is, blocks of text that are either indented or enclosed within fences such as ``` or ~~~. In other words, the character sequences @... and {@...} have no special meaning within code spans and code blocks:

      /// The following code span contains literal text, and not a JavaDoc tag:
      /// `{@inheritDoc}`
      ///
      /// In the following indented code block, `@Override` is an annotation,
      /// and not a JavaDoc tag:
      ///
      ///     @Override
      ///     public void m() ...
      ///
      /// Likewise, in the following fenced code block, `@Override` is an annotation,
      /// and not a JavaDoc tag:
      ///
      /// ```
      /// @Override
      /// public void m() ...
      /// ```

      For those tags that may contain text with markup, in a Markdown documentation comment that markup is also in Markdown:

      /// @param the list, or `null` if no list is available

      The <code class="prettyprint" data-shared-secret="1709532123413-0.45852181868212427">{@inheritDoc}</code> tag incorporates documentation for a method from one or more supertypes. The format of the comment containing the tag does not need to be the same as the format of the comment containing the documentation to be inherited:

      interface Base {
          /** A method. */
          void m()
      }
      
      class Derived implements Base {
          /// {@inheritDoc}
          public void m() { }
      }

      User-defined JavaDoc tags may be used in Markdown documentation comments. For example, in the JDK documentation we define and use {@jls ...} as a short form for links to the Java Language Specification, and block tags such as @implSpec and @implNote to introduce sections of particular information:

      /// For more information on comments, see {@jls 3.7 Comments}.
      ///
      /// @implSpec
      /// This implementation does nothing.
      public void doSomething() { }

      Standalone Markdown files

      Markdown files in doc-files subdirectories are processed appropriately, in a similar manner to HTML files in such directories. JavaDoc tags in such files are processed. The page title is inferred from the first heading. YAML metadata, such as that supported by the Pandoc Markdown processor, is not supported.

      The file containing the content for the generated top-level overview page may also be a Markdown file.

      Syntax highlighting and embedded languages

      The opening fence in a fenced code block may be followed by an

      <em>info<br /> string</em>

      . The first word of the info string is used to derive the CSS class name in the corresponding generated HTML, and may also be used by JavaScript libraries to enable syntax highlighting (such as with Prism) and rendering diagrams (such as with Mermaid).

      For example, in conjunction with the appropriate libraries, this would display a fragment of CSS code with syntax highlighting:

      /// ```css
      /// p { color: red }
      /// ```

      You can add JavaScript libraries to your documentation by using the javadoc <code class="prettyprint" data-shared-secret="1709532123413-0.45852181868212427">--add-script</code> option.

      Syntactical details

      Because horizontal whitespace at the beginning and end of each line of Markdown text may be significant, the content of a Markdown documentation comment is determined as follows:

      • Any leading whitespace and the three initial / characters are removed from each line.

      • The lines are shifted left, by removing leading whitespace characters, until the non-blank line with the least leading whitespace has no remaining leading whitespace.

      • Additional leading whitespace and any trailing whitespace in each line is preserved, because it may be significant. For example, whitespace at the beginning of a line may indicate an indented code block or the continuation of a list item, and whitespace at the end of a line may indicate a hard line break.

      (The policy to remove leading incidental whitespace is similar to that for String.stripIndent(), except that there is no need for any special treatment for a trailing blank line.)

      There are no restrictions on the characters that may appear after the /// on each line of the comment. In particular, the comment may contain code samples which may contain comments of their own:

      /// Here is an example:
      ///
      /// ```
      /// /** Hello World! */
      /// public class HelloWorld {
      ///     public static void main(String... args) {
      ///         System.out.println("Hello World!"); // the traditional example
      ///     }
      /// }
      /// ```

      As well as serving to visually distinguish the new kind of documentation comment, the use of end-of-line (//) comments eliminates the restrictions on the content of the comment that are inherent with the use of traditional (/* ... */) comments. In particular, it is not possible to use the character sequence */ within a traditional comment (JLS §3.7) although it may be desirable to do so when writing example code containing traditional comments, strings containing glob expressions, and strings containing regular expressions.

      For a blank line to be included in the comment, it must begin with any optional whitespace and then ///:

      /// This is an example ...
      ///
      /// ... of a 3-line comment containing a blank line.

      A completely blank line will cause any preceding and following comment to be treated as separate comments. In that case, all but the last comment will be discarded, and only the last comment will be considered as a documentation comment for any declaration that may follow:

      /// This comment will be treated as a "dangling comment" and will be ignored.
      
      /// This is the comment for the following declaration.
      public void m() { }

      The same is true for any other comment not beginning with /// that may appear between two /// comments.

      API and implementation

      Parsed documentation comments are represented by elements of the <code class="prettyprint" data-shared-secret="1709532123413-0.45852181868212427">com.sun.source.doctree</code> package in the

      Compiler Tree<br /> API

      .

      We introduce a new type of tree node, RawTextTree, which contains uninterpreted text, together with a new tree-node kind, DocTree.Kind.MARKDOWN, which indicates Markdown content in a RawTextTree. We add corresponding new visitRawText methods to DocTreeVisitor and its subtypes, DocTreeScanner and DocTreePathScanner.

      RawTextTree nodes with a kind of MARKDOWN represent Markdown content, including HTML constructs but excluding any JavaDoc tags such as {@inheritDoc} and @param.

      Markdown text is processed in two phases:

      1. Parsing — Markdown comments are parsed into a sequence of RawTextTree nodes, each with a kind of DocTree.Kind.MARKDOWN and containing Markdown content, interspersed with standard DocTree nodes for inline and block tags. The inline and block tags are parsed in the same way as for traditional documentation comments, except that tag content is also parsed as Markdown. The sequence of nodes is stored in a DocCommentTree node, in the normal manner.

        Unlike a traditional documentation comment, HTML constructs are not parsed into corresponding DocTree nodes, because too much of the surrounding context needs to be taken into account.

        The Markdown content in the DocCommentTree resulting from the initial parse is then examined for any reference links with no associated link reference definition, and for which the

        link<br /> label

        syntactically matches a reference to a program element. Any such link is replaced by an equivalent node representing either {@link ...} or {@linkplain ...}.

      2. Rendering — The DocCommentTree is rendered by the javadoc tool into HTML that is suitable for inclusion in the page being generated.

        Any sequence of RawTextTree nodes and other nodes is converted into a single string containing the text of the RawTextTree nodes with the Unicode OBJECT REPLACEMENT CHARACTER (U+FFFC) standing in for non-Markdown content. The resulting string is rendered by the Markdown processor and then the U+FFFC characters are replaced in the resulting output by the rendered forms of the non-Markdown content nodes.

        While most of the rendering is straightforward, special attention is given to Markdown headings:

        • The heading level is adjusted according to the enclosing context. This applies whether the heading was initially written in the documentation comment as an ATX-style heading (using a prefix of # characters to indicate the level) or as a

          Setext-style<br /> heading

          (using underlining with = or - to indicate the level).

          For example, a level 1 heading in the documentation comment for a module, package, or class is rendered as a level 2 heading in the generated page, while a level 1 heading in the documentation comment for a field, constructor, or method is rendered as a level 4 heading in the generated page.

          This adjustment applies only to Markdown headings, not to any direct use of HTML headings.

        • An id identifier attribute is included in the rendered HTML so that the heading can easily be referenced from elsewhere. The identifier is generated from the content of the heading, in the same manner as other identifiers generated by javadoc. (You can easily obtain a link to the heading by clicking on the popup link icon when viewing the heading in a browser.)

        • The text of the heading is added to the main search index for the generated documentation.

      The implementation leverages an internal copy of the well-known commonmark-java library. By design, the use of the library is not revealed in any public supported JDK API.

      Future Work

      It would be possible to detect some stylized uses of headings followed by appropriate content and convert them into equivalent JavaDoc tags.

      For example, a heading of Parameters followed by a list of parameter names and their descriptions could be converted into equivalent @param tags:

      • Comment

        # Parameters

        • x the x coordinate
        • y the y coordinate
      • Translation

        @param x the x coordinate @param y the y coordinate

      A similar policy could be adopted for the list of exceptions that may be thrown by a method:

      • Comment

        # Throws

        • NullPointerException if the first parameter is null
        • NullPointerException if the second parameter is null
        • IllegalArgumentException if an argument is not accepted
      • Translation

        @throws NullPointerException if the first parameter is null @throws NullPointerException if the second parameter is null @throws IllegalArgumentException if an argument is not accepted

      There should only ever be a single description of the return value for a method, so there is no need to use a list in this case:

      • Comment

        # Returns

        the square root of the argument

      • Translation

        @return the square root of the argument

      The proposed forms do look like normal Markdown, but they also take up more vertical space. Developers may prefer to stay with the more concise forms, using old-style JavaDoc tags.

      It may be difficult to extend this strategy to all block tags, including user-specified tags, but in the JDK code base just five tags (@param, @return, @see, @throws, and @since) account for over 90% of all uses of block tags.

      Alternatives

      Pluggable implementation

      Instead of leveraging a specific Markdown parser implementation, we could instead support the use of other user-specified Markdown processors, providing different flavors of Markdown. However, such an approach could lead to inconsistencies when generating documentation spanning different libraries for little perceived gain.

      Translating more Markdown to HTML

      We could translate additional Markdown constructs into equivalent DocTree nodes, representing plain text, HTML, and JavaDoc tags. While such an approach would have the advantage that API clients may not need to be aware that the original source for the comment was in Markdown, there are also a number of disadvantages:

      • The more removed the representation is from the original syntax tree, the harder it is to give accurate and relevant diagnostics, should any be necessary. For example, messages about a synthetic <table> element may be confusing if there is no such item explicitly in the original comment.

      • When synthesizing DocTree nodes for HTML elements derived from Markdown constructs, it is difficult to give accurate position information that relates the node back to its position in the original comment, since the node has no representation in the original comment. At best, you can give a nearby position. This problem has an analog in the Java compiler, javac, when assigning positions for synthetic elements such as the default no-args constructor, or for bridge methods.

      • A general solution is difficult because it would require knowledge of any and all of the JavaDoc tags that may be involved, because many tags permit rich content, such as Markdown or HTML, as part but not all of their content.

        For example, the @param tag is followed by a parameter name before the description, and the name may be enclosed in <...> if the name is that of a type parameter. It would be wrong to interpret that name as a fragment of HTML. Likewise, the @serialField tag is followed by a name and a type before the description. While these are standard tags known to the standard doclet, the doclet also allows the use of user-defined tags.

      Inline tags

      While the uses of most block tags could be replaced by stylized use of headings and ensuing content, there is no such equivalent for most of the less common inline tags. Of these, {@inheritDoc} is the most common, and there is no obvious analog in Markdown. Rather than invent an alternative syntax for the sake of it, it seems better to continue with the existing inline tag syntax.

      Markdown in /**...*/ comments

      We could parse Markdown embedded in traditional /**...*/ comments instead of, or in addition to, introducing /// comments.

      This is untenable, however, because Markdown and HTML are different languages with different syntax rules. In HTML, whitespace is only significant as literal text in a <pre> element. In Markdown, by contrast, vertical whitespace may indicate a paragraph break, leading horizontal whitespace may indicate an indented code block or a nested list, and trailing whitespace may indicate a hard line break, equivalent to <br> in HTML. Additionally, there are numerous examples in the JDK code of square brackets in narrative text, which would risk being interpreted as links to program elements; for example, The information is returned as a two-dimensional array (array[x][y]).

      Configurable comment styles

      We could build a configurable system that accepts some /** ... */ documentation comments in Markdown and others in HTML. It is not clear, however, that such a mechanism would have any significant advantage over the more overt use of /// comments for comments in Markdown and the continued use of /** ... */ for comments in HTML.

      Risks and Assumptions

      • The implementation employs a third-party library, commonmark-java, to transform Markdown to HTML. If that library becomes unmaintained then we will have to maintain a fork of the library for use in the JDK, or else find an equivalent alternative.

      • There is a risk of more errors in generated API documentation, because of the reduced ability to check for bad code, and because authors sometimes forget to check the generated form of their documentation.

        For example, in a traditional comment a paragraph containing an unterminated code tag such as {@code abc will cause a diagnostic message to be displayed when JavaDoc is invoked, and will be displayed in the generated documentation as ▶ invalid @code In Markdown, the equivalent unclosed code span `abc is specified to be treated as literal text, and will be displayed as such, with no corresponding diagnostic messages.

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              jjg Jonathan Gibbons
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              Jonathan Gibbons Jonathan Gibbons
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                Created:
                Updated: