What’s the most common identifier in Go’s stdlib?

Francesc Campoy
Published in
4 min readDec 4, 2017


This is the blog post form for the latest justforfunc episode of the same title. And the code for the program can be found here, in the justforfunc repository.

In case you prefer to watch a video rather than reading a blog post ;)

Problem statement

Imagine you’ve been given this program below and you want to extract all of the identifiers in it.

“hello, world”

We should obtain a list containing main, fmt, and Println.

What is an identifier anyway?

In order to answer this we need to go a bit into language theory. Just a bit, do not worry.

Programming languages are defined, among other things, by a series of rules of what is a valid program. These rules look something like:

IfStmt = "if" [ SimpleStmt ";" ] Expression Block [ "else" ( IfStmt | Block ) ] .

This rule tells us what an if statement looks like in Go. The "if", ";", and "else" pieces are keywords that help us figure out the structure of the program, while Expression Block, SimpleStmt, etc are other rules.

The set of these rules is called a language grammar. You can find all of them in the Go language specification.

These rules are not defined on the characters of the program, instead they’re defined on tokens. These tokens are atoms like if or else, but also slightly more complex kinds such as integers 42, floats 4.2, strings "hello", or … identifiers like main.

But how do we know that main is an identifier and not a number? Well, there’s also rules for this. If you read the identifiers section of the Go specification, you’ll find this rule:

identifier = letter { letter | unicode_digit } .

In this rule, letter and unicode_digit do not represent tokens; they’re classes of characters. So given all of these rules, it is pretty straight-forward to write a program that goes character by character and each time it detects a group of them that matches a rule it just “emits” a token.

So if we start with: fmt.Println it would generate the tokens: fmt as an identifier, ., and Println as an identifier. Is this a function call? Well, at this point we do not know, and we do not care. The only structure is a sequence letting us in what order things appear.

Given a sequence of characters, a scanner generates a sequence of tokens.

This kind of program that given a sequence of characters generates a sequence of tokens is called a scanner. The Go standard library comes with a scanner for Go programs in go/scanner. The kinds of tokens it generates are defined in go/token.

Using go/scanner

Ok, so now that we understand what a scanner is. How do we use it?

Reading arguments from the command line

Let’s start with this simple program that simply prints all of the arguments given when executing it. We’ll go from there.

Printing all of the arguments from the command line.

Next we need to scan every one of the files given as arguments. To do this we will need to create a new scanner.Scanner and initialize it with the contents of the file.

Printing each token

Before we can call the Init method in scanner.Scanner we will read the file contents and create a token.FileSet holding a token.File per file we scan.

Once the scanner has been initialized we can call Scan and print the token we obtain. Once we reach the end of the file scanned, we will obtain an EOF (End Of File) token.

Printing all of the tokens we scan.

Counting tokens

Great, so we’re able to print all tokens, but we need to keep track of how many times we see each identifier, sort them by how many times we saw them, and print the top 5.

In Go, the best way to do so is to use a map where the key will be the identifier, and the value how many times it’s been seen so far.

Each time we see an identifier, we need to increment its counter. Finally, at the end, we convert the map into a slice of pairs, which we can sort and print.

Some code has been removed for clarity, but the full source code can be found here, in the justforfunc repository.

So what’s the most common identifier?

Let’s run the program giving with the contents of github.com/golang/go.

$ go install github.com/campoy/justforfunc/24-ast/scanner
$ scanner ~/go/src/**/*.go
82163 v
46584 err
44681 Args
43371 t
37717 x

Ok, so the most used identifier is v, talk about short identifiers! Let’s count only those identifiers that are three characters or longer, by modifying the code above a bit:

for s, n := range counts {
if len(s) >= 3 {
pairs = append(pairs, pair{s, n})

And run it again:

$ go install github.com/campoy/justforfunc/24-ast/scanner
$ scanner ~/go/src/**/*.go
46584 err
44681 Args
36738 nil
25761 true
21723 AddArg

Nothing too surprising here, err and nil are present in basically every single program that does if err != nil. What about Args, though?

That’s a topic for a next episode.


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Francesc Campoy

VP of Product at Dgraph 🏳️‍🌈 Catalan