Writing a CLI Parser

C# offers a wide range of command line interface (CLI) parsers as NuGet packages. The package commandlineparser has sparked joy for a long time, but recently I've been looking for something different. I could have tried one of several other CLI parsers (such as the prerelease package System.Commandline), but in the end I decided to write my own. Just for fun. Chunkyard only had one package dependency left anyway, so why not decrement that number once more?

The starting point for this little side-project came after I read the first half of Crafting Interpreters by Robert Nystrom. It gave me the courage to tinker with my own implementation. In the end I wrote just enough code to handle the use cases that I actually need.


One of Chunkyard's command is store, which is used to create a snapshot/backup of a set of directories and/or files:

# Create a backup of a single directory
chunkyard store --repository ~/Chunkyard --paths ~/Music

# Create a backup of multiple directories
chunkyard store --repository ~/Chunkyard --paths ~/Music ~/Videos

# Show what Chunkyard would do without any action
chunkyard store --repository ~/Chunkyard --paths ~/Music ~/Videos --preview


Chunkyard's new parser works like this:

  • Take a set of arguments (string[] args) and transform them into a semi structured representation described by the Args class
  • Try to find a command parser based on Args
  • Transform Args into another type which encapsulates a particular command
  • Call a command handler based on the given type

The simplified definition of the store command example above looks like this:

public sealed class StoreCommand
    public StoreCommand(
        string repository,
        IReadOnlyCollection<string> paths,
        bool preview)
        Repository = repository;
        Paths = paths;
        Preview = preview;

    public string Repository { get; }

    public IReadOnlyCollection<string> Paths { get; }

    public bool Preview { get; }

Language Specification

Command line tools come with all sorts of different input methods, ranging from positional arguments, commands (also called verbs), flags to arguments or pipeline operations. To make things easier I decided to limit the "language specification" as much as possible. All Chunkyard commands follow this shape:

# Command with a boolean flag
chunkyard some-command --flag

# Command with a list flag
chunkard some-command --flag element1 element2

# Command with several flags
chunkard some-command --flag1 --flag2 some-value --flag3 another-value and-another-value

This simplification means that we can represent a list of arguments as a structure consisting of a command name and a dictionary (map) of flags:

public sealed class Args
    public Args(
        string command,
        IReadOnlyDictionary<string, IReadOnlyCollection<string>> flags)
        Command = command;
        Flags = flags;

    public string Command { get; }

    public IReadOnlyDictionary<string, IReadOnlyCollection<string>> Flags { get; }

Args represents semi-structured data. At this point we don't know if the command a user wants to invoke is actually available or if all its parameters are satisfied. We only know that the user input is valid according to the language specification.


Our next step is to use Args to find a specific parser. In our example above we would want to use a StoreCommandParser. I am using a small interface to define all command parsers:

public interface ICommandParser
    string Command { get; }

    string Info { get; }

    object Parse(FlagConsumer consumer);

FlagConsumer is a helper class which contains Args. We will talk more about it in the following section.

The "main parser" has this structure:

public sealed class CommandParser
    private readonly IReadOnlyCollection<ICommandParser> _parsers;

    public CommandParser(params ICommandParser[] parsers)
        _parsers = parsers;

    public object Parse(params string[] args)
        // - Turn args into an instance of Args
        // - Find a matching ICommandParser
        // - Put Args in an instance of FlagConsumer
        // - Pass FlagConsumer to an ICommandParser
        // - Return the output of ICommandParser

This looks easy and neat, but things usually turn messy when we incorporate error handling. Let's take a look at a few error examples:

  • Arguments do not follow the language specification
  • A user wants to call the command foo which does not exist
  • The store command is missing required flags
  • A command is called with unrecognized/unknown flags

In case of an error our CLI tool can provide two ways to help:

  • Inform a user which commands are available
  • Give specific information about a single command, including its flags and default values

The cool thing is that we can solve all these issues with another command that we will call HelpCommand. A HelpCommand encapsulates all errors as well as general or specific command information.


I mentioned in the last section that every command has its own ICommandParser. Naturally we want to write as little code as possible in each parser. This is where the FlagConsumer class comes into play. It keeps track of which flags have been consumed/parsed, handles type conversion and also keeps track of all errors that occurred. A parser for the above StoreCommand could look like this:

public sealed class StoreCommandParser : ICommandParser
    public string Command => "store";

    public string Info => "Store a new snapshot";

    public object Parse(FlagConsumer consumer)
        if (consumer.TryString("--repository", "The repository path", out repository)
            & consumer.TryStrings("--paths", "The files and directories to store", out var paths)
            & consumer.TryBool("--preview", "Show only a preview", out var preview))
            return new StoreCommand(repository, paths, preview);
            return consumer.Help;

There are few things to note in the above snippet:

  • A parser contains all usage information
  • We are using out variables to capture parsed flags. A lot of developers don't like the TryX pattern, but I think it's really handy in a situation like this. Functional languages solve these kinds of problems using a technique called applicative functors
  • The usage of & instead of && allows FlagConsumer to collect more than a single error message
  • Our parser returns a HelpCommand provided by FlagConsumer in case the parsing operation fails


The final part of this side-project is to perform the intend behind a command. In the beginning I wanted to solve this problem using a visitor pattern, but since I wanted the parsing code to be reusable between projects, I was not able pull this off. Instead I have settled on the following snippet:

public static class CommandHandler
    public static void Store(StoreCommand c)
        // ...

    public static void Help(HelpCommand c)
        // ...

public static class Program
    public static void Main(string[] args)
        var parser = new CommandParser(
            new StoreCommandParser());

        var command = parser.Parse(args);

        Handle<StoreCommand>(command, CommandHandler.Store);
        Handle<HelpCommand>(command, CommandHandler.Help);

    private static void Handle<T>(object obj, Action<T> handler)
        if (obj is T t)


And we are done! While my own implementation is not as neat or feature rich as other solutions, I am happy with what I have created. A CLI parser is a much easier problem than writing a parser for your own language, but it still gave me plenty opportunities to experiment and learn.

You can find the full implementation of the Chunkard.Cli namespace (and its test cases) here.

Published: 2023-07-29