NGLess Language

This document describes the NGLess language.


Tokenization follows the standard C-family rules. A word is anything that matches [A-Za-z_]. The language is case-sensitive. All files are assumed to be in UTF-8.

Both LF and CRLF are accepted as line endings (Unix-style LF is preferred).

A semicolon (;) can be used as an alternative to a new line. Any spaces (and only space characters) following a semicolon are ignored. This feature is intended for inline scripts at the command line (passed with the -e option), its use for scripts is heavily discouraged and may trigger an error in the future.

Script-style (# to EOL), C-style (/* to */) and C++-style (// to EOL) comments are all recognised. Comments are effectively removed prior to any further parsing as are empty lines.

Strings are denoted with single or double quotes and standard backslashed escapes apply (\n for newline, ...).

A symbol is denoted as a token surrounded by curly braces (e.g., {symbol} or {gene}).

Integers are specified as decimals [0-9]+ or as hexadecimals 0x[0-9a-fA-F]+.

Version declaration

The first line (ignoring comments and empty lines) of an NGLess file MUST be a version declaration:

ngless "0.9"

Module Import Statements

Following the version statement, optional import statements are allowed, using the syntax `import "" version "". For example:

import "batch" version "1.0"

This statement indicates that the batch module, version 1.0 should be used in this script. Module versions are independent of NGLess versions.

Only a predefined set of modules can be imported (these are shipped with NGLess). To import user-written modules, the user MUST use the local import statement, e.g.:

local import "batch" version "1.0"

Import statements MUST immediately follow the version declaration


Blocks are defined by indentation in multiples of 4 spaces. To avoid confusion, TAB characters are not allowed.

Blocks are used for conditionals and using statements.

Data types

NGless supports the following basic types:

  • String
  • Integer
  • Double
  • Bool
  • Symbol
  • Filename
  • Shortread
  • Shortreadset
  • Mappedread
  • Mappedreadset

In addition, it supports the composite type List of X where X is a basic type. Lists are built with square brackets (e.g., [1,2,3]). All elements of a list must have the same data type.


A string can start with either a quote (U+0022, ") or a single quote (U+0027,') or and end with the same character. They can contain any number of characters.

Special sequences start with \. Standard backslashed escapes can be used as LF and CR (\n and \r respectively), quotation marks (\') or slash (\\).


Integers are specified as decimals [0-9]+ or as hexadecimals 0x[0-9a-fA-F]+. The prefix - denotes a negative number.


Doubles are specified as decimals [0-9]+ with the decimal point serving as a separator. The prefix - denotes a negative number.

Doubles and Integers are considered numeric types.


The two boolean constants are True and False (which can also be written true or false).


A symbol is denoted as a token surrounded by curly braces (e.g., {symbol} or {drop}). Symbols are used as function arguments to indicate that there is only a limited set of allowed values for that argument. Additionally, unlike Strings, no operations can be performed with Symbols.


NGless is a statically typed language and variables are typed. Types are automatically inferred from context.

Assignment is performed with = operator:

variable = value

A variable that is all uppercase is a constant and can only be assigned to once.



The operator (-) returns the symmetric of its numeric argument.

The operator len returns the length of a ShortRead.

The operator not negates its boolean argument


All operators can only be applied to numeric types. Mixing integers and doubles returns a double. The following binary operators are used for arithmetic:

+ - < > >= <= == !=

The + operator can also perform concatenation of String objects.

The </> operator is used to concatenate two Strings while also adding a '/' character between them. This is useful for concatenating file paths.


Can be used to access only one element or a range of elements in a ShortRead. To access one element, is required an identifier followed by an expression between brackets. (e.g, x[10]).

To obtain a range, is required an identifier and two expressions separated by a ':' and between brackets. Example:

+============+================================================+ | Expression | Semantics | +============+================================================+ | x[:] | from position 0 until length of variable x | +------------+------------------------------------------------+ | x[10:] | from position 10 util length of variable x | +------------+------------------------------------------------+ | x[:10] | from position 0 until 10 | +------------+------------------------------------------------+


Conditionals work as in Python. For example:

if 5 > 10:
   val = 10
   val = 20


Functions are called with parentheses:

result = f(arg, arg1=2)

Functions have a single positional parameter, all other must be given by name:

unique(reads, max_copies=2)

The exception is constructs which take a block: they take a single positional parameter and a block. The block is passed using the using keyword:

reads = preprocess(reads) using |read|:

The |read| syntax defines an unnamed (lambda) function, which takes a variable called read. The function body is the following block.

There is no possibility of defining new functions within the language. Only built-in functions or those added by modules can be used.


Methods are called using the syntax object . methodName ( <ARGS> ). As with functions, one argument may be unnamed, all others must be passed by name.