Parsing Paragraphs in Markdown

Nov 26, 2020

This is the second post in a what is a series about building an Elixir library. You can see the first post here -> Creating an Elixir Library.

Now on to adding paragraphs. Which should be pretty easy. But before that, I need to add one change to the heading parsing code. I want to make sure it handles any number of words.

To do this, I need to add one line to create_heading. Just Enum.join(tl, " ") which just takes everything in the tail and combines them with a space separator.

  defp create_heading(text) do
    [hd | tl] = heading_text(text)
    level = String.length(hd)
    "<h#{level}>#{Enum.join(tl, " ")}</h#{level}>"

A couple of expectations to make sure everything works. Just add a couple of cases with multiple words.

  test "Generates headings" do
    assert Bargain.generate("# Heading")                == {:ok,"<h1>Heading</h1>"}
    assert Bargain.generate("## Heading Two")           == {:ok,"<h2>Heading Two</h2>"}
    assert Bargain.generate("### Heading Two Three")    == {:ok,"<h3>Heading Two Three</h3>"}
    assert Bargain.generate("#### Heading")             == {:ok,"<h4>Heading</h4>"}
    assert Bargain.generate("##### Heading")            == {:ok,"<h5>Heading</h5>"}
    assert Bargain.generate("###### Heading")           == {:ok,"<h6>Heading</h6>"}

And now all headings work, but we still only handle ones with pound signs. I haven’t decided if I want to handle other versions.

Now on to paragraphs. This seems super simple, but I ran into a few issues as I started to refactor to make sure multiple things could be handled at the same time. For example, a heading followed by a couple of paragraphs.

To start I went with the ridiculously simple TDD version of just returning exactly what I want.

  def generate(text) do
    case String.starts_with?(text, "#") do
      true -> {:ok, create_heading(text)}
      false -> {:ok, create_paragaph(text)}
  defp create_paragaph(text) do

Here I just simply add a false clause. If the string doesn’t start with a pound sign, assume it’s a paragraph and return whatever that is.

Simple test.

  test "Generates paragraphs" do
    assert Bargain.generate("This is a paragraph") == {:ok, "<p>This is a paragraph</p>"}

Now I needed to handle multiple lines. A little tricky here. I wasn’t sure how to split one string into multiple lines. In Ruby I can call lines on a string and get what I need, so I looked for something similar. Turns out it’s just easier to split on something and enumerate through those. That was the approach I took.

  def generate(text) do
    parsed  =, "\n"), fn x -> 
      |> parse
    {:ok, Enum.join(parsed)}

  defp parse(text) do
    cond do
      String.match?(text, ~r/^\#/)       -> create_heading(text)
      String.match?(text, ~r/^[a-zA-Z]/) -> create_paragaph(text)

You can see in the generate function that I split the string on any newline (technically not correct for markdown, but I’ll return to that), remove leading and trailing spaces, and pass it in to be parsed. The use of map here is important because it returns a list. We need that list so we can return the string we have built up.

parse is interesting. I almost always reach for case and do some pattern matching, but I struggled getting some level of regex pattern matching working. The reason being is that the regex returns true/false. That only gives me two possible matches, like in the previous version of generate. I’ll have plenty more than that.

So the solution is cond. With cond I can perform several different matches and react to them accordingly.

An interesting side note. Elixir has character classes you can use. Considering that a paragraph will likely start with a letter, because a number will probably indicate a list, I used [:alpha] in place of [[a-zA-Z]], but it acted strangely. – I just realized my problem. I’ll go back and fix it. [:alpha] didn’t always match because of a syntax error. It should be [:alpha:] (see the trailing :).

The last thing I want to point out is the use of join at the end of generate. Since we get a list back, something like this ["<h1>Heading</h1>", "<p>This is a paragraph</p>"], we need to make that one big string to return.

And finally some tests to make sure I stitched everything together correctly.

  test "Generates paragraphs" do
    assert Bargain.generate("This is a paragraph") == {:ok, "<p>This is a paragraph</p>"}
    assert Bargain.generate("This is a paragraph") == {:ok, "<p>This is a paragraph</p>"}
    assert Bargain.generate("This is a paragraph\nAnd another") == {:ok, "<p>This is a paragraph</p><p>And another</p>"}

  test "Generates a heading and paragraphs" do
    test_string = "## This is a heading
    With a paragraph
    and another paragraph"
    assert Bargain.generate(test_string) == {:ok, "<h2>This is a heading</h2><p>With a paragraph</p><p>and another paragraph</p>"}

A couple of things here. In Generates paragraphs, I wanted to make sure I tested more than one paragraph at a time. And in Generates a heading and parapgraphs, I wanted to make sure I could test a more complete markdown string with a heading and a couple of paragraphs at the same time.

Next up is links.