There must be fifty ways …

[7 April 2010]

The old Paul Simon song “There must be fifty ways to leave your lover” keeps running through my head. I can see close to fifty ways to define the XPath 1.0 data model in terms of (a) a set of nodes and (b) two relations defined on that set, which are taken as primitive; all other relations (i.e. all the other axes of XPath) are defined in terms of those two primitive relations.

Strictly speaking, I make it forty-eight ways. First, pick any single relation from any of the following four groups:

  1. parent, child, ancestor, descendant
  2. prevsib, nextsib, preceding-sibling, following-sibling
  3. prevnode, nextnode, document-order preceding (>>), document-order-following (<<)

That’s twelve possibilities.

Second, pick any single relation from either of the other two groups; that makes eight possible choices, times twelve first choices, for ninety-six ordered pairs of relations. But the order doesn’t matter, so we have forty-eight distinct pairs.

In recent days, taking some pairs not quite at random, defining the constraints they must satisfy in order to be a suitable basis for defining an XPath 1.0 tree, and defining all the other relations in terms of the chosen primitives, I have learned a couple of mildly interesting things.

  • It’s more convenient to take parent as a primitive, than child.
  • It’s more convenient to take one of the single-step relations (parent, child, nextsib, prevsib, nextnode, prevnode) than one of their transitive closures (ancestor, descendant, etc.).

The nextsib relation, for example, needs to be acyclic, functional, injective, and not transitive. If it is, then its transitive closure following-sibling will automatically be suitable. But if you start with following-sibling and specify (as you will need to) that it is transitive and acyclic, that does not suffice to guarantee that its transitive reduction nextsib is functional and injective. You can of course simply say that a following-sibling relation is suitable if and only if (a) it’s transitive, (b) it’s acyclic, and (c) its transitive reduction is functional and injective, but now you’re forcing the reader to work with two relations, not just one: both following-sibling and its transitive reduction. It would be interesting either to find a way to constrain the closure directly to ensure the necessary properties in the reduction, or else to find a proof that there is no way to constrain a closure to ensure that its reduction is functional and injective without explicitly referring to the reduction.

  • From any relation in any group, the other relations in that group are (relatively) easy to derive in terms of inversion, transitive closure, or transitive reduction. Defining a relation in the third group typically proves more interesting. And while it’s more convenient to choose the primitive relations from among the reductions, it turns out that at least in some cases it’s easiest to define the third group in terrms of one of the closures. For example, given the parent and next-sibling relations, it proves easier to define document-order-following in terms of the primitives than to define next-node.

It occurs to me to wonder whether there are ways to define XPath 1.0 trees that don’t reduce to or include one of these forty-eight.

One way to define the XPath data model

[6 April 2010; addenda and copy editing 7-8 April 2010]

After discovering earlier this year that the definition of the XPath 1.0 data model falls short of the goal of guaranteeing the desired properties to all instances of the data model, I’ve been spending some time experimenting with alternative definitions, trying to see what must be specified a priori and what properties can be left to follow from others.

It’s no particular surprise that the data model can be defined in a variety of different ways. I’ve worked out three with a certain degree of precision. Here is one, which is not the usual way of defining things. For simplicity, it ignores attributes and namespace nodes; it’s easy enough to add them in once the foundations are a bit firmer.

Assume a non-empty finite set S and two binary relations R and Q on S, with the following properties [Some constraints are shown here as deleted: they were included in the first version of this list but later proved to be redundant; see below] :

  1. R is functional, acyclic, and injective (i.e. for any x and y, R(x) = R(y) implies x = y).
  2. There is exactly one member of S which is not in the domain of R (i.e. R(e) has no value), and exactly one which is not in the range of R (i.e. there is one element e such that for no element f do we have e = R(f)).
  3. Q is transitive and acyclic.
  4. The transitive reduction of Q is functional and injective.
  5. It will be observed that R essentially places the elements of S in a sequence without duplicates. For all elements e, f, g, h of S, if Q includes the pairs (e, f) and (g, h) and if g falls between e and f in the sequence defined by R (or, more formally, if the transitive closure of R contains the pairs (e, f), (e, g), and (g, f)), then h also falls between e and f in that sequence.
  6. The transitive closure of the inverse of R (i.e. R-1*) contains Q as a subset.
  7. The single element of S which is not in the domain of R is also neither in the domain nor the range of Q.

It turns out that if we have any relations R and Q defined on some set S, then we have an instance of the XPath 1.0 data model. The nodes in the model instance, the axes defining their interrelations, and so on can all be defined in terms of S, R, and Q.

For the moment, I’ll leave the details as an exercise for the reader. (I also realize, as I’m about to click “Publish”, that I have not actually checked to see whether the set of constraints given above is minimal. I started with a short list and added constraints until S, R, and Q sufficed to determine a unique data model instance, but I have not checked to see whether any of the later additions rendered any of the earlier additions unnecessary. So points for any reader who identifies redundant constraints in the list given above.)

[When I did check for minimality, it turned out that several of the constraints included in the list above are redundant. The fact that relation R is functional and injective, for example, follows from the others shown. Actually it follows from a subset of them. The deletions above show one way of reducing the number of a priori constraints: they all follow from the others and can be dropped. None of the remaining items follows from the others; if any of them are deleted, the constraints no longer suffice to ensure the properties required by XPath.]

The axes of XPath

[25 March 2010; error noticed by Dimitre Novatchev fixed 29 March 2010]

Steve DeRose and I have been discussing the XPath [1.0] data model recently (among other things), and in the course of the discussion an interesting observation has emerged.

it’s obvious that some of the axes in XPath expressions are inverses of each other, and also that some are transitive closures of others (or, going the other way, that some are transitive reductions of others). What surprised me a little was that (if for the moment you leave out of account the self and the XYZ-or-self axes, the attribute axis, and the namespace axis [and also preceding and following) all of the XPath axes fit naturally into a pattern that can be represented by three squares. (Will table markup work here? I wonder.) The first square represents the up/down axes:

parent ancestor
child descendant

The next square covers sibling relations. Unlike parent and child, which are just short-hand for single steps along the up or down axis, XPath provides no syntactic sugar for preceding-sibling :: * [1] and following-sibling :: * [1], so I’ve invented the names “nextsib” and “prevsib” (marked with a star here to signal that they are invented):

*prevsib preceding-sibling
*nextsib following-sibling

The third square describes overall document order; again, I’ve invented names for the single-step relations [note that the names used here for the transitive relations are given by XPath 2.0; XPath 1.0 doesn’t provide notation for them]:

Overall document order
*prevnode >>
*nextnode <<

[In the first version of this post, the right-hand columns were labeled preceding and following, but Dimitre Novatchev reminded me gently that these axes do not in fact correspond to document order: preceding excludes andestors and following excludes descendants. That’s a plausible exclusion, since no one in their right mind would say that chapter one of Moby Dick precedes the first paragraph of Moby Dick. Contains, yes; precedes, no. In fact, I remember getting into an argument with Phil Wadler about this, early on in the days of the XML Query working group, not realizing (a) that the document ordering he was describing was actually prescribed by XPath 1.0, nor (b) that saying that ancestors precede their descendants in document order didn’t mean that the ancestors would have to be present on the preceding axis. Thank you, Dimitre! And sorry, Phil!]

In each table row, the relation on the right is the positive transitive closure of the one on the left, and the one on the left is the transitive reduction of the one on the right.

In each table column, the relations in the top and bottom rows are inverses of each other.

The tables make it easy to see that it suffices to take a single pair of relations on nodes as primitive (e.g. child [or better first-child] and nextsib, or parent and prevsib); everything else in the tree can be defined in terms of the two primitive relations. (It’s not completely clear to me yet whether any two relations will do as long as they are from different tables, or not. Taking nextnode and parent seems to work, as does the pair nextnode and child but nextnode and first-child seems to pose problems — why can child be replaced by first-child in some situations but not others? Hmm.)

There seem to be implications for the formalization of the data model (which is how we got here in the first place), but maybe also for teaching new users how to think about or learn XPath.