An AST (abstract syntax tree) is a representation of the syntactic (or lexical) structure of Dart code. The semantic structure of the code is modeled by the element and type models.

The Structure of an AST

An AST is composed of nodes (instances of AstNode) arranged as a tree. That is, each node can have zero or more children, each of which is also a node, and every node other than the root node has exactly one parent.

The root of the tree is typically a CompilationUnit. Compilation units have children representing language constructs such as import directives and class declarations. Class declarations have children representing, among other things, each of the members of the class. The structure of the nodes is similar to, but not identical to, the Dart language grammar.

As implied above, there are subclasses of AstNode for each production in the grammar. The subclasses are defined in package:analyzer/dart/ast/ast.dart.

Every class of node provides access to its parent and children through getters. For example, the class BinaryExpression defines the getters parent, leftOperand, and rightOperand. It also provides getters for the tokens that are a part of the construct (but not part of a child construct). In a binary expression, for example, there is a getter to access the operator.

Every class of node and every token carries position information. You can ask for the character offset of the beginning of the entity from the start of the containing file, as well as the character length. For AST nodes, the offset is the offset of this first token in the structure and the length includes the end of the last token in the structure. Any whitespace before the first token or after the last token is considered to be part of a parent node.

The States of an AST

An AST can be in either of two states: unresolved or resolved. An unresolved AST is one in which none of the nodes has any resolution information associated with it. In an unresolved AST, the getters that access resolution information will return null. A resolved AST is one in which all of the nodes have resolution information associated with them.

So what do we mean by “resolution information”? Resolution is the process of associating element and type information with an AST. These topics are discussed in separate sections.

Getting a Compilation Unit

If you have followed the steps in Performing Analysis, and you want to get the compilation unit for a file at a known path, then you can ask the analysis session for an AST.

If you need an unresolved AST, then you can use either a synchronous or asynchronous method to access the AST:

main() async {
  ParseResult result = await session.getParsedAst(path);
  CompilationUnit unit = result.unit;


main() {
  ParseResult result = session.getParsedAstSync(path);
  CompilationUnit unit = result.unit;

If you need a resolved AST, then you need to use the following asynchronous method to access it:

main() async {
  ResolveResult result = await session.getResolvedAst(path);
  CompilationUnit unit = result.unit;

Traversing the Structure

There are two ways to traverse the structure of an AST: getters and visitors.


Every node defines getters for accessing the parent and the children of that node. Those getters can be used to traverse the structure, and are often the most efficient way of doing so. For example, if you wanted to write a utility to print the names of all of the members of each class in a given compilation unit, it might look something like this:

void printMembers(CompilationUnit unit) {
  for (CompilationUnitMember unitMember in unit.declarations) {
    if (unitMember is ClassDeclaration) {
      for (ClassMember classMember in unitMember.members) {
        if (classMember is MethodDeclaration) {
          print('  ${}');
        } else if (classMember is FieldDeclaration) {
          for (VariableDeclaration field in classMember.fields.variables) {
            print('  ${}');
        } else if (classMember is ConstructorDeclaration) {
          if ( == null) {
            print('  ${}');
          } else {
            print('  ${}.${}');


Getters work well for cases like the above because compilation units cannot be nested inside other compilation units, classes cannot be nested inside other classes, etc. But when you‘re dealing with a structure that can be nested inside similar structures (such as expressions, statements, and even functions), then nested loops don’t work very well. For those cases, the analyzer package provides a visitor pattern.

There is a single visitor API, defined by the abstract class AstVisitor. It defines a separate visit method for each class of AST node. For example, the method visitClassDeclaration is used to visit a ClassDeclaration. If you ask an AST node to accept a visitor, it will invoke the corresponding method on the visitor interface.

If you want to define a visitor, you'll probably want to subclass one of the concrete implementations of AstVisitor. The concrete subclasses are defined in package:analyzer/dart/ast/visitor.dart. A couple of the most useful include

  • SimpleAstVisitor which implements every visit method by doing nothing,
  • RecursiveAstVisitor which will cause every node in a structure to be visited, and
  • GeneralizingAstVisitor which makes it easy to visit general kinds of nodes, such as visiting any statement, or any expression.

The one time you might want to implement AstVisitor rather than to extend one of the concrete subclasses is if it's critical that you implement every visit method. The downside of doing this is that every time the AST structure is updated because of an enhancement to the language, your code will need to be updated to implement the newly added visit methods.

As an example, let‘s assume you want to write some code to count the number of if statements in a given structure. You need to visit every node, because you can’t know ahead of time where the if statements will be located, but there is one specific class of node that you need to visit, so you don‘t need to handle the general “groups” of nodes, so you’d want to create a subclass of RecursiveAstVisitor.

class IfCounter extends RecursiveAstVisitor<void> {
  int ifCount = 0;

  void visitIfStatement(IfStatement node) {

Differences From the Specification

Earlier we said that the structure of the tree is similar but not identical to the grammar of the language. In addition to some minor differences, there is one significant difference you should be aware of: the AST can express invalid code. This is intentional. It allows the analyzer to recover better in the presence of invalid code.

As an example, every function has a (possibly empty) list of parameters associated with it. In Dart, parameters can either be positional or named, and all of the positional parameters must be listed before the named parameters. But in the AST, the parameters are allowed to occur in any order. The consequence of this is that any code that traverses function parameters needs to be prepared for them to occur in any order.