The blog of

Posts from August 2020

Don't just complain - offer solutions! [Enabling markdownlint rules to fix the violations they report]

In October of 2017, an issue was opened in the markdownlint repository on GitHub asking for the ability to automatically fix rule violations. (Background: markdownlint is a Node.js style checker and lint tool for Markdown/CommonMark files.) I liked the idea, but had some concerns about how to implement it effectively. I had recently added the ability to fix simple violations to the vscode-markdownlint extension for VS Code based entirely on regular expressions and it was primitive, but mostly sufficient.

Such was the state of things for about two years, with 15 of the 44 linting rules having regular expression-based fixes in VS Code that usually worked. Then, in August of 2019, I overcame my reservations about the feature and added fix information as one of the things a rule can report with a linting violation. In doing so, the road was paved for an additional 9 rules to become auto-fixable. What's more, it became possible for custom rules written by others to offer fixes as well.

Implementation notes

The way a rule reports fix information for a violation is via an object that looks like this in TypeScript:

 * Fix information for RuleOnErrorInfo.
type RuleOnErrorFixInfo = {
     * Line number (1-based).
    lineNumber?: number;
     * Column of the fix (1-based).
    editColumn?: number;
     * Count of characters to delete.
    deleteCount?: number;
     * Text to insert (after deleting).
    insertText?: string;

Aside: markdownlint now includes a TypeScript declaration file for all public APIs and objects!

The "fix information" object identifies a single edit that fixes the corresponding violation. All the properties shown above are optional, but in practice there will always be 2 or 3. lineNumber defaults to the line of the corresponding violation and almost never needs to be set. editColumn points to the location in the line to edit. deleteCount says how many characters to delete (the value -1 means to delete the entire line); insertText provides the characters to add. If delete and insert are both specified, the delete is applied before the insert. This simple format is easy for callers of the markdownlint API to apply, so the structure is proxied to them pretty much as-is when returning violations.

Aside: With the current design, a violation can only include a single fixInfo object. This could be limiting, but has proven adequate for all scenarios so far.

Practical matters

Considered in isolation, a single fix is easy to reason about and apply. However, when dealing with an entire document, there can be multiple violations for a line and therefore multiple fixes with potential to overlap and conflict. The first strategy to deal with this is to make fixes simple; the change represented by a fix should alter as little as possible. The second strategy is to apply fixes in the order least likely to create conflicts - that's right-to-left on a line with detection of overlaps that may cause the application of the second fix to be skipped. Finally, overlapping edits of different kinds that don't conflict are merged into one. This process isn't especially tricky, but there are some subtleties and so there are helper methods in the markdownlint-rule-helpers package for applying a single fix (applyFix) or multiple fixes (applyFixes).

Aside: markdownlint-rule-helpers is an undocumented, unsupported collection of functions and variables that helps author rules and utilities for markdownlint. The API for this package is ad-hoc, but everything in it is used by the core library and part of the 100% test coverage that project has.


Automatic fix behavior is available in markdownlint-cli, markdownlint-cli2, and the vscode-markdownlint extension for VS Code. Both CLIs can fix multiple files at once; the VS Code extension limits fixes to the current file (and includes undo support). Fixability is also available to consumers of the library via the markdownlint-rule-helpers package mentioned earlier. Not all rules are automatically fixable - in some cases the resolution is ambiguous and needs human intervention. However, rules that offer fixes can dramatically improve the quality of a document without the user having to do any work!

Further reading

For more about markdownlint and related topics, search for "markdownlint" on this blog.