IntelliJ Platform Plugin SDK Help

Syntax and Error Highlighting

The syntax and error highlighting are performed on multiple levels: Lexer, Parser, and Annotator/External Annotator.

Text Attributes Key

How a particular range of text should be highlighted is defined via TextAttributesKey. An instance of this class is created for every distinct type of item that should be highlighted (keyword, number, string literal, etc.).

The TextAttributesKey defines the default attributes applied to items of the corresponding type (for example, keywords are bold, numbers are blue, string literals are bold and green). Highlighting from multiple TextAttributesKey items can be layered — for example, one key may define an item's boldness and another one its color.

Color Settings

The mapping of the TextAttributesKey to specific attributes used in an editor is defined by the EditorColorsScheme class. It can be configured by the user via Settings | Editor | Color Scheme by providing an implementation of ColorSettingPage registered in com.intellij.colorSettingsPage extension point. To look up the external name for a setting in the IDE, use UI Inspector.

The File | Export | Files or Selection to HTML feature uses the same syntax highlighting mechanism as the editor. Thus, it will work automatically for custom languages that provide a syntax highlighter.



The first syntax highlighting level is based on the lexer output and is provided through the SyntaxHighlighter interface. The syntax highlighter returns the TextAttributesKey instances for each token type, which needs special highlighting. For highlighting lexer errors HighlighterColors.BAD_CHARACTER should be used.


Semantic Highlighting

Semantic highlighting provides an additional coloring layer to improve the visual distinction of several related items (e.g., method parameters, local variables).

Register RainbowVisitor in com.intellij.highlightVisitor extension point. Color Settings must implement RainbowColorSettingsPage in addition.


The second level of error highlighting happens during parsing. If according to the grammar of the language a particular sequence of tokens is invalid, the PsiBuilder.error() method can highlight the invalid tokens and display an error message showing why they are not valid.

See Syntax Errors on how to programmatically suppress these errors in certain contexts.


The third level of highlighting is performed through the Annotator interface. A plugin can register one or more annotators in the com.intellij.annotator extension point, and these annotators are called during the background highlighting pass to process the elements in the custom language's PSI tree. Attribute language should be set to the Language ID where this annotator applies to. If highlighting data requires invoking external tools, use External Annotator instead.

Annotators can analyze not only the syntax, but also the semantics using PSI, and thus can provide much more complex syntax and error highlighting logic. The annotator can also provide quick fixes to problems it detects. When the file is changed, the annotator is called incrementally to process only changed elements in the PSI tree.

Annotators not requiring information from indexes can be marked dumb aware to work during indexing (e.g., for additional syntax highlighting). (2023.1+)


See Inspections topic in UI Guidelines on how to write message texts for highlighting/quick fixes.

To highlight a region of text as a warning or error:

holder.newAnnotation(HighlightSeverity.WARNING, "Invalid code") // or HighlightSeverity.ERROR .withFix(new MyFix(psiElement)) .create();

Call createWarningAnnotation()/createErrorAnnotation() on the AnnotationHolder, and optionally call registerFix() on the returned Annotation object to add a quick fix for the error or warning.


To apply additional syntax highlighting:

holder.newSilentAnnotation(HighlightSeverity.INFORMATION) .range(rangeToHighlight) .textAttributes(MyHighlighter.EXTRA_HIGHLIGHT_ATTRIBUTE) .create();

Call AnnotationHolder.createInfoAnnotation() with an empty message and then Annotation.setTextAttributes().


External Annotator

If the custom language employs external tools for validating files in the language (for example, using the Xerces library for XML schema validation), it can provide an implementation of the ExternalAnnotator interface and register it in com.intellij.externalAnnotator extension point (language attribute must be specified).

The ExternalAnnotator highlighting has the lowest priority and is invoked only after all other background processing has completed. It uses the same AnnotationHolder interface for converting the output of the external tool into editor highlighting.

To skip running specific ExternalAnnotator for given file, register ExternalAnnotatorsFilter extension in com.intellij.daemon.externalAnnotatorsFilter extension point.

To enable running ExternalAnnotator during indexing in dumb mode, it can be marked dumb aware (2023.3).

Controlling Highlighting

Existing highlighting can be suppressed programmatically in certain contexts, see Controlling Highlighting.

To force re-highlighting all open or specific file(s) (e.g., after changing plugin specific settings), use DaemonCodeAnalyzer.restart().

Order of Running Highlighting

Inspections and annotators do not run sequentially on each PsiElement anymore. Instead, they're run in parallel on all relevant PSI independently with the following consequences.

Independent Annotators

Annotators are run independent of each other: if an annotator found an error, it no longer stops annotating the PsiElement's parents. Effectively, there is "more" highlighting now.

Highlight Range

Producing highlights must be done as close as possible for the relevant PsiElement. For example, instead of

annotate(PsiFile) { <<highlight all relevant identifiers>> }

this approach should be used:

annotate(PsiIdentifier) { <<highlight this identifier if it's relevant>> }

The latter version:

  • performs faster highlighting – it doesn't have to wait until all other identifiers are visited

  • removes outdated highlights faster – right after the identifier was visited and the annotator didn't produce a highlighting anymore

Last modified: 21 July 2024