Contents Overview

Recall that the input to the parser is a sequence of tokens (received interactively, via calls to the scanner). The parser:

The output depends on whether the input is a syntactically legal program; if so, then the output is some representation of the program: We know that we can use regular expressions to define languages (for example, the languages of the tokens to be recognized by the scanner). Can we use them to define the language to be recognized by the parser? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Regular expressions are not powerful enough to define many aspects of a programming language's syntax. For example, a regular expression cannot be used to specify that the parentheses in an expression must be balanced, or that every ``else'' statement has a corresponding ``if''. Furthermore, a regular expression doesn't say anything about underlying structure. For example, the following regular expression defines integer arithmetic involving addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division: but provides no information about the precedence and associativity of the operators.

So to specify the syntax of a programming language, we use a different formalism, called context-free grammars.

Simple Arithmetic Expressions

We can write a context-free grammar (CFG) for the language of (very simple) arithmetic expressions involving only subtraction and division. In English:

Here is the corresponding CFG: And here is how to understand the grammar:

A more compact way to write this grammar is:

Intuitively, the vertical bar means ``or'', but do not be fooled into thinking that the right-hand sides of grammar rules can contain regular expression operators! This use of the vertical bar is just shorthand for writing multiple rules with the same left-hand-side nonterminal.

Formal Definition

A CFG is a 4-tuple $\left( N, \Sigma, P, S \right)$ where:

Example: Boolean Expressions, Assignment Statements, and If Statements

The language of boolean expressions can be defined in English as follows:

Here is the corresponding CFG: Here is a CFG for a language of very simple assignment statements (only statements that assign a boolean value to an identifier): We can ``combine'' the two grammars given above, and add two more rules to get a grammar that defines the language of (very simple) if statements. In words, an if statement is:
  1. The word "if", followed by a boolean expression in parentheses, followed by a statement, or
  2. The word "if", followed by a boolean expression in parentheses, followed by a statement, followed by the word "else", followed by a statement.
And here's the grammar:


Write a context-free grammar for the language of very simple while loops (in which the loop body only contains one statement) by adding a new production with nonterminal stmt on the left-hand side.


The Language Defined by a CFG

The language defined by a context-free grammar is the set of strings (sequences of terminals) that can be derived from the start nonterminal. What does it mean to derive something?

Thus we arrive either at epsilon or at a string of terminals. That is how we derive a string in the language defined by a CFG.

Below is an example derivation, using the 4 productions for the grammar of arithmetic expressions given above. In this derivation, we use the actual lexemes instead of the token names (e.g., we use the symbol "-" instead of MINUS).

And here is some useful notation: So, given the above example, we could write: exp $\stackrel{+}\Longrightarrow$ 1 - exp / exp.

A more formal definition of what it means for a CFG $G$ to define a language may be stated as follows:

$$\mathcal{L}(G) = \left\{ w \middle| S \stackrel{+}\longrightarrow w\right\} $$ where
Leftmost and Rightmost Derivations

There are several kinds of derivations that are important. A derivation is a leftmost derivation if it is always the leftmost nonterminal that is chosen to be replaced. It is a rightmost derivation if it is always the rightmost one.

Parse Trees

Another way to derive things using a context-free grammar is to construct a parse tree (also called a derivation tree) as follows:

The derived string is formed by reading the leaf nodes from left to right.

Here is the example expression grammar given above:

and, using that grammar, here's a parse tree for the string 1 - 4 / 2:


Below is the CFG for very simple if statements used earlier.

Question 1: Give a derivation for the string: if (! true ) x = false; Is your derivation leftmost, rightmost, or neither?

Question 2: Give a parse tree for the same string.


Ambiguous Grammars

The string 1 - 4 / 2 has two parse trees using the example expression grammar. One was given above; here's the other one:

If for grammar $G$ and string $w$ there is:

then G is called an ambiguous grammar. (Note: the three conditions given above are equivalent; if one is true then all three are true.)

In general, ambiguous grammars cause problems:

Expression Grammars

Since every programming language includes expressions, it is useful to know how to write a grammar for an expression language so that the grammar correctly reflects the precedences and associativities of the operators.


To write a grammar whose parse trees express precedence correctly, use a different nonterminal for each precedence level. Start by writing a rule for the operator(s) with the lowest precedence ("-" in our case), then write a rule for the operator(s) with the next lowest precedence, etc:

Now let's try using these new rules to build parse trees for 1 - 4 / 2. First, a parse tree that correctly reflects that fact that division has higher precedence than subtraction:
Now we'll try to construct a parse tree that shows the wrong precedence:

This grammar captures operator precedence, but it is still ambiguous! Parse trees using this grammar may not correctly express the fact that both subtraction and division are left associative; e.g., the expression: 5-3-2 is equivalent to: ((5-3)-2) and not to: (5-(3-2)).


Draw two parse trees for the expression 5-3-2 using the current expression grammar:

One of your parse trees should correctly group 5-3, and the other should incorrectly group 3-2.


To understand how to write expression grammars that correctly reflect the associativity of the operators, you need to understand about recursion in grammars.

The grammar given above for arithmetic expressions is both left and right recursive in nonterminals exp and term (can you write the derivation steps that show this?).

To write a grammar that correctly expresses operator associativity:

Here's the correct grammar: And here's the (one and only) parse tree that can be built for 5 - 3 - 2 using this grammar:

Now let's consider a more complete expression grammar, for arithmetic expressions with addition, multiplication, and exponentiation, as well as subtraction and division. We'll use the token POW for the exponentiation operator, and we'll use "**" as the corresponding lexeme; e.g., "two to the third power" would be written: 2 ** 3, and the corresponding sequence of tokens would be: INTLITERAL POW INTLITERAL. Here's an ambiguous context-free grammar for this language:
exp exp PLUS exp | exp MINUS exp | exp TIMES exp | exp DIVIDE exp

First, we'll modify the grammar so that parse trees correctly reflect the fact that addition and subtraction have the same, lowest precedence; multiplication and division have the same, middle precedence; and exponentiation has the highest precedence:

This grammar is still ambiguous; it does not yet reflect the associativities of the operators. So next we'll modify the grammar so that parse trees correctly reflect the fact that all of the operators except exponentiation are left associative (and exponentiation is right associative; e.g., 2**3**4 is equivalent to: 2**(3**4)): Finally, we'll modify the grammar by adding a unary operator, unary minus, which has the highest precedence of all (e.g., -3**4 is equivalent to: (-3)**4, not to -(3**4). Note that the notion of associativity does not apply to unary operators, since associativity only comes into play in an expression of the form: x op y op z.


Below is the grammar we used earlier for the language of boolean expressions, with two possible operands: true false, and three possible operators: and or not:

Question 1: Add nonterminals so that or has lowest precedence, then and, then not. Then change the grammar to reflect the fact that both and and or are left associative.

Question 2: Draw a parse tree (using your final grammar for Question 1) for the expression: true and not true.


List Grammars

Another kind of grammar that you will often need to write is a grammar that defines a list of something. There are several common forms. For each form given below, we provide three different grammars that define the specified list language.

A Grammar for a Programming Language

To write a grammar for a whole programming language, break down the problem into pieces. For example, think about a simple Java program, which consists of one or more classes:

program $\longrightarrow$ classList
classlist $\longrightarrow$ class | class   classList

A class is the word "class", optionally preceded by the word "public", followed by an identifier, followed by an open curly brace, followed by the class body, followed by a closing curly brace:

class $\longrightarrow$ PUBLIC CLASS ID LCURLY classbody RCURLY
|        CLASS ID LCURLY classbody RCURLY

A class body is a list of zero or more field and/or method definitions:

classbody $\longrightarrow$ $\varepsilon$
| deflist
deflist $\longrightarrow$ def
| def  deflist

and so on.


To understand how a parser works, we start by understanding context-free grammars, which are used to define the language recognized by the parser. Important terminology includes:

Two common kinds of grammars are grammars for expression languages, and grammar for lists. It is important to know how to write a grammar for an expression language that expresses operator precedence and associativity. It is also important to know how to write grammars for both non-empty and possibly empty lists, and for lists both with and without separators and terminators.