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1.1 Languages and Context-Free Grammars

In order for Bison to parse a language, it must be described by a context-free grammar. This means that you specify one or more syntactic groupings and give rules for constructing them from their parts. For example, in the C language, one kind of grouping is called an ‘expression’. One rule for making an expression might be, “An expression can be made of a minus sign and another expression”. Another would be, “An expression can be an integer”. As you can see, rules are often recursive, but there must be at least one rule which leads out of the recursion.

The most common formal system for presenting such rules for humans to read is Backus-Naur Form or “BNF”, which was developed in order to specify the language Algol 60. Any grammar expressed in BNF is a context-free grammar. The input to Bison is essentially machine-readable BNF.

There are various important subclasses of context-free grammars. Although it can handle almost all context-free grammars, Bison is optimized for what are called LR(1) grammars. In brief, in these grammars, it must be possible to tell how to parse any portion of an input string with just a single token of lookahead. For historical reasons, Bison by default is limited by the additional restrictions of LALR(1), which is hard to explain simply. See Mysterious Conflicts, for more information on this. You can escape these additional restrictions by requesting IELR(1) or canonical LR(1) parser tables. See LR Table Construction, to learn how.

Parsers for LR(1) grammars are deterministic, meaning roughly that the next grammar rule to apply at any point in the input is uniquely determined by the preceding input and a fixed, finite portion (called a lookahead) of the remaining input. A context-free grammar can be ambiguous, meaning that there are multiple ways to apply the grammar rules to get the same inputs. Even unambiguous grammars can be nondeterministic, meaning that no fixed lookahead always suffices to determine the next grammar rule to apply. With the proper declarations, Bison is also able to parse these more general context-free grammars, using a technique known as GLR parsing (for Generalized LR). Bison’s GLR parsers are able to handle any context-free grammar for which the number of possible parses of any given string is finite.

In the formal grammatical rules for a language, each kind of syntactic unit or grouping is named by a symbol. Those which are built by grouping smaller constructs according to grammatical rules are called nonterminal symbols; those which can’t be subdivided are called terminal symbols or token kinds. We call a piece of input corresponding to a single terminal symbol a token, and a piece corresponding to a single nonterminal symbol a grouping.

We can use the C language as an example of what symbols, terminal and nonterminal, mean. The tokens of C are identifiers, constants (numeric and string), and the various keywords, arithmetic operators and punctuation marks. So the terminal symbols of a grammar for C include ‘identifier’, ‘number’, ‘string’, plus one symbol for each keyword, operator or punctuation mark: ‘if’, ‘return’, ‘const’, ‘static’, ‘int’, ‘char’, ‘plus-sign’, ‘open-brace’, ‘close-brace’, ‘comma’ and many more. (These tokens can be subdivided into characters, but that is a matter of lexicography, not grammar.)

Here is a simple C function subdivided into tokens:

int             /* keyword ‘int’ */
square (int x)  /* identifier, open-paren, keyword ‘int’,
                   identifier, close-paren */
{               /* open-brace */
  return x * x; /* keyword ‘return’, identifier, asterisk,
                   identifier, semicolon */
}               /* close-brace */

The syntactic groupings of C include the expression, the statement, the declaration, and the function definition. These are represented in the grammar of C by nonterminal symbols ‘expression’, ‘statement’, ‘declaration’ and ‘function definition’. The full grammar uses dozens of additional language constructs, each with its own nonterminal symbol, in order to express the meanings of these four. The example above is a function definition; it contains one declaration, and one statement. In the statement, each ‘x’ is an expression and so is ‘x * x’.

Each nonterminal symbol must have grammatical rules showing how it is made out of simpler constructs. For example, one kind of C statement is the return statement; this would be described with a grammar rule which reads informally as follows:

A ‘statement’ can be made of a ‘return’ keyword, an ‘expression’ and a ‘semicolon’.

There would be many other rules for ‘statement’, one for each kind of statement in C.

One nonterminal symbol must be distinguished as the special one which defines a complete utterance in the language. It is called the start symbol. In a compiler, this means a complete input program. In the C language, the nonterminal symbol ‘sequence of definitions and declarations’ plays this role.

For example, ‘1 + 2’ is a valid C expression—a valid part of a C program—but it is not valid as an entire C program. In the context-free grammar of C, this follows from the fact that ‘expression’ is not the start symbol.

The Bison parser reads a sequence of tokens as its input, and groups the tokens using the grammar rules. If the input is valid, the end result is that the entire token sequence reduces to a single grouping whose symbol is the grammar’s start symbol. If we use a grammar for C, the entire input must be a ‘sequence of definitions and declarations’. If not, the parser reports a syntax error.

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