Consider the following ambiguous grammar fragment (ambiguous because the input ‘1 - 2 * 3’ can be parsed in two different ways):
expr: expr '-' expr | expr '*' expr | expr '<' expr | '(' expr ')' … ;
Suppose the parser has seen the tokens ‘1’, ‘-’ and ‘2’; should it reduce them via the rule for the subtraction operator? It depends on the next token. Of course, if the next token is ‘)’, we must reduce; shifting is invalid because no single rule can reduce the token sequence ‘- 2 )’ or anything starting with that. But if the next token is ‘*’ or ‘<’, we have a choice: either shifting or reduction would allow the parse to complete, but with different results.
To decide which one Bison should do, we must consider the results. If the next operator token op is shifted, then it must be reduced first in order to permit another opportunity to reduce the difference. The result is (in effect) ‘1 - (2 op 3)’. On the other hand, if the subtraction is reduced before shifting op, the result is ‘(1 - 2) op 3’. Clearly, then, the choice of shift or reduce should depend on the relative precedence of the operators ‘-’ and op: ‘*’ should be shifted first, but not ‘<’.
What about input such as ‘1 - 2 - 5’; should this be ‘(1 - 2) - 5’ or should it be ‘1 - (2 - 5)’? For most operators we prefer the former, which is called left association. The latter alternative, right association, is desirable for assignment operators. The choice of left or right association is a matter of whether the parser chooses to shift or reduce when the stack contains ‘1 - 2’ and the lookahead token is ‘-’: shifting makes right-associativity.