(bison.info)Language and Grammar

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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.

   Not all context-free languages can be handled by Bison, only those
that are LALR(1).  In brief, this means that it must be possible to
tell how to parse any portion of an input string with just a single
token of look-ahead.  Strictly speaking, that is a description of an
LR(1) grammar, and LALR(1) involves additional restrictions that are
hard to explain simply; but it is rare in actual practice to find an
LR(1) grammar that fails to be LALR(1).  Note: Mysterious Reduce/Reduce
Conflicts, for more information on this.

   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 types".  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, identifier,
                        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 *

   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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Dirfile and infopages generated Sat Dec 3 02:07:54 2005