Parsing with yacc

Parser operation

yacc turns the specification file into a C language procedure, which parses the input according to the specification given. The algorithm used to go from the specification to the parser is complex and will not be discussed here. The parser itself, though, is relatively simple and understanding its usage will make treatment of error recovery and ambiguities easier.

The parser produced by yacc consists of a finite state machine with a stack. The parser is also capable of reading and remembering the next input token, called the lookahead token. The current state is always the one on the top of the stack. The states of the finite state machine are given small integer labels. Initially, the machine is in state 0 (the stack contains only state 0) and no lookahead token has been read.

The machine has only four actions available: shift, reduce, accept, and error. A step of the parser is done as follows:

  1. Based on its current state, the parser decides if it needs a look-ahead token to choose the action to be taken. If it needs one and does not have one, it calls yylex() to obtain the next token.

  2. Using the current state and the lookahead token if needed, the parser decides on its next action and carries it out. This may result in states being pushed onto the stack or popped off of the stack and in the lookahead token being processed or left alone.

The shift action is the most common action the parser takes. Whenever a shift action is taken, there is always a lookahead token. For example, in state 56 there may be an action

   IF   shift 34
which says, in state 56, if the lookahead token is IF, the current state (56) is pushed down on the stack, and state 34 becomes the current state (on the top of the stack). The lookahead token is cleared.

The reduce action keeps the stack from growing without bounds. reduce actions are appropriate when the parser has seen the right-hand side of a grammar rule and is prepared to announce that it has seen an instance of the rule replacing the right-hand side by the left-hand side. It may be necessary to consult the lookahead token to decide whether or not to reduce. In fact, the default action (represented by .) is often a reduce action.

reduce actions are associated with individual grammar rules. Grammar rules are also given small integer numbers, and this leads to some confusion. The action

   .   reduce 18
refers to grammar rule 18, while the action
   IF   shift 34
refers to state 34.

Suppose the rule

   A   :   x  y  z    ;
is being reduced. The reduce action depends on the left-hand symbol (A in this case) and the number of symbols on the right-hand side (three in this case). To reduce, first pop off the top three states from the stack. (In general, the number of states popped equals the number of symbols on the right side of the rule.) In effect, these states were the ones put on the stack while recognizing x, y, and z and no longer serve any useful purpose. After popping these states, a state is uncovered, which was the state the parser was in before beginning to process the rule. Using this uncovered state and the symbol on the left side of the rule, perform what is in effect a shift of A. A new state is obtained, pushed onto the stack, and parsing continues. There are significant differences between the processing of the left-hand symbol and an ordinary shift of a token, however, so this action is called a goto action. In particular, the lookahead token is cleared by a shift but is not affected by a goto. In any case, the uncovered state contains an entry such as
   A   goto 20
causing state 20 to be pushed onto the stack and become the current state.

In effect, the reduce action turns back the clock in the parse, popping the states off the stack to go back to the state where the right-hand side of the rule was first seen. The parser then behaves as if it had seen the left side at that time. If the right-hand side of the rule is empty, no states are popped off the stacks. The uncovered state is in fact the current state.

The reduce action is also important in the treatment of user-supplied actions and values. When a rule is reduced, the code supplied with the rule is executed before the stack is adjusted. In addition to the stack holding the states, another stack running in parallel with it holds the values returned from the lexical analyzer and the actions. When a shift takes place, the external variable yylval is copied onto the value stack. After the return from the user code, the reduction is carried out. When the goto action is done, the external variable yyval is copied onto the value stack. The pseudo-variables $1, $2, and so on refer to the value stack.

The other two parser actions are conceptually much simpler. The accept action indicates that the entire input has been seen and that it matches the specification. This action appears only when the lookahead token is the end-marker and indicates that the parser has successfully done its job. The error action, on the other hand, represents a place where the parser can no longer continue parsing according to the specification. The input tokens it has seen (together with the lookahead token) cannot be followed by anything that would result in a valid input. The parser reports an error and attempts to recover the situation and resume parsing. The error recovery (as opposed to the detection of error) will be discussed later.


   %token  DING  DONG  DELL
   rhyme   :   sound  place
   sound   :   DING  DONG
   place   :   DELL
as a yacc specification. When yacc is invoked with the -v (verbose) option, a file called y.output is produced with a human-readable description of the parser. The y.output file corresponding to the above grammar (with some statistics stripped off the end) follows.
   state 0
           $accept  :  _rhyme  $end

DING shift 3 . error

rhyme goto 1 sound goto 2

state 1 $accept : rhyme_$end

$end accept . error

state 2 rhyme : sound_place

DELL shift 5 . error

place goto 4

state 3 sound : DING_DONG

DONG shift 6 . error

state 4 rhyme : sound place_ (1)

. reduce 1

state 5 place : DELL_ (3)

. reduce 3

state 6 sound : DING DONG_ (2)

. reduce 2

The actions for each state are specified and there is a description of the parsing rules being processed in each state. The _ character is used to indicate what has been seen and what is yet to come in each rule. The following input
can be used to track the operations of the parser. Initially, the current state is state 0. The parser needs to refer to the input in order to decide between the actions available in state 0, so the first token, DING, is read and becomes the lookahead token. The action in state 0 on DING is shift 3, state 3 is pushed onto the stack, and the lookahead token is cleared. State 3 becomes the current state. The next token, DONG, is read and becomes the lookahead token. The action in state 3 on the token DONG is shift 6, state 6 is pushed onto the stack, and the lookahead is cleared. The stack now contains 0, 3, and 6. In state 6, without even consulting the lookahead, the parser reduces by
   sound  :   DING  DONG
which is rule 2. Two states, 6 and 3, are popped off the stack, uncovering state 0. Consulting the description of state 0 (looking for a goto on sound),
   sound   goto 2
is obtained. State 2 is pushed onto the stack and becomes the current state.

In state 2, the next token, DELL, must be read. The action is shift 5, so state 5 is pushed onto the stack, which now has 0, 2, and 5 on it, and the lookahead token is cleared. In state 5, the only action is to reduce by rule 3. This has one symbol on the right-hand side, so one state, 5, is popped off, and state 2 is uncovered. The goto in state 2 on place (the left side of rule 3) is state 4. Now, the stack contains 0, 2, and 4. In state 4, the only action is to reduce by rule 1. There are two symbols on the right, so the top two states are popped off, uncovering state 0 again. In state 0, there is a goto on rhyme causing the parser to enter state 1. In state 1, the input is read and the end-marker is obtained indicated by $end in the y.output file. The action in state 1 (when the end-marker is seen) successfully ends the parse.

You might want to consider how the parser works when confronted with such incorrect strings as DING DONG DONG, DING DONG, DING DONG DELL DELL, and so on. A few minutes spent with this and other simple examples is repaid when problems arise in more complicated contexts.

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