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Syntax Analysis in Compiler Design

Syntax Analysis in Compiler Design

Syntax analyzers employ various techniques, such as top-down parsing and bottom-up parsing, to efficiently analyze the code and construct a parse tree, a hierarchical representation of the code’s structure. Let’s get into the details of syntax analysis in compiler design.

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What is Syntax Analysis?

Syntax analysis, also known as parsing, is the process of analyzing a string of symbols to determine whether it complies with the rules of formal grammar. 

It is a necessary step in compiling programs written in programming languages. To create computer-executable object programs, the source program must be checked for the correctness of the lexicon, syntax, and semantics. This is called syntax analysis.

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Important Terminologies Used in Syntax Analysis

Below, we have highlighted some of the basic terminologies that are used in syntax analysis:

  • Top-Down Parsing: Top-down parsing is also known as predictive parsing. This technique starts with the root symbol of a grammar and moves down by expanding non-terminal symbols into terminal symbols. It aims to predict input symbols based on grammar rules.
  • Bottom-Up Parsing: Bottom-up parsing is also known as shift-reduce parsing. It begins with the input string and builds upwards to the root symbol by combining input symbols according to grammar rules.
  • Syntax Trees: Syntax trees are often considered parse trees. These hierarchical structures represent the grammatical structure of a sentence. They illustrate how words in a sentence relate to each other based on grammar rules.
  • Error Detection: It is an essential part of syntax analysis. Error detection occurs when the parser encounters a symbol sequence that violates grammar rules. It identifies and signals syntax errors, helping in their correction in the source code.

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Role of Syntax Analysis in Compiler Design

Syntax analysis within compiler design serves as a foundational and complex phase. It carries out several essential roles and functions that can’t be missed. Syntax analysis plays a crucial role in transforming human-readable source code into executable machine code.

Here are some of the roles that syntax analysis plays in designing a compiler:

  • Structural Validation: At its core, syntax analysis carefully checks the source code to ensure that it adheres to the specified grammar rules of the programming language. This thorough examination allows for the identification of any syntax errors that can violate these rules. 
    Detecting these errors at the early stage of the compilation process proves crucial, as it prevents the progression of compilation until these errors are resolved.
  • Intermediate Representation: Syntax analysis generates the task of generating an intermediate representation of the source code. It is a more abstract, structured, and language-independent representation of the code. 
    This step is invaluable as it serves as the input for subsequent compilation phases, such as semantic analysis and code generation. The intermediate representation is typically a more abstract version of the code that is easier to deal with than the original source code.
  • Error Handling: Syntax analysis provides detailed diagnostic information about any syntax errors. The error reporting assists programmers assist in efficiently checking and rectifying these issues. By getting detailed instructions about the types of errors, syntax analysis greatly quickens the debugging process, helping programmers write more efficient and error-free code.

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Representative Grammars: CFG in Syntax Analysis

Context-Free Grammar (CFG) plays an important role in describing the syntax of programming languages by defining a set of rules for constructing valid strings of symbols.

CFG is denoted as G = (V, T, P, S), where

  • V represents the set of variables or non-terminals.
  • T denotes the set of terminals, where strings are formed.
  • P stands for the set of production rules. These rules define how the variables can be replaced by terminals and other variables.
  • S is the start symbol, serving as the initial symbol from which the derivation of valid strings begins.
  • Terminals include various symbols, such as:
    • Lowercase letters (eg., a, b, c)
    • Operators like +, –
    • Punctuation symbols (eg., comma, parenthesis)
    • Digits (eg., 0, 1, 2)
    • Boldface letters or keywords (eg., id)
  • Non-terminals are symbols representing sets of strings and it includes:
    • Uppercase letters (eg., A, B, C)
    • Lowercase italicized names (eg., expr, stmt)
  • Start symbol is the initial symbol from which the derivation process begins. It’s the first symbol in the grammar.
  • Productions in CFG are rules that define how symbols can be replaced. These are represented as LHS —> RHS, where LHS comprises a single non-terminal symbol and RHS consists of a sequence of terminals or non-terminals.

For example:

  • ‘expression -> expression + term’
  • ‘expression -> expression – term’
  • ‘expression -> term’
  • ‘term -> term * factor’
  • ‘term -> term/factor’
  • ‘term ->  factor’
  • ‘factor -> (expression)’
  • ‘factor -> id’

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Parsing Techniques in Syntax Analysis

Below, we will highlight some parsing techniques in syntax analysis that provide efficient methods for analyzing the structure of code and identifying potential errors. Let’s understand all the techniques of parsing and know how they operate in the following way:

  • LL (Left-to-Right, Leftmost Derivation): LL parsers take a top-down approach, meaning they start from the root of the parse tree and try to match the input string by recursively applying production rules. They operate by repeatedly selecting the leftmost non-terminal symbol and replacing it with the corresponding production rule. This process continues until the entire input string is parsed or until a mismatch occurs.
  • LR (Left-to-Right, Rightmost Derivation): LR parsers are bottom-up, meaning they begin parsing by identifying the sequence of terminals and non-terminals that match the production rules in reverse. This technique involves shifting input symbols onto a stack until a rule can be reduced.

LR parsers are more powerful than LL parsers and can handle a broader range of grammars, including left-recursive grammars. 

  • LALR (Look-Ahead LR): LALR parsers, a variant of LR parsers, aim to optimize the LR parser’s memory usage by merging similar states in the parsing tables. By doing so, they reduce the size of the parsing table while preserving the parsing power of LR parsers. This optimization makes LALR parsers more space-efficient without sacrificing parsing capabilities.
  • GLR (Generalized LR): GLR parsers take the LR parsing technique further by allowing multiple parsing paths simultaneously. They excel at handling ambiguous grammar by exploring all possible interpretations in parallel. GLR parsers maintain multiple parse trees and resolve ambiguities at a later stage, making them suitable for languages with inherent ambiguity or complex parsing requirements.

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Syntax analysis plays a pivotal role in compiler design, providing a foundation for subsequent phases like semantic analysis and intermediate code generation. It ensures that the compiler can effectively comprehend the programmer’s intent and produce accurate and efficient machine code. 

As programming languages evolve and become more complex, syntax analysis techniques continue to advance, enabling compilers to handle increasingly intricate language constructs and maintain the high level of reliability required for modern software development.

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About the Author

Senior Consultant Analytics & Data Science

Presenting Sahil Mattoo, a Senior Consultant Analytics & Data Science at Eli Lilly and Company is an accomplished professional with 14 years of experience across data science, analytics, and technical leadership domains, demonstrates a remarkable ability to drive business insights. Sahil holds a Post Graduate Program in Business Analytics and Business Intelligence from Great Lakes Institute of Management.