Yacc provides a general tool for imposing structure on the input to a computer program. The Yacc user prepares a specification of the input process; this includes rules describing the input structure, code to be invoked when these rules are recognized, and a low-level routine to do the basic input. Yacc then generates a function to control the input process. This function, called a parser , calls the user-supplied low-level input routine (the "lexical analyzer" ) to pick up the basic items (called tokens ) from the input stream. These tokens are organized according to the input structure rules, called "grammar rules" ; when one of these rules has been recognized, then user code supplied for this rule, an action , is invoked; actions have the ability to return values and make use of the values of other actions.
Yacc is written in a portable dialect of C and the actions, and output subroutine, are in C as well. Moreover, many of the syntactic conventions of Yacc follow C.
The heart of the input specification is a collection of grammar rules. Each rule describes an allowable structure and gives it a name. For example, one grammar rule might be
date : month_name day ',' year ;Here, date , month_name , day , and year represent structures of interest in the input process; presumably, month_name , day , and year are defined elsewhere. The comma ``,'' is enclosed in single quotes; this implies that the comma is to appear literally in the input. The colon and semicolon merely serve as punctuation in the rule, and have no significance in controlling the input. Thus, with proper definitions, the input
July 4, 1776might be matched by the above rule.
An important part of the input process is carried out by the lexical analyzer. This user routine reads the input stream, recognizing the lower level structures, and communicates these tokens to the parser. For historical reasons, a structure recognized by the lexical analyzer is called a "terminal symbol" , while the structure recognized by the parser is called a "nonterminal symbol" . To avoid confusion, terminal symbols will usually be referred to as tokens .
There is considerable leeway in deciding whether to recognize structures using the lexical analyzer or grammar rules. For example, the rules
month_name : 'J' 'a' 'n' ; month_name : 'F' 'e' 'b' ; . . . month_name : 'D' 'e' 'c' ;might be used in the above example. The lexical analyzer would only need to recognize individual letters, and month_name would be a nonterminal symbol. Such low-level rules tend to waste time and space, and may complicate the specification beyond Yacc's ability to deal with it. Usually, the lexical analyzer would recognize the month names, and return an indication that a month_name was seen; in this case, month_name would be a token.
Literal characters such as ``,'' must also be passed through the lexical analyzer, and are also considered tokens.
Specification files are very flexible. It is realively easy to add to the above example the rule
date : month '/' day '/' year ;allowing
7 / 4 / 1776as a synonym for
July 4, 1776In most cases, this new rule could be ``slipped in'' to a working system with minimal effort, and little danger of disrupting existing input.
The input being read may not conform to the specifications. These input errors are detected as early as is theoretically possible with a left-to-right scan; thus, not only is the chance of reading and computing with bad input data substantially reduced, but the bad data can usually be quickly found. Error handling, provided as part of the input specifications, permits the reentry of bad data, or the continuation of the input process after skipping over the bad data.
In some cases, Yacc fails to produce a parser when given a set of specifications. For example, the specifications may be self contradictory, or they may require a more powerful recognition mechanism than that available to Yacc. The former cases represent design errors; the latter cases can often be corrected by making the lexical analyzer more powerful, or by rewriting some of the grammar rules. While Yacc cannot handle all possible specifications, its power compares favorably with similar systems; moreover, the constructions which are difficult for Yacc to handle are also frequently difficult for human beings to handle. Some users have reported that the discipline of formulating valid Yacc specifications for their input revealed errors of conception or design early in the program development.
The theory underlying Yacc has been described elsewhere.[2,3,4] Yacc has been extensively used in numerous practical applications, including lint , the Portable C Compiler, and a system for typesetting mathematics.
The next several sections describe the basic process of preparing a Yacc specification; Section 1 describes the preparation of grammar rules, Section 2 the preparation of the user supplied actions associated with these rules, and Section 3 the preparation of lexical analyzers. Section 4 describes the operation of the parser. Section 5 discusses various reasons why Yacc may be unable to produce a parser from a specification, and what to do about it. Section 6 describes a simple mechanism for handling operator precedences in arithmetic expressions. Section 7 discusses error detection and recovery. Section 8 discusses the operating environment and special features of the parsers Yacc produces. Section 9 gives some suggestions which should improve the style and efficiency of the specifications. Section 10 discusses some advanced topics, and Section 11 gives acknowledgements. Appendix A has a brief example, and Appendix B gives a summary of the Yacc input syntax. Appendix C gives an example using some of the more advanced features of Yacc, and, finally, Appendix D describes mechanisms and syntax no longer actively supported, but provided for historical continuity with older versions of Yacc.