7: Error Handling

Error handling is an extremely difficult area, and many of the problems are semantic ones. When an error is found, for example, it may be necessary to reclaim parse tree storage, delete or alter symbol table entries, and, typically, set switches to avoid generating any further output.

It is seldom acceptable to stop all processing when an error is found; it is more useful to continue scanning the input to find further syntax errors. This leads to the problem of getting the parser ``restarted'' after an error. A general class of algorithms to do this involves discarding a number of tokens from the input string, and attempting to adjust the parser so that input can continue.

To allow the user some control over this process, Yacc provides a simple, but reasonably general, feature. The token name ``error'' is reserved for error handling. This name can be used in grammar rules; in effect, it suggests places where errors are expected, and recovery might take place. The parser pops its stack until it enters a state where the token ``error'' is legal. It then behaves as if the token ``error'' were the current lookahead token, and performs the action encountered. The lookahead token is then reset to the token that caused the error. If no special error rules have been specified, the processing halts when an error is detected.

In order to prevent a cascade of error messages, the parser, after detecting an error, remains in error state until three tokens have been successfully read and shifted. If an error is detected when the parser is already in error state, no message is given, and the input token is quietly deleted.

As an example, a rule of the form

stat	:	error
would, in effect, mean that on a syntax error the parser would attempt to skip over the statement in which the error was seen. More precisely, the parser will scan ahead, looking for three tokens that might legally follow a statement, and start processing at the first of these; if the beginnings of statements are not sufficiently distinctive, it may make a false start in the middle of a statement, and end up reporting a second error where there is in fact no error.

Actions may be used with these special error rules. These actions might attempt to reinitialize tables, reclaim symbol table space, etc.

Error rules such as the above are very general, but difficult to control. Somewhat easier are rules such as

stat	:	error  ';'
Here, when there is an error, the parser attempts to skip over the statement, but will do so by skipping to the next ';'. All tokens after the error and before the next ';' cannot be shifted, and are discarded. When the ';' is seen, this rule will be reduced, and any ``cleanup'' action associated with it performed.

Another form of error rule arises in interactive applications, where it may be desirable to permit a line to be reentered after an error. A possible error rule might be

input	:	error  '\n'  {  printf( "Reenter last line: " );  }  input
			{	$$  =  $4;  }
There is one potential difficulty with this approach; the parser must correctly process three input tokens before it admits that it has correctly resynchronized after the error. If the reentered line contains an error in the first two tokens, the parser deletes the offending tokens, and gives no message; this is clearly unacceptable. For this reason, there is a mechanism that can be used to force the parser to believe that an error has been fully recovered from. The statement
yyerrok ;
in an action resets the parser to its normal mode. The last example is better written
input	:	error  '\n'
			{	yyerrok;
				printf( "Reenter last line: " );   }
			{	$$  =  $4;  }

As mentioned above, the token seen immediately after the ``error'' symbol is the input token at which the error was discovered. Sometimes, this is inappropriate; for example, an error recovery action might take upon itself the job of finding the correct place to resume input. In this case, the previous lookahead token must be cleared. The statement

yyclearin ;
in an action will have this effect. For example, suppose the action after error were to call some sophisticated resynchronization routine, supplied by the user, that attempted to advance the input to the beginning of the next valid statement. After this routine was called, the next token returned by yylex would presumably be the first token in a legal statement; the old, illegal token must be discarded, and the error state reset. This could be done by a rule like
stat	:	error 
			{	resynch();
				yyerrok ;
				yyclearin ;   }

These mechanisms are admittedly crude, but do allow for a simple, fairly effective recovery of the parser from many errors; moreover, the user can get control to deal with the error actions required by other portions of the program.