The Role of the Lexical Analyzer
Lexical Analysis versus Parsing: There are a number of reasons why the analysis portion of a compiler is normally separated into lexical analysis and parsing (syntax analysis) phases.
- Simplicity of design is the most important consideration. The separation of lexical and syntactic analysis often allows us to simplify at least one of these tasks. For example, a parser that had to deal with comments and whitespace as syntactic units would be considerably more complex than one that can assume comments and whitespace have already been removed by the lexical analyzer. If we are designing a new language, separating lexical and syntactic concerns can lead to a cleaner overall language design.
- Compiler efficiency is improved. A separate lexical analyzer allows us to apply specialized techniques that serve only the lexical task, not the job of parsing. In addition, specialized buffering techniques for reading input characters can speed up the compiler significantly.
- Compiler portability is enhanced. Input-device-specific peculiarities can be restricted to the lexical analyzer.
Tokens, Patterns, and Lexemes: When discussing lexical analysis, we use three related but distinct terms:
- A token is a pair consisting of a token name and an optional attribute value. The token name is an abstract symbol representing a kind of lexical unit, e.g., a particular keyword, or a sequence of input characters denoting an identifier. The token names are the input symbols that the parser processes. In what follows, we shall generally write the name of a token in boldface. We will often refer to a token by its token name.
- A pattern is a description of the form that the lexemes of a token may take. In the case of a keyword as a token, the pattern is just the sequence of characters that form the keyword. For identifiers and some other tokens, the pattern is a more complex structure that is matched by many strings.
- A lexeme is a sequence of characters in the source program that matches the pattern for a token and is identified by the lexical analyzer as an instance of that token.
Attributes for Tokens: When more than one lexeme can match a pattern, the lexical analyzer must provide the subsequent compiler phase’s additional information about the particular lexeme that matched. For example, the pattern for token number matches both 0 and 1, but it is extremely important for the code generator to know which lexeme was found in the source program. Thus, in many cases the lexical analyzer returns to the parser not only a token name, but an attribute value that describes the lexeme represented by the token; the token name influences parsing decisions, while the attribute value influences translation of tokens after the parse.
We shall assume that tokens have at most one associated attribute, although this attribute may have a structure that combines several pieces of information. The most important example is the token id, where we need to associate with the token a great deal of information. Normally, information about an identifier — e.g., its lexeme, its type, and the location at which it is first found (in case an error message about that identifier must be issued) — is kept in the symbol table. Thus, the appropriate attribute value for an identifier is a pointer to the symbol-table entry for that identifier.
Lexical Errors: It is hard for a lexical analyzer to tell, without the aid of other components,that there is a source-code error. For instance, if the string f i is encounteredfor the first time in a C program in the context:
f i ( a == f ( x ) ) . ..
a lexical analyzer cannot tell whether f i is a misspelling of the keyword if or an undeclared function identifier. Since f i is a valid lexeme for the token id, the lexical analyzer must return the token id to the parser and let some other phase of the compiler — probably the parser in this case — handle an error due to transposition of the letters.
However, suppose a situation arises in which the lexical analyzer is unable to proceed because none of the patterns for tokens matches any prefix of the remaining input. The simplest recovery strategy is "panic mode" recovery. We delete successive characters from the remaining input, until the lexical analyzer can find a well-formed token at the beginning of what input is left. This recovery technique may confuse the parser, but in an interactive computing environment it may be quite adequate.
1. Other possible error-recovery actions are:
2. Delete one character from the remaining input.
3. Insert a missing character into the remaining input.
4. Replace a character by another character.
5. Transpose two adjacent characters.
Transformations like these may be tried in an attempt to repair the input. The simplest such strategy is to see whether a prefix of the remaining input can be transformed into a valid lexeme by a single transformation. This strategy makes sense, since in practice most lexical errors involve a single character. A more general correction strategy is to find the smallest number of transformations needed to convert the source program into one that consists only of valid lexemes, but this approach is considered too expensive in practice to be worth the effort.