Introduction to Parsers

Theory of Formal Grammars

Type 3 — Regular languages

A deterministic finite automata representing the following regular expression: /-?[0–9]+\.?[0–9]*/

Type 2 — Context-Free languages

{ 0^n 1^n | n >= 0 }
  1. If you see a 0, push it onto the stack and go back to (1).
  2. If you see a 1, pop an item from the stack and go back to (2).
  3. If the stack is empty, we’ve verified that the input string is “in the language”.
***bold**italic*    =>  <em><strong>bold</strong>italic</em>***italic*bold**    =>  <strong><em>italic</em>bold<strong>*italic**not bold*  =>  <em>italic**not bold</em>

Type 1 — Context-Sensitive languages

{ a^n b^n c^n | n >= 0 }
  1. Read the first a and overwrite it with an x.
  2. Move to the first b and overwrite it with an x.
  3. Move to the first c and overwrite it with an x.
  4. Then move back to the beginning and go back to (1).
  5. If you make it to the end of the string looking for the first a and they’re all x’s, then we’ve verified the string.

Type 0 — Recursively Enumerable languages

An Unsolved Conjecture

Parser Combinators

A Naive Approach

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Round 2

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Other Libraries


  • The Chomsky Hierarchy defines four classes of formal languages that can be distinguished by the complexity of the program required to parse and validate a string.
  • Most programming languages are context-free and probably has a BNF grammar defined somewhere. A good place to start looking is ANTLR’s extensive list of examples.
  • Some languages, like Markdown, have lots of ambiguities. Even if they are context-free, it’s exceedingly difficult to define a parsing expression using BNF.
  • Parser combinators are an elegant general-purpose solution for all of your parsing needs.




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