Syntax (programming languages)

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File:Python add5 syntax.svg
Syntax highlighting is often used to aid programmers in recognizing elements of source code. The language above is Python.

In computer science, the syntax of a programming language is the set of rules that define the combinations of symbols that are considered to be correctly structured programs in that language. The syntax of a language defines its surface form.[1] Text-based programming languages are based on sequences of characters, while visual programming languages are based on the spatial layout and connections between symbols (which may be textual or graphical).

The lexical grammar of a textual language specifies how characters must be chunked into tokens. Other syntax rules specify the permissible sequences of these tokens and the process of assigning meaning to these token sequences is part of semantics.

The syntactic analysis of source code usually entails the transformation of the linear sequence of tokens into a hierarchical syntax tree (abstract syntax trees are one convenient form of syntax tree). This process is called parsing, as it is in syntactic analysis in linguistics. Tools have been written that automatically generate parsers from a specification of a language grammar written in Backus-Naur form, e.g., Yacc (yet another compiler compiler).

Syntax definition

File:Python add5 parse.svg
Parse tree of Python code with inset tokenization

The syntax of textual programming languages is usually defined using a combination of regular expressions (for lexical structure) and Backus-Naur Form (for grammatical structure) to inductively specify syntactic categories (nonterminals) and terminal symbols. Syntactic categories are defined by rules called productions, which specify the values that belong to a particular syntactic category.[1] Terminal symbols are the concrete characters or strings of characters (for example keywords such as define, if, let, or void) from which syntactically valid programs are constructed.

Below is a simple grammar, based on Lisp, which defines productions for the syntactic categories expression, atom, number, symbol, and list:

expression ::= atom | list
atom  ::= number | symbol
number  ::= [+-]?['0'-'9']+
symbol  ::= ['A'-'Z''a'-'z'].*
list  ::= '(' expression* ')'

This grammar specifies the following:

  • an expression is either an atom or a list;
  • an atom is either a number or a symbol;
  • a number is an unbroken sequence of one or more decimal digits, optionally preceded by a plus or minus sign;
  • a symbol is a letter followed by zero or more of any characters (excluding whitespace); and
  • a list is a matched pair of parentheses, with zero or more expressions inside it.

Here the decimal digits, upper- and lower-case characters, and parentheses are terminal symbols.

The following are examples of well-formed token sequences in this grammar: '12345', '()', '(a b c232 (1))'

The grammar needed to specify a programming language can be classified by its position in the Chomsky hierarchy. The syntax of most programming languages can be specified using a Type-2 grammar, i.e., they are context-free grammars.[2] However, there are exceptions. In some languages like Perl and Lisp the specification (or implementation) of the language allows constructs that execute during the parsing phase. Furthermore, these languages have constructs that allow the programmer to alter the behavior of the parser. This combination effectively blurs the distinction between parsing and execution, and makes syntax analysis an undecidable problem in these languages, meaning that the parsing phase may not finish. For example, in Perl it is possible to execute code during parsing using a BEGIN statement, and Perl function prototypes may alter the syntactic interpretation, and possibly even the syntactic validity of the remaining code.[3] Similarly, Lisp macros introduced by the defmacro syntax also execute during parsing, meaning that a Lisp compiler must have an entire Lisp run-time system present. In contrast C macros are merely string replacements, and do not require code execution.[4][5]

Syntax versus semantics

The syntax of a language describes the form of a valid program, but does not provide any information about the meaning of the program or the results of executing that program. The meaning given to a combination of symbols is handled by semantics (either formal or hard-coded in a reference implementation). Not all syntactically correct programs are semantically correct. Many syntactically correct programs are nonetheless ill-formed, per the language's rules; and may (depending on the language specification and the soundness of the implementation) result in an error on translation or execution. In some cases, such programs may exhibit undefined behavior. Even when a program is well-defined within a language, it may still have a meaning that is not intended by the person who wrote it.

Using natural language as an example, it may not be possible to assign a meaning to a grammatically correct sentence or the sentence may be false:

  • "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." is grammatically well-formed but has no generally accepted meaning.
  • "John is a married bachelor." is grammatically well-formed but expresses a meaning that cannot be true.

The following C language fragment is syntactically correct, but performs an operation that is not semantically defined (because p is a null pointer, the operations p->real and p->im have no meaning):

complex *p = NULL;
complex abs_p = sqrt (p->real * p->real + p->im * p->im);


  1. 1.0 1.1 Friedman, Daniel P.; Mitchell Wand, Christopher T. Haynes (1992). Essentials of Programming Languages (1st ed.). The MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-06145-7. 
  2. Michael Sipser (1997). Introduction to the Theory of Computation. PWS Publishing. ISBN 0-534-94728-X.  Section 2.2: Pushdown Automata, pp.101–114.
  3. The following discussions give examples:
ar:تركيب نحوي (لغة برمجة)

it:Sintassi (informatica) mk:Синтакса (компјутерско програмирање) nl:Syntaxis (informatica) ru:Синтаксис (программирование) vi:Cú pháp câu lệnh ta:தொடரியல் (நிரலாக்கம்)

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