Theoretical Computer Science Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for theoretical computer scientists and researchers in related fields. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

As a side-project, I'm writing a language using Python. I started by using a flex/bison clone called Ply, but am coming up against the edges in the power of what I can express with that style of grammar, and I'm not interested in hacking up my language because of an impedance mismatch with the tool. Therefore, I'm not averse to writing my own.

So what's the most powerful type of parser? Citations to papers (as well as more introductory articles) would be welcome.

(I know that 'powerful' is not precisely defined, but let's be a little loose with it and see where the answers go)

share|cite|improve this question
Downvoted: not research level. – Warren Schudy Oct 23 '10 at 1:07
@Warren: I checked the FAQ before asking - that doesn't seem to be a requirement. – Paul Biggar Oct 23 '10 at 1:30
there are actually two FAQs, one for the general site and one for CStheory. The CStheory one indicates that questions that can be answered by e.g. reading Wikipedia are off-topic; see "What kind of questions are too basic?" in… . – Warren Schudy Oct 23 '10 at 1:45
@Warren: That's the FAQ I read. I had read wikipedia, but I felt this needed actual insight. – Paul Biggar Oct 23 '10 at 1:55
To you mean parsers in production or theoretical ones, i.e. ones that cover grammar types other than CFG? – Raphael Oct 23 '10 at 8:44
up vote 30 down vote accepted

A grammar is usually defined as a Context Free grammar - a precise definition is given on the Wikipedia page, but it works the same as it does in PLY, which is based on Bison, which is in turn based on yacc.

It says here that PLY uses a LALR parser. This is essentially an LR parser where the lookup tables are condensed, possibly introducing parsing conflicts, reducing some of the expressiveness of an LR grammar (ie, a context free grammar that an LR parser can parse). If you want to know about the limitations of this particular branch of parsers and those of other parsers, an overview of all kinds of parsing techniques (LL, LR and others) is given here.

To answer your question: there exist parsing algorithms capable of parsing any context-free language, even if the language is ambiguous (ie, there is more than one way to interpret the input):

The first such algorithm was the CYK algorithm, which unfortunately has a running time of $O(n^3 |G|)$, where $n$ is the length of the input string and $|G|$ is the size of the grammar and is therefore impractical for parsing languages.

The second algorithm is the Earley algorithm. This algorithm is also capable of parsing any context free grammar. Although the algorithm needs $O(n^3)$ time to parse an ambiguous language, it only needs $O(n^2)$ time to parse an unambiguous language. In addition, it apparently works in linear time for most LR grammars and works particularly well on left-recursive grammars.

Here you can find a paper discussing a practical implementation of (an adaptation of) the Earley algorithm. They conclude: "Given the generality of Earley parsing compared to LALR(1) parsing ((which is roughly what PLY does)), and considering that even PEP’s ((their implementation of Earley's algorithm)) worst time would not be noticeable by a user, this is an excellent result".

The last type of parser is the GLR parser. This is a generalised version of LR parsing, capable of parsing any context-free language.

A mature implementation of GLR is ASF+SDF. Bison can also generate a GLR parser, though its implementations is slightly different from the 'standard' GLR algorithm. The Elkhound Algorithm is a GLR/LALR hybrid algorithm. It uses LALR when possible and GLR when needed, in order to be both fast and capable of parsing any grammar.

Beyond context free grammars there are context sensitive grammars, but these are in general hard to parse and don't add that much expressiveness: you can do more with them, but for most applications the extra uses are not relevant, unless you're parsing a natural language.

As the final step there are unrestricted grammars. At this point the grammar is Turing-complete, so there is no bound one can give on how long it will take to parse a particular language, which is undesirable for most parsing applications. The extra power is almost never needed. If you do want to use all that power, there is the language machine available.

Lastly, implementing your own parser-generator is not a trivial affair, in particular to get it to be fast. I've personally just finished making my own version of flex (the lexer generator), and while this seemed like an exercise in relatively simple algorithmic problems, it became quite complex to get right, in particular when I tried to support Unicode. Consider using an already existing implementation instead of writing your own.

share|cite|improve this answer
Excellent answer!! Any thoughts on how PEGs fit in? – Paul Biggar Oct 23 '10 at 0:44
PEGs are 'different' than CFGs: there are CFGs that are not PEGs and vice versa. I refer you to here:…. – Alex ten Brink Oct 23 '10 at 1:15
This might also be of interest: – Alex ten Brink Oct 23 '10 at 1:18
Actually, most common parser generators (yacc, Antlr, bison) allow non-CF concepts by predicates or arbitrary code that checks wether one rule can be applied resp. deciding precedence. This can be used to implement static semantics mainly since basic syntax remains in essence context free. – Raphael Oct 23 '10 at 8:48
Recursive languages are precisely the languages decidable by always-halting Turing Machines. Any context sensitive language is therefore also recursive, but since context sensitive languages are decidable in exponential time, there are recursive languages that are not context sensitive. Unrestricted grammars are even more powerful: the halting problem can be described by an unrestricted grammar, but is not a recursive language. – Alex ten Brink Oct 24 '10 at 0:19

A paper at ICFP 2010 this year, Total Parser Combinators, describes a provably terminating parser combinator library and also establishes that in this library "parser combinators are as expressive as possible" given that the parser is guaranteed to terminate. Unfortunately I don't remember the explanation the author gave for what "as expressive as possible" means, but it certainly seems relevant to your question about "power."

share|cite|improve this answer
I have a car that does not pollute, Actually it does not move either... So the question is : what kind of language is parsed by this library ? Not meaning that this work is not interesting, of course. – babou Jun 13 '13 at 9:49

If you want to go beyond context-free grammars for parsing programming languages, but still parse in polynomial time, you can resort to parsing expression grammars, or boolean grammars - the latter are also available in LL and LR flavors (see here). In formal language theory, also the powerful yet linear-time recognizable Church-Rosser languages are studied, but I am not aware of any implemented parser generators for these.

In natural language processing, tastes are different, for instance, dealing with ambiguity (also: inherent ambiguity) and free word order plays a very prominent role. Here the keywords mildly context sensitive languages and restart automata might help you to start reading.

share|cite|improve this answer
Considering the way the question was asked, and the complaint that CF is too constraining, your answer is clearly the best. So it goes ... – babou Jun 12 '13 at 22:42

Parser Generator Tools:

ANTLR is very good. Alternatively, you can have a look at JavaCC

share|cite|improve this answer
I am not a computer scientiest (despite what my degree says ;), so my words might weigh lightly here. I agree with Sazzad - ANTLR is a very powerful tool. It is very complete, and I have yet to find any problems with the parser generator (LL(k) if I recall correctly). On the other hand, I have yet to implement a compiler of for a somewhat complex grammar... – Jörgen Sigvardsson Dec 21 '10 at 19:54
I think you're missing the point of the question, and perhaps the entire site. It's about parsing theory, not about implementations and tools. – Paul Biggar Dec 22 '10 at 6:41

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.