Attribute grammars provide a formal framework that combines the syntax and semantics of a programming language, specifically focusing on the dynamic semantics. By associating attributes with syntax tree nodes, attribute grammars enable the specification of dynamic semantics and the computation of values and rules during runtime execution.

In attribute grammars, each attribute is associated with a specific syntax tree node and has a well-defined computation rule. These rules determine how attributes of child nodes contribute to the attribute value of the parent node. Attributes can represent various aspects, such as type information, variable bindings, or intermediate results of computations.


Semantics of a language provide meaning to its constructs, like tokens and syntax structure. Semantics help interpret symbols, their types, and their relations with each other. Semantic analysis judges whether the syntax structure constructed in the source program derives any meaning or not.

CFG + semantic rules = Syntax Directed Definitions

For example:

Attribute Grammar Dynamic Semantic

The attribute grammar framework facilitates the analysis and evaluation of programs at runtime. It allows for the enforcement of typing rules, ensuring that expressions are properly typed. Attribute grammars can handle type inference, automatically deducing the types of expressions based on the context.

Furthermore, attribute grammars enable the resolution of variable references by tracking variable scopes and bindings. This ensures that variables are accessed correctly and consistently throughout the program.

Attribute grammars also handle the dynamic aspects of a language, including control flow constructs such as loops and conditionals. The attribute computations associated with these constructs determine the control flow behavior and guide the program execution.

Aside from dynamic semantic analysis, attribute grammars have applications in static analysis and optimization. The computed attributes can be used for data flow analysis, detecting potential errors, or performing compile-time optimizations. For instance, attributes can capture information about constant folding, dead code elimination, or variable liveness analysis.

The use of attribute grammars in language implementation provides a formal and systematic approach to specifying the dynamic semantics. By associating attributes with syntax tree nodes, it ensures that the behavior and execution of code are accurately defined and enforced.

To work with attribute grammars, specialized tools and frameworks can be utilized. These tools automate the process of defining and propagating attributes, making the specification and analysis of dynamic semantics more manageable and efficient.


Here’s an example of how attribute grammar can be used to specify dynamic semantics for a simple arithmetic language:

Consider the following attribute grammar rules for evaluating arithmetic expressions:

  1. E -> E1 + T { E.value = E1.value + T.value }
  2. E -> T { E.value = T.value }
  3. T -> T1 * F { T.value = T1.value * F.value }
  4. T -> F { T.value = F.value }
  5. F -> (E) { F.value = E.value }
  6. F -> num { F.value = num.value }

In this example, we define attributes to represent the computed values of expressions. The attribute ‘value’ is associated with each non-terminal symbol (E, T, F) and represents the value of the corresponding expression.

When an attribute is computed, its value is determined based on the values of its child nodes according to the defined rules. For instance, rule 1 states that the value of an expression E is the sum of the value of E1 (left-hand side) and T (right-hand side). Rule 6 specifies that the value of a numeric literal F is simply the value of the literal itself.

Using this attribute grammar, we can evaluate arithmetic expressions by constructing a syntax tree and propagating the attribute values upwards. For example, consider the expression 2 + (3 * 4):

  1. Parse the expression and construct the syntax tree:
    E T
    | /
    T F *
    | | /
    F 3 4
  2. Propagate attribute values according to the defined rules:
    E.value = E1.value + T.value
    = 2 + (3 * 4)
    T.value = T1.value * F.value
    = 3 * 4
    F.value = num.value
    = 2

Thus, the attribute ‘value’ of the root node E will hold the computed result of the arithmetic expression, which in this case would be 14.

This example illustrates how attribute grammars can be used to define and compute dynamic semantics by associating attributes with syntax tree nodes. By propagating attribute values according to specified rules, we can evaluate expressions and obtain meaningful results.


In summary, attribute grammars play a crucial role in specifying and evaluating the dynamic semantics of programming languages. By associating attributes with syntax tree nodes, they enable the computation and propagation of values and rules during runtime execution. Attribute grammars facilitate dynamic semantic analysis, type checking, variable resolution, control flow handling, and even static analysis and optimization. Their formal and systematic approach ensures that the dynamic behavior of programs is well-defined, leading to more reliable and efficient language implementations.

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