In this essay, we’ll discuss two techniques for parsing expressions: recursive descent parsing and Pratt parsing.

We’ll implement both parsers for a small expression language, Covey, that supports addition, multiplication, subtraction, division, unary negation, and ternary expressions on numbers and identifiers.

We’ll only cover the implementations of the parsers here to compare the recursive descent and Pratt parsing schemes. For the implementation of a complete expression evaluator, see Building an Expression Evaluator and How to Write a Lisp Interpreter in JavaScript.

Parsers

An expression parser accepts a list of tokens representing an expression and converts it into a parse tree. (An evaluator may then traverse this tree recursively to produce the final result.)

Expression: [1, +, 3, *, 9, -, 43]
Parse tree:
-
├── +
│   ├── 1
│   └── *
│       ├── 3
│       └── 9
└── 43

Notice that the structure of the parse tree matches the order of evaluation of the expression. The sub-expressions to be evaluated first are lower down the tree than the ones to be evaluated last. Even though 1 + 3 appears first in the input expression, 3 * 9 has a higher precedence (remember BODMAS?) and so is at the bottom of the tree.

Besides precedence, parsers also need to handle operator associativity correctly. Operators like +, - (subtraction), /, and * are left-associative, while - (unary negation) and ternary operators are right-associative.

1 + 2 + 3         => ((1 + 2) + 3)
8 * 3 * 9         => ((8 * 3) * 9)
- - - 3           => (- (- (- 3)))
1 ? 2 : 3 ? 4 : 5 => (1 ? 2 : (3 ? 4 : 5))

Expression parsers also follow the formal grammar of the language, which specifies all the possible ways of producing valid expressions in the language.

For example, we may define the formal grammar of Covey as:

expression => ( "-" expression ) |
              ( expression "+" expression ) |
              ( expression "-" expression ) |
              ( expression "/" expression ) |
              ( expression "*" expression ) |
              ( expression "?" expression ":" expression ) |
              primary
primary    => NUMBER | IDENTIFIER

According to this grammar, an expression is a primary or a unary, binary, or ternary operation on a primary or a nested expression. And a primary is a NUMBER or an IDENTIFIER.

Hence all of the following are valid expressions:

3          => expression -> primary -> NUMBER
4 / 2      => expresssion "/" expression (each operand is
              parsed as expression -> primary -> NUMBER)
7 + 2 + 9  => expression "+" expression (first operand is
              parsed as expression "+" expression; second
              operand is parsed as NUMBER)
...and so on...

This grammar describes valid expressions, but it doesn’t account for operator precedence. According to the grammar, the expression 1 + 2 * 3 can be parsed in either of two ways:

  1. As expression "+" expression, where the first expression is a NUMBER, 1, and the other is an expression "*" expression, representing 2 * 3.
  2. As expression "*" expression, where the first expression is an expression "+" expression, representing 1 + 2, and the other is a NUMBER, 3.

Both of those productions are possible according to the formal grammar. But only the first is correct according to precedence rules.

To bake precedence into the grammar, we can rewrite the production rules as follows:

expression => ternary
ternary    => term ( "?" ternary ":" ternary )?
term       => factor ( ( "-" | "+" ) factor )*
factor     => unary ( ( "*" | "/" ) unary )*
unary      => ( "-" ) unary | primary
primary    => NUMBER | IDENTIFIER

In this grammar:

  • An expression is a ternary.
  • A ternary is a term, which may be followed by the rest of a ternary expression. Because ternaries are right-associative, the “then” and “else” branches of the ternary are also ternary-s.
  • A term is a factor followed by zero or more factors separated by a "-" or a "+".
  • A factor is a unary followed by zero or more unary-s separated by a "*" or a "/".
  • A unary is a primary or a "-" followed by a unary.
  • A primary is a NUMBER or an IDENTIFIER.

This grammar removes the ambiguity we discussed earlier. The expression 1 + 2 * 3 now has only one interpretation: a factor "+" factor, where the first factor is a NUMBER and the second is a NUMBER "*" NUMBER.

Recursive descent parsing

The technique we used in the previous section to parse an expression by applying the grammar rules from top to bottom is called recursive descent. To implement a recursive descent parser, we define a set of recursive functions, each of which implements one of the non-terminals of the grammar.

To parse a ternary, we parse a term. Then if a question mark follows, we parse the rest of the ternary expression and return a conditional expression:

private ternary(): Expr {
  let expression = this.term();

  if (this.match(TokenType.QUESTION_MARK)) {
    const thenBranch = this.ternary();
    this.consume(TokenType.COLON, 'Expect colon after ternary condition.');
    const elseBranch = this.ternary();
    return new ConditionalExpr(expression, thenBranch, elseBranch);
  }

  return expression;
}

To parse a term, we parse a factor. While there are subsequent "-" or "+" tokens, we’ll parse another factor to make binary expressions from left to right.

private term(): Expr {
  let expression = this.factor();

  while (this.match(TokenType.MINUS, TokenType.PLUS)) {
    const operator = this.previous();
    const right = this.factor();
    expression = new BinaryExpr(expression, operator, right);
  }

  return expression;
}

To parse a factor, we parse a unary. While there are subsequent "/" or "*" tokens, we’ll parse another unary to make binary expressions from left to right.

private factor(): Expr {
  let expression = this.unary();

  while (this.match(TokenType.SLASH, TokenType.STAR)) {
    const operator = this.previous();
    const right = this.unary();
    expression = new BinaryExpr(expression, operator, right);
  }

  return expression;
}

To parse a unary, we first check if the next token is a unary operator, "-". If it is, we parse a unary and return a unary expression. But if it isn’t, we parse a primary.

private unary(): Expr {
  if (this.match(TokenType.MINUS)) {
    const operator = this.previous();
    const expression = this.unary();
    return new UnaryExpr(operator, expression);
  }
  return this.primary();
}

Finally, to parse a primary, we check if the current token is a number or an identifier and return a literal or variable expression respectively.

private primary(): Expr {
  switch (true) {
    case this.match(TokenType.NUMBER):
      return new LiteralExpr(this.previous().literal!);
    case this.match(TokenType.IDENTIFIER):
      return new VariableExpr(this.previous());
    default:
      throw new ParseError(this.peek(), 'Expect expression.');
  }
}

To parse any given expression, we start with the lowest precedence rule, ternary:

parse(): Expr {
  return this.ternary();
}

Pratt parsing

Pratt parsing describes an alternative way of parsing expressions. Here’s how it works:

To parse an expression: we parse a prefix followed by zero or more infixes of the same or higher precedence. A prefix is a number, an identifier, or a unary. (A unary is a unary token, such as "-", followed by an expression with a precedence of at least UNARY.)

An infix is a binary or a ternary expression. If the infix is a binary expression, the result of the previous prefix parsing is the left operand. To get the right operand, we parse the next sub-expression with a precedence at least one higher than the the binary operator. If the infix is a ternary expression, the result of the prefix parsing is the ternary condition. To get the then- and else-branches, we parse the next sub-expression at a precedence of at least TERNARY.

Let’s take an example. To parse the expression - age + 23 / 5 - 10:1

  • Start parsing with the lowest precedence, TERNARY
  • Parse the prefix. The next token is "-" which matches a unary. To get the unary operand, we (recursively) parse with a precedence of UNARY.
    • Parse the prefix. The next token is age which forms a variable expression.
    • The next token, "+", has a lower precedence than UNARY, so we have no infixes to parse.
    • Result: (- age)
  • The next token, "+", has a higher precedence than TERNARY, so we parse an infix. "+" matches a binary expression; the left operand is the result of the previous prefix parsing: (- age). To get the right operand, we (recursively) parse with a precedence of TERM + 1.
    • Parse the prefix. The next token is 23, resulting in literal expression.
    • The next token, "/", has a precedence, FACTOR, equal to TERM + 1. So we parse an infix. "/" matches a binary expression. The left operand is 23, the result of the previous prefix parsing. And to get the right operand, we (recursively) parse with a precedence of FACTOR + 1, getting 5.
    • Result: (+ (- age) (/ 23 5))
  • The next token, "-", also has a higher precedence than TERNARY. So we parse another infix. "-" matches a binary expression. The left operand is the result of the previous infix parsing: (+ (- age) (/ 23 5)). To get the right operand, we (recursively) parse with a precedence of TERM + 1, getting 10.
  • The final parse tree becomes (- (+ (- age) (/ 23 5)) 10)

To implement the parser, we’ll first define a type, ParseRule, that specifies the precedence of a token type and the functions to be used to parse it as a prefix or an infix.

enum Precedence {
  NONE, // lowest
  TERNARY,
  TERM,
  FACTOR,
  UNARY, // highest
}

type PrefixParseFn = () => Expr;

type InfixParseFn = (left: Expr) => Expr;

interface ParseRule {
  precedence: Precedence;
  prefix?: PrefixParseFn;
  infix?: InfixParseFn;
}

Next, we’ll implement the method that parses the next sub-expression with a given precedence:

private parsePrecedence(precedence: Precedence): Expr {
  const nextToken = this.advance();
  const prefixRule = this.getRule(nextToken.tokenType).prefix;
  if (!prefixRule) {
    throw new Error('Expect expression.');
  }

  let expression = prefixRule();

  while (this.getRule(this.peek().tokenType).precedence >= precedence) {
    const nextToken = this.advance();
    const infixRule = this.getRule(nextToken.tokenType).infix!;
    expression = infixRule(expression);
  }

  return expression;
}

parsePrecedence parses the next prefix expression according to the parse rule of the next token. Then, while the next tokens have a precedence greater than or equal to the given precedence, it parses subsequent infix expressions to make up the final result.

Next, we’ll write the method that returns the parse rule for a token type:

private parseRules: ParseRule[] = [
  { infix: this.binary, precedence: Precedence.TERM }, // PLUS
  { prefix: this.unary, infix: this.binary, precedence: Precedence.TERM }, // MINUS
  { prefix: this.unary, precedence: Precedence.NONE }, // BANG
  { prefix: this.number, precedence: Precedence.NONE }, // NUMBER
  { precedence: Precedence.NONE }, // EOF
  { infix: this.binary, precedence: Precedence.FACTOR }, // STAR
  { infix: this.binary, precedence: Precedence.FACTOR }, // SLASH
  { infix: this.ternary, precedence: Precedence.TERNARY }, // QUESTION_MARK
  { precedence: Precedence.NONE }, // COLON
  { prefix: this.variable, precedence: Precedence.NONE }, // IDENTIFIER
];

private getRule(tokenType: TokenType): ParseRule {
  return this.parseRules[tokenType]!;
}

number parses a literal expression containing a number:

private number: PrefixParseFn = () => {
  return new LiteralExpr(this.previous().literal!);
};

variable parses a variable expression:

private variable: PrefixParseFn = () => {
  return new VariableExpr(this.previous());
};

unary parses a unary expression:

private unary: PrefixParseFn = () => {
  const operator = this.previous();
  const operand = this.parsePrecedence(Precedence.UNARY);
  return new UnaryExpr(operator, operand);
};

binary parses a binary expression:

private binary: InfixParseFn = (left: Expr) => {
  const operator = this.previous();
  const rule = this.getRule(operator.tokenType);
  const right = this.parsePrecedence(rule.precedence + 1);
  return new BinaryExpr(left, operator, right);
};

And ternary parses a ternary expression:

private ternary: InfixParseFn = (left: Expr) => {
  const thenBranch = this.parsePrecedence(Precedence.TERNARY);
  this.consume(TokenType.COLON, 'Expect colon after ternary condition.');
  const elseBranch = this.parsePrecedence(Precedence.TERNARY);
  return new ConditionalExpr(left, thenBranch, elseBranch);
};

To kick off parsing, we’ll call parsePrecedence with the lowest precedence: TERNARY.

parse(): Expr {
  return this.parsePrecedence(Precedence.TERNARY);
}

Comparison and benchmarks

While both parsers can parse any valid expression in the language, they differ in terms of implementation, extensibility, and performance. The structure of the recursive descent parser closely mirrors the formal grammar of the language. And so it may be easier to implement than the Pratt parser, which requires knowledge of a special algorithm.

On the other hand, since the Pratt parser defines all the operations and rules in a single table, it is easier to extend than the recursive descent parser. To add a new operator or change the precedence of an operator, one only has to update the parsing rules. But the same task in the recursive descent parser will require adding new methods and changing existing methods.2

I ran some benchmarks to compare the Recursive Descent and Pratt parsers and found that for a short expression (two binary operations) the recursive descent parser was about 3.4x faster than the Pratt parser. For a longer expression (two unary, twenty-one binary, and two ternary operations), the recursive descent parser was about 0.1x faster.

After some profiling, I noticed that a decent amount of overhead in the Pratt parsing happened during the initialization of the PrattParser object. And so, at the cost of a little less readability, I moved the parse functions outside the PrattParser class definition. After this optimization, the Pratt parser was about 0.7x faster than the recursive descent parser for the short and long expressions.

Input: 1 + 3 - 5
Recursive Descent x 4,825,141 ops/sec ±0.26% (94 runs sampled)
Pratt x 1,106,515 ops/sec ±4.38% (64 runs sampled)
Optimized Pratt x 8,263,421 ops/sec ±0.35% (94 runs sampled)

Input: - 1 + 23 * 4 + age + 4 ? 5 : 9 * height / 5 + 2
Recursive Descent x 1,121,539 ops/sec ±0.22% (97 runs sampled)
Pratt x 812,288 ops/sec ±5.69% (71 runs sampled)
Optimized Pratt x 2,172,998 ops/sec ±0.24% (96 runs sampled)

Input: 2 / 89 + 37 ? 9 : 17 * 90 - 3 + 7 / 1 - - 4 + 89 * 3 + 1 + 9 - 47 - - 9 + 2 ? 4 : 37 * 9 + 0 / 21 + 8 - 9 - 2 / 4
Recursive Descent x 450,890 ops/sec ±0.26% (90 runs sampled)
Pratt x 490,240 ops/sec ±5.28% (80 runs sampled)
Optimized Pratt x 778,055 ops/sec ±0.27% (93 runs sampled)

The complete implementation of the parsers is available on GitHub.


  1. This algorithm is similar to the stack-based shunting yard algorithm implemented in Building an Expression Evaluator↩︎

  2. It’s possible to combine both parsing methods. In a parser for a programming language with statements and expressions, we can use a hybrid scheme: recursive descent parsing for the statements and Pratt parsing for the expressions. ↩︎