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3.2 Symbols, Terminal and Nonterminal

Symbols in Bison grammars represent the grammatical classifications of the language.

A terminal symbol (also known as a token type) represents a class of syntactically equivalent tokens. You use the symbol in grammar rules to mean that a token in that class is allowed. The symbol is represented in the Bison parser by a numeric code, and the yylex function returns a token type code to indicate what kind of token has been read. You don’t need to know what the code value is; you can use the symbol to stand for it.

A nonterminal symbol stands for a class of syntactically equivalent groupings. The symbol name is used in writing grammar rules. By convention, it should be all lower case.

Symbol names can contain letters, underscores, periods, and non-initial digits and dashes. Dashes in symbol names are a GNU extension, incompatible with POSIX Yacc. Periods and dashes make symbol names less convenient to use with named references, which require brackets around such names (see section Named References). Terminal symbols that contain periods or dashes make little sense: since they are not valid symbols (in most programming languages) they are not exported as token names.

There are three ways of writing terminal symbols in the grammar:

How you choose to write a terminal symbol has no effect on its grammatical meaning. That depends only on where it appears in rules and on when the parser function returns that symbol.

The value returned by yylex is always one of the terminal symbols, except that a zero or negative value signifies end-of-input. Whichever way you write the token type in the grammar rules, you write it the same way in the definition of yylex. The numeric code for a character token type is simply the positive numeric code of the character, so yylex can use the identical value to generate the requisite code, though you may need to convert it to unsigned char to avoid sign-extension on hosts where char is signed. Each named token type becomes a C macro in the parser implementation file, so yylex can use the name to stand for the code. (This is why periods don’t make sense in terminal symbols.) See section Calling Convention for yylex.

If yylex is defined in a separate file, you need to arrange for the token-type macro definitions to be available there. Use the ‘-d’ option when you run Bison, so that it will write these macro definitions into a separate header file ‘’ which you can include in the other source files that need it. See section Invoking Bison.

If you want to write a grammar that is portable to any Standard C host, you must use only nonnull character tokens taken from the basic execution character set of Standard C. This set consists of the ten digits, the 52 lower- and upper-case English letters, and the characters in the following C-language string:

"\a\b\t\n\v\f\r !\"#%&'()*+,-./:;<=>?[\\]^_{|}~"

The yylex function and Bison must use a consistent character set and encoding for character tokens. For example, if you run Bison in an ASCII environment, but then compile and run the resulting program in an environment that uses an incompatible character set like EBCDIC, the resulting program may not work because the tables generated by Bison will assume ASCII numeric values for character tokens. It is standard practice for software distributions to contain C source files that were generated by Bison in an ASCII environment, so installers on platforms that are incompatible with ASCII must rebuild those files before compiling them.

The symbol error is a terminal symbol reserved for error recovery (see section Error Recovery); you shouldn’t use it for any other purpose. In particular, yylex should never return this value. The default value of the error token is 256, unless you explicitly assigned 256 to one of your tokens with a %token declaration.

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