Abstract Syntax Tree

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An abstract syntax tree (AST) is a finite, labeled, directed tree, where the internal nodes are labeled by operators, and the leaf nodes represent the operands of the node operators. Thus, the leaves have nullary operators, i.e., variables or constants. In computing, it is used in a parser as an intermediate between a parse tree and a data structure, the latter which is often used as a compiler or interpreter's internal representation of a computer program while it is being optimized and from which code generation is performed. The range of all possible such structures is described by the abstract syntax.

An AST differs from a parse tree by omitting nodes and edges for syntax rules that do not affect the semantics of the program. The classic example of such an omission is grouping parentheses, since in an AST the grouping of operands is explicit in the tree structure. Creating an AST in a parser for a language described by a context free grammar, as nearly all programming languages are, is straightforward. Most rules in the grammar create a new node with the nodes edges being the symbols in the rule. Rules that do not contribute to the AST, such as grouping rules, merely pass through the node for one of their symbols. Alternatively, a parser can create a full parse tree, and a post-pass over the parse tree can convert it to an AST by removing the nodes and edges not used in the abstract syntax.

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