If I were writing a compiler (say for a stack-based VM), the code for an if statement:

if (<some_expression>)

Would be translated to the following psuedo-assembly:

<evaluate expression and push result on stack>

This is easy to implement in a compiler, however I'm not sure how to implement this in an interpreter.

The difference between an interpreter and a compiler, is that a compiler outputs instructions to be performed later, and an interpreter performs right away.

So e.g. instead of outputting the instruction PUSH, an interpreter would simply PUSH on a stack it maintains. And so on.

So regarding JUMP instructions (such as the JUMP-IF-TRUE psuedo-instruction), I guess my question is how are these implemented in interpreters?

More accurately, how can I make an interpreter 'jump' over a piece of code, for example when interpreting an if statement?

  • 1
    Usually using the if of the host language, executing (or skipping) interpreter input as appropriate.
    – Telastyn
    May 9, 2015 at 22:43
  • It depends entirely on what the interpreter interprets. Bytecode? AST? God forbid, lines of source code?
    – user7043
    May 9, 2015 at 22:57
  • I would be hard-pressed to name a modern interpreter that works this way. Even if not compiling to machine code, the idea of JIT is very pervasive. Even if the compiled form is simply kept in memory and not stored in an executable file, interpreters will still compile scripts.
    – user22815
    May 9, 2015 at 23:09
  • @Snowman You seem to be confusing something. Hardly anything that goes by the term JIT compiler stores the generated code in files. The real distinction is that JIT compilers generate machine code to be executed by the CPU while the interpreters you seem to be talking about generate some sort of byte code that is then interpreted by a virtual machine/interpreter. Totally different target language and performance characteristics and technical difficulties and architecture.
    – user7043
    May 9, 2015 at 23:17
  • 2
    Not that it would matter a lot for this discussion but your pseudo-assembly should JUMP-IF-FALSE.
    – 5gon12eder
    May 10, 2015 at 0:00

4 Answers 4


As a picture is worth a thousand words, let's write an interpreter together! Of course, a very simple one. We use OCaml for this, but if you do not know OCaml, this is fine, because we will write very little code and comment it anyway.

We first define what is a program for us. We consider a very simple language, allowing to print text, add numbers, and test if a number is zero with an if-statement:

type statement =
| Print of string
| If of expr * statement * statement
| Sequence of statement list
and expr =
| Constant of int
| Plus of expr * expr

The code above is a type declaration and defines what our idea of a program is. It defines an abstract symbolic form for programs – as opposed to the concrete tetual form – which is easy to manipulate in OCaml. This type definition is a plain translation of the english description of what a program is, with the addition of a sequence, to execute more operations. (If we remove the Plus and the Sequence operations we pretty much obtain the smallest possible language demonstrating an If statement, but I felt it could be a bit too boring!)

Real life note In real life, a program contains a lot of annotations. An important one is that program elements are typically annotated with their location in termes of file, line, column, which is useful to report errors.

We can already write an entertaining program in our language:

let program = Sequence([
  Print("Hello, world!");
    Print("One is the truth"),
    Print("One is a lie"));
  Print("Oh, that was a tough one!");

This should print the text Hello, world! to please Dennis, then compute 1 + 0 and compare the result to 0 – as for the definition of If in our language - if the result is distinct from 0, then the first branch is executed and the perlish message One is the truth is printed, otherwise the also perlish message One is a lie is printed. After such a tough challenge, our strained computer will share its feelings Oh, that was a tough one!.

Real life note In the real world, one needs to write a parser to translate plain text into an abstract program as the one held by the variable program. We can use lex and yacc for this, and their various derivatives.

Now let us write an interpreter for our language. (If you felt asleep, wake up now, the actual answer to the question will soon be presented!)

let rec interpreter = function
| Sequence(hd::tl) -> interpreter hd; interpreter(Sequence(tl))
| Sequence([]) -> ()
| Print(message) -> print_endline message
| If(condition, truebranch, falsebranch) ->
    (* The answer to the question is here! *)
    if (eval condition) <> 0 then
      interpreter truebranch
      interpreter falsebranch
and eval = function
| Constant(c) -> c
| Plus(a,b) -> (eval a) + (eval b)

Most of us are likely not familiar with OCaml, so let us walk gently through this piece of code:

let rec interpreter = function
| Sequence(head::tail) -> interpreter head; interpreter(Sequence(tail))
   (* To interpret a list of statements, we interpret the first
      and then interpret the tail of the list. *)

| Sequence([]) -> ()
   (* To interpret an empty list of statements, we just do nothing.
      Fair enough, right? *)

| Print(message) -> print_endline message
    (* To print a message, we use the host-language printing facility. *)

| If(condition, truebranch, falsebranch) ->
    (* The answer to the question is here!

       We first evaluate the condition, with the eval function below
       and use the host-language if facility to take the decision
       of recursively calling the interpreter on the truebranch or
       the falsebranch. *)

    if (eval condition) <> 0 then
      interpreter truebranch
      interpreter falsebranch

and eval = function
| Constant(c) -> c
    (* Constants evaluate to themselves *)
| Plus(a,b) -> (eval a) + (eval b)
    (* A Plus statement evaluates to the sum of its parts. *)

Now let's execute the program:

let () = interpreter program

which causes the output

Hello, world!
One is the truth
Oh, that was a tough one!

It you want to try it, just copy the program snippets in a file interpreter.ml and run with ocaml from your shell prompt:

% ocaml imterpreter.ml

Conclusion When we write an interpreter using an intermediate abstract representation of the program like in this small example. The If statement is easily implemented in terms of conditionals in the host language. Other strategies are possible, it is perfectly imaginable to compile the program “on the fly” and to feed it to a virtual machine. (Some people will argue that there is essentially no difference between the two approaches.)


If your language is truly interpreted (i.e., it executes statements as encountered and doesn't convert the entire program into a data structure once at startup), there are two ways for the interpreter to handle conditions:

Explicit Jump. Languages like BASIC that aren't much of a step up from assembly require that the program explicitly say where to go next:

20 IF A <> 5 THEN 40
30 PRINT "A IS 5"

The THEN clause in line 20 is an explicit jump. The hardware running assembly (well, machine code) would handle this by jumping to an address in memory; interpreted BASIC handles it by searching the program for the destination line number.

You can see this in action in the source code for Applesoft BASIC, where statements are tokenized as they're keyed in but execution still works as if they're being interpreted individually. The IF statement (handled at address D9C9) evaluates the expression and, if true and the THEN clause is a line number, executes a GOTO (address D9E6). The GOTO code (at D93E) searches ahead from the current line if the destination line is greater or from the top of the program if not.

Block Skip. Languages with more structure put a restriction on direct jumps as part of an if statement by requiring that execution continue only in a forward direction* and that there be something to indicate that the end of the statements to be executed if true has been reached. Some languages do this with block markers (e.g., BEGIN...END or {...}); others, like the Bourne shell, have a marker for identifying the end of the "true" block that's if-statement-specific:

# Bourne Shell
if [ "$A" eq 5 ]
  echo "A was 5"
echo "Doing the next thing"

If the test result is false, the interpreter will expect and swallow a then statement and then continue reading lines without actually executing any of them until one that has some control significance to the if (anything but else, elsif and fi) is encountered. Note that while modern versions of the Bourne shell will attempt to interpret the statements within the block for syntactical correctness, a naive implementation could simply ignore the contents until reaching an else, elsif or fi with no effect on how the program executes.

*Backwards is allowed using only language-provided looping constructs or the ever-frowned-upon goto.

  • I'm upvoting this because you actually provided proof (The Applesoft BASIC source code is still available? Who knew?) May 10, 2015 at 0:46
  • @RobertHarvey: Commented, no less. That source isn't the original, but it's an excellent teaching tool. I'd love to find something similar for CP/M. Edit: well, that was easy.
    – Blrfl
    May 10, 2015 at 0:53

(NOTE: there are other ways of doing things. I am describing a simple way. This is NOT the most efficient way. Real interpreters use all sorts of tricks to save time)

When running a compiled program, the processor have a Program Counter that tells it which part of the program it is executing. The machine code JMP instruction sets the PC to a new value and the processors starts executing the corresponding part of the program

When you make an interpreter, you need to have a variable that corresponds to the Program Counter. This variable will point to some place in the source program. Let us call this variable IPC.

When you come to an if and need to skip the body, you have to look through the source code for the end. In the example you give, you need to look for the ending }. When you have found it just set IPC to the next location and you are good to go.

On a modern processor, you also have a stack which is where a machine code program will store information about subroutine parameters, return addresses and local variables.

In an interpreter you will probably need to store similar information on one or more stacks or other data structures. This will be independent of the machine code stack.

Loops are complicated, you either need to keep information about them in another data structure of search backwards for the loop start.

Doing all this in a simple way will be slow. If you encounter the same if again you will need to search through the code again.

Real interpreters add lots of time saving tricks. The interpreter becomes much faster, but also much more complicated.


Any interpreter worth its salt does not "execute" the source code directly. Rather, it executes some other internal representation of the source code, like an Abstract Syntax Tree (AST).

When your program is loaded, the parser makes a quick pass through the source code to turn the source into its corresponding internal form. This can be done very quickly. Once the source is in an AST, it will already contain jump instructions that point directly to specific addresses. This alleviates the need to parse the source during execution until you find the target label for the jump.

  • Tokenized as in lexical analysis? I don't know a single interpreter that does that, they all use an AST at least.
    – user7043
    May 9, 2015 at 23:12
  • P-code, basically. May 9, 2015 at 23:12
  • P-code is bytecode. That's something entirely different from tokens.
    – user7043
    May 9, 2015 at 23:12
  • Never mind then. Essentially, you map keywords of the language to subroutines. That's how I understood what they called the p-code in VB6 and VBA to work. I associate AST's with compilers, not interpreters; the Wikipedia article on AST's never mentions interpreters, though it's perfectly feasible to generate one for an interpreter. May 9, 2015 at 23:13
  • 1
    Yes, most interpreters actually interpret bytecode, but some do take their parser's AST and interpret it rather than generating bytecode from it. None of that has anything to do with tokens, so your terminology is really confusing. Most bytecode formats (including what I gleaned from p-code) is more complicated than just turning each occurence of a keyword to a call to the corresponding subroutine, though.
    – user7043
    May 9, 2015 at 23:22

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