After researching how a parser generates an AST, I believe that I can know attempt to create one. Before I started on this project, I began to ponder what I should be done next after creating a AST that represented my language grammar. Despite my research into this topic, I have not surfaced any quality resources explaining what should be done with the AST to execute the source code.

Take this example for instance:

var = 10 + 2.

A parser might create an AST that is similar to this:

    / \
  var  +
      / \
     10  2

What would be done next with the example AST above. Would the parser record the variable and its value? Or does the parser simply generate the AST, and its up to some other program to evaluate the AST.

It seems to me that creating a AST is making more work for the rest of the program. Whatever reads over the AST has to keep track of all kinds of statements and scopes. Would it not make more sense to just group your tokens into statements, and execute each statement individually without a AST?

Note: My question is not a duplicate of Is an AST enough to build any translator?. The OP of that question is asking if a AST is enough to implement any language feature?. I'm asking how one would execute the source code of a language from an AST?. some parts of the post may be similar, but the overall questions of each one are very different.


2 Answers 2


The parser just dissects the code into logically meaningful parts. It is then up to a following processing step to do something with the parse result.

The following step (in your case a code interpreter) can focus on the semantics. The parser did all the dirty work, its result is clean and simple. So it does make things easier. Note that you start out with a piece of text (one string or a collection of lines) and the parser gives you an object model. It seems you have no clear picture of an AST, of what that means in terms of an implementation in code. So let's get into that.

An execution engine would read the tree and find one object: an assignnent. The assignment class contains two properties: left and right. Left is a variable object, right is an expression object.

The expression object is a tree too which is basically a bunch of objects that contain other objects. These are typically processed recursively, as the processor hits the first object in the tree it does not know or care how deep the tree is, it just processes that one object and delegates the processing of contained objects to the same code. When that code hits a leaf (an object that is not complex, that has no contained objects) it performs an action and/or returns a result. Then everything bubbles back up the call stack until the top object gets its result and can do its thing, in your example add 10 and 2.

So what makes it easy is the ability to walk down a nested collection of objects and solve it recursively. Parsing text and acting on it in one go can get messy soon and may produce half-baked results because there may be syntax errors further down and you already started executing.


Would the parser record the variable and its value?

No. The parser just takes the tokens and arranges them into an AST (possibly returning errors).

Would it not make more sense to just group your tokens into statements, and execute each statement individually without a AST?

Not really. The AST lets you break down your program into its constituent parts, and then lets you implement those tiny, simple parts in a clear, error-free manner. Better yet, it does it in a very agnostic way. If you want to take that AST and do some static analysis on it, you can. If you want to take that AST and run it through an interpreter, the interpreter doesn't have to worry about associativity, or if the statements parse properly, or what that identifier really refers to. If you want to take that AST and compile it against some new processor, you can since the tiny nodes of an AST likely align with the new assembly of that processor.

You can avoid building an AST when making an interpreter or compiler, but I would not recommend it. And how you turn that into something that is runnable is up to you, but you will find it far easier to implement that if your parser output is in a simple tree form.

  • 1
    Also, an optimizing compiler can perform transformations on the AST that result in fast/smaller/less-memory-intensive code. Performing those transformations directly on source code, generated assembly or machine code is possible, but generally speaking harder and more resource intensive.
    – Iker
    Sep 17, 2016 at 10:04

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