Top-Down Parsing Techniques (LL Parsing)

In the field of compiler design, parsing plays a vital role in converting source code into meaningful structures that can be further processed. Top-down parsing is one such technique used to build a parse tree from the given input. It is also known as LL parsing, where LL stands for Left-to-right, Leftmost derivation. In this article, we will explore the fundamentals of LL parsing and its various techniques.

Introduction to Top-Down Parsing

Top-down parsing starts with the goal of constructing a parse tree from the root node to the leaf nodes. It uses a set of rewrite rules, also known as production rules or a grammar, to guide the parsing process. LL parsing refers to the fact that it reads the input from left to right, and constructs a leftmost derivation, i.e., it selects the leftmost non-terminal for expansion during parsing.

LL(1) Parsing

LL(1) parsing is a specific class of top-down parsing where (1) stands for one-lookahead symbol. It means that for each parsing decision, the parser examines the upcoming input symbol and the current non-terminal to determine the production rule to use. This technique requires a lookahead table that relates non-terminals and terminals to the production rules.

To construct the lookahead table, the grammar must satisfy two conditions: no two production rules of the same non-terminal start with the same terminal symbol, and no production rule of a non-terminal starts with another non-terminal symbol. If the grammar violates these conditions, additional techniques such as left factoring and left recursion elimination may be applied to transform the grammar.

After constructing the lookahead table, LL(1) parsing uses a predictive parsing algorithm to determine the corresponding production rule to apply at each parsing step. This algorithm predicts the next production rule by checking the combination of the current non-terminal and the current input symbol against the lookahead table.

LL(1) Parsing Example

Let's consider a simple LL(1) parsing example using the following grammar:

S -> '(' S ')' | 'a'

The lookahead table for this grammar would be:


Here, '1' represents the production rule S -> '(' S ')' and '2' represents the production rule S -> 'a'.

Suppose we have the input string "(a)". The LL(1) parser would proceed as follows:

  1. Start with the non-terminal S and the input symbol '('.
  2. Look up the lookahead table using S and '('. It points to the production rule S -> '(' S ')'.
  3. Expand the production rule and replace S with '(' S ')' in the parse tree.
  4. Move to the next symbol in the input, 'a'.
  5. Look up the lookahead table using S and 'a'. It points to the production rule S -> 'a'.
  6. Expand the production rule and replace S with 'a' in the parse tree.
  7. Move to the next symbol in the input, ')'.
  8. Look up the lookahead table using S and ')'. It is empty, indicating an error as the parser cannot decide which production rule to apply.
  9. The parsing process ends with a syntax error.

Advantages of LL Parsing

LL parsing offers several advantages, including:

  1. Simplicity: LL parsing is relatively easy to understand and implement compared to other parsing techniques.
  2. Error Recovery: LL parsers can be designed to employ error recovery mechanisms, allowing them to provide more informative error messages.
  3. Recursive Descent Parsing: LL parsers often use recursive descent parsing, which closely follows the grammar rules and leads to more readable code.

Limitations of LL Parsing

However, LL parsing also has some limitations:

  1. Ambiguity: LL parsers cannot handle ambiguous grammars directly. Grammar transformations, such as left factoring and left recursion elimination, are often required to remove ambiguity.
  2. Efficiency: LL parsing can suffer from performance issues when dealing with large and complex grammars. In such cases, bottom-up parsing techniques like LR parsing might be more efficient.


Top-down parsing, specifically LL parsing, is an essential method for converting source code into a parse tree. With the help of a lookahead table and predictive parsing algorithms, LL(1) parsing can efficiently construct a parse tree from the given input. While LL parsing has its limitations, it remains a popular choice due to its simplicity, error recovery capabilities, and recursive descent parsing. By understanding the fundamentals of LL parsing, developers can design efficient and robust parsers for various programming languages.

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