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Expression evaluator : using RPN

, 5 Nov 2003
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An article showing how to evaluate mathematical expressions using reverse polish notation (RPN)


This article will demonstrate how to evaluate complex mathematical expressions by converting them from infix notation to postfix notation and evaluating the expression. In the process we will be using STL's stack and string classes. When finished, the program should be able to evaluate expressions such as:

expr = "(12232+(43*43-(250/(3*8))*44)/12-311) * (5==5)"


Most programming languages require that you enter expressions in infix notation that is: operators and operands are intermixed, example: "5*6-3*2*3".

The postfix notation, introduced in 1950 by the Polish logician Jan Lukasiewicz, is a method of representing an expression without using parenthesis and still conserving the precedence rules of the original expression. For example, the previous expression could have been written like: "5 6 * 3 2 * 3 * -"

Explaining the code

Here's is how to convert from an infix notation to postfix notation:

  1. Initialize an empty stack (string stack), prepare input infix expression and clear RPN string
  2. Repeat until we reach end of infix expression
    1. Get token (operand or operator); skip white spaces
    2. If token is:
      1. Left parenthesis: Push it into stack
      2. Right parenthesis: Keep popping from the stack and appending to RPN string until we reach the left parenthesis.
        If stack becomes empty and we didn't reach the left parenthesis then break out with error "Unbalanced parenthesis"
      3. Operator: If stack is empty or operator has a higher precedence than the top of the stack then push operator into stack. Else if operator has lower precedence then we keep popping and appending to RPN string, this is repeated until operator in stack has lower precedence than the current operator.
      4. An operand: we simply append it to RPN string.
    3. When the infix expression is finished, we start popping off the stack and appending to RPN string till stack becomes empty.

Now evaluating a postfix (RPN) expression is even easier:

  1. Initialize stack (integer stack) for storing results, prepare input postfix (or RPN) expression.
  2. Start scanning from left to right till we reach end of RPN expression
  3. Get token, if token is:
    1. An operator:
      1. Get top of stack and store into variable op2; Pop the stack
      2. Get top of stack and store into variable op1; Pop the stack
      3. Do the operation expression in operator on both op1 and op2
      4. Push the result into the stack
    2. An operand: stack its numerical representation into our numerical stack.
  4. At the end of the RPN expression, the stack should only have one value and that should be the result and can be retrieved from the top of the stack.
To use the code:
#include <iostream.h>
#include <string>
#include "ExpressionEvaluator.h"

using std::string;

int main()
  long result;
  double resultdbl;
  int err;

  string s;
  s = "1+2*(1-2-3-4)";
  err = ExpressionEvaluator::calculateLong(s, result);
  if (err != ExpressionEvaluator::eval_ok)
    cout << "Error while evaluating!" << endl;
    cout << "Evaluation of (int):" << s.c_str() << " yielded: " 
      << result << endl;

  s = "1.1/5.5+99-(4.1*(2+1)-5)";
  err = ExpressionEvaluator::calculateDouble(s, resultdbl);
  if (err != ExpressionEvaluator::eval_ok)
    cout << "Error while evaluating!" << endl;
    cout << "Evaluation of (double):" << s.c_str() << " yielded: "
       << resultdbl << endl;

  return 0;

Extending the code

This code can be extended to allow you perform other operations, however they must be binary operation (takes two operands). To extended the code simply add a new operator into the "operators" array along with its precedence value. If you introduce a new symbol make sure you add the symbol into the "operators[0]" string too. Precedence is important for generating a proper postfix expression. After adding a new operator, define its behaviour in the "evaluateRPN" function as:

  r = doMyOperation(op1, op2);

Hope you find this code and article useful.



  • Sunday, November 2, 2003
    • Initial version
  • Monday, November 3, 2003
    • Fixed precedence rule of multiplication
  • Tuesday, November 4, 2003
    • Fixed a bug inisOperator()
    • Added support for negative and positive numbers as: -1 or +1
      (initially they were supported as: 0-1 or 0+1)
    • Added exception handling and foolproof against malformed expression
    • Added >=, <=, != operators


This article has no explicit license attached to it but may contain usage terms in the article text or the download files themselves. If in doubt please contact the author via the discussion board below.

A list of licenses authors might use can be found here


About the Author

Elias Bachaalany
Web Developer
United States United States
Elias (aka lallousx86, @0xeb) has always been interested in the making of things and their inner workings.

His computer interests include system programming, reverse engineering, writing libraries, tutorials and articles.

In his free time, and apart from researching, his favorite reading topics include: dreams, metaphysics, philosophy, psychology and any other human/mystical science.

Former employee of Hex-Rays (the creators of IDA Pro), was responsible about many debugger plugins, IDAPython project ownership and what not.

Elias currently works at Microsoft as a software security engineer.

More articles and blog posts can be found here:


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Comments and Discussions

GeneralRe: How about the OPs that only take one operand? Pin
lallous29-Dec-03 4:16
memberlallous29-Dec-03 4:16 
GeneralRe: How about the OPs that only take one operand? Pin
CatGor29-Dec-03 14:49
memberCatGor29-Dec-03 14:49 
GeneralRe: How about the OPs that only take one operand? Pin
nofeel2-Feb-04 19:35
membernofeel2-Feb-04 19:35 
AnswerRe: How about the OPs that only take one operand? Pin
CatGor30-Dec-03 16:14
memberCatGor30-Dec-03 16:14 
Generaldexter . Pin
Anonymous6-Dec-03 16:33
sussAnonymous6-Dec-03 16:33 
GeneralRe: dexter . Pin
lallous8-Dec-03 6:23
memberlallous8-Dec-03 6:23 
GeneralWell done homework Pin
kozlowski6-Nov-03 7:00
memberkozlowski6-Nov-03 7:00 
GeneralRe: Well done homework Pin
Timo_H20-Nov-03 4:32
memberTimo_H20-Nov-03 4:32 
GeneralRe: Well done homework Pin
kozlowski21-Nov-03 7:20
memberkozlowski21-Nov-03 7:20 
GeneralRe: Well done homework Pin
Timo_H23-Nov-03 21:35
memberTimo_H23-Nov-03 21:35 
GeneralRe: Well done homework Pin
kozlowski23-Nov-03 22:47
memberkozlowski23-Nov-03 22:47 
GeneralRe: Well done homework Pin
lallous1-Dec-03 1:09
memberlallous1-Dec-03 1:09 
Generalchokes on &quot;(((-1 + 1) + 1) + 1)&quot; Pin
KevinHall3-Nov-03 15:07
memberKevinHall3-Nov-03 15:07 
GeneralRe: chokes on "(((-1 + 1) + 1) + 1)" Pin
Jeff Varszegi3-Nov-03 16:58
memberJeff Varszegi3-Nov-03 16:58 
GeneralRe: chokes on &quot;(((-1 + 1) + 1) + 1)&quot; Pin
lallous3-Nov-03 19:29
memberlallous3-Nov-03 19:29 
GeneralRe: chokes on &quot;(((-1 + 1) + 1) + 1)&quot; Pin
KevinHall4-Nov-03 6:19
memberKevinHall4-Nov-03 6:19 
GeneralAbout speed Pin
lallous4-Nov-03 23:55
memberlallous4-Nov-03 23:55 
GeneralRe: About speed Pin
KevinHall5-Nov-03 6:06
memberKevinHall5-Nov-03 6:06 
GeneralRe: chokes on &quot;(((-1 + 1) + 1) + 1)&quot; Pin
KevinHall4-Nov-03 6:33
memberKevinHall4-Nov-03 6:33 
GeneralRe: chokes on &quot;(((-1 + 1) + 1) + 1)&quot; Pin
KevinHall4-Nov-03 6:37
memberKevinHall4-Nov-03 6:37 
GeneralRe: chokes on &quot;(((-1 + 1) + 1) + 1)&quot; Pin
lallous4-Nov-03 23:11
memberlallous4-Nov-03 23:11 
GeneralGood job! Pin
KevinHall3-Nov-03 6:12
memberKevinHall3-Nov-03 6:12 
QuestionWhy not using reflection ? Pin
Jonathan de Halleux3-Nov-03 2:17
memberJonathan de Halleux3-Nov-03 2:17 
AnswerRe: Why not using reflection ? Pin
lallous3-Nov-03 3:11
memberlallous3-Nov-03 3:11 
GeneralRe: Why not using reflection ? Pin
Normski6-Nov-03 1:17
memberNormski6-Nov-03 1:17 

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