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Posted 5 Mar 2008


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Parsing Algebraic Expressions Using the Interpreter Pattern

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5 Mar 2008CPOL12 min read
How to use the Interpreter Pattern to parse algebraic expressions


The Interpreter pattern is used to model a grammar using a set of classes that represent possible expressions within the grammar. For instance, for the algebraic expression 4 + 4, an AddExpression class can be used to represent the expression. Included in the AddExpression class would be a reference to the two operands and the capacity to evaluate the expression and return a value based on the two operands.

Without getting too tied down by words, you can see how the possible variety of algebraic expressions can be represented using classes. Additionally, expressions themselves can be used as operands to other expressions based on a defined order of operations.

When it comes to representing variable expressions, things get a bit trickier since the evaluation of a variable expression changes based on the current value of the variable. The Interpreter pattern provides a clean solution to this problem by defining a context class that provides the current value of variables that may appear within the expression being evaluated.

In this article, I will show how the Interpreter pattern can be used to develop a full-featured algebraic expression parser. It is a tractable, non-trivial problem, which makes it a great candidate for demonstrating the Interpreter pattern. Furthermore, instances naturally arise for the utilization of other design patterns such as factory, template method, and composite, which makes it an even better candidate for demonstrating the disciplined use of design patterns in general.

The standard warning regarding design patterns should not be forgotten. They should only be applied where appropriate. It is almost always the case that good solutions to non-trivial problems will not follow an ideal object-oriented design. Trade-offs are often necessary. More often than not, simpler designs are better than complex designs and designs that included a tangle of design patterns are usually the most complex.

General Structure

The structure of the project follows the general structure of a parser in compiler terms. At a high level, a parser transforms a character sequence in a well-defined grammar into an intermediate data structure that can be evaluated at a later point while varying its input. At a lower level, the first step in the parsing process is to transform the character sequence into a token sequence. This step is called lexical analysis. The next step is to transform the token sequence into the intermediate data structure that can be evaluated.

The AXTokenizer class is responsible for transforming the initial character sequence into a token sequence. If the character sequence is not a valid token sequence, an exception is thrown. If the character sequence is a valid token sequence, the next step is general validation performed by the AXValidator class.

Once a valid token sequence is obtained, the ExpressionFactory is used to create a sequence of Expression objects from the token sequence. The expression sequence is then evaluated by code in the AXParser class to produce an Expression object that represents the input algebraic expression by means of a tree of Expression objects. This expression tree is the intermediate data structure produced by the parser. The ExpressionContext class serves as the input to the expression tree and is passed down to the leaf expressions for evaluation by means of substitution.

Expression Base Class

All Expression classes are contained in the Expressions.cs file. Each Expression class represents a possible expression in our grammar, which in this case is algebra. All Expression classes are derived from the abstract base class Expression. I chose an abstract base class over an interface since I wanted to provide some common implementation while at the same time requiring certain functions to be implemented in derived classes.

The Expression class provides an implementation for the IsBound, Bind and Evaluate methods, and expects the InnerBind and InnerEvaluate methods to be defined in derived classes. The InnerBind method takes arguments and binds them to operands to be evaluated by the InnerEvaluate method. The IsBound method indicates whether or not arguments have been bound to the operands. The utility of the IsBound method will be apparent when it comes to parsing. As for the Evaluate and InnerEvaluate methods, both take an ExpressionContext object as an argument. This is ultimately utilized by VariableExpression objects, as will be discussed below.

One obstacle is the way the System.Math library operates. In general, transcendental functions -- functions that cannot be evaluated by algebraic means, like the trigonometric functions -- are approximated by a summation of terms. From calculus, exact values of trigonometric functions can be obtained from corresponding infinite series. Since computers cannot calculate the result of an infinite series, values for trigonometric functions have to be approximated. The problem is, that results in Math.Cos(Math.PI/2.0) returning some very small non-zero number, which is incorrect.

I choose to use the Template Method pattern. In this case, the template method is InnerEvaluate. Each Expression derived class can implement whatever mathematical operation it chooses and return a result without having to worry about the zero issue. The Evaluate method itself converts all values below the ZERO_THRESHOLD constant to zero. The Bind method follows the same pattern with the InnerBind method serving as the template method. This provides a bit of symmetry and also ensures that the _isBound member is properly set.

The following is the implementation of the Expression class.

public abstract class Expression
    protected readonly double ZERO_THRESHOLD = 1.0 * Math.Pow(10.0, -14.0);

    protected bool _isBound;

    public Expression()
        _isBound = false;

    public bool IsBound()
        return _isBound;

    public void Bind(params object[] arguments)
        _isBound = true;

    public double Evaluate(ExpressionContext context)
        double result = InnerEvaluate(context);

        if (Math.Abs(result) <= ZERO_THRESHOLD)
            return 0;
            return result;

    protected abstract void InnerBind(params object[] arguments);
    protected abstract double InnerEvaluate(ExpressionContext context);

Here is where things are not quite perfect. A professional algebraic expression parser would have to use a better math library that returns known zeros from trigonometric functions. That could be done in the individual expression classes too, but that makes the job unnecessarily difficult.

Additionally, the design of the Expression classes can be questioned as well. The Decorator pattern is a good pattern for wrapping a class in another class that implements the same interface, but simply delegates to the inner class and then adds its own bit of behavior to the result. In this case, the Decorator pattern cannot be used because it hides the actual type of the class it decorates. Typically, OOD sources warn against writing code tied to the types of classes. In this case, however, utilization of ExpressionFactory would not be as clean as it is. Here is an area where decisions are not black and white, and trade-offs are being made.

Expression Derived Classes

Among the Expression derived classes are ConstantExpression, NumericExpression, BinaryExpression and FunctionExpression. Each of these classes implements the InnerBind method that takes a variable number of arguments and binds them to internally maintained operands. When the Bind method is called, the InnerBind method is called in turn and the Expression is considered to be bound. When the Evaluate method is called, the InnerEvaluate method is called in turn, at which point the bound operands are operated upon to produce a result.

For instance, the following is the definition of the AddExpression class, which derives from BinaryExpression.

public sealed class AddExpression : BinaryExpression
    protected override double InnerEvaluate(ExpressionContext context)
        return _operand1.Evaluate(context) + _operand2.Evaluate(context);

As another example, the following is the definition of the CosExpression class, which derives from FunctionExpression.

public sealed class CosExpression : FunctionExpression
    protected override double InnerEvaluate(ExpressionContext context)
        return Math.Cos(_operand.Evaluate(context));

ConstantExpression objects are always considered bound and their InnerEvaluate method always returns the same value. NumericExpression objects are similarly simple in that only one operand is bound and is the value returned from the InnerEvaluate method.

VariableExpression and ExpressionContext

For the most part, the Expression derived classes are straightforward, with the exception of VariableExpression, which is the only expression that utilizes the ExpressionContext argument to the Evaluate method rather than simply passing it on to the Evaluate methods of the operands.

The ExpressionContext class maintains a dictionary that associates a double value with a Variable enumeration value. Although ExpressionContext does not derive from Expression, it has a Bind method of its own to associate values with variables. The value associated with a variable can be obtained by performing a look-up on an ExpressionContext object. Following is the code for the Lookup method.

public double Lookup(Variable variable)
    if (_bindings.ContainsKey(variable))
        return _bindings[variable];
        return double.NaN;

When the Evaluate method is called on a VariableExpression object, a look-up is performed on the ExpressionContext argument and the value is subsequently returned. Following is the definition of the VariableExpression class.

public sealed class VariableExpression : Expression
    private Variable _variable;

    protected override void InnerBind(params object[] arguments)
        _variable = (Variable)arguments[0];

    protected override double InnerEvaluate(ExpressionContext context)
        return context.Lookup(_variable);


Having introduced the Expression classes, it's time to look at exactly how a character sequence is translated into an expression sequence. The first step in this process, as mentioned above, is tokenization. The AXTokenizer class is responsible for tokenizing the character sequence. All in all, the AXTokenizer is such a simple class that it seems wrong to refer to this step as lexical analysis.

Tokens are defined as sequences of characters that match a given regular expression pattern. The AXTokenizer class has two methods for adding and removing patterns, AddPattern and RemovePattern, respectively. It has an additional method for performing the actual tokenization based on the current set of patterns, Tokenize. Tokenize takes a string and returns a list of strings representing the sequence of tokens in the original string.

I wanted this step to be completely deterministic, regardless of caveats that may occur. For instance, distinguishing the negation operation on a number from a subtract operation. With this in mind, the Tokenize method favors matching longer strings to patterns first and iteratively attempts to match smaller and smaller substrings to patterns. I saw no need to focus on performance at this stage, since Tokenize is not a method to be called repeatedly.

The following is the implementation of the Tokenize method.

public List<string> Tokenize(string text)
    List<string> tokens = new List<string>();

    for (int i = 0; i < text.Length; i++)
        bool matched = false;
        for (int j = text.Length - i; j > 0 && !matched; j--)
            foreach(KeyValuePair<string,Regex> pair in _patterns)
                if (pair.Value.IsMatch(text.Substring(i, j)))
                    matched = true;
                    tokens.Add(text.Substring(i, j));
                    i += j - 1;

        if (!matched)
            throw new AXTokenException(i, 
                "Unrecognized character sequence starting at index " + 
                i.ToString() + ".");

    return tokens;

The ExpressionFactory

Once a token sequence is obtained from the AXTokenizer.Tokenize method, it needs to be converted to a sequence of corresponding Expression derived class objects. This is accomplished with the help of the ExpressionFactory class.

Just as the AXTokenizer class has add and remove methods for patterns, the ExpressionFactory class has methods for adding and removing associations between patterns and Expression derived class types, AddAssociation and RemoveAssociation, respectively. Additionally, it defines a Create method that creates an instance of an Expression derived class type based on a token argument.

By iterating over the list of tokens returned from the AXTokenizer and calling the Create method on an appropriately initialized ExpressionFactory object, an expression sequence can be obtained. Technically, ExpressionFactory is an instance of the Simple Factory pattern. Following is the code for the Create method.

public Expression Create(string token)
    if (!string.IsNullOrEmpty(token))
        foreach (KeyValuePair<string, KeyValuePair<Regex,Type>> pair in _associations)
            if (pair.Value.Key.IsMatch(token))
                ConstructorInfo info = pair.Value.Value.GetConstructor(Type.EmptyTypes);
                return (Expression)info.Invoke(null);

    return null;


You may have noticed that the AXTokenizer, ExpressionFactory and AXValidator classes are all marked internal. So, how are their facilities used? The AXParser class ties it all together.

AXParser has an AXTokenizer member and an ExpressionFactory member. Upon construction, these members are initialized to support the most common algebraic expressions. The AddAssociation method allows a client to extend this functionality by adding new associations for ConstantExpression and FunctionExpression types.

Besides the AddAssociation method, AXParser has one other public method, Parse. Parse takes a string and returns an Expression object. This Expression object is the expression tree, representing the fully parsed algebraic expression passed as a parameter. The algebraic expression can now be evaluated for any assignment to the independent variables. This is done by constructing an ExpressionContext object, calling the ExpressionContext.Bind method for each independent variable, and passing the object as a parameter to the Evaluate method of the returned Expression object.

The first thing the Parse method does is remove spaces from the input string. After that, it uses the AXTokenizer.Tokenize method to convert the string into a token sequence. It subsequently converts the token sequence to an expression sequence as described above. Once an expression sequence is obtained, AXValidator is used to validate it. At this point, the expression sequence is ready to be built up into a single expression tree.

Building of the expression tree takes place in a single while loop that iterates until there is only one Expression in the list. Before entering the loop and after each iteration of the loop, excess parentheses are removed by calls to the RemoveExcessParens method. During each iteration of the loop, the index of the highest precedence operation is determined by a call to the DetermineHighestPrecedence method and then the index is passed as an argument to the CollapseExpression method.

For a high-level view of the parsing process, following is the Parse method definition.

public Expression Parse(string text)
    string copy = text.Replace(" ", string.Empty).Trim();

    List<string> tokens = _tokenizer.Tokenize(copy);
    List<Expression> expressions = TokensToExpressions(tokens);

    AXValidator.Validate(expressions); //throws

    while (expressions.Count > 1)
        int i = DetermineHighestPrecedence(expressions);
        CollapseExpression(expressions, i);

    return expressions[0];

Earlier I mentioned the Expression.IsBound function. It can now be understood why this function is necessary by looking at the implementation for the CollapseExpression method below. First, once an expression is bound, you can make a valid call to its Evaluate method. With that in mind, a bound expression becomes the equivalent of a ConstantExpression object and should be considered as such in subsequent parsing. For instance, notice the call to the IsBound method in the if statement.

private void CollapseExpression(List<Expression> expressions, int i)
    Expression current = expressions[i];
    Expression previous = new NullExpression();
    Expression next = new NullExpression();
    if (i - 1 >= 0)
        previous = expressions[i - 1];
    if (i + 1 < expressions.Count)
        next = expressions[i + 1];

    if (current is SubtractExpression && !previous.IsBound() && !(
        previous is RightParenExpression))
        SubtractExpression expression = (SubtractExpression)current;
        NumericExpression zero = new NumericExpression();
        expression.Bind(zero, next);
        expressions.RemoveAt(i + 1);
    else if (current is FunctionExpression)
        FunctionExpression expression = (FunctionExpression)current;
        expressions.RemoveAt(i + 1);
    else if (current is BinaryExpression)
        BinaryExpression expression = (BinaryExpression)current;
        expression.Bind(previous, next);
        expressions.RemoveAt(i + 1);
        expressions.RemoveAt(i - 1);

The same considerations for the IsBound method factor into the implementation for the DetermineHighestPrecedence method. An Expression object that has been bound is effectively treated as a ConstantExpression.

Another important point to recognize is how the DetermineHighestPrecedence and CollapseExpression methods handle the case for negation. Negation is simply subtraction from zero. This decision follows the principle of Occam’s Razor, "Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity." My belief is that what I have presented here is as close to optimally clean as possible.

How to Use

At the top of the article I have included a link to the project files. The project compiles into a class library with the name AXLibrary.dll. I have not included a demo project, since it is my hope to use the AXLibrary library in a WPF 3-D graphing calculator article for The Code Project. Additionally, using the library is very simple. Following is an example of how to use the library.

AXParser parser = new AXParser();

Expression expression = parser.Parse("cos(PI/4)*(5+x)");

ExpressionContext context = new ExpressionContext();

context.Bind(Variable.x, 4);


The project is compiled in Visual Studio 2008 against the .NET framework version 3.5. However, the project can easily be converted to any other .NET framework version, since it uses vanilla features of the C# language. Unfortunately, you will have to create a container project first and copy the files over manually, as there is no tool for converting to an older version that I know of.


  • 5 March, 2008 -- Original version posted


This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)


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Comments and Discussions

GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
ckentj7-Aug-10 5:11
Memberckentj7-Aug-10 5:11 
GeneralDecimal Separator issue fix Pin
ALN20081-Mar-10 23:49
MemberALN20081-Mar-10 23:49 
Generalfunctions with multiple arguments Pin
trestij16-Feb-10 0:04
Membertrestij16-Feb-10 0:04 
GeneralGreat Work! Pin
Mike Ranzinger4-Aug-09 4:48
MemberMike Ranzinger4-Aug-09 4:48 
GeneralGood Parser... Pin
alirio_ramos8-Dec-08 22:46
Memberalirio_ramos8-Dec-08 22:46 
GeneralRe: Good Parser... Pin
Ron Ayoub30-Dec-08 2:18
MemberRon Ayoub30-Dec-08 2:18 
GeneralUnpredefined variables - support added Pin
Kir0s27-Jul-08 21:34
MemberKir0s27-Jul-08 21:34 
GeneralRe: Unpredefined variables - support added Pin
Ron Ayoub28-Jul-08 2:07
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GeneralRe: Unpredefined variables - support added Pin
Kir0s28-Jul-08 20:49
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GeneralRe: Unpredefined variables - support added Pin
Member 14931129-Dec-08 8:16
MemberMember 14931129-Dec-08 8:16 
GeneralRe: Unpredefined variables - support added Pin
Ron Ayoub9-Dec-08 15:23
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QuestionRead in Variables Pin
carbaholic17-Jul-08 10:07
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AnswerRe: Read in Variables Pin
Ron Ayoub18-Jul-08 2:31
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GeneralTrue/False expression Pin
Väinölä Harri6-Apr-08 23:50
MemberVäinölä Harri6-Apr-08 23:50 
GeneralRe: True/False expression Pin
Ron Ayoub7-Apr-08 2:35
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GeneralRe: True/False expression Pin
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GeneralRe: True/False expression Pin
Ron Ayoub7-Apr-08 3:26
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GeneralRe: True/False expression [modified] Pin
Leblanc Meneses11-May-08 17:12
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GeneralRe: True/False expression Pin
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Dmitri Nеstеruk5-Mar-08 6:36
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