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An Overview of flex, with Examples

flex is a tool for generating scanners: programs which recognize lexical patterns in text. flex reads the given input files (or its standard input if no file names are given) for a description of the scanner to generate. The description is in the form of pairs of regular expressions and C code, called rules. flex generates as output a C source file, `lex.yy.c', which defines a routine yylex. Compile and link this file with the `-lfl' library to produce an executable. When the executable runs, it analyzes its input for occurrences of the regular expressions. Whenever it finds one, it executes the corresponding C code.

Some simple examples follow, to give you the flavor of using flex.

Text-Substitution Scanner

The following flex input specifies a scanner which, whenever it encounters the string `username', will replace it with the user's login name:

username    printf( "%s", getlogin() );

By default, any text not matched by a flex scanner is copied to the output, so the net effect of this scanner is to copy its input file to its output with each occurrence of `username' expanded. In this input, there is just one rule. `username' is the pattern and the printf is the action. The `%%' marks the beginning of the rules.

A Scanner to Count Lines and Characters

Here's another simple example:

    int num_lines = 0, num_chars = 0;

\n    ++num_lines; ++num_chars;
.     ++num_chars;

    printf( "# of lines = %d, # of chars = %d\n",
            num_lines, num_chars );

This scanner counts the number of characters and the number of lines in its input (it produces no output other than the final report on the counts). The first line declares two globals, num_lines and num_chars, which are accessible both inside yylex and in the main routine declared after the second `%%'. There are two rules, one which matches a newline (`\n') and increments both the line count and the character count, and one which matches any character other than a newline (indicated by the `.' regular expression).

Simplified Pascal-like Language Scanner

A somewhat more complicated example:

/* scanner for a toy Pascal-like language */

/* need this for the call to atof() below */
#include <math.h>

DIGIT    [0-9]
ID       [a-z][a-z0-9]*


{DIGIT}+    {
            printf( "An integer: %s (%d)\n", yytext,
                    atoi( yytext ) );

{DIGIT}+"."{DIGIT}*        {
            printf( "A float: %s (%g)\n", yytext,
                    atof( yytext ) );

if|then|begin|end|procedure|function        {
            printf( "A keyword: %s\n", yytext );

{ID}        printf( "An identifier: %s\n", yytext );

"+"|"-"|"*"|"/"   printf( "An operator: %s\n", yytext );

"{"[^}\n]*"}"     /* eat up one-line comments */

[ \t\n]+          /* eat up whitespace */

.           printf( "Unrecognized character: %s\n", yytext );


main( argc, argv )
int argc;
char **argv;
    ++argv, --argc;  /* skip over program name */
    if ( argc > 0 )
            yyin = fopen( argv[0], "r" );
            yyin = stdin;


This is the beginnings of a simple scanner for a language like Pascal. It identifies different types of tokens and reports on what it has seen.

The details of this example are explained in the following chapters.

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