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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

The intrinsically exponential complexity of the circularity problem for attribute grammars

Attribute grammars are an extension of context-free grammars devised by Knuth as a mechanism for including the semantics of a context-free language with the syntax of the language. The circularity problem for a grammar is to determine whether the semantics for all possible sentences (programs) in fact will be well defined. It is proved that this problem is, in general, computationally intractable. Specifically, it is shown that any deterministic algorithm which solves the problem must for infinitely many cases use an exponential amount of time. An improved version of Knuth's circularity testing algorithm is also given, which actually solves the problem within exponential time.

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