Explore the Lexical Analysis

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When a person hears the term lexicon, words and language automatically come to mind. And when a person talks about language, most of the time they’re thinking of it in the verbal sense.

Language allows us to communicate with one another. But this process involves several steps we rarely think of, largely because they’ve become nearly second-nature to us. Not only does it require a person to use words and make sentences, but it requires the listener to analyze said information and draw meaning from them.

Like verbal or phonetic language, computer programming language is used to help communicating with hardware and software

Verbal languages have gained prominence based on their ease of use and how many people use them within a given area. The way we think about these types of languages can be used to help us understand programming languages.

Like verbal or phonetic language, computer programming language is used to help communicating with hardware and software. In the same sense as a listener must take the information they hear and process it, a computer must also read programming language and make determinations about what actions to carry out.

Since all of technology ultimately comes down to the process of coding information and how this code communicates with circuitry, computer lexicon is very important. But even more importantly for coders and those who work with technology is understanding how this lexicon is analyzed and processed.

What Exactly Is The Lexical Analysis?

Computer science uses many terms, some of which can be confusing because they refer to different things in different contexts. Names can also be misleading in some senses, as computer scientists sometimes utilize different terms than normal individuals – or sometimes utilize similar terms but apply different meanings to them.

In this case, lexical analysis is a term that is straight-forward in its meaning, so long as a person understands what type of lexicon is commonly used with a modern computer. Lexical analysis literally means a process where a sequence of computer code is analyzed with a computer program to break it down into assigned parts – each with an assigned meaning.

More specifically, a lexical analysis engages in a process known as lexing or tokenization. This is when code is read, and each character in the sequence of code is separated into individual units. These units are then assigned an identifying marker so they are unique to the rest of the string. Coding, or computing lexicon, must be analyzed in order to help determine the right function for a machine to perform.

Combined with a parser, which helps read and process the individual tokens from a lexical analysis, this protocol is one of the most important in all of computing. The compiler frontend in modern processing relies on multiple phases to receive input from code, process what it means, verify those checks are correct, and then see the appropriate function is carried out.

How might a type of lexical analysis be performed? If a person understands a computing language, does that mean the machine will understand it the same way?

Common Terms Used When Discussing Lexical Analysis

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Lexical analysis is usually a simple type of operation, offering little in the way of complexity unless the task calls for it. However, there are many terms that are used commonly when discussing this topic – here is a brief overview of some of the more popular ones.


Any sequence of characters in a program can take the form of a lexeme. While some may view collections of characters in a computer programming language as simply lines, the term lexeme can help differentiate them from other similar topics.


A token is a string that has been assigned and identifiable meaning. This simply involves collecting data into individual units, which can then be recalled by other programs even if they aren’t built to read the language contained within those tokens.

Lexical Grammar

Programming languages include more than just unique characters used in a specific format – they include rules which help construct that format and allow for easy communication. This can be thought of as very similar to grammar in the phonetical sense, as it plays a big impact on what language means within a given context.

How Might A Lexicon Analysis Study A Computing Language?

Most people would think of the way computers read language as similar to the way humans read language. This is because we tend to think about processing visually, without realizing how much work out brain does to put things together for us.

Consider how a person doesn’t have to think too long to understand slang they’ve only heard from the first time – they can sometimes deduce the meaning just from context. Likewise, a person may be able to pick up on subjects they didn’t know about before, and even draw logical conclusions about the subject just from the fundamentals.

A list of code may include certain items a machine isn’t normally used to processing. This can be something as simple as the space in between characters and lines to the comments left by fellow programmers or project managers. Proper analysis of the text allows machines to make sense of this and process the characters they know, making for an important part of the analysis.

To recap, a lexical analysis will do the following to make sure code is understood:

  • Ignore spaces and other blank marks that cannot begin a string
  • Process possible tokens, no matter how long, so long as they’re in a standard language
  • Convert characters and collections of characters to tokens

One question a person may have about the analysis is why text is converted into tokens in the first place. This deals with the parser, which is the next step in the process after the analyzer. Parsers deal much better with individual tokens created specifically for them than they do with lines of computing language.

Therefore, the use of tokens is more for the sake of the parser than it is the lexical analysis. This further confirms the lexical analysis and its main purpose – which is to prepare language and get it ready to be processed within the next step of the task flow.

The Impact Of States And Transitions In Lexical Analysis

Lexical analysis is a common process and the standard tool used for it is a finite-state machine. States represent a condition the collection of lexicon can exist under. Transitions represent the changes made as an analyzer reads one line of code to the next.

When a new character is read, a new state is created. With each new transition, a new state comes into play. It is also possible to allow for transitions even if a character can’t be read due to a compatibility issue. The lexical analysis can simply assign a different token for these values, making it easy to complete an analysis with minimal errors.

The state of an analysis can change several times as the process completes. The time span for this can also vary, as it can depend on both the amount of text that needs to be processed as well as the hardware used in the process.

While the lexical analysis is an important computing process, it can also cause a lot of issues in some cases. For example, sometimes a person may want white spaces when they are looking at pages of code. This can make it easier for review purposes. But if they’re relying on a code analysis taken from a lexical analysis, these spaces could be absent.

It can also be hard to sort through tokens manually in some cases should the need arise. This is rarely done, but when it is, it can sometimes be more difficult than analyzing a standard coding language that hasn’t been put through the process of tokenization.

Finally, tokens themselves can be grouped in different ways and thus can sometimes make it difficult to understand the function of a program. This is true even among those who know coding well enough to determine how programs can work to a point just by reading the lines.

Why Computer And Human Lexicons Are Similar

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Lexicon brings to mind the topic of words and language, but maybe more accurately, it brings to mind compilations of this information. Dictionaries and encyclopedia, both used for compiling important data used in common communications, are examples of popular lexicon devices.

Likewise, lexical analysis in the computing sense can be thought of as a combination of code and strings. The combined data provides a lot of information to systems, and is an important part of their reference material for standard operations. Being able to understand parts of code and reference them as needed is important for complex program functions and even basic ones.

This just shows how computers and humans are both similar in the way they take in and process information. But even more so, it shows how they use that information and the conclusions they can draw from it to handle everyday tasks. The lexical analysis may be only one part of the compiler process, but it is the first part and thus the foundation of the entire process.

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