We often deal with arithmetic expressions written in what is called infix notation:
Operand1 op Operand2
We have rules to indicate which operations take precedence over others, and we often use parentheses to override those rules.
It is also quite possible to write arithmetic expressions using postfix notation:
Operand1 Operand2 op
With postfix notation, it is possible to use a stack to find the overall value of an infix expression by first converting it to postfix notation.
Example: Suppose we have this infix expression Q:
5 * ( 6 + 2 ) - 12 / 4
The equivalent postfix expression P is:
5 6 2 + * 12 4 / -
This discussion assumes all our operations are binary operations (2 arguments each). Notice that we also sometimes use unary operations such as ++ or -- or the unary + and -.
We are not including the possibility of array elements in this discussion. (The subscript can be an expression which would have to be evaluated.)
One way to think of an expression is as a list or sequence of items, each of which is a left parenthesis, right parenthesis, argument, or operator. An argument can be a constant or the name of a variable. Presumably it would be necessary at some point to replace each variable with its value.
There are two algorithms involved. One converts an infix expression to postfix form, and the other evaluates a postfix expression. Each uses a stack.
Transform an infix expression to postfix notation
Suppose Q is an arithmetic expression in infix notation. We will create an equivalent postfix expression P by adding items to on the right of P. The new expression P will not contain any parentheses.
We will use a stack in which each item may be a left parenthesis or the symbol for an operation.
Start with an empty stack. We scan Q from left to right. While (we have not reached the end of Q) If (an operand is found) Add it to P End-If If (a left parenthesis is found) Push it onto the stack End-If If (a right parenthesis is found) While (the stack is not empty AND the top item is not a left parenthesis) Pop the stack and add the popped value to P End-While Pop the left parenthesis from the stack and discard it End-If If (an operator is found) If (the stack is empty or if the top element is a left parenthesis) Push the operator onto the stack Else While (the stack is not empty AND the top of the stack is not a left parenthesis AND precedence of the operator <= precedence of the top of the stack) Pop the stack and add the top value to P End-While Push the latest operator onto the stack End-If End-If End-While While (the stack is not empty) Pop the stack and add the popped value to P End-While
Evaluate a postfix expression
Suppose P is an arithmetic expression in postfix notation. We will evaluate it using a stack to hold the operands.
Start with an empty stack. We scan P from left to right. While (we have not reached the end of P) If an operand is found push it onto the stack End-If If an operator is found Pop the stack and call the value A Pop the stack and call the value B Evaluate B op A using the operator just found. Push the resulting value onto the stack End-If End-While Pop the stack (this is the final value)
How can this be implemented?
Work like this is usually done by an assembler, compiler or interpreter. A programmer uses an expression in her or her code, and evaluating it is someone else's problem.
Suppose it is our problem (maybe we are writing an interpreter). The interpreter is reading a line at a time from a file as a string, such as
A = ((B + C) / 3 - 47 % E) * (F + 8)
The string needs to be parsed--that is, we need to break it up into substrings, each of which is one meaningful part. These substrings are often called tokens. The tokens are separated by spaces, in many cases, but also a token ends if we find a left or right parenthesis or the symbol for an operator. Thus for instance, in the above example, we have "E)", and this consists of two tokens "E" and ")". Bear in mind that the symbol for an operator can be more than one character.
We then have a list of tokens, perhaps in an array or a linked list. Somewhere we will have an Evaluate function which takes such a list as an argument and returns a numeric value.