What Is Data Structure of Symbol Table in Compiler Design?


Angela Bailey

Data structures are essential components of a compiler’s design that help in the efficient management and retrieval of information. One such data structure used in compiler design is the symbol table. The symbol table acts as a crucial intermediary between the various phases of compilation, storing information about identifiers in a program.

What is a Symbol Table?

A symbol table is essentially a data structure that stores information about identifiers or symbols used in a program. It provides a mapping between the names of identifiers and their attributes, such as their type, scope, and memory location.

The symbol table plays a vital role during different stages of compilation, including lexical analysis, syntax analysis, semantic analysis, and code generation. It helps in resolving identifier-related queries efficiently by providing fast access to relevant information.

Components of Symbol Table

A typical symbol table consists of various components:

  • Name: The name field stores the identifier’s name.
  • Type: The type field specifies the data type associated with the identifier.
  • Scope: The scope field defines the visibility or accessibility of an identifier within different parts of the program.
  • Value: The value field holds the current value associated with an identifier (applicable for variables).
  • Memory Location: The memory location field stores the address where an identifier is stored (applicable for variables).

Operations on Symbol Table

The symbol table supports various operations to manage identifiers effectively. Some commonly performed operations include:

  • Insertion: This operation involves adding new identifiers along with their attributes to the symbol table. If an identifier is already present, an error may be raised.
  • Lookup: The lookup operation searches for an identifier in the symbol table and retrieves its associated attributes.
  • Update: Updating allows modifying the attributes of an existing identifier in the symbol table.
  • Delete: Deleting removes an identifier and its associated attributes from the symbol table.

Implementations of Symbol Table

The symbol table can be implemented using various data structures, including hash tables, linked lists, and binary search trees. Each implementation has its advantages and trade-offs in terms of efficiency and memory usage.

A hash table-based implementation offers fast insertion, lookup, and deletion operations on average. It uses a hash function to map identifiers to their corresponding locations in the table. However, collisions may occur if two identifiers generate the same hash value.

A linked list-based implementation maintains a linked list of entries where each entry represents an identifier with its attributes. It can handle collisions by appending new entries at the end of the list. However, searching for a specific identifier may require traversing the entire list, resulting in slower performance for large symbol tables.

A binary search tree (BST) implementation provides efficient insertion, deletion, and lookup operations if balanced properly. BSTs maintain a sorted order of identifiers based on their names or other attributes. However, balancing the tree becomes crucial to avoid skewed structures that degrade performance.


The symbol table serves as a fundamental data structure in compiler design for managing information about identifiers used in a program. With its various components and operations, it enables efficient retrieval and manipulation of identifier-related information during different stages of compilation.

Understanding how symbol tables work and their different implementations is crucial for anyone involved in compiler design or programming language development.

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