Semantics (computer science)

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In programming language theory, semantics is the rigorous mathematical study of the meaning of programming languages.[1] Semantics assigns computational meaning to valid strings in a programming language syntax.

Semantics describes the processes a computer follows when executing a program in that specific language. This can be shown by describing the relationship between the input and output of a program, or an explanation of how the program will be executed on a certain platform, hence creating a model of computation.


The field of formal semantics encompasses all of the following:

  • The definition of semantic models
  • The relations between different semantic models
  • The relations between different approaches to meaning
  • The relation between computation and the underlying mathematical structures from fields such as logic, set theory, model theory, category theory, etc.

It has close links with other areas of computer science such as programming language design, type theory, compilers and interpreters, program verification and model checking.


There are many approaches to formal semantics; these belong to three major classes:

  • Denotational semantics,[2] whereby each phrase in the language is interpreted as a denotation, i.e. a conceptual meaning that can be thought of abstractly. Such denotations are often mathematical objects inhabiting a mathematical space, but it is not a requirement that they should be so. As a practical necessity, denotations are described using some form of mathematical notation, which can in turn be formalized as a denotational metalanguage. For example, denotational semantics of functional languages often translate the language into domain theory. Denotational semantic descriptions can also serve as compositional translations from a programming language into the denotational metalanguage and used as a basis for designing compilers.
  • Operational semantics,[3] whereby the execution of the language is described directly (rather than by translation). Operational semantics loosely corresponds to interpretation, although again the "implementation language" of the interpreter is generally a mathematical formalism. Operational semantics may define an abstract machine (such as the SECD machine), and give meaning to phrases by describing the transitions they induce on states of the machine. Alternatively, as with the pure lambda calculus, operational semantics can be defined via syntactic transformations on phrases of the language itself;
  • Axiomatic semantics,[4] whereby one gives meaning to phrases by describing the axioms that apply to them. Axiomatic semantics makes no distinction between a phrase's meaning and the logical formulas that describe it; its meaning is exactly what can be proven about it in some logic. The canonical example of axiomatic semantics is Hoare logic.

Apart from the choice between denotational, operational, or axiomatic approaches, most variations in formal semantic systems arise from the choice of supporting mathematical formalism.


Some variations of formal semantics include the following:

Describing relationships[edit]

For a variety of reasons, one might wish to describe the relationships between different formal semantics. For example:

  • To prove that a particular operational semantics for a language satisfies the logical formulas of an axiomatic semantics for that language. Such a proof demonstrates that it is "sound" to reason about a particular (operational) interpretation strategy using a particular (axiomatic) proof system.
  • To prove that operational semantics over a high-level machine is related by a simulation with the semantics over a low-level machine, whereby the low-level abstract machine contains more primitive operations than the high-level abstract machine definition of a given language. Such a proof demonstrates that the low-level machine "faithfully implements" the high-level machine.

It is also possible to relate multiple semantics through abstractions via the theory of abstract interpretation.


Robert W. Floyd is credited with founding the field of programming language semantics in Floyd (1967).[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Joseph A. Goguen (1975). "Semantics of computation". Category Theory Applied to Computation and Control. Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Vol. 25. Springer. pp. 151–163. doi:10.1007/3-540-07142-3_75. ISBN 978-3-540-07142-6.
  2. ^ David A. Schmidt (1986). Denotational Semantics: A Methodology for Language Development. William C. Brown Publishers. ISBN 9780205104505.
  3. ^ Gordon D. Plotkin (1981). "A structural approach to operational semantics". Technical Report DAIMI FN-19. Computer Science Department, Aarhus University. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. ^ a b Joseph A. Goguen; James W. Thatcher; Eric G. Wagner; Jesse B. Wright (1977). "Initial algebra semantics and continuous algebras". Journal of the ACM. 24 (1): 68–95. doi:10.1145/321992.321997. S2CID 11060837.
  5. ^ Peter D. Mosses (1996). "Theory and practice of action semantics". BRICS Report RS9653. Aarhus University. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  6. ^ Pierre Deransart; Martin Jourdan; Bernard Lorho (1988). "Attribute Grammars: Definitions, Systems and Bibliography. Lecture Notes in Computer Science 323. Springer-Verlag. ISBN 9780387500560.
  7. ^ F. William Lawvere (1963). "Functorial semantics of algebraic theories". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 50 (5): 869–872. Bibcode:1963PNAS...50..869L. doi:10.1073/pnas.50.5.869. PMC 221940. PMID 16591125.
  8. ^ Andrzej Tarlecki; Rod M. Burstall; Joseph A. Goguen (1991). "Some fundamental algebraic tools for the semantics of computation: Part 3. Indexed categories". Theoretical Computer Science. 91 (2): 239–264. doi:10.1016/0304-3975(91)90085-G.
  9. ^ Mark Batty; Kayvan Memarian; Kyndylan Nienhuis; Jean Pichon-Pharabod; Peter Sewell (2015). "The problem of programming language concurrency semantics". Proceedings of the European Symposium on Programming Languages and Systems. Springer. pp. 283–307. doi:10.1007/978-3-662-46669-8_12.
  10. ^ Samson Abramsky (2009). "Semantics of interaction: An introduction to game semantics". In Andrew M. Pitts; P. Dybjer (eds.). Semantics and Logics of Computation. Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–32. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511526619.002. ISBN 9780521580571.
  11. ^ Edsger W. Dijkstra (1975). "Guarded commands, nondeterminacy and formal derivation of programs". Communications of the ACM. 18 (8): 453–457. doi:10.1145/360933.360975. S2CID 1679242.
  12. ^ Donald E. Knuth. "Memorial Resolution: Robert W. Floyd (1936–2001)" (PDF). Stanford University Faculty Memorials. Stanford Historical Society.

Further reading[edit]

Lecture notes

External links[edit]