The Benefits of a Formal Semantics

In their book The Definition of Standard ML, Robin Milner, Mads Tofte, and Robert Harper have the following to say about the value of formally describing a programming language:

A precise description of a programming language is a prerequisite for its implementation and for its use. The description can take on many forms, each suited to a different purpose. A common form is a reference manual, which is usually a careful narrative description of each construct of the language, often backed up with a formal presentation of the grammar (for example, in Backus-Naur form). This gives the programmer enough understanding for many of his purposes. But it is ill-suited for use by an implementer, or by someone who wants ...

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