AST (Abstract Syntax Tree)

Source code usually contains parts which only serve to make the structure of the source code recognizable but don’t have any actual significance, e.g. semicolons, commas, or brackets/parentheses. An abstract syntax tree is a derived tree in which all those redundant elements have been removed because they’re not necessary.

Basically, it comes down to the difference between »concrete syntax« and »abstract syntax«.

  • Concrete syntax: derived tree which contains elements that are only necessary to recognize the structure
  • Abstract syntax: derived tree which contains an abstraction of elements that aren’t essential for semantics

It’s »concrete« because the structure is a grammatical copy of the code/text, token by token, just in a tree format.

An AST only contains information that is related to analyzing the source code/text and ignores any kind of extra syntactic information used for parsing the code/text.

It’s a figurative representation of a code, allowing to understand the structure of a code and thus its elements and showing the relationship between the individual elements/parts. We can then query it the same way we query DOM elements in JavaScript with querySelectorAll, for example. This allows compilers/transpilers (e.g. Babel) to »understand« source code and apply specific transformations to it accordingly.

Usually, ASTs are defined in a specific standard/specification for each programming language. For example, the JavaScript AST follows the estree/estree specification. is a great web-based tool to explore the AST representations generated by various parsers for all sorts of programming languages.