What is BNF notation?

BNF is an acronym for "Backus Naur Form". John Backus and Peter Naur introduced for the first time a formal notation to describe the syntax of a given language (This was for the description of the ALGOL 60 programming language, see [Naur 60]). To be precise, most of BNF was introduced by Backus in a report presented at an earlier UNESCO conference on ALGOL 58. Few read the report, but when Peter Naur read it he was surprised at some of the differences he found between his and Backus's interpretation of ALGOL 58. He decided that for the successor to ALGOL, all participants of the first design had come to recognize some weaknesses, should be given in a similar form so that all participants should be aware of what they were agreeing to. He made a few modificiations that are almost universally used and drew up on his own the BNF for ALGOL 60 at the meeting where it was designed. Depending on how you attribute presenting it to the world, it was either by Backus in 59 or Naur in 60. (For more details on this period of programming languages history, see the introduction to Backus's Turing award article in Communications of the ACM, Vol. 21, No. 8, august 1978. This note was suggested by William B. Clodius from Los Alamos Natl. Lab).

Since then, almost every author of books on new programming languages used it to specify the syntax rules of the language. See [Jensen 74] and [Wirth 82] for examples.

The following is taken from [Marcotty 86]:

The meta-symbols of BNF are:
meaning "is defined as"
meaning "or"
< >
angle brackets used to surround category names.
The angle brackets distinguish syntax rules names (also called non-terminal symbols) from terminal symbols which are written exactly as they are to be represented. A BNF rule defining a nonterminal has the form:
nonterminal ::= sequence_of_alternatives consisting of strings of
                terminals or nonterminals separated by the meta-symbol |
For example, the BNF production for a mini-language is:
<program> ::=  program
               end ;
This shows that a mini-language program consists of the keyword "program" followed by the declaration sequence, then the keyword "begin" and the statements sequence, finally the keyword "end" and a semicolon.

(end of quotation)

In fact, many authors have introduced some slight extensions of BNF for the ease of use: Now as a last example (maybe not the easiest to read !), here is the definition of BNF expressed in BNF:
syntax     ::=  { rule }
rule       ::=  identifier  "::="  expression
expression ::=  term { "|" term }
term       ::=  factor { factor }
factor     ::=  identifier |
                quoted_symbol |
                "("  expression  ")" |
                "["  expression  "]" |
                "{"  expression  "}"
identifier ::=  letter { letter | digit }
quoted_symbol ::= """ { any_character } """
BNF is not ony important to describe syntax rules in books, but it is very commonly used (with variants) by syntactic tools. See for example any book on LEX and YACC, the standard UNIX parser generators. If you have access to any Unix machine, you will probably find a chapter of the documentation on these tools.

Some references:

[Naur 60]
NAUR, Peter (ed.), "Revised Report on the Algorithmic Language ALGOL 60.", Communications of the ACM, Vol. 3 No.5, pp. 299-314, May 1960.
[Jensen 74]
JENSEN, Kathleen, WIRTH, Niklaus, "PASCAL user manual and report", Lecture notes in computer science ; vol. 18., Berlin [etc.] : Springer, 1974., 1974.
[Johnson 75]
S.C. Johnson, "Yacc: Yet Another Compiler Compiler", Computer Science Technical Report #32, Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, NJ, 1975.
[Wirth 82]
WIRTH, Niklaus., Programming in Modula-2, Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer, 1982.
[Marcotty 86]
M. Marcotty & H. Ledgard, The World of Programming Languages, Springer-Verlag, Berlin 1986., pages 41 and following.

Th. Estier, CUI - University of Geneva