Home : Software Terms : Interpreter Definition


An interpreter is a program that reads and executes code. This includes source code, pre-compiled code, and scripts. Common interpreters include Perl, Python, and Ruby interpreters, which execute Perl, Python, and Ruby code respectively.

Interpreters and compilers are similar, since they both recognize and process source code. However, a compiler does not execute the code like an interpreter does. Instead, a compiler simply converts the source code into machine code, which can be run directly by the operating system as an executable program. Interpreters bypass the compilation process and execute the code directly.

Since interpreters read and execute code in a single step, they are useful for running scripts and other small programs. Therefore, interpreters are commonly installed on Web servers, which allows developers to run executable scripts within their webpages. These scripts can be easily edited and saved without the need to recompile the code.

While interpreters offer several advantages for running small programs, interpreted languages also have some limitations. The most notable is the fact that interpreted code requires an interpreter to run. Therefore, without an interpreter, the source code serves as a plain text file rather than an executable program. Additionally, programs written for an interpreter may not be able to use built-in system functions or access hardware resources like compiled programs can. Therefore, most software applications are compiled rather than interpreted.

Updated: September 16, 2010

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