BBC BASIC binary line number format

As mentioned yesterday, BBC BASIC stores a binary representation of line numbers instead of the ASCII for statements like GOTO and GOSUB. After talking with my mate Richard Talbot-Watkins I’ve learnt the reason it’s not stored in pure HI/LO binary form is so the interpreter can skip quickly along a line, looking for the ELSE token during IF statement parsing.

If the line numbers were stored naïvely in most significant byte/least significant byte (HI/LO) form, then the rather contrived line:

10 IF A=1 GOTO 139 ELSE GOTO 204

would tokenise as1:

\n [ 10] ll IF  _  A  =  1  _ GOTO_ [Line139] _
0D 00 0A 17 E7 20 41 3D 31 20 E5 20 8F 00 8B 20
                                          ^^
ELSE_ GOTO_ [line204]
8B 20 E5 20 8D 00 CC
^^

If the interpreter chose to scan forward for the ELSE by just looking for its token 0x8b then it would trip over on the 0x8b in the GOTO (marked with ^^) — 0x8b in decimal is 139. Instead, BBC BASIC tokenises this as:

\n [ 10] ll IF  _  A  =  1  _ GOTO_ [Line  139]
0D 00 0A 19 E7 20 41 3D 31 20 E5 20 8F 74 4B 40

 _ ELSE_ GOTO_ [line  204]
20 8B 20 E5 20 8D 64 4C 40

The line number is spread over three bytes and kept in the range of normal ASCII values so the interpreter can make this short cut in skipping to the non-ASCII token ELSE.

The algorithm used splits the top two bits off each of the two bytes of the 16-bit line number. These bits are combined (in binary as 00LlHh00), exclusive-ORred with 0x54, and stored as the first byte of the 3-byte sequence. The remaining six bits of each byte are then stored, in LO/HI order, ORred with 0x40.

So taking the first example of line 139 — 0x008b — we split the top and bottom two bits from the two bytes to get 0x00 and 0x80. Shifting these down and combining them as described above gives 0x20, then exclusive ORring with 0x54 gives us the first byte, 0x74. The remaining six bits of the two bytes are 0x00 (most significant) and 0x0b (least significant), ORred with 0x40 and stored in LO/HI order that gives us a final three byte sequence of 0x74 0x4b 0x40.

If you’re wondering why the first byte is exclusive ORred with 0x54, I go into more detail in another article.


  1. Here, underscores represent spaces, and ll means line length. 

Filed under: Coding
Posted at 15:20:00 GMT on 15th November 2007.

About Matt Godbolt

Matt Godbolt is a C++ developer working in Chicago in the finance industry.