I came across the following question:

Let $L_1$ be a regular language and $L_2$ be a context-free language. Let $L_1^c$ and $L_2^c$ be their complements respectively. What can be said about $(L_1^c \cup L_2^c)^c$? Is it context-free?

I tried to solve it in two different ways:

  1. $L_1^c$ is also regular because regular languages are closed under complementation, but $L_2^c$ is not context-free because context-free languages are not closed under complementation, so, it is context-sensitive (it may also be context-free, but not definitely). Also the union of a regular language and a context-sensitive language is context-sensitive. So, $(L_1^c \cup L_2^c)^c$ is context-sensitive.
  2. Applying DeMorgan's Law, $(L_1^c \cup L_2^c)^c$ becomes $L_1 \cap L_2$, which is clearly context-free.

Why is the discrepancy there between the two methods? What mistake am I making in the first approach (because the answer is "context-free")?

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Why do you see a discrepancy? The first approach is a weaker attempt, so you don't get much from it, but in the second approach you simply get a stronger result (remember that context-free languages are in particular, context-sensitive). Also, be careful with the term "context-sensitive", because it doesn't mean "not context-free", it's just a different computational model. $\endgroup$
    – Shaull
    Jun 20, 2021 at 11:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Shaull, I understand that context-free languages are basically a subset of context-sensitive languages. I have also written it in first approach "it may also be context-free, but not definitely". What I don't understand is what makes the first approach weaker than the second one. Is it the generalization of CFL into CSL (to avoid the non-closure of CFL in complementation)? $\endgroup$ Jun 20, 2021 at 12:34
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The first approach is weaker simply because you're using weaker results: you're not using de-Morgan, and you're only using the fact that CSL are closed under union (instead of the stronger argument that the intersection of a regular language and a CFL is a CFL). $\endgroup$
    – Shaull
    Jun 20, 2021 at 13:15

1 Answer 1


There is no discrepancy in the two methods. The first method shows that $L := \overline{\overline{L_1} \cup \overline{L_2}}$ is context-sensitive. The second method shows the stronger result that $L$ is context-free. Both of these are consistent. Compare the following: $$ 1 + 1 \leq 1 + 2 = 3 \Longrightarrow 1 \leq 3 \\ 1 + 1 \leq 2 $$ The first inequality shows that $x := 1 + 1$ satisfies $x \leq 3$. The second inequality is stronger, showing that $x \leq 2$. There is no discrepancy here. The second inequality is simply better.

The term context-sensitive is somewhat of a misnomer. Being context-sensitive doesn't preclude being context-free. In particular, every context-free language is also context-sensitive.

Here is how to cut the slack in your first argument:

  1. Since $L_1$ is regular, $L_1^c$ is regular.
  2. Since $L_2$ is context-free, $L_2^c$ is co-context-free (a language is co-context-free if its complement is context-free).
  3. Since $L_1^c$ is regular and $L_2^c$ is co-context-free, so is $L_1^c \cup L_2^c$.
  4. Hence $(L_1^c \cup L_2^c)^c$ is context-free.

In this case we were lucky to find classes of languages which tightly describe all intermediate steps. Sometimes we are not as lucky, and we need to find a different of proving that a certain language, constructed in a certain way, belongs to a certain language class.

  • $\begingroup$ I understand that "being context-sensitive doesn't preclude being context-free" because context-free languages are a subset of context-sensitive languages. But I am not sure of the reason of the 1st approach being weaker than the 2nd one. My guess is - the generalization of CFL into CSL (to avoid the non-closure of CFL under complementation) makes it weak. Is it correct? $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2021 at 5:03
  • $\begingroup$ The first approach is actually wrong, since it claims that $L_2^c$ is not context-free. It could be. $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2021 at 5:05
  • $\begingroup$ The 1st approach doesn't actually claim that $L_2^c$ is not context-free. It claims that it is not "definitely" context-free. It could be but not always. It is already mentioned in my question after that line. $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2021 at 5:24
  • $\begingroup$ The idea of using "co-context-free" instead of generalising into context-sensitive finally made me understand. This is exactly what I was looking for. $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2021 at 6:14

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