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PERLSYN

Section: Perl Programmers Reference Guide (1)
Updated: 2006-01-07
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NAME

perlsyn - Perl syntax  

DESCRIPTION

A Perl program consists of a sequence of declarations and statements which run from the top to the bottom. Loops, subroutines and other control structures allow you to jump around within the code.

Perl is a free-form language, you can format and indent it however you like. Whitespace mostly serves to separate tokens, unlike languages like Python where it is an important part of the syntax.

Many of Perl's syntactic elements are optional. Rather than requiring you to put parentheses around every function call and declare every variable, you can often leave such explicit elements off and Perl will figure out what you meant. This is known as Do What I Mean, abbreviated DWIM. It allows programmers to be lazy and to code in a style with which they are comfortable.

Perl borrows syntax and concepts from many languages: awk, sed, C, Bourne Shell, Smalltalk, Lisp and even English. Other languages have borrowed syntax from Perl, particularly its regular expression extensions. So if you have programmed in another language you will see familiar pieces in Perl. They often work the same, but see perltrap for information about how they differ.  

Declarations

The only things you need to declare in Perl are report formats and subroutines (and sometimes not even subroutines). A variable holds the undefined value ("undef") until it has been assigned a defined value, which is anything other than "undef". When used as a number, "undef" is treated as 0; when used as a string, it is treated as the empty string, ""; and when used as a reference that isn't being assigned to, it is treated as an error. If you enable warnings, you'll be notified of an uninitialized value whenever you treat "undef" as a string or a number. Well, usually. Boolean contexts, such as:

    my $a;
    if ($a) {}

are exempt from warnings (because they care about truth rather than definedness). Operators such as "++", "--", "+=", "-=", and ".=", that operate on undefined left values such as:

    my $a;
    $a++;

are also always exempt from such warnings.

A declaration can be put anywhere a statement can, but has no effect on the execution of the primary sequence of statements---declarations all take effect at compile time. Typically all the declarations are put at the beginning or the end of the script. However, if you're using lexically-scoped private variables created with "my()", you'll have to make sure your format or subroutine definition is within the same block scope as the my if you expect to be able to access those private variables.

Declaring a subroutine allows a subroutine name to be used as if it were a list operator from that point forward in the program. You can declare a subroutine without defining it by saying "sub name", thus:

    sub myname;
    $me = myname $0             or die "can't get myname";

Note that myname() functions as a list operator, not as a unary operator; so be careful to use "or" instead of "||" in this case. However, if you were to declare the subroutine as "sub myname ($)", then "myname" would function as a unary operator, so either "or" or "||" would work.

Subroutines declarations can also be loaded up with the "require" statement or both loaded and imported into your namespace with a "use" statement. See perlmod for details on this.

A statement sequence may contain declarations of lexically-scoped variables, but apart from declaring a variable name, the declaration acts like an ordinary statement, and is elaborated within the sequence of statements as if it were an ordinary statement. That means it actually has both compile-time and run-time effects.  

Comments

Text from a "#" character until the end of the line is a comment, and is ignored. Exceptions include "#" inside a string or regular expression.  

Simple Statements

The only kind of simple statement is an expression evaluated for its side effects. Every simple statement must be terminated with a semicolon, unless it is the final statement in a block, in which case the semicolon is optional. (A semicolon is still encouraged if the block takes up more than one line, because you may eventually add another line.) Note that there are some operators like "eval {}" and "do {}" that look like compound statements, but aren't (they're just TERMs in an expression), and thus need an explicit termination if used as the last item in a statement.  

Truth and Falsehood

The number 0, the strings '0' and '', the empty list "()", and "undef" are all false in a boolean context. All other values are true. Negation of a true value by "!" or "not" returns a special false value. When evaluated as a string it is treated as '', but as a number, it is treated as 0.  

Statement Modifiers

Any simple statement may optionally be followed by a SINGLE modifier, just before the terminating semicolon (or block ending). The possible modifiers are:

    if EXPR
    unless EXPR
    while EXPR
    until EXPR
    foreach LIST

The "EXPR" following the modifier is referred to as the ``condition''. Its truth or falsehood determines how the modifier will behave.

"if" executes the statement once if and only if the condition is true. "unless" is the opposite, it executes the statement unless the condition is true (i.e., if the condition is false).

    print "Basset hounds got long ears" if length $ear >= 10;
    go_outside() and play() unless $is_raining;

The "foreach" modifier is an iterator: it executes the statement once for each item in the LIST (with $_ aliased to each item in turn).

    print "Hello $_!\n" foreach qw(world Dolly nurse);

"while" repeats the statement while the condition is true. "until" does the opposite, it repeats the statement until the condition is true (or while the condition is false):

    # Both of these count from 0 to 10.
    print $i++ while $i <= 10;
    print $j++ until $j >  10;

The "while" and "until" modifiers have the usual ""while" loop" semantics (conditional evaluated first), except when applied to a "do"-BLOCK (or to the deprecated "do"-SUBROUTINE statement), in which case the block executes once before the conditional is evaluated. This is so that you can write loops like:

    do {
        $line = <STDIN>;
        ...
    } until $line  eq ".\n";

See ``do'' in perlfunc. Note also that the loop control statements described later will NOT work in this construct, because modifiers don't take loop labels. Sorry. You can always put another block inside of it (for "next") or around it (for "last") to do that sort of thing. For "next", just double the braces:

    do {{
        next if $x == $y;
        # do something here
    }} until $x++ > $z;

For "last", you have to be more elaborate:

    LOOP: { 
            do {
                last if $x = $y**2;
                # do something here
            } while $x++ <= $z;
    }

NOTE: The behaviour of a "my" statement modified with a statement modifier conditional or loop construct (e.g. "my $x if ...") is undefined. The value of the "my" variable may be "undef", any previously assigned value, or possibly anything else. Don't rely on it. Future versions of perl might do something different from the version of perl you try it out on. Here be dragons.  

Compound Statements

In Perl, a sequence of statements that defines a scope is called a block. Sometimes a block is delimited by the file containing it (in the case of a required file, or the program as a whole), and sometimes a block is delimited by the extent of a string (in the case of an eval).

But generally, a block is delimited by curly brackets, also known as braces. We will call this syntactic construct a BLOCK.

The following compound statements may be used to control flow:

    if (EXPR) BLOCK
    if (EXPR) BLOCK else BLOCK
    if (EXPR) BLOCK elsif (EXPR) BLOCK ... else BLOCK
    LABEL while (EXPR) BLOCK
    LABEL while (EXPR) BLOCK continue BLOCK
    LABEL until (EXPR) BLOCK
    LABEL until (EXPR) BLOCK continue BLOCK
    LABEL for (EXPR; EXPR; EXPR) BLOCK
    LABEL foreach VAR (LIST) BLOCK
    LABEL foreach VAR (LIST) BLOCK continue BLOCK
    LABEL BLOCK continue BLOCK

Note that, unlike C and Pascal, these are defined in terms of BLOCKs, not statements. This means that the curly brackets are required--no dangling statements allowed. If you want to write conditionals without curly brackets there are several other ways to do it. The following all do the same thing:

    if (!open(FOO)) { die "Can't open $FOO: $!"; }
    die "Can't open $FOO: $!" unless open(FOO);
    open(FOO) or die "Can't open $FOO: $!";     # FOO or bust!
    open(FOO) ? 'hi mom' : die "Can't open $FOO: $!";
                        # a bit exotic, that last one

The "if" statement is straightforward. Because BLOCKs are always bounded by curly brackets, there is never any ambiguity about which "if" an "else" goes with. If you use "unless" in place of "if", the sense of the test is reversed.

The "while" statement executes the block as long as the expression is true (does not evaluate to the null string "" or 0 or "0"). The "until" statement executes the block as long as the expression is false. The LABEL is optional, and if present, consists of an identifier followed by a colon. The LABEL identifies the loop for the loop control statements "next", "last", and "redo". If the LABEL is omitted, the loop control statement refers to the innermost enclosing loop. This may include dynamically looking back your call-stack at run time to find the LABEL. Such desperate behavior triggers a warning if you use the "use warnings" pragma or the -w flag.

If there is a "continue" BLOCK, it is always executed just before the conditional is about to be evaluated again. Thus it can be used to increment a loop variable, even when the loop has been continued via the "next" statement.  

Loop Control

The "next" command starts the next iteration of the loop:

    LINE: while (<STDIN>) {
        next LINE if /^#/;      # discard comments
        ...
    }

The "last" command immediately exits the loop in question. The "continue" block, if any, is not executed:

    LINE: while (<STDIN>) {
        last LINE if /^$/;      # exit when done with header
        ...
    }

The "redo" command restarts the loop block without evaluating the conditional again. The "continue" block, if any, is not executed. This command is normally used by programs that want to lie to themselves about what was just input.

For example, when processing a file like /etc/termcap. If your input lines might end in backslashes to indicate continuation, you want to skip ahead and get the next record.

    while (<>) {
        chomp;
        if (s/\\$//) {
            $_ .= <>;
            redo unless eof();
        }
        # now process $_
    }

which is Perl short-hand for the more explicitly written version:

    LINE: while (defined($line = <ARGV>)) {
        chomp($line);
        if ($line =~ s/\\$//) {
            $line .= <ARGV>;
            redo LINE unless eof(); # not eof(ARGV)!
        }
        # now process $line
    }

Note that if there were a "continue" block on the above code, it would get executed only on lines discarded by the regex (since redo skips the continue block). A continue block is often used to reset line counters or "?pat?" one-time matches:

    # inspired by :1,$g/fred/s//WILMA/
    while (<>) {
        ?(fred)?    && s//WILMA $1 WILMA/;
        ?(barney)?  && s//BETTY $1 BETTY/;
        ?(homer)?   && s//MARGE $1 MARGE/;
    } continue {
        print "$ARGV $.: $_";
        close ARGV  if eof();           # reset $.
        reset       if eof();           # reset ?pat?
    }

If the word "while" is replaced by the word "until", the sense of the test is reversed, but the conditional is still tested before the first iteration.

The loop control statements don't work in an "if" or "unless", since they aren't loops. You can double the braces to make them such, though.

    if (/pattern/) {{
        last if /fred/;
        next if /barney/; # same effect as "last", but doesn't document as well
        # do something here
    }}

This is caused by the fact that a block by itself acts as a loop that executes once, see ``Basic BLOCKs and Switch Statements''.

The form "while/if BLOCK BLOCK", available in Perl 4, is no longer available. Replace any occurrence of "if BLOCK" by "if (do BLOCK)".  

For Loops

Perl's C-style "for" loop works like the corresponding "while" loop; that means that this:

    for ($i = 1; $i < 10; $i++) {
        ...
    }

is the same as this:

    $i = 1;
    while ($i < 10) {
        ...
    } continue {
        $i++;
    }

There is one minor difference: if variables are declared with "my" in the initialization section of the "for", the lexical scope of those variables is exactly the "for" loop (the body of the loop and the control sections).

Besides the normal array index looping, "for" can lend itself to many other interesting applications. Here's one that avoids the problem you get into if you explicitly test for end-of-file on an interactive file descriptor causing your program to appear to hang.

    $on_a_tty = -t STDIN && -t STDOUT;
    sub prompt { print "yes? " if $on_a_tty }
    for ( prompt(); <STDIN>; prompt() ) {
        # do something
    }

Using "readline" (or the operator form, "<EXPR>") as the conditional of a "for" loop is shorthand for the following. This behaviour is the same as a "while" loop conditional.

    for ( prompt(); defined( $_ = <STDIN> ); prompt() ) {
        # do something
    }

 

Foreach Loops

The "foreach" loop iterates over a normal list value and sets the variable VAR to be each element of the list in turn. If the variable is preceded with the keyword "my", then it is lexically scoped, and is therefore visible only within the loop. Otherwise, the variable is implicitly local to the loop and regains its former value upon exiting the loop. If the variable was previously declared with "my", it uses that variable instead of the global one, but it's still localized to the loop. This implicit localisation occurs only in a "foreach" loop.

The "foreach" keyword is actually a synonym for the "for" keyword, so you can use "foreach" for readability or "for" for brevity. (Or because the Bourne shell is more familiar to you than csh, so writing "for" comes more naturally.) If VAR is omitted, $_ is set to each value.

If any element of LIST is an lvalue, you can modify it by modifying VAR inside the loop. Conversely, if any element of LIST is NOT an lvalue, any attempt to modify that element will fail. In other words, the "foreach" loop index variable is an implicit alias for each item in the list that you're looping over.

If any part of LIST is an array, "foreach" will get very confused if you add or remove elements within the loop body, for example with "splice". So don't do that.

"foreach" probably won't do what you expect if VAR is a tied or other special variable. Don't do that either.

Examples:

    for (@ary) { s/foo/bar/ }

    for my $elem (@elements) {
        $elem *= 2;
    }

    for $count (10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1,'BOOM') {
        print $count, "\n"; sleep(1);
    }

    for (1..15) { print "Merry Christmas\n"; }

    foreach $item (split(/:[\\\n:]*/, $ENV{TERMCAP})) {
        print "Item: $item\n";
    }

Here's how a C programmer might code up a particular algorithm in Perl:

    for (my $i = 0; $i < @ary1; $i++) {
        for (my $j = 0; $j < @ary2; $j++) {
            if ($ary1[$i] > $ary2[$j]) {
                last; # can't go to outer :-(
            }
            $ary1[$i] += $ary2[$j];
        }
        # this is where that last takes me
    }

Whereas here's how a Perl programmer more comfortable with the idiom might do it:

    OUTER: for my $wid (@ary1) {
    INNER:   for my $jet (@ary2) {
                next OUTER if $wid > $jet;
                $wid += $jet;
             }
          }

See how much easier this is? It's cleaner, safer, and faster. It's cleaner because it's less noisy. It's safer because if code gets added between the inner and outer loops later on, the new code won't be accidentally executed. The "next" explicitly iterates the other loop rather than merely terminating the inner one. And it's faster because Perl executes a "foreach" statement more rapidly than it would the equivalent "for" loop.  

Basic BLOCKs and Switch Statements

A BLOCK by itself (labeled or not) is semantically equivalent to a loop that executes once. Thus you can use any of the loop control statements in it to leave or restart the block. (Note that this is NOT true in "eval{}", "sub{}", or contrary to popular belief "do{}" blocks, which do NOT count as loops.) The "continue" block is optional.

The BLOCK construct is particularly nice for doing case structures.

    SWITCH: {
        if (/^abc/) { $abc = 1; last SWITCH; }
        if (/^def/) { $def = 1; last SWITCH; }
        if (/^xyz/) { $xyz = 1; last SWITCH; }
        $nothing = 1;
    }

There is no official "switch" statement in Perl, because there are already several ways to write the equivalent.

However, starting from Perl 5.8 to get switch and case one can use the Switch extension and say:

        use Switch;

after which one has switch and case. It is not as fast as it could be because it's not really part of the language (it's done using source filters) but it is available, and it's very flexible.

In addition to the above BLOCK construct, you could write

    SWITCH: {
        $abc = 1, last SWITCH  if /^abc/;
        $def = 1, last SWITCH  if /^def/;
        $xyz = 1, last SWITCH  if /^xyz/;
        $nothing = 1;
    }

(That's actually not as strange as it looks once you realize that you can use loop control ``operators'' within an expression. That's just the binary comma operator in scalar context. See ``Comma Operator'' in perlop.)

or

    SWITCH: {
        /^abc/ && do { $abc = 1; last SWITCH; };
        /^def/ && do { $def = 1; last SWITCH; };
        /^xyz/ && do { $xyz = 1; last SWITCH; };
        $nothing = 1;
    }

or formatted so it stands out more as a ``proper'' "switch" statement:

    SWITCH: {
        /^abc/      && do {
                            $abc = 1;
                            last SWITCH;
                       };

        /^def/      && do {
                            $def = 1;
                            last SWITCH;
                       };

        /^xyz/      && do {
                            $xyz = 1;
                            last SWITCH;
                        };
        $nothing = 1;
    }

or

    SWITCH: {
        /^abc/ and $abc = 1, last SWITCH;
        /^def/ and $def = 1, last SWITCH;
        /^xyz/ and $xyz = 1, last SWITCH;
        $nothing = 1;
    }

or even, horrors,

    if (/^abc/)
        { $abc = 1 }
    elsif (/^def/)
        { $def = 1 }
    elsif (/^xyz/)
        { $xyz = 1 }
    else
        { $nothing = 1 }

A common idiom for a "switch" statement is to use "foreach"'s aliasing to make a temporary assignment to $_ for convenient matching:

    SWITCH: for ($where) {
                /In Card Names/     && do { push @flags, '-e'; last; };
                /Anywhere/          && do { push @flags, '-h'; last; };
                /In Rulings/        && do {                    last; };
                die "unknown value for form variable where: `$where'";
            }

Another interesting approach to a switch statement is arrange for a "do" block to return the proper value:

    $amode = do {
        if     ($flag & O_RDONLY) { "r" }       # XXX: isn't this 0?
        elsif  ($flag & O_WRONLY) { ($flag & O_APPEND) ? "a" : "w" }
        elsif  ($flag & O_RDWR)   {
            if ($flag & O_CREAT)  { "w+" }
            else                  { ($flag & O_APPEND) ? "a+" : "r+" }
        }
    };

Or

        print do {
            ($flags & O_WRONLY) ? "write-only"          :
            ($flags & O_RDWR)   ? "read-write"          :
                                  "read-only";
        };

Or if you are certain that all the "&&" clauses are true, you can use something like this, which ``switches'' on the value of the "HTTP_USER_AGENT" environment variable.

    #!/usr/bin/perl 
    # pick out jargon file page based on browser
    $dir = 'http://www.wins.uva.nl/~mes/jargon';
    for ($ENV{HTTP_USER_AGENT}) { 
        $page  =    /Mac/            && 'm/Macintrash.html'
                 || /Win(dows )?NT/  && 'e/evilandrude.html'
                 || /Win|MSIE|WebTV/ && 'm/MicroslothWindows.html'
                 || /Linux/          && 'l/Linux.html'
                 || /HP-UX/          && 'h/HP-SUX.html'
                 || /SunOS/          && 's/ScumOS.html'
                 ||                     'a/AppendixB.html';
    }
    print "Location: $dir/$page\015\012\015\012";

That kind of switch statement only works when you know the "&&" clauses will be true. If you don't, the previous "?:" example should be used.

You might also consider writing a hash of subroutine references instead of synthesizing a "switch" statement.  

Goto

Although not for the faint of heart, Perl does support a "goto" statement. There are three forms: "goto"-LABEL, "goto"-EXPR, and "goto"-&NAME. A loop's LABEL is not actually a valid target for a "goto"; it's just the name of the loop.

The "goto"-LABEL form finds the statement labeled with LABEL and resumes execution there. It may not be used to go into any construct that requires initialization, such as a subroutine or a "foreach" loop. It also can't be used to go into a construct that is optimized away. It can be used to go almost anywhere else within the dynamic scope, including out of subroutines, but it's usually better to use some other construct such as "last" or "die". The author of Perl has never felt the need to use this form of "goto" (in Perl, that is---C is another matter).

The "goto"-EXPR form expects a label name, whose scope will be resolved dynamically. This allows for computed "goto"s per FORTRAN, but isn't necessarily recommended if you're optimizing for maintainability:

    goto(("FOO", "BAR", "GLARCH")[$i]);

The "goto"-&NAME form is highly magical, and substitutes a call to the named subroutine for the currently running subroutine. This is used by "AUTOLOAD()" subroutines that wish to load another subroutine and then pretend that the other subroutine had been called in the first place (except that any modifications to @_ in the current subroutine are propagated to the other subroutine.) After the "goto", not even "caller()" will be able to tell that this routine was called first.

In almost all cases like this, it's usually a far, far better idea to use the structured control flow mechanisms of "next", "last", or "redo" instead of resorting to a "goto". For certain applications, the catch and throw pair of "eval{}" and die() for exception processing can also be a prudent approach.  

PODs: Embedded Documentation

Perl has a mechanism for intermixing documentation with source code. While it's expecting the beginning of a new statement, if the compiler encounters a line that begins with an equal sign and a word, like this

    =head1 Here There Be Pods!

Then that text and all remaining text up through and including a line beginning with "=cut" will be ignored. The format of the intervening text is described in perlpod.

This allows you to intermix your source code and your documentation text freely, as in

    =item snazzle($)

    The snazzle() function will behave in the most spectacular
    form that you can possibly imagine, not even excepting
    cybernetic pyrotechnics.

    =cut back to the compiler, nuff of this pod stuff!

    sub snazzle($) {
        my $thingie = shift;
        .........
    }

Note that pod translators should look at only paragraphs beginning with a pod directive (it makes parsing easier), whereas the compiler actually knows to look for pod escapes even in the middle of a paragraph. This means that the following secret stuff will be ignored by both the compiler and the translators.

    $a=3;
    =secret stuff
     warn "Neither POD nor CODE!?"
    =cut back
    print "got $a\n";

You probably shouldn't rely upon the "warn()" being podded out forever. Not all pod translators are well-behaved in this regard, and perhaps the compiler will become pickier.

One may also use pod directives to quickly comment out a section of code.  

Plain Old Comments (Not!)

Perl can process line directives, much like the C preprocessor. Using this, one can control Perl's idea of filenames and line numbers in error or warning messages (especially for strings that are processed with "eval()"). The syntax for this mechanism is the same as for most C preprocessors: it matches the regular expression

    # example: '# line 42 "new_filename.plx"'
    /^\#   \s*
      line \s+ (\d+)   \s*
      (?:\s("?)([^"]+)\2)? \s*
     $/x

with $1 being the line number for the next line, and $3 being the optional filename (specified with or without quotes).

There is a fairly obvious gotcha included with the line directive: Debuggers and profilers will only show the last source line to appear at a particular line number in a given file. Care should be taken not to cause line number collisions in code you'd like to debug later.

Here are some examples that you should be able to type into your command shell:

    % perl
    # line 200 "bzzzt"
    # the `#' on the previous line must be the first char on line
    die 'foo';
    __END__
    foo at bzzzt line 201.

    % perl
    # line 200 "bzzzt"
    eval qq[\n#line 2001 ""\ndie 'foo']; print $@;
    __END__
    foo at - line 2001.

    % perl
    eval qq[\n#line 200 "foo bar"\ndie 'foo']; print $@;
    __END__
    foo at foo bar line 200.

    % perl
    # line 345 "goop"
    eval "\n#line " . __LINE__ . ' "' . __FILE__ ."\"\ndie 'foo'";
    print $@;
    __END__
    foo at goop line 345.


 

Index

NAME
DESCRIPTION
Declarations
Comments
Simple Statements
Truth and Falsehood
Statement Modifiers
Compound Statements
Loop Control
For Loops
Foreach Loops
Basic BLOCKs and Switch Statements
Goto
PODs: Embedded Documentation
Plain Old Comments (Not!)




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