Friday, December 17, 2021, marked the thirty-​fourth birth­day of the Perl pro­gram­ming lan­guage, and coin­ci­den­tal­ly this year saw the release of ver­sion 5.34. There are plen­ty of Perl devel­op­ers out there who haven’t kept up with recent (and not-​so-​recent) improve­ments to the lan­guage and its ecosys­tem, so I thought I might list a batch. (You may have seen some of these before in May’s post Perl can do that now!”)

The feature pragma

Perl v5.10 was released in December 2007, and with it came feature, a way of enabling new syn­tax with­out break­ing back­ward com­pat­i­bil­i­ty. You can enable indi­vid­ual fea­tures by name (e.g., use feature qw(say fc); for the say and fc key­words), or by using a fea­ture bun­dle based on the Perl ver­sion that intro­duced them. For exam­ple, the following:

use feature ':5.34';

…gives you the equiv­a­lent of:

use feature qw(bareword_filehandles bitwise current_sub evalbytes fc indirect multidimensional postderef_qq say state switch unicode_eval unicode_strings);

Boy, that’s a mouth­ful. Feature bun­dles are good. The cor­re­spond­ing bun­dle also gets implic­it­ly loaded if you spec­i­fy a min­i­mum required Perl ver­sion, e.g., with use v5.32;. If you use v5.12; or high­er, strict mode is enabled for free. So just say:

use v5.34;

And last­ly, one-​liners can use the -E switch instead of -e to enable all fea­tures for that ver­sion of Perl, so you can say the fol­low­ing on the com­mand line:

perl -E 'say "Hello world!"'

Instead of:

perl -e 'print "Hello world!\n"'

Which is great when you’re try­ing to save some typing.

The experimental pragma

Sometimes new Perl fea­tures need to be dri­ven a cou­ple of releas­es around the block before their behav­ior set­tles. Those exper­i­ments are doc­u­ment­ed in the per­l­ex­per­i­ment page, and usu­al­ly, you need both a use feature (see above) and no warnings state­ment to safe­ly enable them. Or you can sim­ply pass a list to use experimental of the fea­tures you want, e.g.:

use experimental qw(isa postderef signatures);

Ever-​expanding warnings categories

March 2000 saw the release of Perl 5.6, and with it, the expan­sion of the -w command-​line switch to a sys­tem of fine-​grained con­trols for warn­ing against dubi­ous con­structs” that can be turned on and off depend­ing on the lex­i­cal scope. What start­ed as 26 main and 20 sub­cat­e­gories has expand­ed into 31 main and 43 sub­cat­e­gories, includ­ing warn­ings for the afore­men­tioned exper­i­men­tal features.

As the rel­e­vant Perl::Critic pol­i­cy says, Using warn­ings, and pay­ing atten­tion to what they say, is prob­a­bly the sin­gle most effec­tive way to improve the qual­i­ty of your code.” If you must vio­late warn­ings (per­haps because you’re reha­bil­i­tat­ing some lega­cy code), you can iso­late such vio­la­tions to a small scope and indi­vid­ual cat­e­gories. Check out the stric­tures mod­ule on CPAN if you’d like to go fur­ther and make a safe sub­set of these cat­e­gories fatal dur­ing development.

Document other recently-​introduced syntax with Syntax::Construct

Not every new bit of Perl syn­tax is enabled with a feature guard. For the rest, there’s E. Choroba’s Syntax::Construct mod­ule on CPAN. Rather than hav­ing to remem­ber which ver­sion of Perl intro­duced what, Syntax::Construct lets you declare only what you use and pro­vides a help­ful error mes­sage if some­one tries to run your code on an old­er unsup­port­ed ver­sion. Between it and the feature prag­ma, you can pre­vent many head-​scratching moments and give your users a chance to either upgrade or workaround.

Make built-​in functions throw exceptions with autodie

Many of Perl’s built-​in func­tions only return false on fail­ure, requir­ing the devel­op­er to check every time whether a file can be opened or a system com­mand exe­cut­ed. The lex­i­cal autodie prag­ma replaces them with ver­sions that raise an excep­tion with an object that can be inter­ro­gat­ed for fur­ther details. No mat­ter how many func­tions or meth­ods deep a prob­lem occurs, you can choose to catch it and respond appro­pri­ate­ly. This leads us to…

try/​catch exception handling and Feature::Compat::Try

This year’s Perl v5.34 release intro­duced exper­i­men­tal try/​catch syn­tax for excep­tion han­dling that should look more famil­iar to users of oth­er lan­guages while han­dling the issues sur­round­ing using block eval and test­ing of the spe­cial [email protected] vari­able. If you need to remain com­pat­i­ble with old­er ver­sions of Perl (back to v5.14), just use the Feature::Compat::Try mod­ule from CPAN to auto­mat­i­cal­ly select either v5.34’s native try/​catch or a sub­set of the func­tion­al­i­ty pro­vid­ed by Syntax::Keyword::Try.

Pluggable keywords

The above­men­tioned Syntax::Keyword::Try was made pos­si­ble by the intro­duc­tion of a plug­gable key­word mech­a­nism in 2010’s Perl v5.12. So was the Future::AsyncAwait asyn­chro­nous pro­gram­ming library and the Object::Pad test­bed for new object-​oriented Perl syn­tax. If you’re handy with C and Perl’s XS glue lan­guage, check out Paul LeoNerd” Evans’ XS::Parse::Keyword mod­ule to get a leg up on devel­op­ing your own syn­tax module.

Define packages with versions and blocks

Perl v5.12 also helped reduce clut­ter by enabling a package name­space dec­la­ra­tion to also include a ver­sion num­ber, instead of requir­ing a sep­a­rate our $VERSION = ...; v5.14 fur­ther refined packages to be spec­i­fied in code blocks, so a name­space dec­la­ra­tion can be the same as a lex­i­cal scope. Putting the two togeth­er gives you:

package Local::NewHotness v1.2.3 {
    ...
}

Instead of:

{
    package Local::OldAndBusted;
    use version 0.77; our $VERSION = version->declare("v1.2.3");
    ...
}

I know which I’d rather do. (Though you may want to also use Syntax::Construct qw(package-version package-block); to help along with old­er instal­la­tions as described above.)

The // defined-​or operator

This is an easy win from Perl v5.10:

defined $foo ? $foo : $bar  # replace this
$foo // $bar                # with this

And:

$foo = $bar unless defined $foo  # replace this
$foo //= $bar                    # with this

Perfect for assign­ing defaults to variables.

state variables only initialize once

Speaking of vari­ables, ever want one to keep its old val­ue the next time a scope is entered, like in a sub? Declare it with state instead of my. Before Perl v5.10, you need­ed to use a clo­sure instead.

Save some typing with say

Perl v5.10’s bumper crop of enhance­ments also includ­ed the say func­tion, which han­dles the com­mon use case of printing a string or list of strings with a new­line. It’s less noise in your code and saves you four char­ac­ters. What’s not to love?

Note unimplemented code with ...

The ... ellip­sis state­ment (col­lo­qui­al­ly yada-​yada”) gives you an easy place­hold­er for yet-​to-​be-​implemented code. It pars­es OK but will throw an excep­tion if exe­cut­ed. Hopefully, your test cov­er­age (or at least sta­t­ic analy­sis) will catch it before your users do.

Loop and enumerate arrays with each, keys, and values

The each, keys, and values func­tions have always been able to oper­ate on hash­es. Perl v5.12 and above make them work on arrays, too. The lat­ter two are main­ly for con­sis­ten­cy, but you can use each to iter­ate over an array’s indices and val­ues at the same time:

while (my ($index, $value) = each @array) {
    ...
}

This can be prob­lem­at­ic in non-​trivial loops, but I’ve found it help­ful in quick scripts and one-liners.

delete local hash (and array) entries

Ever need­ed to delete an entry from a hash (e.g, an envi­ron­ment vari­able from %ENV or a sig­nal han­dler from %SIG) just inside a block? Perl v5.12 lets you do that with delete local.

Paired hash slices

Jumping for­ward to 2014’s Perl v5.20, the new %foo{'bar', 'baz'} syn­tax enables you to slice a sub­set of a hash with its keys and val­ues intact. Very help­ful for cherry-​picking or aggre­gat­ing many hash­es into one. For example:

my %args = (
    verbose => 1,
    name    => 'Mark',
    extra   => 'pizza',
);
# don't frob the pizza
$my_object->frob( %args{ qw(verbose name) };

Paired array slices

Not to be left out, you can also slice arrays in the same way, in this case return­ing indices and values:

my @letters = 'a' .. 'z';
my @subset_kv = %letters[16, 5, 18, 12];
# @subset_kv is now (16, 'p', 5, 'e', 18, 'r', 12, 'l')

More readable dereferencing

Perl v5.20 intro­duced and v5.24 de-​experimentalized a more read­able post­fix deref­er­enc­ing syn­tax for nav­i­gat­ing nest­ed data struc­tures. Instead of using {braces} or smoosh­ing sig­ils to the left of iden­ti­fiers, you can use a post­fixed sigil-and-star:

push @$array_ref,    1, 2, 3;  # noisy
push @{$array_ref},  1, 2, 3;  # a little easier
push $array_ref->@*, 1, 2, 3;  # read from left to right

So much of web devel­op­ment is sling­ing around and pick­ing apart com­pli­cat­ed data struc­tures via JSON, so I wel­come any­thing like this to reduce the cog­ni­tive load.

when as a statement modifier

Starting in Perl v5.12, you can use the exper­i­men­tal switch fea­tures when key­word as a post­fix mod­i­fi­er. For example:

for ($foo) {
    $a =  1 when /^abc/;
    $a = 42 when /^dna/;
    ...
}

But I don’t rec­om­mend when, given, or givens smart­match oper­a­tions as they were ret­conned as exper­i­ments in 2013’s Perl v5.18 and have remained so due to their tricky behav­ior. I wrote about some alter­na­tives using sta­ble syn­tax back in February.

Simple class inheritance with use parent

Sometimes in old­er object-​oriented Perl code, you’ll see use base as a prag­ma to estab­lish inher­i­tance from anoth­er class. Older still is the direct manip­u­la­tion of the package’s spe­cial @ISA array. In most cas­es, both should be avoid­ed in favor of use parent, which was added to core in Perl v5.10.1.

Mind you, if you’re fol­low­ing the Perl object-​oriented tutorial’s advice and have select­ed an OO sys­tem from CPAN, use its sub­class­ing mech­a­nism if it has one. Moose, Moo, and Class::Accessor’s antlers” mode all pro­vide an extends func­tion; Object::Pad pro­vides an :isa attribute on its class key­word.

Test for class membership with the isa operator

As an alter­na­tive to the isa() method pro­vid­ed to all Perl objects, Perl v5.32 intro­duced the exper­i­men­tal isa infix oper­a­tor:

$my_object->isa('Local::MyClass')
# or
$my_object isa Local::MyClass

The lat­ter can take either a bare­word class name or string expres­sion, but more impor­tant­ly, it’s safer as it also returns false if the left argu­ment is unde­fined or isn’t a blessed object ref­er­ence. The old­er isa() method will throw an excep­tion in the for­mer case and might return true if called as a class method when $my_object is actu­al­ly a string of a class name that’s the same as or inher­its from isa()s argu­ment.

Lexical subroutines

Introduced in Perl v5.18 and de-​experimentalized in 2017’s Perl v5.26, you can now pre­cede sub dec­la­ra­tions with my, state, or our. One use of the first two is tru­ly pri­vate func­tions and meth­ods, as described in this 2018 Dave Jacoby blog and as part of Neil Bowers’ 2014 sur­vey of pri­vate func­tion techniques.

Subroutine signatures

I’ve writ­ten and pre­sent­ed exten­sive­ly about sig­na­tures and alter­na­tives over the past year, so I won’t repeat that here. I’ll just add that the Perl 5 Porters devel­op­ment mail­ing list has been mak­ing a con­cert­ed effort over the past month to hash out the remain­ing issues towards ren­der­ing this fea­ture non-​experimental. The pop­u­lar Mojolicious real-​time web frame­work also pro­vides a short­cut for enabling sig­na­tures and uses them exten­sive­ly in examples.

Indented here-​documents with <<~

Perl has had shell-​style here-​document” syn­tax for embed­ding multi-​line strings of quot­ed text for a long time. Starting with Perl v5.26, you can pre­cede the delim­it­ing string with a ~ char­ac­ter and Perl will both allow the end­ing delim­iter to be indent­ed as well as strip inden­ta­tion from the embed­ded text. This allows for much more read­able embed­ded code such as runs of HTML and SQL. For example:

if ($do_query) {
    my $rows_deleted = $dbh->do(<<~'END_SQL', undef, 42);
      DELETE FROM table
      WHERE status = ?
      END_SQL
    say "$rows_deleted rows were deleted."; 
}

More readable chained comparisons

When I learned math in school, my teach­ers and text­books would often describe mul­ti­ple com­par­isons and inequal­i­ties as a sin­gle expres­sion. Unfortunately, when it came time to learn pro­gram­ming every com­put­er lan­guage I saw required them to be bro­ken up with a series of and (or &&) oper­a­tors. With Perl v5.32, this is no more:

if ( $x < $y && $y <= $z ) { ... }  # old way
if ( $x < $y <= $z )       { ... }  # new way

It’s more con­cise, less noisy, and more like what reg­u­lar math looks like.

Self-​documenting named regular expression captures

Perl’s expres­sive reg­u­lar expres­sion match­ing and text-​processing prowess are leg­endary, although overuse and poor use of read­abil­i­ty enhance­ments often turn peo­ple away from them (and Perl in gen­er­al). We often use reg­ex­ps for extract­ing data from a matched pat­tern. For example:

if ( /Time: (..):(..):(..)/ ) {  # parse out values
    say "$1 hours, $2 minutes, $3 seconds";
}

Named cap­ture groups, intro­duced in Perl v5.10, make both the pat­tern more obvi­ous and retrieval of its data less cryptic:

if ( /Time: (?<hours>..):(?<minutes>..):(?<seconds>..)/ ) {
    say "$+{hours} hours, $+{minutes} minutes, $+{seconds} seconds";
}

More readable regexp character classes

The /x reg­u­lar expres­sion mod­i­fi­er already enables bet­ter read­abil­i­ty by telling the pars­er to ignore most white­space, allow­ing you to break up com­pli­cat­ed pat­terns into spaced-​out groups and mul­ti­ple lines with code com­ments. With Perl v5.26 you can spec­i­fy /xx to also ignore spaces and tabs inside [brack­et­ed] char­ac­ter class­es, turn­ing this:

/[d-eg-i3-7]/
/[[email protected]"#$%^&*()=?<>']/

…into this:

/ [d-e g-i 3-7]/xx
/[ ! @ " # $ % ^ & * () = ? <> ' ]/xx

Set default regexp flags with the re pragma

Beginning with Perl v5.14, writ­ing use re '/xms'; (or any com­bi­na­tion of reg­u­lar expres­sion mod­i­fi­er flags) will turn on those flags until the end of that lex­i­cal scope, sav­ing you the trou­ble of remem­ber­ing them every time.

Non-​destructive substitution with s///r and tr///r

The s/// sub­sti­tu­tion and tr/// translit­er­a­tion oper­a­tors typ­i­cal­ly change their input direct­ly, often in con­junc­tion with the =~ bind­ing oper­a­tor:

s/foo/bar/;  # changes the first foo to bar in $_
$baz =~ s/foo/bar/;  # the same but in $baz

But what if you want to leave the orig­i­nal untouched, such as when pro­cess­ing an array of strings with a map? With Perl v5.14 and above, add the /r flag, which makes the sub­sti­tu­tion on a copy and returns the result:

my @changed = map { s/foo/bar/r } @original;

Unicode case-​folding with fc for better string comparisons

Unicode and char­ac­ter encod­ing in gen­er­al are com­pli­cat­ed beasts. Perl has han­dled Unicode since v5.6 and has kept pace with fix­es and sup­port for updat­ed stan­dards in the inter­ven­ing decades. If you need to test if two strings are equal regard­less of case, use the fc func­tion intro­duced in Perl v5.16.

Safer processing of file arguments with <<>>

The <> null file­han­dle or dia­mond oper­a­tor” is often used in while loops to process input per line com­ing either from stan­dard input (e.g., piped from anoth­er pro­gram) or from a list of files on the com­mand line. Unfortunately, it uses a form of Perl’s open func­tion that inter­prets spe­cial char­ac­ters such as pipes (|) that would allow it to inse­cure­ly run exter­nal com­mands. Using the <<>> dou­ble dia­mond” oper­a­tor intro­duced in Perl v5.22 forces open to treat all command-​line argu­ments as file names only. For old­er Perls, the per­lop doc­u­men­ta­tion rec­om­mends the ARGV::readonly CPAN mod­ule.

Safer loading of Perl libraries and modules from @INC

Perl v5.26 removed the abil­i­ty for all pro­grams to load mod­ules by default from the cur­rent direc­to­ry, clos­ing a secu­ri­ty vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty orig­i­nal­ly iden­ti­fied and fixed as CVE-​2016 – 1238 in pre­vi­ous ver­sions’ includ­ed scripts. If your code relied on this unsafe behav­ior, the v5.26 release notes include steps on how to adapt.

HTTP::Tiny simple HTTP/1.1 client included

To boot­strap access to CPAN on the web in the pos­si­ble absence of exter­nal tools like curl or wget, Perl v5.14 began includ­ing the HTTP::Tiny mod­ule. You can also use it in your pro­grams if you need a sim­ple web client with no dependencies.

Test2: The next generation of Perl testing frameworks

Forked and refac­tored from the ven­er­a­ble Test::Builder (the basis for the Test::More library that many are famil­iar with), Test2 was includ­ed in the core mod­ule library begin­ning with Perl v5.26. I’ve exper­i­ment­ed recent­ly with using the Test2::Suite CPAN library instead of Test::More and it looks pret­ty good. I’m also intrigued by Test2::Harness’ sup­port for thread­ing, fork­ing, and pre­load­ing mod­ules to reduce test run times.

Task::Kensho: Where to start for recommended Perl modules

This last item may not be includ­ed when you install Perl, but it’s where I turn for a col­lec­tion of well-​regarded CPAN mod­ules for accom­plish­ing a wide vari­ety of com­mon tasks span­ning from asyn­chro­nous pro­gram­ming to XML. Use it as a start­ing point or inter­ac­tive­ly select the mix of libraries appro­pri­ate to your project.


And there you have it: a selec­tion of 34 fea­tures, enhance­ments, and improve­ments for the first 34 years of Perl. What’s your favorite? Did I miss any­thing? Let me know in the comments.

Look, I get it. You don’t like the Perl pro­gram­ming lan­guage or have oth­er­wise dis­re­gard­ed it as dead.” (Or per­haps you haven’t, in which case please check out my oth­er blog posts!) It has weird noisy syn­tax, mix­ing reg­u­lar expres­sions, sig­ils on vari­able names, var­i­ous braces and brack­ets for data struc­tures, and a menagerie of cryp­tic spe­cial vari­ables. It’s old: 34 years in December, with a his­to­ry of (some­times ama­teur) devel­op­ers that have used and abused that syn­tax to ship code of ques­tion­able qual­i­ty. Maybe you grudg­ing­ly accept its util­i­ty but think it should die grace­ful­ly, main­tained only to run lega­cy applications.

But you know what? Perl’s still going. It’s had a steady cadence of year­ly releas­es for the past decade, intro­duc­ing new fea­tures and fenc­ing in bad behav­ior while main­tain­ing an admirable lev­el of back­ward com­pat­i­bil­i­ty. Yes, there was a too-​long adven­ture devel­op­ing what start­ed as Perl 6, but that lan­guage now has its own iden­ti­ty as Raku and even has facil­i­ties for mix­ing Perl with its native code or vice versa.

And then there’s CPAN, the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network: a continually-​updated col­lec­tion of over 200,000 open-​source mod­ules writ­ten by over 14,000 authors, the best of which are well-​tested and ‑doc­u­ment­ed (apply­ing peer pres­sure to those that fall short), pre­sent­ed through a search engine and front-​end built by scores of con­trib­u­tors. Through CPAN you can find dis­tri­b­u­tions for things like:

All of this is avail­able through a mature instal­la­tion tool­chain that doesn’t break from month to month.

Finally and most impor­tant­ly, there’s the glob­al Perl com­mu­ni­ty. The COVID-​19 pan­dem­ic has put a damper on the hun­dreds of glob­al Perl Mongers groups’ mee­tups, but that hasn’t stopped the year­ly Perl and Raku Conference from meet­ing vir­tu­al­ly. (In the past there have also been year­ly European and Asian con­fer­ences, occa­sion­al for­ays into South America and Russia, as well as hackathons and work­shops world­wide.) There are IRC servers and chan­nels for chat, mail­ing lists galore, blogs (yes, apart from this one), and a quirky social net­work that pre­dates Facebook and Twitter.

So no, Perl isn’t dead or even dying, but if you don’t like it and favor some­thing new­er, that’s OK! Technologies can coex­ist on their own mer­its and advo­cates of one don’t have to beat down their con­tem­po­raries to be suc­cess­ful. Perl hap­pens to be battle-​tested (to bor­row a term from my friend Curtis Ovid” Poe), it runs large parts of the Web (speak­ing from direct and ongo­ing expe­ri­ence in the host­ing busi­ness here), and it’s still evolv­ing to meet the needs of its users.

clear light bulb planter on gray rock

Twitter recent­ly rec­om­mend­ed a tweet to me (all hail the algo­rithm) tout­ing what the author viewed as the top 5 web devel­op­ment stacks.”

JavaScript/​Node.js options dom­i­nat­ed the four-​letter acronyms as expect­ed, but the fifth one sur­prised me: LAMP, the com­bi­na­tion of the Linux oper­at­ing sys­tem, Apache web serv­er, MySQL rela­tion­al data­base, and Perl, PHP, or Python pro­gram­ming lan­guages. A quick web search for sim­i­lar lists yield­ed sim­i­lar results. Clearly, this meme (in the Dawkins sense) has out­last­ed its pop­u­lar­iza­tion by tech pub­lish­er O’Reilly in the 2000s.

Originally coined in 1998 dur­ing the dot-​com” bub­ble, I had thought that the term LAMP” had fad­ed with devel­op­ers in the inter­ven­ing decades with the rise of language-​specific web frame­works for:

Certainly on the Perl side (with which I’m most famil­iar), the com­mu­ni­ty has long since rec­om­mend­ed the use of a frame­work built on the PSGI spec­i­fi­ca­tion, dep­re­cat­ing 1990s-​era CGI scripts and the mod_​perl Apache exten­sion. Although general-​purpose web servers like Apache or Nginx may be part of an over­all sys­tem, they’re typ­i­cal­ly used as prox­ies or load bal­ancers for Perl-​specific servers either pro­vid­ed by the frame­work or a third-​party mod­ule.

Granted, PHP still relies on web server-​specific mod­ules, APIs, or vari­a­tions of the FastCGI pro­to­col for inter­fac­ing with a web serv­er. And Python web appli­ca­tions typ­i­cal­ly make use of its WSGI pro­to­col either as a web serv­er exten­sion or, like the Perl exam­ples above, as a prox­ied stand­alone serv­er. But all of these are deploy­ment details and do lit­tle to describe how devel­op­ers imple­ment and extend a web application’s structure.

Note how the var­i­ous four-​letter JavaScript stacks (e.g., MERN, MEVN, MEAN, PERN) dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves most­ly by fron­tend frame­work (e.g., Angular, React, Vue.js) and maybe by the (rela­tion­al or NoSQL) data­base (e.g., MongoDB, MySQL, PostgreSQL). All how­ev­er seem stan­dard­ized on the Node.js run­time and Express back­end web frame­work, which could, in the­o­ry, be replaced with non-​JavaScript options like the more mature LAMP-​associated lan­guages and frame­works. (Or if you pre­fer lan­guages that don’t start with P”, there’s C#, Go, Java, Ruby, etc.)

My point is that LAMP” as the name of a web devel­op­ment stack has out­lived its use­ful­ness. It’s at once too spe­cif­ic (about oper­at­ing sys­tem and web serv­er details that are often abstract­ed away for devel­op­ers) and too broad (cov­er­ing three sep­a­rate pro­gram­ming lan­guages and not the frame­works they favor). It also leaves out oth­er non-​JavaScript back-​end lan­guages and their asso­ci­at­ed frameworks.

The ques­tion is: what can replace it? I’d pro­pose NoJS” as rem­i­nis­cent of NoSQL,” but that inac­cu­rate­ly excludes JavaScript from its nec­es­sary role in the front-​end. NJSB” doesn’t exact­ly roll off the tongue, either, and still has the same ambi­gu­i­ty prob­lem as LAMP.”

How about pithy sort-​of-​acronyms pat­terned like database-​frontend-​backend? Here are some Perl examples:

  • MRDancer: MySQL, React, and Dancer (I use this at work. Yes, the M could also stand for MongoDB. Naming things is hard.)
  • MRMojo: MongoDB, React, and Mojolicious
  • PACat: PostgreSQL, Angular, and Catalyst
  • etc.

Ultimately it comes down to com­mu­ni­ty and indus­try adop­tion. If you’re involved with back-​end web devel­op­ment, please let me know in the com­ments if you agree or dis­agree that LAMP” is still a use­ful term, and if not, what should replace it.

circus theme party

Last week’s arti­cle got a great response on Hacker News, and this par­tic­u­lar com­ment caught my eye:

I think this is the real point about Perl code read­abil­i­ty: it gives you enough flex­i­bil­i­ty to do things how­ev­er you like, and as a result many pro­gram­mers are faced with a mir­ror that reflects their own bad prac­tices back at them.

orev, Hacker News

This is why Damian Conway’s Perl Best Practices (2005) is one of my favorite books and perlcritic, the code ana­lyz­er is one of my favorite tools. (Though the for­mer could do with an update and the lat­ter includes poli­cies that con­tra­dict Conway.) Point perlcritic at your code, maybe add some oth­er poli­cies that agree with your house style, and grad­u­al­ly ratch­et up the sever­i­ty lev­el from gen­tle” to bru­tal.” All kinds of bad juju will come to light, from waste­ful­ly using grep to hav­ing too many sub­rou­tine argu­ments to catch­ing pri­vate vari­able use from oth­er pack­ages. perlcritic offers a use­ful base­line of con­duct and you can always cus­tomize its con­fig­u­ra­tion to your own tastes.

The oth­er con­for­mance tool in a Perl devel­op­er’s belt is perltidy, and it too has a Conway-​compatible con­fig­u­ra­tion as well as its default Perl Style Guide set­tings. I’ve found that more than any­thing else, perltidy helps set­tle argu­ments both between devel­op­ers and between their code in help­ing to avoid exces­sive merge conflicts.

But apart from extra tools, Perl the lan­guage itself can be bent and even bro­ken to suit just about any­one’s agen­da. Those used to more bondage-​and-​discipline lan­guages (hi, Java!) might feel revul­sion at the lengths to which this has some­times been tak­en, but per the quote above this is less an indict­ment of the lan­guage and more of its less method­i­cal pro­gram­mers.

Some of this behav­ior can be reha­bil­i­tat­ed with perlcritic and perltidy, but what about oth­er sins attrib­uted to Perl? Here are a few peren­ni­al favorites”:

Objects and Object-​Oriented Programming

Perl has a min­i­mal­ist object sys­tem based on earlier-​available lan­guage con­cepts like data struc­tures (often hash­es, which it has in com­mon with JavaScript), pack­ages, and sub­rou­tines. Since Perl 5’s release in 1994 much ver­bose OO code has been writ­ten using these tools.

The good news is that since 2007 we’ve had a sophis­ti­cat­ed metaobject-​protocol-​based lay­er on top of them called Moose, since 2010 a light­weight but forward-​compatible sys­tem called Moo, and a cou­ple of even tinier options as described in the Perl OO Tutorial. Waiting in the wings is Corinna, an effort to bring next-​generation object capa­bil­i­ties into the Perl core itself, and Object::Pad, a test­bed for some of the ideas in Corinna that you can use today in cur­rent code. (Really, please try it — the author needs feed­back!)

All this is to say that 99% of the time you nev­er need trou­ble your­self with bless, con­struc­tors, or writ­ing acces­sors for class or object attrib­ut­es. Smarter peo­ple than me have done the work for you, and you might even find a con­cept or three that you wish oth­er lan­guages had.

Contexts

There are two major ones: list and scalar. Another way to think of it is plur­al” vs. sin­gu­lar” in English, which is hope­ful­ly a thing you’re famil­iar with as you’re read­ing this blog.

Some func­tions in Perl act dif­fer­ent­ly depend­ing on whether the expect­ed return val­ue is a list or a scalar, and a func­tion will pro­vide a list or scalar con­text to its argu­ments. Mostly these act just as you would expect or would like them to, and you can find out how a func­tion behaves by read­ing its doc­u­men­ta­tion. Your own func­tions can behave like this too, but there’s usu­al­ly no need as both scalars and lists are auto­mat­i­cal­ly inter­pret­ed into lists.” Again, Perl’s DWIMmery at work.

Subroutine and Method Arguments

I’ve already writ­ten about this. Twice. And pre­sent­ed about it. Twice. The short ver­sion: Perl has sig­na­tures, but they’ve been con­sid­ered exper­i­men­tal for a while. In the mean­time, there are alter­na­tives on CPAN. You can even have type con­straints if you want.


I’ll leave you with this: Over the past month, Neil Bowers of the Perl Steering Council has been col­lect­ing quirks like these from Perl devel­op­ers. The PSC is review­ing this col­lec­tion for poten­tial doc­u­men­ta­tion fix­es, bug fix­es, fur­ther dis­cus­sion, etc. I would­n’t expect to see any fun­da­men­tal changes to the lan­guage out of this effort, but it’s a good sign that poten­tial­ly con­fus­ing fea­tures are being addressed. 

I pub­lish Perl sto­ries on this blog once a week, and it seems every time there’s at least one response on social media that amounts to, I hate Perl because of its weird syn­tax.” Or, It looks like line noise.” (Perl seems to have out­last­ed that one — when’s the last time you used an acoustic modem?) Or the quote attrib­uted to Keith Bostic: The only lan­guage that looks the same before and after RSA encryption.”

So let’s address, con­front, and demys­ti­fy this hate. What are these objec­tion­able syn­tac­ti­cal, noisy, pos­si­bly encrypt­ed bits? And why does Perl have them?

Regular expressions

Regular expres­sions, or reg­ex­ps, are not unique to Perl. JavaScript has them. Java has them. Python has them as well as anoth­er mod­ule that adds even more fea­tures. It’s hard to find a lan­guage that does­n’t have them, either native­ly or through the use of a library. It’s com­mon to want to search text using some kind of pat­tern, and reg­ex­ps pro­vide a fair­ly stan­dard­ized if terse mini-​language for doing so. There’s even a C‑based library called PCRE, or Perl Compatible Regular Expressions,” enabling many oth­er pieces of soft­ware to embed a reg­exp engine that’s inspired by (though not quite com­pat­i­ble) with Perl’s syntax.

Being itself inspired by Unix tools like grep, sed, and awk, Perl incor­po­rat­ed reg­u­lar expres­sions into the lan­guage as few oth­er lan­guages have, with bind­ing oper­a­tors of =~ and !~ enabling easy match­ing and sub­sti­tu­tions against expres­sions, and pre-​compilation of reg­ex­ps into their own type of val­ue. Perl then added the abil­i­ty to sep­a­rate reg­ex­ps by white­space to improve read­abil­i­ty, use dif­fer­ent delim­iters to avoid the leaning-​toothpick syn­drome of escap­ing slash (/) char­ac­ters with back­slash­es (\), and name your cap­ture groups and back­ref­er­ences when sub­sti­tut­ing or extract­ing strings.

All this is to say that Perl reg­u­lar expres­sions can be some of the most read­able and robust when used to their full poten­tial. Early on this helped cement Perl’s rep­u­ta­tion as a text-​processing pow­er­house, though the core of reg­ex­ps’ suc­cinct syn­tax can result in difficult-​to-​read code. Such inscrutable exam­ples can be found in any lan­guage that imple­ments reg­u­lar expres­sions; at least Perl offers the enhance­ments men­tioned above.

Sigils

Perl has three built-​in data types that enable you to build all oth­er data struc­tures no mat­ter how com­plex. Its vari­able names are always pre­ced­ed by a sig­il, which is just a fan­cy term for a sym­bol or punc­tu­a­tion mark.

  • A scalar con­tains a string of char­ac­ters, a num­ber, or a ref­er­ence to some­thing, and is pre­ced­ed with a $ (dol­lar sign).
  • An array is an ordered list of scalars begin­ning with an ele­ment num­bered 0 and is pre­ced­ed with a @ (at sign). 
  • A hash, or asso­cia­tive array, is an unordered col­lec­tion of scalars indexed by string keys and is pre­ced­ed with a % (per­cent sign).

So vari­able names $look @like %this. Individual ele­ments of arrays or hash­es are scalars, so they $look[0] $like{'this'}. (That’s the first ele­ment of the @look array count­ing from zero, and the ele­ment in the %like hash with a key of 'this'.)

Perl also has a con­cept of slices, or select­ed parts of an array or hash. A slice of an array looks like @this[1, 2, 3], and a slice of a hash looks like @that{'one', 'two', 'three'}. You could write it out long-​hand like ($this[1], $this[2], $this[3]) and ($that{'one'}, $that{'two'}, $that{'three'} but slices are much eas­i­er. Plus you can even spec­i­fy one or more ranges of ele­ments with the .. oper­a­tor, so @this[0 .. 9] would give you the first ten ele­ments of @this, or @this[0 .. 4, 6 .. 9] would give you nine with the one at index 5 miss­ing. Handy, that.

In oth­er words, the sig­il always tells you what you’re going to get. If it’s a sin­gle scalar val­ue, it’s pre­ced­ed with a $; if it’s a list of val­ues, it’s pre­ced­ed with a @; and if it’s a hash of key-​value pairs, it’s pre­ced­ed with a %. You nev­er have to be con­fused about the con­tents of a vari­able because the name will tell you what’s inside.

Data structures, anonymous values, and dereferencing

I men­tioned ear­li­er that you can build com­plex data struc­tures from Perl’s three built-​in data types. Constructing them with­out a lot of inter­me­di­ate vari­ables requires you to use things like:

  • lists, denot­ed between ( paren­the­ses )
  • anony­mous arrays, denot­ed between [ square brack­ets ]
  • and anony­mous hash­es, denot­ed between { curly braces }.

Given these tools you could build, say, a scalar ref­er­enc­ing an array of street address­es, each address being an anony­mous hash:

$addresses = [
  { 'name'    => 'John Doe',
    'address' => '123 Any Street',
    'city'    => 'Anytown',
    'state'   => 'TX',
  },
  { 'name'    => 'Mary Smith',
    'address' => '100 Other Avenue',
    'city'    => 'Whateverville',
    'state'   => 'PA',
  },
];

(The => is just a way to show cor­re­spon­dence between a hash key and its val­ue, and is just a fun­ny way to write a com­ma (,). And like some oth­er pro­gram­ming lan­guages, it’s OK to have trail­ing com­mas in a list as we do for the 'state' entries above; it makes it eas­i­er to add more entries later.)

Although I’ve nice­ly spaced out my exam­ple above, you can imag­ine a less socia­ble devel­op­er might cram every­thing togeth­er with­out any spaces or new­lines. Further, to extract a spe­cif­ic val­ue from this struc­ture this same per­son might write the fol­low­ing, mak­ing you count dol­lar signs one after anoth­er while read­ing right-​to-​left then left-to-right:

say $$addresses[1]{'name'};

We don’t have to do that, though; we can use arrows that look like -> to deref­er­ence our array and hash elements:

say $addresses->[1]->{'name'};

We can even use post­fix deref­er­enc­ing to pull a slice out of this struc­ture, which is just a fan­cy way of say­ing always read­ing left to right”:

say for $addresses->[1]->@{'name', 'city'};

Which prints out:

Mary Smith
Whateverville

Like I said above, the sig­il always tells you what you’re going to get. In this case, we got:

  • a sliced list of val­ues with the keys 'name' and 'city' out of…
  • an anony­mous hash that was itself the sec­ond ele­ment (count­ing from zero, so index of 1) ref­er­enced in…
  • an anony­mous array which was itself ref­er­enced by…
  • the scalar named $addresses.

That’s a mouth­ful, but com­pli­cat­ed data struc­tures often are. That’s why Perl pro­vides a Data Structures Cookbook as the perldsc doc­u­men­ta­tion page, a ref­er­ences tuto­r­i­al as the perlreftut page, and final­ly a detailed guide to ref­er­ences and nest­ed data struc­tures as the perlref page.

Special variables

Perl was also inspired by Unix com­mand shell lan­guages like the Bourne shell (sh) or Bourne-​again shell (bash), so it has many spe­cial vari­able names using punc­tu­a­tion. There’s @_ for the array of argu­ments passed to a sub­rou­tine, $$ for the process num­ber the cur­rent pro­gram is using in the oper­at­ing sys­tem, and so on. Some of these are so com­mon in Perl pro­grams they are writ­ten with­out com­men­tary, but for the oth­ers there is always the English mod­ule, enabling you to sub­sti­tute in friend­ly (or at least more awk-like) names.

With use English; at the top of your pro­gram, you can say:

All of these pre­de­fined vari­ables, punc­tu­a­tion and English names alike, are doc­u­ment­ed on the perlvar doc­u­men­ta­tion page.

The choice to use punc­tu­a­tion vari­ables or their English equiv­a­lents is up to the devel­op­er, and some have more famil­iar­i­ty with and assume their read­ers under­stand the punc­tu­a­tion vari­ety. Other less-​friendly devel­op­ers engage in code golf,” attempt­ing to express their pro­grams in as few key­strokes as possible.

To com­bat these and oth­er unso­cia­ble ten­den­cies, the perlstyle doc­u­men­ta­tion page admon­ish­es, Perl is designed to give you sev­er­al ways to do any­thing, so con­sid­er pick­ing the most read­able one.” Developers can (and should) also use the perlcritic tool and its includ­ed poli­cies to encour­age best prac­tices, such as pro­hibit­ing all but a few com­mon punc­tu­a­tion vari­ables.

Conclusion: Do you still hate Perl?

There are only two kinds of lan­guages: the ones peo­ple com­plain about and the ones nobody uses.

Bjarne Stroustrup, design­er of the C++ pro­gram­ming language

It’s easy to hate what you don’t under­stand. I hope that read­ing this arti­cle has helped you deci­pher some of Perl’s noisy” quirks as well as its fea­tures for increased read­abil­i­ty. Let me know in the com­ments if you’re hav­ing trou­ble grasp­ing any oth­er aspects of the lan­guage or its ecosys­tem, and I’ll do my best to address them in future posts.

jack skelington vinyl figure

Ten years ago Rudolf Winestock wrote The Lisp Curse, an essay that attempt[ed] to rec­on­cile the pow­er of the Lisp pro­gram­ming lan­guage with the inabil­i­ty of the Lisp com­mu­ni­ty to repro­duce their pre-AI Winter achievements.”

His con­clu­sion? The pow­er and expres­sive­ness of Lisp have con­spired to keep its devel­op­ers indi­vid­u­al­ly pro­duc­tive, but col­lec­tive­ly unable to orga­nize their work into com­plete, stan­dard­ized, well-​documented, ‑test­ed, and ‑main­tained pack­ages that they could coa­lesce into inter­op­er­a­ble and widely-​adopted solu­tions. Everything from object sys­tems to types to asyn­chro­nous non-​blocking pro­gram­ming and con­cur­ren­cy is up for grabs and has mul­ti­ple com­pet­ing implementations.

These social effects have doomed Lisp to also-​ran sta­tus in an indus­try where employ­ers much pre­fer that work­ers be fun­gi­ble, rather than max­i­mal­ly pro­duc­tive.” Free tool­ing sup­port has lagged; although Emacs can be hacked end­less­ly to do any­thing, there is no out-​of-​the-​box inte­grat­ed devel­op­ment envi­ron­ment or batteries-​included defaults to imme­di­ate­ly ease new pro­gram­mers into their job.

Does this all sound famil­iar to Perl developers?

Perl is renowned for its expres­sive capa­bil­i­ties, enshrined in the TIMTOWTDI (There Is More Than One Way To Do It) design prin­ci­ple. Stories abound of the pro­duc­tiv­i­ty achieved by Perl pro­gram­mers stitch­ing togeth­er mod­ules from CPAN with their own code. Select an object sys­tem (or don’t), maybe throw in an excep­tion han­dler (or don’t), and you too can have a code­base that fel­low devel­op­ers cri­tique for not fol­low­ing their favored tech­niques. Meanwhile, man­agers are strug­gling to fill the rest of the team with new pro­gram­mers look­ing for IDE sup­port and find­ing only a grab-​bag of Vim extensions.

But there’s hope.

Perl has start­ed incor­po­rat­ing fea­tures expect­ed of mod­ern pro­gram­ming lan­guages into its core while mak­ing room for fur­ther exper­i­men­ta­tion via CPAN. The Language Server Protocol (from Microsoft of all places!) has enabled Perl IDE fea­tures in text edi­tors to boost pro­duc­tiv­i­ty for new and expe­ri­enced devel­op­ers alike. And there’s a pilot Request For Comment process for fur­ther improvements.

These efforts point to a future where Perl’s expres­sive strength is mar­ried with sen­si­ble defaults and fea­tures with­out break­ing back­ward com­pat­i­bil­i­ty. Maybe the curse can be overcome.

A com­ment on the Medium ver­sion of last week’s arti­cle got to me:

I wish they’d just leave Perl sta­t­ic. Then we wouldn’t have to waste mon­ey retest­ing lega­cy Perl apps on the newest ver­sion every cou­ple of years, in case new fea­tures we don’t want breaks code that’s been unchanged for years. […] Sometimes things should just be left to die gracefully.

William Smith

Programming lan­guages, like all soft­ware, change to meet new chal­lenges. Developers add new fea­ture enhance­ments, users find bugs for them to fix, and occa­sion­al design errors need to be cor­rect­ed. In Perl’s case, the Perl 5 Porters (the group of vol­un­teers that devel­op and main­tain Perl) have had an explic­it back­ward com­pat­i­bil­i­ty and dep­re­ca­tion pol­i­cy since 2011 that tries to pro­tect the Perl user com­mu­ni­ty from the break­age of old code while still mov­ing the lan­guage for­ward. In short, they do their absolute best to min­i­mize your test­ing and changes.

To that end, the Perl devel­op­ers have done an amaz­ing job pre­sent­ing new syn­tac­ti­cal fea­tures as only enabled when adding the appro­pri­ate use feature or use VERSION con­struct. If you do not add this code, the new syn­tax will not be enabled and your lega­cy code will not break. Incompatible changes, if there are any, are always doc­u­ment­ed in a release’s perldelta doc­u­ment (hint: it’s under the head­ing Incompatible Changes”).

Given all this, it is a mon­strous thing to demand an entire vol­un­teer com­mu­ni­ty stop enhanc­ing their plat­form so that your par­tic­u­lar appli­ca­tions can remain sta­t­ic while con­tin­u­ing to take advan­tage of the sup­port pol­i­cy gen­er­ous­ly offered for recent releas­es. If you need an unchang­ing plat­form, don’t upgrade it—and take all the respon­si­bil­i­ty that implies, such as the back­port­ing of secu­ri­ty fix­es beyond the three-​year sup­port com­mit­ment offered (again, gratis) by Perl’s developers.

You have no right to demand Perl stands still and dies grace­ful­ly” any more than any­one has the right to demand that of you.

Back To The Future DeLorean

Last week saw the release of Perl 5.34.0 (you can get it here), and with it comes a year’s worth of new fea­tures, per­for­mance enhance­ments, bug fix­es, and oth­er improve­ments. It seems like a good time to high­light some of my favorite changes over the past decade and a half, espe­cial­ly for those with more dat­ed knowl­edge of Perl. You can always click on the head­ers below for the full releas­es’ perldelta pages.

Perl 5.10 (2007)

This was a big release, com­ing as it did over five years after the pre­vi­ous major 5.8 release. Not that Perl devel­op­ers were idle — but it would­n’t be until ver­sion 5.14 that the lan­guage would adopt a steady year­ly release cadence.

Due to the build-​up time, many core enhance­ments were made but the most impor­tant was arguably the feature prag­ma, enabling the addi­tion of new syn­tax that would oth­er­wise break Perl’s back­ward com­pat­i­bil­i­ty. 5.10 also intro­duced the defined-​or oper­a­tor (//), state vari­ables that per­sist their pre­vi­ous val­ue, the say func­tion for auto­mat­i­cal­ly append­ing a new­line on out­put (so much saved typ­ing), and a large col­lec­tion of improve­ments to reg­u­lar expres­sions. In addi­tion, this release intro­duced smart match­ing (~~), though ver­sion 5.18 would even­tu­al­ly rel­e­gate it to exper­i­men­tal sta­tus.

Perl 5.12 (2010)

This release also saw many new fea­tures added, but if I had to pick one mar­quee item it would be exper­i­men­tal sup­port for plug­gable key­words, which enabled authors to extend the lan­guage itself with­out mod­i­fy­ing the core. Previously one would either use plain func­tions, hacky source fil­ters, or the dep­re­cat­ed Devel::Declare mod­ule to sim­u­late this func­tion­al­i­ty. CPAN authors would go on to cre­ate all kinds of new syn­tax, some­times pro­to­typ­ing fea­tures that would even­tu­al­ly make their way into core.

Perl 5.14 (2011)

5.14 had a big list of enhance­ments, includ­ing Unicode 6.0 sup­port and a gag­gle of reg­u­lar expres­sion fea­tures. My favorite of these was the /r switch for non-​destructive sub­sti­tu­tions.

But as the first year­ly cadence release, the changes in pol­i­cy took cen­ter stage. The Perl 5 Porters (p5p) explic­it­ly com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing the two most recent sta­ble release series, pro­vid­ing secu­ri­ty patch­es only for release series occur­ring in the past three years. They also defined an explic­it com­pat­i­bil­i­ty and dep­re­ca­tion pol­i­cy, with def­i­n­i­tions for fea­tures that may be exper­i­men­tal, dep­re­cat­ed, dis­cour­aged, and removed.

Perl 5.16 (2012)

Another year, anoth­er ver­sion bump. This time the core enhance­ments were all over the map (although no enhance­ments to the map function 😀 ).

May I high­light anoth­er doc­u­men­ta­tion change, though? The perlootut Object-​Oriented Programming in Perl Tutorial replaced the old perltoot, perltooc, perlboot, and perlbot pages, pro­vid­ing an intro­duc­tion to object-​oriented design con­cepts before strong­ly rec­om­mend­ing the use of one of the OO sys­tems from CPAN. Mentioned are Moose, its alter­na­tive Mouse, Class::Accessor, Object::Tiny, and Role::Tinys usage with the lat­ter two. Later ver­sions of perlootut would rec­om­mend Moo rather than Mouse.

Perl 5.18 (2013)

As men­tioned ear­li­er, Perl 5.18 ren­dered smart­match exper­i­men­tal, as well as lex­i­cal use of the $_ vari­able. With these came a new cat­e­go­ry of warn­ings for exper­i­men­tal fea­tures and a method for over­rid­ing such warn­ings feature-​by-​feature. Fitting in with the secu­ri­ty and safe­ty theme, hash­es were over­hauled to ran­dom­ize key/​value order, increas­ing their resis­tance to algo­rith­mic com­plex­i­ty attacks.

But it was­n’t all fenc­ing in bad behav­ior. Lexical sub­rou­tines made their first (exper­i­men­tal) appear­ance, and although I con­fess I haven’t had much call for them in my work, oth­ers have come up with some inter­est­ing uses. Four years lat­er they became non-​experimental.

Perl 5.20 (2014)

Three new syn­tax fea­tures arrived in 2014: exper­i­men­tal sub­rou­tine sig­na­tures (of which I’ve writ­ten more about here), key/​value hash slices and index/​value array slices, and exper­i­men­tal post­fix deref­er­enc­ing. This last enables clean­er left-​to-​right syn­tax when deref­er­enc­ing variables:

  • @{ $array_ref } becomes $array_ref->@*
  • %{ $hash_ref } becomes $hash_ref->%*
  • Etc.

Postfix deref­er­enc­ing became non-​experimental in Perl 5.24, and vig­or­ous dis­cus­sion con­tin­ues on sub­rou­tine sig­na­tures’ future.

Perl 5.22 (2015)

Speaking of sub­rou­tine sig­na­tures, their loca­tion moved to between the sub­rou­tine name (if any) and the attribute list (if any). Previously they appeared after attrib­ut­es. The les­son? Remain con­scious of exper­i­men­tal fea­tures in your code, and be pre­pared to make changes when upgrading.

In addi­tion to the enhance­ments, secu­ri­ty updates, per­for­mance fix­es, and dep­re­ca­tions, devel­op­ers removed the his­tor­i­cal­ly notable CGI mod­ule. First added to core in 1997 in recog­ni­tion of its crit­i­cal role in enabling web devel­op­ment, it’s been sup­plant­ed by bet­ter alter­na­tives on CPAN.

Perl 5.24 (2016)

Perl 5.20s post­fix deref­er­enc­ing was no longer exper­i­men­tal, and devel­op­ers removed both lex­i­cal $_ and autoderef­er­enc­ing on calls to push, pop, shift, unshift, splice, keys, values, and each.

Perl 5.26 (2017)

The incor­po­ra­tion of exper­i­men­tal fea­tures con­tin­ued, with lex­i­cal sub­rou­tines mov­ing into full sup­port. I like the added read­abil­i­ty enhance­ments, though: indent­ed here-​documents; the /xx reg­u­lar expres­sion mod­i­fi­er for tabs and spaces in char­ac­ter class­es; and @{^CAPTURE}, %{^CAPTURE}, and %{^CAPTURE_ALL} for reg­exp match­es with a lit­tle more self-documentation.

Perl 5.28 (2018)

Experimental sub­rou­tine sig­na­ture and attribute order­ing flipped back to its Perl 5.20 sequence of attributes-​then-​signature. Bit of a roller­coast­er ride on this one. You could do worse than using some­thing like Type::Params until this set­tles and get a wide vari­ety of type con­straints in the bargain.

Perl 5.30 (2019)

Pour one out for AWK and Fortran pro­gram­mers migrat­ing to Perl: the $[vari­able for set­ting the low­er bound of arrays could no longer be set to any­thing oth­er than zero. This had a long dep­re­ca­tion cycle start­ing in Perl 5.12.

Perl 5.32 (2020)

In 2020 Perl’s devel­op­ment moved to GitHub. And once again, I’m going to high­light read­abil­i­ty enhance­ments: the exper­i­men­tal isa oper­a­tor could be used to say:

if ( $obj isa Some::Class ) { ... }

instead of

use Scalar::Util 'blessed';
if ( blessed($obj) and $obj->isa('Some::Class') { ... }

You could also chain com­par­i­son oper­a­tors, lead­ing to the more math­e­mat­i­cal­ly con­cise if ( $x < $y <= $z ) {...} rather than if ( $x < $y and $y <= $z ) {...}.

Perl 5.34 (2021)

Finally, we come to last week’s release and its intro­duc­tion of exper­i­men­tal try/​catch excep­tion han­dling syn­tax. If you need to sup­port ear­li­er ver­sions of Perl back to 5.14, you can use Feature::Compat::Try. Earlier this year I inter­viewed the fea­ture and mod­ule’s author, Paul LeoNerd” Evans, for Perl.com. This year also marked the debut of Perl’s new gov­er­nance mod­el with the appoint­ment of a Core Team and a three-​member Steering Council.

What are some of your favorite Perl improve­ments over the years? Check out the perlhist doc­u­ment for a detailed chronol­o­gy and refresh­er with the var­i­ous perldelta pages and leave me a com­ment below.

person doing card trick

Perl is said (some­times frus­trat­ing­ly) to be a do-​what-​I-​mean pro­gram­ming lan­guage. Many of its state­ments and con­struc­tions are designed to be for­giv­ing or have analo­gies to nat­ur­al lan­guages. Still oth­ers are said to be mag­ic,” behav­ing dif­fer­ent­ly depend­ing on how they’re used. Adept use of Perl asks you to not only under­stand this mag­ic, but to embrace it and the expres­sive­ness it enables. Here, then, are five ways you can bring some mag­ic to your code.

$_

Perl has many spe­cial vari­ables, and first among them (lit­er­al­ly, it’s the first doc­u­ment­ed) is $_. Also spelled $ARG if you use the English mod­ule, the doc­u­men­ta­tion describes it as the default input and pattern-​matching space.” Many, many func­tions and state­ments will assume it as the default or implic­it argu­ment; you can find the full list in the doc­u­men­ta­tion. Here’s an exam­ple that uses it implic­it­ly to out­put the num­bers from 1 to 5:

say for 1 .. 5;

Output:

1
2
3
4
5

Where some lan­guages require an iter­a­tor vari­able in a for or foreach loop, in the absence of one Perl assigns it to $_.

Statement modifiers

We then use our sec­ond trick; where some oth­er lan­guages require a block to enclose every loop or con­di­tion­al (whether denot­ed by braces { } or inden­ta­tion), Perl allows you to put said loop­ing or con­di­tion­al state­ment after a sin­gle oth­er state­ment, in this case the say which prints its argument(s) fol­lowed by a newline.

However, above we have no argu­ments passed to say and so once again the default $_ is used, now con­tain­ing a num­ber from 1 to 5 which is then print­ed out. It’s a very pow­er­ful and expres­sive idiom, enabling both the writer and read­er of code to con­cen­trate on the impor­tant thing that’s hap­pen­ing. It’s also entire­ly option­al. You can just as eas­i­ly type:

for my $foo (1..5) {
    say $foo;
}

But where’s the mag­ic in that?

Magic variables and use English

We men­tioned the $_ vari­able above, and that it could also be spelled $ARG if you add use English to your code. It can be hard to read code with large amounts of punc­tu­a­tion, though, and even hard­er to remem­ber what each vari­able does. Thankfully the English mod­ule pro­vides alias­es, and the per­l­var man page lists them in order. It’s much eas­i­er to read and write things like $LIST_SEPARATOR, $PROCESS_ID, or $MATCH rather than $", $$, and $&, and goes a long way towards reduc­ing Perl’s rep­u­ta­tion as a write-​only language.

List and scalar contexts

Like nat­ur­al lan­guages, Perl has a con­cept of con­text” in which words mean dif­fer­ent things depend­ing on their sur­round­ings. In Perl’s case, expres­sions may behave dif­fer­ent­ly depend­ing on whether they expect to pro­duce a list of val­ues or a sin­gle val­ue, called a scalar. Here’s a triv­ial example:

my @foo = (1, 2, 3); # list context, @foo contains the list
my $bar = (1, 2, 3); # scalar context, $bar contains 3

In the first line, we assign the list of num­bers (1, 2, 3) to the array @foo. But in the sec­ond line, we’re assign­ing to the scalar vari­able $bar, which now con­tains the last item in the list.

Here’s anoth­er exam­ple, using the reverse function:

my @foo = ('one', 'two', 'three');
my @bar = reverse @foo; # @bar contains ('three', 'two', 'one')
my $baz = reverse @foo; # $baz contains 'eerhtowteno'

In list con­text, reverse takes its argu­ments and returns them in the oppo­site order. But in scalar con­text, it con­cate­nates all of the argu­ments togeth­er and returns a string with the char­ac­ters in oppo­site order.

In gen­er­al, there is no gen­er­al rule for deduc­ing a func­tion’s behav­ior in scalar con­text from its behav­ior in list con­text.” (Dominus 1998) You’ll just have to look up the func­tion to deter­mine what it does, though in gen­er­al, it does what you want, but if you want to force scalar con­text use the scalar operator:

my @foo = ('aa', 'aab', 'bbc');
my @bar = scalar grep /aa/, @foo; # returns a list (2), counting the number of matches

Hash slices

One of Perl’s three built-​in data types is the hash, also known as an asso­cia­tive array. It’s an unordered col­lec­tion of scalars indexed by string, rather than the num­bers used by nor­mal arrays. It’s a use­ful con­struct, and you can devel­op com­pli­cat­ed data struc­tures using just scalars, arrays, and hash­es. What’s not wide­ly known is that you can access sev­er­al ele­ments of of a hash using a hash slice, using syn­tax that’s sim­i­lar to array slices. Here’s an example:

my ($who, $home) = @ENV{'USER', 'HOME'};

It works the oth­er way, too: you can assign to a slice.

@colors{'red', 'green', 'blue'} = (0xff0000, 0x00ff00, 0x0000ff);

I use this a lot when assign­ing argu­ments received from func­tions or meth­ods (see my pre­vi­ous arti­cle on sub­rou­tine sig­na­tures):

use v5.24; # for postfix dereferencing
use Types::Standard qw(Str Int);
use Type::Params 'compile_named';

foo('hello', 42);

sub foo {
    state $check = compile_named(
        param1 => Str,
        param2 => Int, {optional => 1},
    );
    my ($param1, $param2) =
        $check->(@_)->@{'param1', 'param2'};

    say $param1, $param2;
}

In the exam­ple above, $check->(@_) returns the type-​checked argu­ments to the foo() func­tion cour­tesy of Type::Paramscompile_named() func­tion. It’s returned as a hash ref­er­ence, and since hash­es are unordered, we spec­i­fy the order in which we want the val­ues by deref­er­enc­ing and then slic­ing the result­ing hash. The post­fix deref­er­enc­ing syn­tax was added in Perl 5.20 and made a default fea­ture in 5.24, and reduces the num­ber of nest­ed brack­ets and braces we have to deal with.

Conclusion

I hope this arti­cle has giv­en you a taste of some of the mag­ic avail­able in the Perl lan­guage. It’s these sort of fea­tures that make pro­gram­ming in it a bit more joy­ful. As always, check the doc­u­men­ta­tion for com­plete infor­ma­tion on these and oth­er top­ics, or look for answers and ask ques­tions on PerlMonks or Stack Overflow.