Simple loops


Hopefully you’re now happy with the fundamental data types in Perl: scalars, arrays and hashes, so most of the script below shouldn’t be too mysterious:

print "What is your name?\n";
$name = <STDIN>;
chomp $name;
@beans = ( "adzuki", "haricot", "mung" );
print( "\@beans contains ", scalar @beans, " members: @beans\n" );
for ( $i = 0; $i < scalar @beans; $i++ ) {
    print "$name likes $beans[$i] beans.\n";
@beans contains 3 members: adzuki haricot mung
Steve likes adzuki beans.
Steve likes haricot beans.
Steve likes mung beans.

Don’t get scared by the line-noise (i.e. all the punctuation): if you do, regexes will probably be fatal. The very beginning should be quite obvious now:

print "What is your name?\n";
$name = <STDIN>;
chomp $name;

means something like, “read in someone’s name from a command prompt, get rid of the trailing newline from the input, and stick the result in the scalar variable  $name“, whilst:

@beans = ( "adzuki", "haricot", "mung" );

means “create a list of the strings ‘adzuki’, ‘haricot’ and ‘mung’, and store the list in the array variable @beans“. Note that @beans and a hypothetical $beans (and an even more hypothetical %beans) would be completely different variables: mucking about with one would have no effect on the other.


The next line prints out some stuff about the beans:

print( "\@beans contains ", scalar @beans, " members, @beans\n" );

You may have some difficulty with exactly what is going on here, but all we’re doing is feeding print a list of three items:

print( "a string", something to do with @beans, "another string" );

Let’s consider the three items in the list separately:

"\@beans contains "

is responsible for the bit of the output that looks like

@beans contains

You need to escape (use a \ on) the @ of @beans. If you put a Perl variable into a double-quoted string, the variable name will be replaced with the actual contents of that variable. So, if you don’t escape the @, perl will interpolate the entire contents of @beans (“adzuki haricot mung”) into what it’s going to print, a fact that we’ll take advantage of in a minute. With the \, it prints a literal @ symbol instead, followed by the string ‘beans’ (no pun intended). So, \$ and \@ are two more escape characters like \" and \n.

print is a list operator, that is, it will print out any stuff you put in a list after it. In just the same way as array variables, a list is some stuff between ( ) parentheses, separated by commas, so the stuff we’re feeding print is a list (just look at the code), and the next item is:

scalar @beans

Perl is a helpfully (well, usually helpfully) context sensitive language. Unsurprisingly, the two main contexts it recognises are scalar (singular) context, and list (plural) context, which you’ve already met in passing when we discussed array and hash access and slicing. print forces list context on the things that follow it. So, if you simply put this:


you’d get a mess, because the usual behaviour of an array in list context is to interpolate all its members. perl would squadge the contents of @beans (“adzukiharicotmung”) into the output, not even padding it with spaces like it does between double quotes. That’s not what we’re after here. What we actually want is the number of items in the array. In scalar context, an array will return the number of members it contains, which is just what we want. Scalar context can be forced using the scalar operator, hence the upshot of:

scalar @beans

is to give the size of the array, rather than its contents, to print, which it duly does:


List/scalar context is one of Perl’s more esoteric, but more useful features, and we’ll come across more as we go along. For now, remember that if you assign stuff to an array:

@holes = ( "nostril", "meatus", "bumhole");

or use an operator that expects a list, like print:

print( "nostril", "meatus", "bumhole");

the arguments (“nostril”, and so on) will be interpreted in list context unless you explicitly use the scalar keyword. Many Perl functions, and some sorts of variable, return different values in scalar and list contexts. Most importantly for the present moment, an array will be interpreted as a list of its members in list context, but will be interpreted as the number of its members in scalar context. Hence:

@holes = ( "nostril", "meatus", "bumhole");
print @holes, "\n";
    # print forces list context on what it's given
$number = @holes;
    # $number forces scalar context so perl assigns the size of
    # array @holes to $number
print $number;
print scalar @holes;
    # scalar also forces scalar context, overriding print's
    # preference for lists

Finally, the last item given to print in our original program is:

" members, @beans\n"

which is responsible for the output of

members, adzuki haricot mung

Double quote interpolate the contents of the array into the string, padding the members with spaces, hence the output of:

adzuki haricot mung

rather than:


for loops

The very last bit of the code:

for ( $i = 0; $i < scalar @beans; $i++ ) {
    print "$name likes $beans[$i] beans.\n";

is a for loop. for loops take a bit of explanation, and mercifully, Perl has a cute shortcut for loops which we’ll investigate in a minute. But first, let’s learn it the hard, C-style way, which is occasionally useful. A for loop, as you may know/have guessed, looks like:


The ( ) and { } are required, but you can write this with non-K&R style bracing:


or with hideous bracing like this:


if you’d rather, whatever looks best to you: Perl is largely space and newline insensitive as mentioned above. It’s fairly obvious from the output that the loop in the program prints:

Steve likes XXXXX beans.

for each member of the array @beans. How exactly does it do this? First it sets the loop variable, $i, to a starting value of 0. Then it tests the loop variable to see if it’s smaller than the scalar size of @beans (which is 3). On each passage of the loop, it does the INCREMENT_LOOP_VARIABLE thing: $i++ means ‘add 1 to $i‘. So the upshot of all this is simply that $i is a counter that ticks 0, 1, 2. Immediately upon hitting 3 the loop will terminate, as 3 is not < 3). Hopefully the for loop should now be crystal clear. Hence:

for ( $i = 0; $i < scalar @beans; $i++ ) {
    print "$name likes $beans[$i] beans.\n";


    set $i to 0;
    keep looping while $i is less than 3;
    increment $i by 1 on each pass of the loop
    print out Steve likes the $i'th member of @beans


The increment operator, ++ , can be used in two ways: you can either write:




In this particular case, it doesn’t matter which you use, but in fact $i++ increments $i after returning it (post-increment), whereas ++$i increments it before returning it (pre-increment). So:

$i = 1;
print "At the start, \$i is $i.\n";

print "\$i still returns ",
    " when you post-increment it, but its value is now $i\n";
$i = 1;
   "But if you pre-increment it, \$i's value will be incremented by one to ",
   "before its value is actually printed.\n";
At the start, $i is 1.
$i still returns 1 when you post-increment it, but its value is now 2.
But if you pre-increment it, $i's value will be incremented by one to 2 before its value is actually printed.

Note the escaped (backslashed) $ on some of the $i‘s. You already know you need to escape a @ in a double-quoted string to print a literal @ character. The exact same thing applies to $.

There’s no reason why you shouldn’t write



$i = $i + 1;

but the former is much more concise. It is probably painfully obvious what  --$i and $i-- do by extrapolation, but there is more than one way to decrement a variable too (an unofficial Perl motto is TIMTOWTDI: there is more than one way to do it, although very often, one of the possible ways is markedly less disgusting):


is shorthand for:

$i -= 1;

which itself is shorthand for:

$i = $i - 1;

The middle version is something which you may find useful. The -= subtraction assignment operator is one of a whole class of similar operators, like += (so $i++ is short for $i += 1 which is itself short for $i = $i + 1).

Perl has all the usual mathematical operators, like +, -, *, /, % (modulus), and ** (raise-to-the-power-of), and any of these may be used like -= or += too, so:

$a = $a ** 2;
# square $a and bung the result back into $a

is the same as:

$a **= 2;

One operator lacking in most other languages is the x operator (that’s just a little “x” character), which will ‘multiply’ strings:

$string = "hello";
$three_copies_of_string = $string x 3;
print $three_copies_of_string;

You can of course also use the x in a x= construction too:

$string = "hello";
$string x= 3; # put "hellohellohello" into $string

One final useful operator is . which concatenates two strings together:

my $world = ", world\n";
my $cat   = "This is the concatenation operator in action";
my $msg   = "hello" . $world . $cat . "\n";
print $msg;
hello, world
This is the concatenation operator in action

Next up…prettier loops and nicer code.

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