Substitutions, splitting and joining

Substitution and transliteration

Matching patterns is very useful, but often we want to do something more than just match things. What if you want to replace every occurrence of a certain thing with something else? This is the domain of the s/// and tr/// operators. s/// is the substitution operator, and tr/// is the transliteration operator. tr/// is useful for simple things:

my $string =  "all lowercase with 5ome num8er5";
$string    =~ tr/a-z/A-Z/;
print $string;

You just make a list on one side of the tr///, and a list on the other side (hyphens can be used to create natural ranges), and perl will map one lot to the other. The substitution operator is even more powerful and useful:

$_ = "old M\$ dross";
s/old/new/i; # substitute any occurrence of old with new, case insensitively
print; # did you forget print defaults to $_ ?
new Microsoft loveliness

Interpolation in regexes

In the second one, note you have to escape the $. This is because both pattern matching and substitution can interpolate variables:

my $name   = "Cornelia";
my $string = "Cornelia is a corn-snake.";
print "Matched $name\n" if $string =~ /$name/;
$string =~ s{is}{was}; # *sniff*
print $string;
Matched Cornelia
Cornelia was a corn-snake.

Note that like m//, s/// and tr/// can use the usual ‘any quotes you fancy’, although avoid ? and ' , as they have a special significance. So:

s|A|B|;  # three the same
s(A){B}; # two pairs
s{A}|B|; # one pair, two the same

all work, although I’d only recommend the middle one.

Substitution modifiers

The s/// can take all the modifiers (/s, /x, /i) that matching m// can take, but it has another two of its own, /g and /e. /e is like a little eval (which we will discuss later) that evaluates the substitution’s right hand side, and /g means ‘globally’, i.e. do it to every match you find:

my $string =  "2 3 4 5 6";
$string    =~ s/ (\d+) / 2 * $1 /xge; # double every number you match
print $string;
4 6 8 10 12

If you hadn’t noticed, when you use a substitution with capture parentheses, the captures are in $1, etc., as usual, and you can use these on the right hand side of the s///. Of course, you can also use /g and /e separately. In fact, you can use /g on m// as well:

$_ = "2 3 4 5 6";
while ( /(\d+)/g ) { print "$1 times 2 is ", $1 * 2, "\n"; }
2 times 2 is 4
3 times 2 is 6
4 times 2 is 8
5 times 2 is 10
6 times 2 is 12

Here, the /g means ‘keep matching till you run out of string’.

Splitting and joining strings

There are several operators that use pattern matching of one sort or another. The first is split. split expects a list. The first argument is the regex you want to split the string on, the rest of the arguments are things to split. You can capture the split bits in an array:

my $string   = "A : colon:delimited: file: with: some : random :spaces";
my ( @bits ) = split /\s*:\s*/, $string;
    # splits on colons surrounded by optional spaces
print "$_\n" foreach @bits;

The opposite of split is join, which has a similar syntax, only it expects not a regex as its first argument, but a string. So:

my $joined = join "|", qw/one two three four five six/;
print $joined;

How about this:

print join "|", reverse split /\s*:\s*/, 
    "A: colon: delimited  : file: with  :    spaces";

Running list operators into each other like this a) is clever, but b) easily becomes unreadable. Caveat scriptor.


Another useful tool for regex is grep. This operator takes a regex as its first argument too, and a list of things to ‘grep‘ as the rest. What is grepping? Well, grepping means ‘returning the things that match from a list’:

my ( @names )     = qw/ Cornelia Atropos Lachetis Amber /;
my ( @match )     = grep   /^A/, @names;
my ( @not_match ) = grep ! /^A/, @names;
print "Start with A @match\nDon't @not_match\n";
Start with A Atropos Amber
Don't Cornelia Lachetis

See that you can make an anti-grep using the ! ‘not’ before a regex. The way grep actually works is by running through the list you give it, setting $_ to each item in turn. It then uses the regex to pattern match on $_, as usual. Only things that match are returned. grep is useful for finding lines in a file that match a certain pattern. It’s another of those Perl operators that returns different values in scalar and list context. In list context (previous example) it return the list of matches, but in scalar context:

my $number = grep /^A/, @names;

it returns the number of matches. grep can be heavily abused, syntactically speaking:

grep /regex/, LIST;
grep { /regex/ } ( LIST );

Both work the same, although I always use the latter, as it makes the condition more obvious. This may vaguely remind you of sort. I prefer the second version, even though it’s line noise for its own sake.


One final operator before we leave regexes. map has nothing to do with regexes, but it has a similar syntax to grep (and to sort for that matter). I love map. There’s nothing like it for bringing out the mathematician in you. map needs a block of code that does something to $_, followed by a list, just like grep. map then runs though the list, using $_ to cache each value, so you can torture it with the block of code:

@mapped = map { DO_SOMETHING_TO $_ } ( LIST );


@doubled = map { 2 * $_ } ( qw/ 2 4 6 8 10 / );
print "@doubled";
4 8 12 16 20

This is shorthand for:

@doubled = map { return 2 * $_ } ( qw/ 2 4 6 8 10 / );
print "@doubled";

in case you were wondering: blocks return the last thing they evaluated in the absence of an explicit return statement.

Dull? Yes. But how about:

@selective_doubles = 
    map { /[24680]$/ ? ( 2 * $_ ) : $_ } ( qw/ 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 / );
print "@selective_doubles";
1 4 3 8 5 12 7 16

which returns a list of numbers that have been doubled iff (if and only if) they are even.

One word of warning for both grep and map. $_ is not a copy of the data in the list you feed to these functions, it’s an alias to the actual values of the list. That means that if you modify $_ itself, rather than just returning it, you will alter the items in the list fed to grep or map, not just the items in the returned list. This may be what you want, but probably isn’t:

my @original = qw/Abacus chocolate sprite/;
print "original: @original\n";
my @returns = map { s/A//gi; } ( @original );
print "afterward: @original\nreturned: @returns\n";
original: Abacus chocolate sprite
afterward: bcus chocolte sprite
returned: 2 1

You may be wondering what the hell has happened. Well, firstly, the actual members of @original have been altered, because s/// messes with $_ directly. Hence all the A characters have been stripped. The s/// operator returns the number of substitutions in scalar context, hence @returns contains 2 (Abacus), 1 (chocolate) and undef (since sprite contains no /A/i). If you remember that a map is basically a foreach loop:

my @mapped = map { DO_SOMETHING_TO $_ } ( LIST );


my @mapped;
foreach ( LIST ) {
    my $return_value = DO_SOMETHING_TO $_;
    push @mapped, $return_value;

are the same thing, you’ll be fine. As long as you remember that altering the value of $_ in a foreach loop indirectly alters the original value in the LIST, that is! Go on, try writing the s/// map as a foreach loop, and you’ll see what I mean.

my @original = qw/Abacus chocolate sprite/;
print "original: @original\n";
my @returns;
foreach ( @original )
    my $return_value = s/A//gi;
    push @returns, $return_value;
print "afterward: @original\nreturned: @returns\n";

Told you so. What you probably need in this case is a temporary variable:

my @original = qw/Abacus chocolate sprite/;
print "original: @original\n";
my @returns = map { my $tmp = $_; $tmp =~ s/A//gi; $tmp; } ( @original );
print "afterward: @original\nreturned: @returns\n";
original: Abacus chocolate sprite
afterward: Abacus chocolate sprite
returned: bcus chocolte sprite

So, to summarise:

The s/// operator acts like the m// operator, but selectively substitutes text. The tr/// operator is quicker and easier for simple substitutions. The syntax of the new list operators is:

@splat = split /\s/, @splitees;
@junt  = join '+', @joinees;
@mup   = map { $_ * 2 } @mappees;
@grap  = grep { /\d+/ } @grepees;
@argh  = map { "IP: $_" } 
           join '.', split /\:/, 
             grep { /^\d{1,3}:\d{1,3}:\d{1,3}:\d{1,3}$/ } 
               ( @ip );

Next up…references and data-structures.

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