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       perlref - Perl references and nested data structures


       This is complete documentation about all aspects of references.  For a shorter, tutorial
       introduction to just the essential features, see perlreftut.


       Before release 5 of Perl it was difficult to represent complex data structures, because
       all references had to be symbolic--and even then it was difficult to refer to a variable
       instead of a symbol table entry.  Perl now not only makes it easier to use symbolic
       references to variables, but also lets you have "hard" references to any piece of data or
       code.  Any scalar may hold a hard reference.  Because arrays and hashes contain scalars,
       you can now easily build arrays of arrays, arrays of hashes, hashes of arrays, arrays of
       hashes of functions, and so on.

       Hard references are smart--they keep track of reference counts for you, automatically
       freeing the thing referred to when its reference count goes to zero.  (Reference counts
       for values in self-referential or cyclic data structures may not go to zero without a
       little help; see "Two-Phased Garbage Collection" in perlobj for a detailed explanation.)
       If that thing happens to be an object, the object is destructed.  See perlobj for more
       about objects.  (In a sense, everything in Perl is an object, but we usually reserve the
       word for references to objects that have been officially "blessed" into a class package.)

       Symbolic references are names of variables or other objects, just as a symbolic link in a
       Unix filesystem contains merely the name of a file.  The *glob notation is something of a
       symbolic reference.  (Symbolic references are sometimes called "soft references", but
       please don't call them that; references are confusing enough without useless synonyms.)

       In contrast, hard references are more like hard links in a Unix file system: They are used
       to access an underlying object without concern for what its (other) name is.  When the
       word "reference" is used without an adjective, as in the following paragraph, it is
       usually talking about a hard reference.

       References are easy to use in Perl.  There is just one overriding principle: Perl does no
       implicit referencing or dereferencing.  When a scalar is holding a reference, it always
       behaves as a simple scalar.  It doesn't magically start being an array or hash or
       subroutine; you have to tell it explicitly to do so, by dereferencing it.

   Making References
       References can be created in several ways.

       1.  By using the backslash operator on a variable, subroutine, or value.  (This works much
           like the & (address-of) operator in C.)  This typically creates another reference to a
           variable, because there's already a reference to the variable in the symbol table.
           But the symbol table reference might go away, and you'll still have the reference that
           the backslash returned.  Here are some examples:

               $scalarref = \$foo;
               $arrayref  = \@ARGV;
               $hashref   = \%ENV;
               $coderef   = \&handler;
               $globref   = \*foo;

           It isn't possible to create a true reference to an IO handle (filehandle or dirhandle)
           using the backslash operator.  The most you can get is a reference to a typeglob,
           which is actually a complete symbol table entry.  But see the explanation of the
           *foo{THING} syntax below.  However, you can still use type globs and globrefs as
           though they were IO handles.

       2.  A reference to an anonymous array can be created using square brackets:

               $arrayref = [1, 2, ['a', 'b', 'c']];

           Here we've created a reference to an anonymous array of three elements whose final
           element is itself a reference to another anonymous array of three elements.  (The
           multidimensional syntax described later can be used to access this.  For example,
           after the above, "$arrayref->[2][1]" would have the value "b".)

           Taking a reference to an enumerated list is not the same as using square
           brackets--instead it's the same as creating a list of references!

               @list = (\$a, \@b, \%c);
               @list = \($a, @b, %c);      # same thing!

           As a special case, "\(@foo)" returns a list of references to the contents of @foo, not
           a reference to @foo itself.  Likewise for %foo, except that the key references are to
           copies (since the keys are just strings rather than full-fledged scalars).

       3.  A reference to an anonymous hash can be created using curly brackets:

               $hashref = {
                   'Adam'  => 'Eve',
                   'Clyde' => 'Bonnie',

           Anonymous hash and array composers like these can be intermixed freely to produce as
           complicated a structure as you want.  The multidimensional syntax described below
           works for these too.  The values above are literals, but variables and expressions
           would work just as well, because assignment operators in Perl (even within local() or
           my()) are executable statements, not compile-time declarations.

           Because curly brackets (braces) are used for several other things including BLOCKs,
           you may occasionally have to disambiguate braces at the beginning of a statement by
           putting a "+" or a "return" in front so that Perl realizes the opening brace isn't
           starting a BLOCK.  The economy and mnemonic value of using curlies is deemed worth
           this occasional extra hassle.

           For example, if you wanted a function to make a new hash and return a reference to it,
           you have these options:

               sub hashem {        { @_ } }   # silently wrong
               sub hashem {       +{ @_ } }   # ok
               sub hashem { return { @_ } }   # ok

           On the other hand, if you want the other meaning, you can do this:

               sub showem {        { @_ } }   # ambiguous (currently ok, but may change)
               sub showem {       {; @_ } }   # ok
               sub showem { { return @_ } }   # ok

           The leading "+{" and "{;" always serve to disambiguate the expression to mean either
           the HASH reference, or the BLOCK.

       4.  A reference to an anonymous subroutine can be created by using "sub" without a

               $coderef = sub { print "Boink!\n" };

           Note the semicolon.  Except for the code inside not being immediately executed, a "sub
           {}" is not so much a declaration as it is an operator, like "do{}" or "eval{}".
           (However, no matter how many times you execute that particular line (unless you're in
           an "eval("...")"), $coderef will still have a reference to the same anonymous

           Anonymous subroutines act as closures with respect to my() variables, that is,
           variables lexically visible within the current scope.  Closure is a notion out of the
           Lisp world that says if you define an anonymous function in a particular lexical
           context, it pretends to run in that context even when it's called outside the context.

           In human terms, it's a funny way of passing arguments to a subroutine when you define
           it as well as when you call it.  It's useful for setting up little bits of code to run
           later, such as callbacks.  You can even do object-oriented stuff with it, though Perl
           already provides a different mechanism to do that--see perlobj.

           You might also think of closure as a way to write a subroutine template without using
           eval().  Here's a small example of how closures work:

               sub newprint {
                   my $x = shift;
                   return sub { my $y = shift; print "$x, $y!\n"; };
               $h = newprint("Howdy");
               $g = newprint("Greetings");

               # Time passes...


           This prints

               Howdy, world!
               Greetings, earthlings!

           Note particularly that $x continues to refer to the value passed into newprint()
           despite "my $x" having gone out of scope by the time the anonymous subroutine runs.
           That's what a closure is all about.

           This applies only to lexical variables, by the way.  Dynamic variables continue to
           work as they have always worked.  Closure is not something that most Perl programmers
           need trouble themselves about to begin with.

       5.  References are often returned by special subroutines called constructors.  Perl
           objects are just references to a special type of object that happens to know which
           package it's associated with.  Constructors are just special subroutines that know how
           to create that association.  They do so by starting with an ordinary reference, and it
           remains an ordinary reference even while it's also being an object.  Constructors are
           often named "new()".  You can call them indirectly:

               $objref = new Doggie( Tail => 'short', Ears => 'long' );

           But that can produce ambiguous syntax in certain cases, so it's often better to use
           the direct method invocation approach:

               $objref   = Doggie->new(Tail => 'short', Ears => 'long');

               use Term::Cap;
               $terminal = Term::Cap->Tgetent( { OSPEED => 9600 });

               use Tk;
               $main    = MainWindow->new();
               $menubar = $main->Frame(-relief              => "raised",
                                       -borderwidth         => 2)

       6.  References of the appropriate type can spring into existence if you dereference them
           in a context that assumes they exist.  Because we haven't talked about dereferencing
           yet, we can't show you any examples yet.

       7.  A reference can be created by using a special syntax, lovingly known as the
           *foo{THING} syntax.  *foo{THING} returns a reference to the THING slot in *foo (which
           is the symbol table entry which holds everything known as foo).

               $scalarref = *foo{SCALAR};
               $arrayref  = *ARGV{ARRAY};
               $hashref   = *ENV{HASH};
               $coderef   = *handler{CODE};
               $ioref     = *STDIN{IO};
               $globref   = *foo{GLOB};
               $formatref = *foo{FORMAT};

           All of these are self-explanatory except for *foo{IO}.  It returns the IO handle, used
           for file handles ("open" in perlfunc), sockets ("socket" in perlfunc and "socketpair"
           in perlfunc), and directory handles ("opendir" in perlfunc).  For compatibility with
           previous versions of Perl, *foo{FILEHANDLE} is a synonym for *foo{IO}, though it is
           deprecated as of 5.8.0.  If deprecation warnings are in effect, it will warn of its

           *foo{THING} returns undef if that particular THING hasn't been used yet, except in the
           case of scalars.  *foo{SCALAR} returns a reference to an anonymous scalar if $foo
           hasn't been used yet.  This might change in a future release.

           *foo{IO} is an alternative to the *HANDLE mechanism given in "Typeglobs and
           Filehandles" in perldata for passing filehandles into or out of subroutines, or
           storing into larger data structures.  Its disadvantage is that it won't create a new
           filehandle for you.  Its advantage is that you have less risk of clobbering more than
           you want to with a typeglob assignment.  (It still conflates file and directory
           handles, though.)  However, if you assign the incoming value to a scalar instead of a
           typeglob as we do in the examples below, there's no risk of that happening.

               splutter(*STDOUT);          # pass the whole glob
               splutter(*STDOUT{IO});      # pass both file and dir handles

               sub splutter {
                   my $fh = shift;
                   print $fh "her um well a hmmm\n";

               $rec = get_rec(*STDIN);     # pass the whole glob
               $rec = get_rec(*STDIN{IO}); # pass both file and dir handles

               sub get_rec {
                   my $fh = shift;
                   return scalar <$fh>;

   Using References
       That's it for creating references.  By now you're probably dying to know how to use
       references to get back to your long-lost data.  There are several basic methods.

       1.  Anywhere you'd put an identifier (or chain of identifiers) as part of a variable or
           subroutine name, you can replace the identifier with a simple scalar variable
           containing a reference of the correct type:

               $bar = $$scalarref;
               push(@$arrayref, $filename);
               $$arrayref[0] = "January";
               $$hashref{"KEY"} = "VALUE";
               print $globref "output\n";

           It's important to understand that we are specifically not dereferencing $arrayref[0]
           or $hashref{"KEY"} there.  The dereference of the scalar variable happens before it
           does any key lookups.  Anything more complicated than a simple scalar variable must
           use methods 2 or 3 below.  However, a "simple scalar" includes an identifier that
           itself uses method 1 recursively.  Therefore, the following prints "howdy".

               $refrefref = \\\"howdy";
               print $$$$refrefref;

       2.  Anywhere you'd put an identifier (or chain of identifiers) as part of a variable or
           subroutine name, you can replace the identifier with a BLOCK returning a reference of
           the correct type.  In other words, the previous examples could be written like this:

               $bar = ${$scalarref};
               push(@{$arrayref}, $filename);
               ${$arrayref}[0] = "January";
               ${$hashref}{"KEY"} = "VALUE";
               $globref->print("output\n");  # iff IO::Handle is loaded

           Admittedly, it's a little silly to use the curlies in this case, but the BLOCK can
           contain any arbitrary expression, in particular, subscripted expressions:

               &{ $dispatch{$index} }(1,2,3);      # call correct routine

           Because of being able to omit the curlies for the simple case of $$x, people often
           make the mistake of viewing the dereferencing symbols as proper operators, and wonder
           about their precedence.  If they were, though, you could use parentheses instead of
           braces.  That's not the case.  Consider the difference below; case 0 is a short-hand
           version of case 1, not case 2:

               $$hashref{"KEY"}   = "VALUE";       # CASE 0
               ${$hashref}{"KEY"} = "VALUE";       # CASE 1
               ${$hashref{"KEY"}} = "VALUE";       # CASE 2
               ${$hashref->{"KEY"}} = "VALUE";     # CASE 3

           Case 2 is also deceptive in that you're accessing a variable called %hashref, not
           dereferencing through $hashref to the hash it's presumably referencing.  That would be
           case 3.

       3.  Subroutine calls and lookups of individual array elements arise often enough that it
           gets cumbersome to use method 2.  As a form of syntactic sugar, the examples for
           method 2 may be written:

               $arrayref->[0] = "January";   # Array element
               $hashref->{"KEY"} = "VALUE";  # Hash element
               $coderef->(1,2,3);            # Subroutine call

           The left side of the arrow can be any expression returning a reference, including a
           previous dereference.  Note that $array[$x] is not the same thing as "$array->[$x]"

               $array[$x]->{"foo"}->[0] = "January";

           This is one of the cases we mentioned earlier in which references could spring into
           existence when in an lvalue context.  Before this statement, $array[$x] may have been
           undefined.  If so, it's automatically defined with a hash reference so that we can
           look up "{"foo"}" in it.  Likewise "$array[$x]->{"foo"}" will automatically get
           defined with an array reference so that we can look up "[0]" in it.  This process is
           called autovivification.

           One more thing here.  The arrow is optional between brackets subscripts, so you can
           shrink the above down to

               $array[$x]{"foo"}[0] = "January";

           Which, in the degenerate case of using only ordinary arrays, gives you
           multidimensional arrays just like C's:

               $score[$x][$y][$z] += 42;

           Well, okay, not entirely like C's arrays, actually.  C doesn't know how to grow its
           arrays on demand.  Perl does.

       4.  If a reference happens to be a reference to an object, then there are probably methods
           to access the things referred to, and you should probably stick to those methods
           unless you're in the class package that defines the object's methods.  In other words,
           be nice, and don't violate the object's encapsulation without a very good reason.
           Perl does not enforce encapsulation.  We are not totalitarians here.  We do expect
           some basic civility though.

       Using a string or number as a reference produces a symbolic reference, as explained above.
       Using a reference as a number produces an integer representing its storage location in
       memory.  The only useful thing to be done with this is to compare two references
       numerically to see whether they refer to the same location.

           if ($ref1 == $ref2) {  # cheap numeric compare of references
               print "refs 1 and 2 refer to the same thing\n";

       Using a reference as a string produces both its referent's type, including any package
       blessing as described in perlobj, as well as the numeric address expressed in hex.  The
       ref() operator returns just the type of thing the reference is pointing to, without the
       address.  See "ref" in perlfunc for details and examples of its use.

       The bless() operator may be used to associate the object a reference points to with a
       package functioning as an object class.  See perlobj.

       A typeglob may be dereferenced the same way a reference can, because the dereference
       syntax always indicates the type of reference desired.  So "${*foo}" and "${\$foo}" both
       indicate the same scalar variable.

       Here's a trick for interpolating a subroutine call into a string:

           print "My sub returned @{[mysub(1,2,3)]} that time.\n";

       The way it works is that when the "@{...}" is seen in the double-quoted string, it's
       evaluated as a block.  The block creates a reference to an anonymous array containing the
       results of the call to "mysub(1,2,3)".  So the whole block returns a reference to an
       array, which is then dereferenced by "@{...}" and stuck into the double-quoted string.
       This chicanery is also useful for arbitrary expressions:

           print "That yields @{[$n + 5]} widgets\n";

       Similarly, an expression that returns a reference to a scalar can be dereferenced via
       "${...}". Thus, the above expression may be written as:

           print "That yields ${\($n + 5)} widgets\n";

   Symbolic references
       We said that references spring into existence as necessary if they are undefined, but we
       didn't say what happens if a value used as a reference is already defined, but isn't a
       hard reference.  If you use it as a reference, it'll be treated as a symbolic reference.
       That is, the value of the scalar is taken to be the name of a variable, rather than a
       direct link to a (possibly) anonymous value.

       People frequently expect it to work like this.  So it does.

           $name = "foo";
           $$name = 1;                 # Sets $foo
           ${$name} = 2;               # Sets $foo
           ${$name x 2} = 3;           # Sets $foofoo
           $name->[0] = 4;             # Sets $foo[0]
           @$name = ();                # Clears @foo
           &$name();                   # Calls &foo() (as in Perl 4)
           $pack = "THAT";
           ${"${pack}::$name"} = 5;    # Sets $THAT::foo without eval

       This is powerful, and slightly dangerous, in that it's possible to intend (with the utmost
       sincerity) to use a hard reference, and accidentally use a symbolic reference instead.  To
       protect against that, you can say

           use strict 'refs';

       and then only hard references will be allowed for the rest of the enclosing block.  An
       inner block may countermand that with

           no strict 'refs';

       Only package variables (globals, even if localized) are visible to symbolic references.
       Lexical variables (declared with my()) aren't in a symbol table, and thus are invisible to
       this mechanism.  For example:

           local $value = 10;
           $ref = "value";
               my $value = 20;
               print $$ref;

       This will still print 10, not 20.  Remember that local() affects package variables, which
       are all "global" to the package.

   Not-so-symbolic references
       A new feature contributing to readability in perl version 5.001 is that the brackets
       around a symbolic reference behave more like quotes, just as they always have within a
       string.  That is,

           $push = "pop on ";
           print "${push}over";

       has always meant to print "pop on over", even though push is a reserved word.  This has
       been generalized to work the same outside of quotes, so that

           print ${push} . "over";

       and even

           print ${ push } . "over";

       will have the same effect.  (This would have been a syntax error in Perl 5.000, though
       Perl 4 allowed it in the spaceless form.)  This construct is not considered to be a
       symbolic reference when you're using strict refs:

           use strict 'refs';
           ${ bareword };      # Okay, means $bareword.
           ${ "bareword" };    # Error, symbolic reference.

       Similarly, because of all the subscripting that is done using single words, we've applied
       the same rule to any bareword that is used for subscripting a hash.  So now, instead of

           $array{ "aaa" }{ "bbb" }{ "ccc" }

       you can write just

           $array{ aaa }{ bbb }{ ccc }

       and not worry about whether the subscripts are reserved words.  In the rare event that you
       do wish to do something like

           $array{ shift }

       you can force interpretation as a reserved word by adding anything that makes it more than
       a bareword:

           $array{ shift() }
           $array{ +shift }
           $array{ shift @_ }

       The "use warnings" pragma or the -w switch will warn you if it interprets a reserved word
       as a string.  But it will no longer warn you about using lowercase words, because the
       string is effectively quoted.

   Pseudo-hashes: Using an array as a hash
       Pseudo-hashes have been removed from Perl.  The 'fields' pragma remains available.

   Function Templates
       As explained above, an anonymous function with access to the lexical variables visible
       when that function was compiled, creates a closure.  It retains access to those variables
       even though it doesn't get run until later, such as in a signal handler or a Tk callback.

       Using a closure as a function template allows us to generate many functions that act
       similarly.  Suppose you wanted functions named after the colors that generated HTML font
       changes for the various colors:

           print "Be ", red("careful"), "with that ", green("light");

       The red() and green() functions would be similar.  To create these, we'll assign a closure
       to a typeglob of the name of the function we're trying to build.

           @colors = qw(red blue green yellow orange purple violet);
           for my $name (@colors) {
               no strict 'refs';       # allow symbol table manipulation
               *$name = *{uc $name} = sub { "<FONT COLOR='$name'>@_</FONT>" };

       Now all those different functions appear to exist independently.  You can call red(),
       RED(), blue(), BLUE(), green(), etc.  This technique saves on both compile time and memory
       use, and is less error-prone as well, since syntax checks happen at compile time.  It's
       critical that any variables in the anonymous subroutine be lexicals in order to create a
       proper closure.  That's the reasons for the "my" on the loop iteration variable.

       This is one of the only places where giving a prototype to a closure makes much sense.  If
       you wanted to impose scalar context on the arguments of these functions (probably not a
       wise idea for this particular example), you could have written it this way instead:

           *$name = sub ($) { "<FONT COLOR='$name'>$_[0]</FONT>" };

       However, since prototype checking happens at compile time, the assignment above happens
       too late to be of much use.  You could address this by putting the whole loop of
       assignments within a BEGIN block, forcing it to occur during compilation.

       Access to lexicals that change over time--like those in the "for" loop above, basically
       aliases to elements from the surrounding lexical scopes-- only works with anonymous subs,
       not with named subroutines. Generally said, named subroutines do not nest properly and
       should only be declared in the main package scope.

       This is because named subroutines are created at compile time so their lexical variables
       get assigned to the parent lexicals from the first execution of the parent block. If a
       parent scope is entered a second time, its lexicals are created again, while the nested
       subs still reference the old ones.

       Anonymous subroutines get to capture each time you execute the "sub" operator, as they are
       created on the fly. If you are accustomed to using nested subroutines in other programming
       languages with their own private variables, you'll have to work at it a bit in Perl.  The
       intuitive coding of this type of thing incurs mysterious warnings about "will not stay
       shared" due to the reasons explained above.  For example, this won't work:

           sub outer {
               my $x = $_[0] + 35;
               sub inner { return $x * 19 }   # WRONG
               return $x + inner();

       A work-around is the following:

           sub outer {
               my $x = $_[0] + 35;
               local *inner = sub { return $x * 19 };
               return $x + inner();

       Now inner() can only be called from within outer(), because of the temporary assignments
       of the anonymous subroutine. But when it does, it has normal access to the lexical
       variable $x from the scope of outer() at the time outer is invoked.

       This has the interesting effect of creating a function local to another function,
       something not normally supported in Perl.


       You may not (usefully) use a reference as the key to a hash.  It will be converted into a

           $x{ \$a } = $a;

       If you try to dereference the key, it won't do a hard dereference, and you won't
       accomplish what you're attempting.  You might want to do something more like

           $r = \@a;
           $x{ $r } = $r;

       And then at least you can use the values(), which will be real refs, instead of the
       keys(), which won't.

       The standard Tie::RefHash module provides a convenient workaround to this.


       Besides the obvious documents, source code can be instructive.  Some pathological examples
       of the use of references can be found in the t/op/ref.t regression test in the Perl source

       See also perldsc and perllol for how to use references to create complex data structures,
       and perltoot, perlobj, and perlbot for how to use them to create objects.