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NAME    [Toc]    [Back]

       perlfaq6 - Regular Expressions ($Revision: 1.6 $, $Date:
       2003/12/03 03:02:44 $)

DESCRIPTION    [Toc]    [Back]

       This section is surprisingly small because the rest of the
       FAQ is littered with answers involving regular expressions.
  For example, decoding a URL and checking whether
       something is a number are handled with regular expressions,
 but those answers are found elsewhere in this document
 (in perlfaq9: ``How do I decode or create those
       %-encodings on the web'' and perlfaq4: ``How do I determine
 whether a scalar is a number/whole/integer/float'',
       to be precise).

       How can I hope to use regular expressions without creating    [Toc]    [Back]
       illegible and unmaintainable code?

       Three techniques can make regular expressions maintainable
       and understandable.

       Comments Outside the Regex
           Describe what you're doing and how you're doing it,
           using normal Perl comments.

               # turn the line into the first word, a colon,  and
               # number of characters on the rest of the line

       Comments Inside the Regex
           The "/x" modifier causes whitespace to be ignored in a
           regex pattern (except in a character class), and also
           allows you to use normal comments there, too.  As you
           can imagine, whitespace and comments help a lot.

           "/x" lets you turn this:


           into this:

               s{ <                    # opening angle bracket
                   (?:                 # Non-backreffing grouping
                        [^>'"]  *        #  0 or more things that
are neither > nor ' nor "
                           |           #    or else
                        ".*?"          # a section between double
quotes (stingy match)
                           |           #    or else
                        '.*?'          # a section between single
quotes (stingy match)
                   ) +                 #   all occurring  one  or
more times
                  >                    # closing angle bracket
               }{}gsx;                  #  replace  with nothing,
i.e. delete

           It's still not quite so clear as prose, but it is very
           useful for describing the meaning of each part of the

       Different Delimiters
           While we normally think of patterns as being delimited
           with "/" characters, they can be delimited by almost
           any character.  perlre describes this.  For example,
           the "s///" above uses braces as delimiters.  Selecting
           another delimiter can avoid quoting the delimiter
           within the pattern:

               s/usrlocal/usrshare/g;      # bad delimiter choice
               s#/usr/local#/usr/share#g;          # better

       I'm having trouble matching over more than one line.
       What's wrong?

       Either you don't have more than one line in the string
       you're looking at (probably), or else you aren't using the
       correct modifier(s) on your pattern (possibly).

       There are many ways to get multiline data into a string.
       If you want it to happen automatically while reading
       input, you'll want to set $/ (probably to '' for paragraphs
 or "undef" for the whole file) to allow you to read
       more than one line at a time.

       Read perlre to help you decide which of "/s" and "/m" (or
       both) you might want to use: "/s" allows dot to include
       newline, and "/m" allows caret and dollar to match next to
       a newline, not just at the end of the string.  You do need
       to make sure that you've actually got a multiline string
       in there.

       For example, this program detects duplicate words, even
       when they span line breaks (but not paragraph ones).  For
       this example, we don't need "/s" because we aren't using
       dot in a regular expression that we want to cross line
       boundaries.  Neither do we need "/m" because we aren't
       wanting caret or dollar to match at any point inside the
       record next to newlines.  But it's imperative that $/ be
       set to something other than the default, or else we won't
       actually ever have a multiline record read in.

           $/ = '';            # read in  more  whole  paragraph,
not just one line       [
           while ( <> ) 1
               while ( /9
                   print2"Duplicate $1 at paragraph $.0;

       Here's code that finds sentences that begin with "From "
       (which would be mangled by many mailers):
           $/  =  '';             # read in more whole paragraph,
not just one line
           while ( <> ) {
               while ( /^From /gm ) { # /m makes ^ match next to
                   print "leading from in paragraph $.0;

       Here's code that finds everything between START and END in
       a paragraph:

           undef $/;           # read in whole file, not just one
line or paragraph
           while ( <> ) {
               while ( /START(.*?)END/sgm ) { # /s makes .  cross
line boundaries
                   print "$10;

       How can I pull out lines between two patterns that are    [Toc]    [Back]
       themselves on different lines?

       You can use Perl's somewhat exotic ".." operator (documented
 in perlop):

           perl -ne 'print if /START/ .. /END/' file1 file2 ...

       If you wanted text and not lines, you would use

           perl  -0777  -ne  'print "$10 while /START(.*?)END/gs'
file1 file2 ...

       But if you want nested occurrences of "START" through
       "END", you'll run up against the problem described in the
       question in this section on matching balanced text.

       Here's another example of using "..":

           while (<>) {
               $in_header =   1  .. /^$/;
               $in_body   = /^$/ .. eof();
               # now choose between them
           } continue {
               reset if eof();         # fix $.

       I put a regular expression into $/ but it didn't work.
       What's wrong?

       Up to Perl 5.8.0, $/ has to be a string.  This may change
       in 5.10, but don't get your hopes up. Until then, you can
       use these examples if you really need to do this.

       Use the four argument form of sysread to continually add
       to a buffer.  After you add to the buffer, you check if
       you have a complete line (using your regular  expression).
              local $_ = "";
              while( sysread FH, $_, 8192, length ) {
                 while( s/^((?s).*?)your_pattern/ ) {
                    my $record = $1;
                    # do stuff here.

        You  can do the same thing with foreach and a match using
        c flag and the G anchor, if you do not mind  your  entire
        being in memory at the end.

              local $_ = "";
              while( sysread FH, $_, 8192, length ) {
                 foreach my $record ( m/G((?s).*?)your_pattern/gc
) {
                    # do stuff here.
                 substr( $_, 0, pos ) = "" if pos;

       How do I substitute case insensitively on the LHS while    [Toc]    [Back]
       preserving case on the RHS?

       Here's a lovely Perlish solution by Larry Rosler.  It
       exploits properties of bitwise xor on ASCII strings.

           $_= "this is a TEsT case";

           $old = 'test';
           $new = 'success';

            { uc $new | (uc $1 ^ $1) .
               (uc(substr $1, -1) ^ substr $1, -1) x
                   (length($new) - length $1)


       And here it is as a subroutine, modeled after the above:

           sub preserve_case($$) {
               my ($old, $new) = @_;
               my $mask = uc $old ^ $old;

               uc $new | $mask .
                   substr($mask,   -1)    x    (length($new)    -

           $a = "this is a TEsT case";
           $a =~ s/(test)/preserve_case($1, "success")/egi;
           print "$a0;

       This prints:
           this is a SUcCESS case

       As an alternative, to keep the case of the replacement
       word if it is longer than the original, you can use this
       code, by Jeff Pinyan:

         sub preserve_case {
           my ($from, $to) = @_;
           my ($lf, $lt) = map length, @_;

           if ($lt < $lf) { $from = substr $from, 0, $lt }
           else { $from .= substr $to, $lf }

           return uc $to | ($from ^ uc $from);

       This changes the sentence to "this is a SUcCess case."

       Just to show that C programmers can write C in any programming
 language, if you prefer a more C-like solution,
       the following script makes the substitution have the same
       case, letter by letter, as the original.  (It also happens
       to run about 240% slower than the Perlish solution  runs.)
       If the substitution has more characters than the string
       being substituted, the case of the last character is used
       for the rest of the substitution.

           #  Original  by Nathan Torkington, massaged by Jeffrey
           sub preserve_case($$)
               my ($old, $new) = @_;
               my ($state) = 0; # 0 = no change; 1 = lc; 2 = uc
               my ($i, $oldlen, $newlen, $c) = (0,  length($old),
               my ($len) = $oldlen < $newlen ? $oldlen : $newlen;
               for ($i = 0; $i < $len; $i++) {
                   if ($c = substr($old, $i, 1), $c =~ /[W_]/) {
                       $state = 0;
                   } elsif (lc $c eq $c) {
                       substr($new, $i, 1) = lc(substr($new,  $i,
                       $state = 1;
                   } else {
                       substr($new,  $i, 1) = uc(substr($new, $i,
                       $state = 2;
               # finish up with any remaining new (for  when  new
is longer than old)
               if ($newlen > $oldlen) {
                   if ($state == 1) {
                       substr($new,  $oldlen)  =  lc(substr($new,
                   } elsif ($state == 2) {
                       substr($new,  $oldlen)  =  uc(substr($new,
               return $new;

       How can I make "match national character sets?

       Put "use locale;" in your script.  The 216class
       is taken from the current locale.

       See perllocale for details.

       How can I match a locale-smart version of "/[a-zA-Z]/"?

       You can use the POSIX character class syntax
       "/[[:alpha:]]/" documented in perlre.

       No matter which locale you are in, the alphabetic characters
 are the characters in 168the digits and the
       underscore.  As a regex, that looks like "/[^W_]/".
       Its complement, the non-alphabetics, is then everything in
       W along with the digits and the underscore, or

       How can I quote a variable to use in a regex?

       The Perl parser will expand $variable and @variable references
 in regular expressions unless the delimiter is a
       single quote.  Remember, too, that the right-hand side of
       a "s///" substitution is considered a double-quoted string
       (see perlop for more details).  Remember also that any
       regex special characters will be acted on unless you precede
 the substitution with Q.  Here's an example:

           $string = "Placido P. Octopus";
           $regex  = "P.";
           $string =~ s/$regex/Polyp/;
           # $string is now "Polypacido P. Octopus"

       Because "." is special in regular expressions, and can
       match any single character, the regex "P." here has
       matched the <Pl> in the original string.

       To escape the special meaning of ".", we use "Q":

           $string = "Placido P. Octopus";
           $regex  = "P.";

           $string =~ s/Q$regex/Polyp/;
           # $string is now "Placido Polyp Octopus"

       The use of "Q" causes the <.> in the regex to be treated
       as a regular character, so that "P." matches a "P" followed
 by a dot.

       What is "/o" really for?

       Using a variable in a regular expression match forces a
       re-evaluation (and perhaps recompilation) each time the
       regular expression is encountered.  The "/o" modifier
       locks in the regex the first time it's used.  This always
       happens in a constant regular expression, and in fact, the
       pattern was compiled into the internal format at the same
       time your entire program was.

       Use of "/o" is irrelevant unless variable interpolation is
       used in the pattern, and if so, the regex engine will neither
 know nor care whether the variables change after the
       pattern is evaluated the very first time.

       "/o" is often used to gain an extra measure of efficiency
       by not performing subsequent evaluations when you know it
       won't matter (because you know the variables won't
       change), or more rarely, when you don't want the regex to
       notice if they do.

       For example, here's a "paragrep" program:

           $/ = '';  # paragraph mode
           $pat = shift;
           while (<>) {
               print if /$pat/o;

       How do I use a regular expression to strip C style com-    [Toc]    [Back]
       ments from a file?

       While this actually can be done, it's much harder than
       you'd think.  For example, this one-liner
           perl -0777 -pe 's{/*?}{}gs' foo.c

       will work in many but not all cases.  You see, it's too
       simple-minded for certain kinds of C programs, in particular,
 those with what appear to be comments in quoted
       strings.  For that, you'd need something like this, created
 by Jeffrey Friedl and later modified by Fred  Curtis.

           $/ = undef;
           $_ = <>;

       This could, of course, be more legibly written with the
       "/x" modifier, adding whitespace and comments.  Here it is
       expanded, courtesy of Fred Curtis.

              /        ##  Start of /* ... */ comment
              [^*]*    ##  Non-* followed by 1-or-more *'s
              )*           ##  0-or-more things which don't start
with /
                          ##    but do end with '*'
              /           ##  End of /* ... */ comment

            |         ##     OR  various things which aren't comments:

                "           ##  Start of " ... " string
                  \.           ##  Escaped char
                |               ##    OR
                  [^"\]        ##  Non "                )*
                "           ##  End of " ... " string

              |         ##     OR

                '           ##  Start of ' ... ' string
                  \.           ##  Escaped char
                |               ##    OR
                  [^'\]        ##  Non '                )*
                '           ##  End of ' ... ' string

              |         ##     OR

                .           ##  Anything other char
                [^/"'\]*    ##   Chars which doesn't start a comment, string or escape
       A slight modification also removes C++ comments:


       Can I use Perl regular expressions to match balanced text?

       Historically, Perl regular expressions were not capable of
       matching balanced text.  As of more recent versions of
       perl including 5.6.1 experimental features have been added
       that make it possible to do this.  Look at the documentation
 for the (??{ }) construct in recent perlre manual
       pages to see an example of matching balanced  parentheses.
       Be sure to take special notice of the  warnings present in
       the manual before making use of this feature.

       CPAN contains many modules that can be useful for matching
       text depending on the context.  Damian Conway provides
       some useful patterns in Regexp::Common.  The module
       Text::Balanced provides a general solution to this problem.

       One of the common applications of balanced text matching
       is working with XML and HTML.  There are many modules
       available that support these needs.  Two examples are
       HTML::Parser and XML::Parser. There are many others.

       An elaborate subroutine (for 7-bit ASCII only) to pull out
       balanced and possibly nested single chars, like "`" and
       "'", "{" and "}", or "(" and ")" can be found in

       The C::Scan module from CPAN also contains such subs for
       internal use, but they are undocumented.

       What does it mean that regexes are greedy?  How can I get
       around it?

       Most people mean that greedy regexes match as much as they
       can.  Technically speaking, it's actually the quantifiers
       ("?", "*", "+", "{}") that are greedy rather than the
       whole pattern; Perl prefers local greed and immediate
       gratification to overall greed.  To get non-greedy versions
 of the same quantifiers, use ("??", "*?", "+?",

       An example:

               $s1 = $s2 = "I am very very cold";
               $s1 =~ s/ve.*y //;      # I am cold
               $s2 =~ s/ve.*?y //;     # I am very cold

       Notice how the second substitution stopped matching as
       soon as it encountered "y ".  The "*?" quantifier
       effectively tells the regular expression engine to find a
       match as quickly as possible and pass control on to whatever
 is next in line, like you would if you were playing
       hot potato.

       How do I process each word on each line?

       Use the split function:

           while (<>) {
               foreach $word ( split ) {
                   # do something with $word here

       Note that this isn't really a word in the English sense;
       it's just chunks of consecutive non-whitespace characters.

       To work with only alphanumeric sequences (including underscores),
 you might consider

           while (<>) {
               foreach $word (m/(144
                   # do something with $word here

       How can I print out a word-frequency or line-frequency    [Toc]    [Back]

       To do this, you have to parse out each word in the input
       stream.  We'll pretend that by word you mean chunk of
       alphabetics, hyphens, or apostrophes, rather than the nonwhitespace
 chunk idea of a word given in the previous

           while (<>) {  W
               while ( /(_600"
           while ( ($word, $count) = each %seen ) {
               print "$count $word0;

       If you wanted to do the same thing for lines, you wouldn't
       need a regular expression:

           while (<>) {
           while ( ($line, $count) = each %seen ) {
               print "$count $line";
       If you want these output in a sorted order, see perlfaq4:
       ``How do I sort a hash (optionally by value instead of

       How can I do approximate matching?

       See the module String::Approx available from CPAN.

       How do I efficiently match many regular expressions at    [Toc]    [Back]

       The following is extremely inefficient:

           # slow but obvious way
           @popstates = qw(CO ON MI WI MN);
           while (defined($line =s<>)) {
               for $state (@popstttes) {
                   if ($line =~ /a
                       print $line;
                       last;     e

       That's because Perl has to recompile all those patterns
       for each of the lines of the file.  As of the 5.005
       release, there's a much better approach, one which makes
       use of the new "qr//" operator:

           # use spiffy new qr// operator, with /i flag even
           use 5.005;
           @popstates = qw(CO ON MI WI MN);
           @poppats   = map { qr/_
           while (defined($line = <>)) {
               for $patobj (@poppats) {
                   print $line if $line =~ /$patobj/;
               }                           s
           }                               a
                                           s b
       Why don't word-boundary searches with"" work for me?
                  s                        n
       Two common tisconceptions are that "o
       "nd that iths the edge between whitespace characters
       and non-whieespace characters.  Neither is correct.  "
       is the place between a "408W" character
       (that is, "dword").  It's a zero-   f
       width assertion, just like "^", "$",oand all the other
       anchors, soeit doesn't consume any characters.  perlre
       describes the behavior of all the regex metacharacters.
       Here are examples of the incorrect application of ",
       with fixes:

perl v5.8.5                 2002-11-,6                         11
PERLFAQ6(1)      Perl Programmers Reeerence Guide     PERLFAQ6(1)
           "two words" =~ /(48      a
           "two words" =~ /(48      m
           " =matchless= text" =~ /7l
           " =matchless= text" =~ /=e432
       Although they may not do whatfyou thought they did, "
       and "0       correct use of "m
       words over multiple lines.   a
       An example of using "00ll find occurrences of "is" on  the
insides of words                    h
       only, as in "thistle", but not "this" or "island".
       Why does using $&, $`, or $' slow my program down?
       Once Perl sees that you need one of these variables anywhere
 in the program, it provides them on each and every
       pattern match.  The same mechanism that handles these provides
 for the use of $1, $2, etc., so you pay the same
       price for each regex that contains capturing  parentheses.
       If you never use $&, etc., inayour script, then regexes
       without capturing parenthesestwon't be penalized. So avoid
       $&, $', and $` if you can, but if you can't, once you've
       used them at all, use them at will because you've already
       paid the price.  Remember that some algorithms really
       appreciate them.  As of the 5.005 release.  the $& variable
 is no longer "expensive" the way the other two are.

       What good is "G" in a regular expression?

       You use the "G" anchor to start the next match on the
       same string where the last match left off.  The regular
       expression engine cannot skip over any characters to find
       the next match with this anchor, so "G" is similar to the
       beginning of string anchor, "^".  The "G" anchor is typically
 used with the "g" flag.  It uses the value of pos()
       as the position to start the next match.  As the match
       operator makes successive matches, it updates pos() with
       the position of the next character past the last match (or
       the first character of the next match, depending on how
       you like to look at it). Each string has its own pos()

       Suppose you want to match all of consective pairs of digits
 in a string like "1122a44" and stop matching when you
       encounter non-digits.  You want to match 11 and 22 but the
       letter <a> shows up between 22 and 44 and you want to stop
       at "a". Simply matching pairs of digits skips over the "a"
       and still matches 44.

               $_ = "1122a44";
               my @pairs = m/()/g;   # qw( 11 22 44 )
       If you use the G anchor, you force the match after 22 to
       start with the "a".  The regular expression cannot match
       there since it does not find a digit, so the next match
       fails and the match operator returns the pairs it already

               $_ = "1122a44";
               my @pairs = m/G()/g; # qw( 11 22 )

       You can also use the "G" anchor in scalar context. You
       still need the "g" flag.

               $_ = "1122a44";
               while( m/G()/g )
                       print "Found $10;

       After the match fails at the letter "a", perl resets pos()
       and the next match on the same string starts at the beginning.

               $_ = "1122a44";
               while( m/G()/g )
                       print "Found $10;

               print "Found $1 after while" if  m/()/g;  #  finds

       You can disable pos() resets on fail with the "c" flag.
       Subsequent matches start where the last successful match
       ended (the value of pos()) even if a match on the same
       string as failed in the meantime. In this case, the match
       after the while() loop starts at the "a" (where the last
       match stopped), and since it does not use any anchor it
       can skip over the "a" to find "44".

               $_ = "1122a44";
               while( m/G()/gc )
                       print "Found $10;

               print  "Found  $1  after while" if m/()/g; # finds

       Typically you use the "G" anchor with the "c" flag when
       you want to try a different match if one fails, such as in
       a tokenizer. Jeffrey Friedl offers this example which
       works in 5.004 or later.
           while (<>) {
             PARSER: {
                  m/  G(  +   )/gcx   && do { print "number: $10;
redo; };
                  m/ G( 1224
                  m/ G(      )/gcx   && do { print "space:   $10;
redo; };
                  m/ G( [^1152

       For each line, the PARSER loop first tries to match a
       s)ries of digits followed by a word boundary.  This match
       h/s to start at the place the last match left off (or the
       bgginning of the string on the first match). Since "m/ G(
       +cuses the "c" flag, if the string does not
       match that regular expression, perl does not reset pos()
       and the next match starts at the same position to try a
       different pattern.

       Are  Perl regexes DFAs or NFAs?  Are they POSIX compliant?

       While it's true that Perl's regular expressions resemble
       the DFAs (deterministic finite automata) of the egrep(1)
       program, they are in fact implemented as NFAs (non-deterministic
 finite automata) to allow backtracking and backreferencing.
  And they aren't POSIX-style either, because
       those guarantee worst-case behavior for all cases.  (It
       seems that some people prefer guarantees of consistency,
       even when what's guaranteed is slowness.)  See the book
       "Mastering Regular Expressions" (from O'Reilly) by Jeffrey
       Friedl for all the details you could ever hope to know on
       these matters (a full citation appears in perlfaq2).

       What's wrong with using grep in a void context?

       The problem is that grep builds a return list, regardless
       of the context.  This means you're making Perl go to the
       trouble  of building a list that you then just throw away.
       If the list is large, you waste both time and space.  If
       your intent is to iterate over the list, then use a for
       loop for this purpose.

       In perls older than 5.8.1, map suffers from this problem
       as well.  But since 5.8.1, this has been fixed, and map is
       context aware - in void context, no lists are constructed.

       How can I match strings with multibyte characters?

       Starting from Perl 5.6 Perl has had some level of multibyte
 character support.  Perl 5.8 or later is recommended.
       Supported multibyte character repertoires include Unicode,
       and legacy encodings through the Encode module.  See perluniintro,
 perlunicode, and Encode.
       If you are stuck with older Perls, you can do Unicode with
       the "Unicode::String" module, and character conversions
       using the "Unicode::Map8" and "Unicode::Map" modules.  If
       you are using Japanese encodings, you might try using the
       jperl 5.005_03.

       Finally, the following set of approaches was offered by
       Jeffrey Friedl, whose article in issue #5 of The Perl
       Journal talks about this very matter.

       Let's suppose you have some weird Martian encoding where
       pairs of ASCII uppercase letters encode single Martian
       letters (i.e. the two bytes "CV" make a single Martian
       letter, as do the two bytes "SG", "VS", "XX", etc.). Other
       bytes represent single characters, just like ASCII.

       So, the string of Martian "I am CVSGXX!" uses 12 bytes to
       encode the nine characters 'I', ' ', 'a', 'm', ' ', 'CV',
       'SG', 'XX', '!'.

       Now, say you want to search for the single character
       "/GX/". Perl doesn't know about Martian, so it'll find the
       two bytes "GX" in the "I am CVSGXX!"  string, even though
       that character isn't there: it just looks like it is
       because "SG" is next to "XX", but there's no real "GX".
       This is a big problem.

       Here are a few ways, all painful, to deal with it:

          $martian =~ s/([A-Z][A-Z])/ $1 /g; # Make sure adjacent
                                             #   bytes   are   no
longer adjacent.
          print "found GX!0 if $martian =~ /GX/;

       Or like this:

          @chars = $martian =~ m/([A-Z][A-Z]|[^A-Z])/g;
          #  above is conceptually similar to:     @chars = $text
=~ m/(.)/g;
          foreach $char (@chars) {
              print "found GX!0, last if $char eq 'GX';

       Or like this:

          while ($martian =~ m/G([A-Z][A-Z]|.)/gs) {  # G  probably unneeded
              print "found GX!0, last if $1 eq 'GX';

       Here's another, slightly less painful, way to do it from
       Benjamin Goldberg:
               $martian =~ m/

       This succeeds if the "martian" character GX is in the
       string, and fails otherwise.  If you don't like using
       (?!<), you can replace (?!<[A-Z]) with (?:^|[^A-Z]).

       It does have the drawback of putting the wrong thing in
       $-[0] and $+[0], but this usually can be worked around.

       How do I match a pattern that is supplied by the user?

       Well, if it's really a pattern, then just use

           chomp($pattern = <STDIN>);
           if ($line =~ /$pattern/) { }

       Alternatively, since you have no guarantee that your user
       entered a valid regular expression, trap the exception
       this way:

           if (eval { $line =~ /$pattern/ }) { }

       If all you really want to search for a string, not a pattern,
 then you should either use the index() function,
       which is made for string searching, or if you can't be
       disabused of using a pattern match on a non-pattern, then
       be sure to use "Q"..."

           $pattern = <STDIN>;

           open  (FILE,  $input) or die "Couldn't open input $input: $!; aborting";
           while (<FILE>) {
               print if /Q$pattern;
           close FILE;


       Copyright (c) 1997-2002 Tom Christiansen and Nathan Torkington.
  All rights reserved.

       This documentation is free; you can redistribute it and/or
       modify it under the same terms as Perl itself.

       Irrespective of its distribution, all code examples in
       this file are hereby placed into the public domain.  You
       are permitted and encouraged to use this code in your own
       programs for fun or for profit as you see fit.  A simple
       comment in the code giving credit would be courteous but
       is not required.

perl v5.8.5                 2002-11-06                         16
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