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NAME    [Toc]    [Back]

       perlref - Perl references and nested data structures

NOTE    [Toc]    [Back]

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

DESCRIPTION    [Toc]    [Back]

       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

       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 = oo;
               $arrayref  = @ARGV;
               $hashref   = ENV;
               $coderef   = handler;
               $globref   = oo;

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

           As a special case, "oo)" 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

               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 subname:

               $coderef = sub { print "Boink!0 };

           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 subroutine.)
           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!0;
               $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() and called indirectly:

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

           But don't have to be:

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

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

               use Tk;
               $main    = MainWindow->new();
               $menubar  =  $main->Frame(-relief               =>
                                       -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};

           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 use.

           *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 hmmm0;

               $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    [Toc]    [Back]

       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 "output0;

           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 = \
               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("output0);   #  iff  IO::Handle is

           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

           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]" here:

               $array[$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

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

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

               $score[$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

       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 thing0;

       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 "${*foo}" and "${oo}"
       both indicate the same scalar variable.

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

           print "My sub returned @{[mysub(1,2,3)]} that time.0;

       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

           print "That yields @{[$n + 5]} widgets0;

       Symbolic references    [Toc]    [Back]

       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

           $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
           $pack = "THAT";
           ${"${pack}::$name"} = 5;    # Sets $THAT::foo  without

       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

       Not-so-symbolic references    [Toc]    [Back]

       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 writing

           $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

           $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

       WARNING:  This section describes an experimental  feature.
       Details may change without notice in future versions.

       NOTE: The current user-visible implementation of pseudohashes
 (the weird use of the first array element) is deprecated
 starting from Perl 5.8.0 and will be removed in
       Perl 5.10.0, and the feature will be implemented differently.
  Not only is the current interface rather ugly, but
       the current implementation slows down normal array and
       hash use quite noticeably.  The 'fields' pragma interface
       will remain available.

       Beginning with release 5.005 of Perl, you may use an array
       reference in some contexts that would normally require a
       hash reference.  This allows you to access array elements
       using symbolic names, as if they were fields in a structure.

       For this to work, the array must contain extra information.
  The first element of the array has to be a hash
       reference that maps field names to array indices.  Here is
       an example:

           $struct = [{foo => 1, bar => 2}, "FOO", "BAR"];
           $struct->{foo};  # same as $struct->[1], i.e. "FOO"
           $struct->{bar};  # same as $struct->[2], i.e. "BAR"

           keys %$struct;   # will return ("foo", "bar") in  some
           values  %$struct; # will return ("FOO", "BAR") in same
some order

           while (my($k,$v) = each %$struct) {
              print "$k => $v0;

       Perl will raise an exception if you try to access nonexistent
 fields.  To avoid inconsistencies, always use the
       fields::phash()  function provided by the "fields" pragma.

           use fields;
           $pseudohash  =  fields::phash(foo  =>  "FOO",  bar  =>

       For better performance, Perl can also do the translation
       from field names to array indices at compile time for
       typed object references.  See fields.

       There are two ways to check for the existence of a key in
       a pseudo-hash.  The first is to use exists().  This checks
       to see if the given field has ever been set.  It acts this
       way to match the behavior of a regular hash.  For

           use fields;
           $phash = fields::phash([qw(foo bar pants)], ['FOO']);
           $phash->{pants} = undef;

           print  exists  $phash->{foo};    # true, 'foo' was set
in the declaration
           print exists $phash->{bar};    # false, 'bar' has  not
been used.
           print  exists  $phash->{pants};   # true, your 'pants'
have been touched

       The second is to use exists() on the hash reference sitting
 in the first array element.  This checks to see if
       the given key is a valid field in the pseudo-hash.

           print exists $phash->[0]{bar};      # true, 'bar' is a
valid field
           print exists $phash->[0]{shoes};# false, 'shoes' can't
be used

       delete() on a pseudo-hash element only deletes the value
       corresponding to the key, not the key itself.  To delete
       the key, you'll have to explicitly delete it from the
       first hash element.

           print delete $phash->{foo};     # prints  $phash->[1],
           print exists $phash->{foo};     # false
           print  exists $phash->[0]{foo};  # true, key still exists
           print delete $phash->[0]{foo};  # now key is gone
           print $phash->{foo};            # runtime exception
       Function Templates

       As explained above, a closure is an anonymous function
       with access to the lexical variables visible when that
       function was compiled.  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   ",

       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

       Access to lexicals that change over type--like those in
       the "for" loop above--only works with closures, not general
 subroutines.  In the general case, then, named subroutines
 do not nest properly, although anonymous ones do.
       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''.  For example, this won't

           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 closure
       (anonymous subroutine).  But when it does, it has normal
       access to the lexical variable $x from the scope of

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

WARNING    [Toc]    [Back]

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

           $x{  } = $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.

SEE ALSO    [Toc]    [Back]

       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 directory.
       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.

perl v5.8.5                 2002-11-06                         15
[ Back ]
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