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Perl Language Reference Manual
by Larry Wall and others
Paperback (6"x9"), 724 pages
ISBN 9781906966027
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5.3 Scalar values

All data in Perl is a scalar, an array of scalars, or a hash of scalars. A scalar may contain one single value in any of three different flavors: a number, a string, or a reference. In general, conversion from one form to another is transparent. Although a scalar may not directly hold multiple values, it may contain a reference to an array or hash which in turn contains multiple values.

Scalars aren't necessarily one thing or another. There's no place to declare a scalar variable to be of type "string", type "number", type "reference", or anything else. Because of the automatic conversion of scalars, operations that return scalars don't need to care (and in fact, cannot care) whether their caller is looking for a string, a number, or a reference. Perl is a contextually polymorphic language whose scalars can be strings, numbers, or references (which includes objects). Although strings and numbers are considered pretty much the same thing for nearly all purposes, references are strongly-typed, uncastable pointers with builtin reference-counting and destructor invocation.

A scalar value is interpreted as TRUE in the Boolean sense if it is not the null string or the number 0 (or its string equivalent, "0"). The Boolean context is just a special kind of scalar context where no conversion to a string or a number is ever performed.

There are actually two varieties of null strings (sometimes referred to as "empty" strings), a defined one and an undefined one. The defined version is just a string of length zero, such as "". The undefined version is the value that indicates that there is no real value for something, such as when there was an error, or at end of file, or when you refer to an uninitialized variable or element of an array or hash. Although in early versions of Perl, an undefined scalar could become defined when first used in a place expecting a defined value, this no longer happens except for rare cases of autovivification as explained in 15. You can use the defined() operator to determine whether a scalar value is defined (this has no meaning on arrays or hashes), and the undef() operator to produce an undefined value.

To find out whether a given string is a valid non-zero number, it's sometimes enough to test it against both numeric 0 and also lexical "0" (although this will cause noises if warnings are on). That's because strings that aren't numbers count as 0, just as they do in awk:

if ($str == 0 && $str ne "0")  {
    warn "That doesn't look like a number";

That method may be best because otherwise you won't treat IEEE notations like NaN or Infinity properly. At other times, you might prefer to determine whether string data can be used numerically by calling the POSIX::strtod() function or by inspecting your string with a regular expression (as documented in 11).

warn "has nondigits"        if     /\D/;
warn "not a natural number" unless /^\d+$/;         # rejects -3
warn "not an integer"       unless /^-?\d+$/;       # rejects +3
warn "not an integer"       unless /^[+-]?\d+$/;
warn "not a decimal number" unless /^-?\d+\.?\d*$/; # rejects .2
warn "not a decimal number" unless /^-?(?:\d+(?:\.\d*)?|\.\d+)$/;
warn "not a C float"
    unless /^([+-]?)(?=\d|\.\d)\d*(\.\d*)?([Ee]([+-]?\d+))?$/;

The length of an array is a scalar value. You may find the length of array @days by evaluating $#days, as in csh. However, this isn't the length of the array; it's the subscript of the last element, which is a different value since there is ordinarily a 0th element. Assigning to $#days actually changes the length of the array. Shortening an array this way destroys intervening values. Lengthening an array that was previously shortened does not recover values that were in those elements. (It used to do so in Perl 4, but we had to break this to make sure destructors were called when expected.)

You can also gain some minuscule measure of efficiency by pre-extending an array that is going to get big. You can also extend an array by assigning to an element that is off the end of the array. You can truncate an array down to nothing by assigning the null list () to it. The following are equivalent:

@whatever = ();
$#whatever = -1;

If you evaluate an array in scalar context, it returns the length of the array. (Note that this is not true of lists, which return the last value, like the C comma operator, nor of built-in functions, which return whatever they feel like returning.) The following is always true:

scalar(@whatever) == $#whatever - $[ + 1;

Version 5 of Perl changed the semantics of $[: files that don't set the value of $[ no longer need to worry about whether another file changed its value. (In other words, use of $[ is deprecated.) So in general you can assume that

scalar(@whatever) == $#whatever + 1;

Some programmers choose to use an explicit conversion so as to leave nothing to doubt:

$element_count = scalar(@whatever);

If you evaluate a hash in scalar context, it returns false if the hash is empty. If there are any key/value pairs, it returns true; more precisely, the value returned is a string consisting of the number of used buckets and the number of allocated buckets, separated by a slash. This is pretty much useful only to find out whether Perl's internal hashing algorithm is performing poorly on your data set. For example, you stick 10,000 things in a hash, but evaluating %HASH in scalar context reveals "1/16", which means only one out of sixteen buckets has been touched, and presumably contains all 10,000 of your items. This isn't supposed to happen. If a tied hash is evaluated in scalar context, a fatal error will result, since this bucket usage information is currently not available for tied hashes.

You can preallocate space for a hash by assigning to the keys() function. This rounds up the allocated buckets to the next power of two:

keys(%users) = 1000;                # allocate 1024 buckets
ISBN 9781906966027Perl Language Reference ManualSee the print edition