My Perl Wishlist: Invariant Sigils (Part 1)

Pop quiz! Q: What was my mistake in this line?

is %HASH{answer}, 'forty-two', '%HASH properly filled';

A: I had the answer right, but I messed up the sigil on HASH. It should be:

is $HASH{answer}, 'forty-two', '%HASH properly filled';
#  ^ $, not %

Unfortunately, on Perl v5.20+, both statements work the same way! I didn’t catch the problem until I shipped this code and cpantesters showed me my mistake. It was an easy fix, but it reminded me that Perl’s variant sigils can trip up programmers at any level. If I could change one thing about Perl 5, I would change to invariant sigils.

The current situation

In Perl, the sigil tells you how many things to expect. Scalars such as $foo are single values. Any single value in an array @foo or hash %foo, since it is only one thing, also uses $, so $foo, @foo, and %foo could all refer to different pieces of the same variable — or to different variables. This technique of “variant sigils” works, but confuses new Perl users and tripped up yours truly. To know what you are accessing in an array or hash, you have to look at both the sigil and the brackets. As a reminder:

Sigil No brackets [ ] (array access) { } (hash access)
$ $z: a scalar, i.e., a single value $z[0]: the first element of array @z $z{0}: the value in hash %z at key "0"
@ @z: An array, i.e., a list of value(s) @z[0, 1]: the list ($z[0], $z[1]) of two elements from @z (an “array slice”) @z{0, "foo"}: the list ($z{0}, $z{foo}) of two elements from hash %z
% %z: A hash, i.e., a list of key/value pair(s) %z[0, 1]: the list (0, $z[0], 1, $z[1]) of keys and two values from array @z (a “hash slice”) %z{0, "foo"}: the list ("0", $z{0}, "foo", $z{foo}) of keys and values from hash %z

Make the sigils part of the name

To save myself from repeating my errors, I’d like the sigil to be part of a variable’s name. This is not a new idea; scalars work this way in Perl, bash, and Raku (formerly Perl 6). That would make the above table look like:

Sigil No brackets [ ] (array access) { } (hash access)
$ $z: a scalar, i.e., a single value $z[0]: N/A $z{0}: N/A
@ @z: An array, i.e., a list of value(s) @z[0]: the first element of @z @z{0}: N/A
% %z: A hash, i.e., a list of key/value pair(s) %z[0]: N/A %z{0}: the value in hash %z at key 0

Simpler! Any reference to @z would always be doing something with the array named @z.

But what about slices?

Slices such as @z[0,1] and %z{qw(hello there)} return multiple values from an array or hash. If sigils @ and % are no longer available for slicing, we need an alternative. The Perl family currently provides two models: postfix dereferencing (“postderef”) syntax and postfix adverbs.

Perl v5.20+ support postderef, which gives us one option. Postderef separates the name from the slice:

# Valid Perl v5.20+
$hashref->{a};      # Scalar, element at index "a" of the hash pointed to by $hashref
$hashref->@{a};     # List including the "a" element of the hash pointed to by $hashref
$hashref->%{a};     # List including the key "a" and the "a" element of the hash pointed to by $hashref

The type of slice comes after the reference, instead of as a sigil before the reference. With non-references, that idea would give us slice syntax such as @array@[1,2,3] or %hash%{a}.

Raku gives us another option: “adverbs” such as :kv. For example:

# Valid Raku
%hash{"a"}          # Single value, element at index "a" of %hash
%hash{"a"}:v;       # The same --- just the value
%hash{"a"}:kv;      # The list including key "a" and the value of the "a" element of %hash

The adverb (e.g., :kv) goes in postfix position, immediately after the brackets or braces. Following this model, slices would look like @array[1,2,3]:l or %hash{a}:kv. (For clarity, I propose :l, as in list, instead of Raku’s :v. Raku’s :v can return a scalar or a list.)

So, the choices I see are (postderef-inspired / Raku-inspired):

What you want No subscript [ ] access { } access
Scalar $z: a scalar, i.e., a single value @z[0]: a single value from an array %z{0}: the value in hash %z at key "0"
List of values @z: an array, i.e., a list of value(s) @z@[0, 1] / @z[0, 1]:l: the list currently written ($z[0], $z[1]) %z@{0, "foo"} / %z{0, "foo"}:l: the list currently written ($z{0}, $z{foo})
List of key/value pairs %z: a hash, i.e., a list of key/value pair(s) @z%[0, 1] / @z[0, 1]:kv: the list currently written (0, $z[0], 1, $z[1]) %z%{0, "foo"} / %z{0, "foo"}:kv: the list currently written ("0", $z{0}, "foo", $z{foo})

You can’t always get what you want

I prefer the adverb syntax. It is easy to read, and it draws on all the expertise that has gone into the design of Raku. However, my preference has to be implementable. I’m not convinced that it is without major surgery.

The Perl parser decides how to interpret what is inside the brackets depending on the context provided by the slice. The parser interprets the ... in @foo[...] as a list (ref). In $foo[...], the parser sees the ... as a scalar expression (ref). For any slice syntax, the Perl parser needs to know the desired type of result while parsing the subscript expression. The adverb form, unfortunately, leaves the parser guessing until after the subscript is parsed.

You can, in fact, hack the Perl parser to save the subscript until it sees a postfix adverb. The parser can then apply the correct context. I wrote a proof-of-concept for @arr[expr]:v. It doesn’t execute any code, but it does parse a postfix-adverb slice without crashing! However, while writing that code, I ran across a surprise: new syntax isn’t tied to a use v5.xx directive.

It turns out the Perl parser lets code written against any Perl version use the latest syntax. Both of the following command lines work on Perl v5.30:

$ perl -Mstrict -Mwarnings -E 'my $z; $z->@* = 10..20'
#                           ^ -E: use all the latest features
$ perl -Mstrict -Mwarnings -e 'my $z; $z->@* = 10..20'   # (!!!)
#                           ^ -e: not the latest features

The second command line does not use v5.30, so you can’t use say (introduced in v5.10). However, you can use postderef (from v5.20)!

Because the parser lets old programs use new syntax, any proposed addition to Perl’s syntax has to be meaningless in all previous Perl versions. A postfix adverb fails this test. For example, the following is a valid Perl program:

sub kv { "kv" }
my @arr = 10..20;
print 1 ? @arr[1,2]:kv;
        # ^^^^^^^^^^^^ valid Perl 5 syntax, but not a slice :(
print "\n";

My preferred slice syntax could change the meaning of existing programs, so it looks like I can’t get my first choice.

Next Steps

This is not the end of the story! In Part 2, I will dig deeper into Perl’s parser and tokenizer. I will share some surprises I discovered while investigating postderef. I will then describe a possible path to invariant sigils and the simplicity they can provide.


Christopher White

Chris White is an experienced and productive inventor, public speaker, patent agent, computer engineer, demoscener, and software developer. He is currently building embedded Linux systems for D3 Engineering. He intermittently blogs about technology, music, and cheese.

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