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Introduction to Perl 5.10 for Unix System Administrators

(Perl 5.10 without excessive complexity)

by Dr Nikolai Bezroukov

Contents : Foreword : Ch01 : Ch02 : Ch03 : Ch04 : Ch05 : Ch06 : Ch07 : Ch08 :


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2.5. Typical Errors and pitfalls

It is important to use strict in your scripts. If you hate to declare variables you still can use it in the weaker form:

 use strict 'subs';

instead of "full" strict mode; it is better then nothing and will point out to a lot of errors that otherwise might remain hidden. But declaring variables is actually a good practice for longer scripts (say over 256 lines without comments).

Most typical for beginners Perl errors that probably should be checked before submitting script to the interpreter.

They include:

  1. Absence of semicolon at the end of statement. This is a problem for both novices and experienced Perl programmers alike;  something in human nature prevent putting semicolons  at the end of line. and that means that language that use new line as "weak" semicolon are preferable (if brackets are balanced at this point).

  2. Absence of prefix $ from the scalar variable like in if (i==1) {...}

  3. Missing quote in single or a double quote literals like

    if( $a eq abba' ){ 
      print "this is my favorite group\n";
    }
  4. Usage of "==" instead of "eq" and similar mistakes with other operators ( != instead  of  ne or vise versa, <  instead of lt> instead of gt, etc.) for example:

    if( $a == 'abba' ){ 
      print "this is my favorite group\n";
    }
  5. Usage of prefix @ instead of $ for scalar variables. It is especially typical for references of elements of the array, for example @array[1] is incorrect, should be $array[1].

  6. Missing closing ")" or "}". Without pretty printer missing "}" in longer  scripts is very difficult to find.

  7. Wrong brackets in hash (should be { and }).

A very typical mistake connected with double-quoted literals is putting in it a email address (or group of e-mail addresses). The same applied to backquotes, for example

`cat letter | mailx -s test  myself@mydomain.my`

Here @mydomain will interpreted as an array with very undesirable results.  The correct form should be

`cat letter | mailx -s test  myself\@mydomain.my

or

$to_addr='myself\@mydomain.my";
`cat letter | mailx -s test  $to_addr`;

More extensive collection of typical errors classified by the language from which the programmer is coming to Perl (awk, C, etc) can be found in man page perltrap


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Variable declaration in Perl

One of the 3 features of use strict which is also called use strict 'vars'; requires that you declare every variable before you use it. Well, sort of.

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The trouble

Let's see first an example why is this important.

 
  1. $l1 = 42;
  2. $ll++;
  3. print "$l1\n";
 

We assign 42 to a variable. Later we increment it by one, and then print it. Surprisingly the variable still contains 42.

The author might even know that he has to declare the variables using my so maybe the code looks like this:

 
  1. my $l1 = 42;
  2. $ll++;
  3. print "$l1\n";
 

but the result is the same.

Now imagine that it is not in a 3 lines long example, but in a 1000 lines long script that you can find in many established places. You'd have a very hard time noticing that the auto-increment used the letter l twice, while the first and third rows had a variable with a letter and a number 1.

use strict

If we add a use strict requirement at the beginning of the file,

 
  1. use strict;
  2. my $l1 = 42;
  3. $ll++;
  4. print "$l1\n";
 

we will get the following compile-time error message when we try to run the script:

Global symbol "$ll" requires explicit package name at ... line 6.

Seeing that error message isn't that clear either, at least not for the beginners, we'll see later where does it come from. In the meantime, if you are interested, you can read more about the error global symbol requires explicit package name.

In practical terms it means that you have not declared your variable $ll. Of course running to your editor and declaring my $ll won't do any good. You'll have to understand that this is actually a typo and the real variable name is $l1.

We might be still frustrated by the original developer who used a variable name that's hard to differentiate from a letter, but at least we don't spend hours banging our head against the wall.

The exceptions

As in any living languages (such as English and French) there are exceptions from the rules. In Perl too.

The variables $a and $b are special variables used in the sort function of Perl and, for historical reasons, are exempt from the requirement to declare them. I am not saying having such exceptions is a good thing, but it probably cannot be changed without breaking all the code written in the past 20+ years. So I'd strongly recommend never using $a and $b in any code except in connection to sort.

Not even in examples!

You can declare variables using our, use vars, and since 5.10 using state as well. They have different meaning though.

You can also access variables with their fully qualified name ($Person::name in the next example):

examples/fully_qualified_name.pl

 
  1. use 5.010;
  2. use strict;
  3. state $x = 42;
  4. say $x;
  5. our $y = 37;
  6. say $y;
  7. use vars qw($z);
  8. $z = 100;
  9. say $z;
  10. $Person::name = 'Foo';
  11. say $Person::name;
 

And the output is

42
37
100
Foo

No warning, no error.

We used the explicit package name in the last example. That's, by-the-way where the error message (global symbol requires explicit package name) came from, but in the real world you rarely need that form. You are way better off always declaring your variables using my, and not using this "fully qualified" form of the variable.

The danger of the explicit package name

As use strict does not apply to the package variables, you can easily make a typo as I actually did when I wrote the first version of the example:

examples/fully_qualified_name_with_typo.pl

 
  1. use 5.010;
  2. use strict;
  3. $Person::name = 'Foo';
  4. say $Perlson::name;
 

and it printed nothing. No error. No warning. Nothing.

In general relying on fully qualified names can be dangerous. Of course they can be useful in some places, but we'll talk about that another time.

use warnings

Anyway, this brings me to the importance of the use warnings pragmata. If we used that too,

examples/fully_qualified_name_with_warnings.pl

 
  1. use 5.010;
  2. use strict;
  3. use warnings;
  4. $Person::name = 'Foo';
  5. say $Perlson::name;
 

we would get the following run-time warnings:

Name "Person::name" used only once: possible typo at ...  line 6.
Name "Perlson::name" used only once: possible typo at ... line 7.
Use of uninitialized value $Perlson::name in say at ... line 7.

Might not be the best solution, but at least we get some indication that something went wrong.

Even that warning can disappear if I am extremely bad at typing.

examples/fully_qualified_name_bad_typing.pl

 
  1. use 5.010;
  2. use strict;
  3. use warnings;
  4. $Perlson::name = 'Moo';
  5. $Person::name = 'Foo';
  6. $Person::name = 'Bar';
  7. say $Perlson::name;
 

Here I made the exact same typo twice (maybe a copy paste?) and the result is

Moo

No error. No warning. Still incorrect behavior.

Always use strict

My conclusion is to always use strict by default.

In other articles you can read about symbolic references and barewords in Perl, the other two issues strict helps to avoid.

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