perlreftut


DESCRIPTION
       One of the most important new features in Perl 5 was the capability to
       manage complicated data structures like multidimensional arrays and
       nested hashes.  To enable these, Perl 5 introduced a feature called
       `references', and using references is the key to managing complicated,
       structured data in Perl.  Unfortunately, there's a lot of funny syntax
       to learn, and the main manual page can be hard to follow.  The manual
       is quite complete, and sometimes people find that a problem, because it
       can be hard to tell what is important and what isn't.

       Fortunately, you only need to know 10% of what's in the main page to
       get 90% of the benefit.  This page will show you that 10%.

Who Needs Complicated Data Structures?
       One problem that came up all the time in Perl 4 was how to represent a
       hash whose values were lists.  Perl 4 had hashes, of course, but the
       values had to be scalars; they couldn't be lists.

       Why would you want a hash of lists?  Let's take a simple example: You
       have a file of city and country names, like this:

               Chicago, USA
               Frankfurt, Germany
               Berlin, Germany
               Washington, USA
               Helsinki, Finland
               New York, USA

       and you want to produce an output like this, with each country
       mentioned once, and then an alphabetical list of the cities in that
       country:

               Finland: Helsinki.
               Germany: Berlin, Frankfurt.
               USA:  Chicago, New York, Washington.

       The natural way to do this is to have a hash whose keys are country
       names.  Associated with each country name key is a list of the cities
       in that country.  Each time you read a line of input, split it into a
       country and a city, look up the list of cities already known to be in
       that country, and append the new city to the list.  When you're done
       reading the input, iterate over the hash as usual, sorting each list of
       cities before you print it out.

       If hash values can't be lists, you lose.  In Perl 4, hash values can't
       be lists; they can only be strings.  You lose.  You'd probably have to
       combine all the cities into a single string somehow, and then when time
       came to write the output, you'd have to break the string into a list,
       sort the list, and turn it back into a string.  This is messy and
       error-prone.  And it's frustrating, because Perl already has perfectly
       good lists that would solve the problem if only you could use them.

The Solution
       Perl's private, internal names, so you can be sure they're unambiguous.
       Unlike "Barack Obama", a reference only refers to one thing, and you
       always know what it refers to.  If you have a reference to an array,
       you can recover the entire array from it.  If you have a reference to a
       hash, you can recover the entire hash.  But the reference is still an
       easy, compact scalar value.

       You can't have a hash whose values are arrays; hash values can only be
       scalars.  We're stuck with that.  But a single reference can refer to
       an entire array, and references are scalars, so you can have a hash of
       references to arrays, and it'll act a lot like a hash of arrays, and
       it'll be just as useful as a hash of arrays.

       We'll come back to this city-country problem later, after we've seen
       some syntax for managing references.

Syntax
       There are just two ways to make a reference, and just two ways to use
       it once you have it.

   Making References
       Make Rule 1

       If you put a "\" in front of a variable, you get a reference to that
       variable.

           $aref = \@array;         # $aref now holds a reference to @array
           $href = \%hash;          # $href now holds a reference to %hash
           $sref = \$scalar;        # $sref now holds a reference to $scalar

       Once the reference is stored in a variable like $aref or $href, you can
       copy it or store it just the same as any other scalar value:

           $xy = $aref;             # $xy now holds a reference to @array
           $p[3] = $href;           # $p[3] now holds a reference to %hash
           $z = $p[3];              # $z now holds a reference to %hash

       These examples show how to make references to variables with names.
       Sometimes you want to make an array or a hash that doesn't have a name.
       This is analogous to the way you like to be able to use the string "\n"
       or the number 80 without having to store it in a named variable first.

       Make Rule 2

       "[ ITEMS ]" makes a new, anonymous array, and returns a reference to
       that array.  "{ ITEMS }" makes a new, anonymous hash, and returns a
       reference to that hash.

           $aref = [ 1, "foo", undef, 13 ];
           # $aref now holds a reference to an array

           $href = { APR => 4, AUG => 8 };
           # $href now holds a reference to a hash


       If you write just "[]", you get a new, empty anonymous array.  If you
       write just "{}", you get a new, empty anonymous hash.

   Using References
       What can you do with a reference once you have it?  It's a scalar
       value, and we've seen that you can store it as a scalar and get it back
       again just like any scalar.  There are just two more ways to use it:

       Use Rule 1

       You can always use an array reference, in curly braces, in place of the
       name of an array.  For example, "@{$aref}" instead of @array.

       Here are some examples of that:

       Arrays:

               @a              @{$aref}                An array
               reverse @a      reverse @{$aref}        Reverse the array
               $a[3]           ${$aref}[3]             An element of the array
               $a[3] = 17;     ${$aref}[3] = 17        Assigning an element

       On each line are two expressions that do the same thing.  The left-hand
       versions operate on the array @a.  The right-hand versions operate on
       the array that is referred to by $aref.  Once they find the array
       they're operating on, both versions do the same things to the arrays.

       Using a hash reference is exactly the same:

               %h              %{$href}              A hash
               keys %h         keys %{$href}         Get the keys from the hash
               $h{'red'}       ${$href}{'red'}       An element of the hash
               $h{'red'} = 17  ${$href}{'red'} = 17  Assigning an element

       Whatever you want to do with a reference, Use Rule 1 tells you how to
       do it.  You just write the Perl code that you would have written for
       doing the same thing to a regular array or hash, and then replace the
       array or hash name with "{$reference}".  "How do I loop over an array
       when all I have is a reference?"  Well, to loop over an array, you
       would write

               for my $element (@array) {
                  ...
               }

       so replace the array name, @array, with the reference:

               for my $element (@{$aref}) {
                  ...
               }

       "How do I print out the contents of a hash when all I have is a
       reference?"  First write the code for printing out a hash:

       Use Rule 1 is all you really need, because it tells you how to do
       absolutely everything you ever need to do with references.  But the
       most common thing to do with an array or a hash is to extract a single
       element, and the Use Rule 1 notation is cumbersome.  So there is an
       abbreviation.

       "${$aref}[3]" is too hard to read, so you can write "$aref->[3]"
       instead.

       "${$href}{red}" is too hard to read, so you can write "$href->{red}"
       instead.

       If $aref holds a reference to an array, then "$aref->[3]" is the fourth
       element of the array.  Don't confuse this with $aref[3], which is the
       fourth element of a totally different array, one deceptively named
       @aref.  $aref and @aref are unrelated the same way that $item and @item
       are.

       Similarly, "$href->{'red'}" is part of the hash referred to by the
       scalar variable $href, perhaps even one with no name.  $href{'red'} is
       part of the deceptively named %href hash.  It's easy to forget to leave
       out the "->", and if you do, you'll get bizarre results when your
       program gets array and hash elements out of totally unexpected hashes
       and arrays that weren't the ones you wanted to use.

   An Example
       Let's see a quick example of how all this is useful.

       First, remember that "[1, 2, 3]" makes an anonymous array containing
       "(1, 2, 3)", and gives you a reference to that array.

       Now think about

               @a = ( [1, 2, 3],
                      [4, 5, 6],
                      [7, 8, 9]
                    );

       @a is an array with three elements, and each one is a reference to
       another array.

       $a[1] is one of these references.  It refers to an array, the array
       containing "(4, 5, 6)", and because it is a reference to an array, Use
       Rule 2 says that we can write $a[1]->[2] to get the third element from
       that array.  $a[1]->[2] is the 6.  Similarly, $a[0]->[1] is the 2.
       What we have here is like a two-dimensional array; you can write
       $a[ROW]->[COLUMN] to get or set the element in any row and any column
       of the array.

       The notation still looks a little cumbersome, so there's one more
       abbreviation:

   Arrow Rule

Solution
       Here's the answer to the problem I posed earlier, of reformatting a
       file of city and country names.

           1   my %table;

           2   while (<>) {
           3    chomp;
           4     my ($city, $country) = split /, /;
           5     $table{$country} = [] unless exists $table{$country};
           6     push @{$table{$country}}, $city;
           7   }

           8   foreach $country (sort keys %table) {
           9     print "$country: ";
          10     my @cities = @{$table{$country}};
          11     print join ', ', sort @cities;
          12     print ".\n";
          13   }

       The program has two pieces: Lines 2--7 read the input and build a data
       structure, and lines 8-13 analyze the data and print out the report.
       We're going to have a hash, %table, whose keys are country names, and
       whose values are references to arrays of city names.  The data
       structure will look like this:

                  %table
               +-------+---+
               |       |   |   +-----------+--------+
               |Germany| *---->| Frankfurt | Berlin |
               |       |   |   +-----------+--------+
               +-------+---+
               |       |   |   +----------+
               |Finland| *---->| Helsinki |
               |       |   |   +----------+
               +-------+---+
               |       |   |   +---------+------------+----------+
               |  USA  | *---->| Chicago | Washington | New York |
               |       |   |   +---------+------------+----------+
               +-------+---+

       We'll look at output first.  Supposing we already have this structure,
       how do we print it out?

           8   foreach $country (sort keys %table) {
           9     print "$country: ";
          10     my @cities = @{$table{$country}};
          11     print join ', ', sort @cities;
          12     print ".\n";
          13   }

       %table is an ordinary hash, and we get a list of keys from it, sort the
       keys, and loop over the keys as usual.  The only use of references is
       Lines 2-7 are responsible for building the structure in the first
       place.  Here they are again:

           2   while (<>) {
           3    chomp;
           4     my ($city, $country) = split /, /;
           5     $table{$country} = [] unless exists $table{$country};
           6     push @{$table{$country}}, $city;
           7   }

       Lines 2-4 acquire a city and country name.  Line 5 looks to see if the
       country is already present as a key in the hash.  If it's not, the
       program uses the "[]" notation (Make Rule 2) to manufacture a new,
       empty anonymous array of cities, and installs a reference to it into
       the hash under the appropriate key.

       Line 6 installs the city name into the appropriate array.
       $table{$country} now holds a reference to the array of cities seen in
       that country so far.  Line 6 is exactly like

               push @array, $city;

       except that the name "array" has been replaced by the reference
       "{$table{$country}}".  The "push" adds a city name to the end of the
       referred-to array.

       There's one fine point I skipped.  Line 5 is unnecessary, and we can
       get rid of it.

           2   while (<>) {
           3    chomp;
           4     my ($city, $country) = split /, /;
           5   ####  $table{$country} = [] unless exists $table{$country};
           6     push @{$table{$country}}, $city;
           7   }

       If there's already an entry in %table for the current $country, then
       nothing is different.  Line 6 will locate the value in
       $table{$country}, which is a reference to an array, and push $city into
       the array.  But what does it do when $country holds a key, say
       "Greece", that is not yet in %table?

       This is Perl, so it does the exact right thing.  It sees that you want
       to push "Athens" onto an array that doesn't exist, so it helpfully
       makes a new, empty, anonymous array for you, installs it into %table,
       and then pushes "Athens" onto it.  This is called
       `autovivification'--bringing things to life automatically.  Perl saw
       that they key wasn't in the hash, so it created a new hash entry
       automatically. Perl saw that you wanted to use the hash value as an
       array, so it created a new empty array and installed a reference to it
       in the hash automatically.  And as usual, Perl made the array one
       element longer to hold the new city name.

The Rest
           @$aref is the same as "@{$aref}", and $$aref[1] is the same as
           "${$aref}[1]".  If you're just starting out, you may want to adopt
           the habit of always including the curly brackets.

       o   This doesn't copy the underlying array:

                   $aref2 = $aref1;

           You get two references to the same array.  If you modify
           "$aref1->[23]" and then look at "$aref2->[23]" you'll see the
           change.

           To copy the array, use

                   $aref2 = [@{$aref1}];

           This uses "[...]" notation to create a new anonymous array, and
           $aref2 is assigned a reference to the new array.  The new array is
           initialized with the contents of the array referred to by $aref1.

           Similarly, to copy an anonymous hash, you can use

                   $href2 = {%{$href1}};

       o   To see if a variable contains a reference, use the "ref" function.
           It returns true if its argument is a reference.  Actually it's a
           little better than that: It returns "HASH" for hash references and
           "ARRAY" for array references.

       o   If you try to use a reference like a string, you get strings like

                   ARRAY(0x80f5dec)   or    HASH(0x826afc0)

           If you ever see a string that looks like this, you'll know you
           printed out a reference by mistake.

           A side effect of this representation is that you can use "eq" to
           see if two references refer to the same thing.  (But you should
           usually use "==" instead because it's much faster.)

       o   You can use a string as if it were a reference.  If you use the
           string "foo" as an array reference, it's taken to be a reference to
           the array @foo.  This is called a soft reference or symbolic
           reference.  The declaration "use strict 'refs'" disables this
           feature, which can cause all sorts of trouble if you use it by
           accident.

       You might prefer to go on to perllol instead of perlref; it discusses
       lists of lists and multidimensional arrays in detail.  After that, you
       should move on to perldsc; it's a Data Structure Cookbook that shows
       recipes for using and printing out arrays of hashes, hashes of arrays,
       and other kinds of data.

Summary
       The original title was Understand References Today.

   Distribution Conditions
       Copyright 1998 The Perl Journal.

       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 these files 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 v5.14.2                      2010-12-30                     PERLREFTUT(1)
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