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This HTML version of Think Perl 6 is provided for convenience, but it is not the best format of the book. You might prefer to read the PDF version.

Chapter 3  Functions

In the context of programming, a function is usually a named sequence of statements that performs a computation. In Perl, functions are often also called subroutines and the two terms can (for now) be considered as more or less equivalent. When you define a function, you specify the name and the sequence of statements. Later, when you want to perform a computation, you can “call” the function by name and this will run the sequence of statements contained in the function definition.

Perl comes with many built-in functions that are quite handy. You’ve already seen some of them: for example, say is a built-in function, and we will see many more in the course of this book. And if Perl doesn’t already have a function that does what you want, you can build your own. This teaches you the basics of functions and how to build new ones.

3.1  Function Calls

We have already seen examples of function calls:

> say 42;

The name of the function is say. The expression following the function name is called the argument of the function. The say function causes the argument to be displayed on the screen. If you need to pass several values to a function, then just separate the arguments with commas:

> say "The answer to the ultimate question is ", 42;
The answer to the ultimate question is 42

Many programming languages require the arguments of a function to be inserted between parentheses. This is not required (and usually not recommended) in Perl 6 for most built-in functions (except when needed for precedence), but if you do use parentheses, you should make sure to avoid inserting spaces between the function name and the opening parenthesis. For example, the round function usually takes two arguments: the value to be rounded and the unit or scale. You may call it in any of the following ways:

> round 42.45, 1;
> round 42.45, .1;
> round(42.45, .1);      # But not: round (42.45, .1);
> round( 42.45, .1);     # Space is OK *after* the opening paren

Experienced Perl programmers usually prefer to omit the parentheses when they can. Doing so makes it possible to chain several functions with a visually cleaner syntax. Consider for example the differences between these two calls:

> say round 42.45, 1;
> say(round(42.45, 1));

The second statement is explicitly saying what is going on, but the accumulation of parentheses actually makes things not very clear. By contrast, the first statement can be seen as a pipeline to be read from right to left: the last function on the right, round, is taking two arguments, 42.45, 1, and the value produced by round is passed as an argument to say.

It is common to say that a function “takes” one or several arguments and “returns” a result. The result is also called the return value.

Perl provides functions that convert values from one type to another. When called with only one argument, the round function takes any value and converts it to an integer, if it can, or complains otherwise:

> round 42.3;
> round "yes"
Cannot convert string to number: base-10 number must begin with valid 
digits or '.' in '<HERE>yes' (indicated by <HERE>)
  in block <unit> at <unknown file> line 1

Note that, in Perl 6, many built-in functions can also use a method invocation syntax with the so-called dot notation. The following statements display the same result:

> round 42.7;    # Function call syntax
> 42.7.round;    # Method invocation syntax

The round function can round off rational and floating-point values to integers. There is an Int method that can also convert noninteger numerical values into integers, but it doesn’t round off; it chops off the fraction part:

> round 42.7
> 42.7.Int

We’ll come back to methods in the next section.

The Rat built-in function converts integers and strings to rational numbers (if possible):

> say 4.Rat;
> say 4.Rat.WHAT;
> say Rat(4).WHAT;
> say Rat(4).nude;
(4 1)
> say Rat('3.14159');
> say Rat('3.14159').nude
(314159 100000)

(As you might remember from Section ??, the nude method displays the numerator and denominator of a rational number.)

Finally, Str converts its argument to a string:

> say 42.Str.WHAT
> say Str(42).WHAT;

Note that these type conversion functions often don’t need to be called explicitly, as Perl will in many cases try to do the right thing for you. For example, if you have a string that looks like an integer number, Perl will coerce the string to an integer for you if you try to apply an arithmetic operation on it:

> say "21" * "2";

Similarly, integers will be coerced to strings if you apply the string concatenation operator to them:

> say 4 ~ 2;
> say (4 ~ 2).WHAT;

The coercion can even happen twice within the same expression if needed:

> say (4 ~ 1) + 1;
> say ((4 ~ 1) + 1).WHAT;

3.2  Functions and Methods

A method is similar to a function—it takes arguments and returns a value—but the calling syntax is different. With a function, you specify the name of the function followed by its arguments. A method, by contrast, uses the dot notation: you specify the name of the object on which the method is called, followed by a dot and the name of the method (and possibly additional arguments).

A method call is often called an invocation . The deeper differences between functions and methods will become apparent much later, when studying object-oriented programming (in Chapter ??).

For the time being, we can consider that the difference is essentially a matter of a different calling syntax when using Perl’s built-ins. Most of Perl built-ins accept both a function call syntax and a method invocation syntax. For example, the following statements are equivalent:

> say 42;              # function call syntax
> 42.say;              # method invocation syntax

You can also chain built-in routines with both syntactic forms:

> 42.WHAT.say;         # method syntax
> say WHAT 42;         # function syntax
> say 42.WHAT;         # mixed syntax

It is up to you to decide whether you prefer one form or the other, but we will use both forms, if only to get you used to both of them.

3.3  Math functions

Perl provides most of the familiar mathematical functions.

For some less common functions, you might need to use a specialized module such as Math::Matrix or Math::Trig. A module is a file that contains a collection of related functions.

Before we can use the functions in a module, we have to import it with a use statement:

use Math::Trig;

This statement will import a number of functions that you will then be able to use as if you had defined them in your main source file, for example deg2rad to perform conversion of angular values from degrees to radians, or rad2deg to perform the opposite conversion.

For most common mathematical functions, however, you don’t need any math module, as they are included in the core of the language:

> my $noise-power = 5.5;
> my $signal-power = 125.6;
> my $decibels = 10 * log10 $signal-power / $noise-power;

This first example uses log10 (common logarithm) to compute a signal-to-noise ratio in decibels (assuming that signal-power and noise-power are defined in the proper units). Perl also provides a log function which, when receiving one argument, computes logarithm base e of the argument, and, when receiving two arguments, computes the logarithm of the first argument to the base of the second argument:

> say e;                 # e is predefined as Euler's constant
> my $val = e ** e;
> say log $val;          # natural logarithm
> say log $val, e;       # logarithm base e or natural logarithm
> say log 1024, 2;       # binary logarithm or logarithm base 2

Perl also provides most common trigonometric functions:

> my $radians = 0.7;
> my $height = sin $radians;

This example finds the sine of $radians. The name of the variable is a hint that sin and the other trigonometric functions (cos, tan, etc.) take arguments in radians. To convert from degrees to radians, you may use the deg2rad function of the Math::Trig module, or simply divide by 180 and multiply by π:

> my $degrees = 45;
> my $radians = $degrees / 180.0 * pi;    # pi, predefined constant
> say sin $radians;       # should be square root of 2 divided by 2

The expression pi is a predefined constant for an approximation of π, accurate to about 14 digits.

If you know trigonometry, you can check the previous result by comparing it to the square root of two divided by two:

> say sqrt(2) / 2;

3.4  Composition

So far, we have looked at the elements of a program—variables, expressions, and statements—in isolation, without talking about how to combine them.

One of the most useful features of programming languages is their ability to take small building blocks and compose them, i.e., to combine them in such a way that the result of one is the input of another one. For example, the argument of a function can be any kind of expression, including arithmetic operators:

> my $degrees = 45;
> my $height = sin($degrees / 360.0 * 2 * pi);

Here, we have used parentheses for the argument to the sin function to clarify that all the arithmetic operations within the parentheses are completed before the sin function is actually called, so that it will use the result of these operations as its argument.

You can also compose function calls:

> my $x = 10;
>  $x = exp log($x+1)

Almost anywhere you can put a value, you can put an arbitrary expression, with one exception: the left side of an assignment statement has to be a variable name, possibly along with its declaration. Almost any other expression on the left side is a syntax error 1:

> my $hours = 1;
> my $minutes = 0;
> $minutes = $hours * 60;        # right 
> $hours * 60 = $minutes;        # wrong !!
Cannot modify an immutable Int
  in block <unit> at <unknown file> line 1

3.5  Adding New Functions (a.k.a. Subroutines)

So far, we have only been using the functions that come with Perl, but it is also possible to add new functions. In Perl, user- defined functions are often called subroutines, but you might choose either word for them.

A function definition starts with the sub keyword (for subroutine) and specifies the name of a new subroutine and the sequence of statements that run when the function is called.

Here is an example of a subroutine quoting Martin Luther King’s famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington (1963):

sub print-speech() {
    say "Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.";
    say "Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.";

sub is a keyword that indicates that this is a subroutine definition. The name of the function is print-speech. The rules for subroutine names are the same as for variable names: letters, numbers, and underscores are legal, as well as a dash or an apostrophe between letters, but the first character must be a letter or an underscore. You shouldn’t use a language keyword (such as if or while) as the name of a function (in some cases, it might actually work, but it would be very confusing, at least for the human reader).

The empty parentheses after the name indicate that this function doesn’t take any arguments. They are optional in that case, but are required when parameters need to be defined for the subroutine.

The first line of the subroutine definition is sometimes called the header; the rest is called the body. The body has to be a code block placed between curly braces and it can contain any number of statements. Although there is no requirement to do so, it is good practice (and highly recommended) to indent body statements by a few leading spaces, since it makes it easier to figure out visually where the function body starts and ends.

Please note that you cannot use a method-invocation syntax for subroutines (such as print-speech) that you write: you must call them with a function call syntax.

The strings in the print statements are enclosed in double quotes. In this specific case, single quotes could have been used instead to do the same thing, but there are many cases where they wouldn’t do the same thing, so you’ll have to choose one or the other depending on the circumstances.

Most people use double quotes in cases where a single quote (which is also an apostrophe) appears in the string:

say "And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.";

Conversely, you might use single quotes when double quotes appear in the string:

say 'America has given the Negro people a bad check, 
     a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."';

There is, however, a more important difference between single quotes and double quotes: double quotes allow variable interpolation, and single quotes don’t. Variable interpolation means that if a variable name appears within the double-quoted string, this variable name will be replaced by the variable value; within a single-quoted string, the variable name will appear verbatim. For example:

my $var = 42;
say "His age is $var.";            # -> His age is 42.
say 'Her age is $var.';            # -> Her age is $var.

The reason is not that the lady’s age should be kept secret. In the first string, $var is simply replaced within the string by its value, 42, because the string is quoted with double quotes; in the second string, $var isn’t replaced by its value because single quotes are meant to provide a more verbatim type of quoting mechanism. There are other quoting constructs offering finer control over the way variables and special characters are displayed in the output, but simple and double quotes are the most useful ones.

The syntax for calling the new subroutine is the same as for built-in functions:

> print-speech();
Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

However, you cannot use the method-invocation syntax with such subroutines. We will see much later in this book (see Chapter ??) how to create methods. For the time being, we’ll stick to the function-call syntax.

Once you have defined a subroutine, you can use it inside another subroutine. For example, to repeat the previous excerpts of King’s address , we could write a subroutine called repeat_speech:

sub repeat-speech() {

And then call repeat-speech:

> repeat-speech();
Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

But that’s not really how the speech goes.

3.6  Definitions and Uses

Pulling together the code fragments from the previous section, the whole program looks like this:

sub print-speech () {
    say "let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.";
    say "Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.";
sub repeat-speech () {

This program contains two subroutine definitions: print-speech and repeat-speech. Function definitions get executed just like other statements, but the effect is to create the function. The statements inside the function do not run until the function is called, and the function definition generates no output.

You don’t have to create a subroutine before you can run it, the function definition may come after its call:

sub repeat-speech() {
sub print-speech() {
    # ...

3.7  Flow of Execution

To ensure, for example, that a variable is defined (i.e., populated) before its first use, you have to know the order statements run in, which is called the flow of execution.

Execution always begins at the first statement of the program (well, really almost always, but let’s say always for the time being). Statements are run one at a time, in order from top to bottom.

Subroutine definitions do not alter the flow of execution of the program, but remember that statements inside a function don’t run until the function is called.

A function call is like a detour in the flow of execution. Instead of going to the next statement, the flow jumps to the body of the function, runs the statements there, and then comes back to pick up where it left off.

That sounds simple enough, until you remember that one function can call another. While in the middle of one function, the program might have to run the statements in another function. Then, while running that new function, the program might have to run yet another function!

Fortunately, Perl is good at keeping track of where it is, so each time a function completes, the program picks up where it left off in the code that called it. When it gets to the end of the program, it terminates.

In summary, when you read a program, you don’t always want to read from top to bottom. Sometimes it makes more sense if you follow the flow of execution.

3.8  Parameters and Arguments

Some of the functions we have seen require arguments. For example, when you call sin you pass a number as an argument. Some functions take more than one argument: for example the round function seen at the beginning of this chapter took two, the number to be rounded and the scale (although the round function may accept a single argument, in which case the scale is defaulted to 1).

Inside the subroutine, the arguments are assigned to variables called parameters. Here is a definition for a subroutine that takes a single argument:

sub print-twice($value) {
    say $value;
    say $value

This subroutine assigns the argument to a parameter named $value. Another common way to say it is that the subroutine binds the parameter defined in its header to the argument with which it was called. When the above subroutine is called, it prints the content of the parameter (whatever it is) twice.

This function works with any argument value that can be printed:

> print-twice("Let freedom ring")
Let freedom ring
Let freedom ring
> print-twice(42)
> print-twice(pi)

The same rules of composition that apply to built-in functions also apply to programmer-defined subroutines, so we can use any kind of expression as an argument for print-twice:

> print-twice('Let freedom ring! ' x 2)
Let freedom ring! Let freedom ring! 
Let freedom ring! Let freedom ring! 
> print-twice(cos pi)

The argument is evaluated before the function is called, so in the examples the expressions 'Let freedom ring! ' x 2 and cos pi are only evaluated once.

You can also use a variable as an argument:

> my $declaration = 'When in the Course of human events, ...'
> print-twice($declaration)
When in the Course of human events, ...
When in the Course of human events, ...

The name of the variable we pass as an argument ($declaration) has nothing to do with the name of the parameter ($value). It doesn’t matter what the variable was called back home (in the caller); here, within print-twice, we call the parameter $value, irrespective of the name or content of the argument passed to the subroutine.

3.9  Variables and Parameters Are Local

When you create a variable inside a subroutine with the my keyword, it is local, or, more accurately, lexically scoped, to the function block, which means that it only exists inside the function. For example:

sub concat_twice($part1, $part2) {
    my $concatenation = $part1 ~ $part2;

This function takes two arguments, concatenates them, and prints the result twice. Here is an example that uses it:

> my $start = 'Let freedom ring from ';
> my $end = 'the mighty mountains of New York.';
> concat_twice($start, $end);
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

When concat_twice terminates, the variable $concatenation is destroyed. If we try to print it, we get an exception:

> say $concatenation;
===SORRY!=== Error while compiling <unknown file>
Variable '$concatenation' is not declared
at <unknown file>:1
------> say <HERE>$concatenation;

Parameters are also scoped to the subroutine. For example, outside print-twice, there is no such thing as $value.

3.10  Stack Diagrams

To keep track of which variables can be used where, it is sometimes useful to draw a stack diagram. Like state diagrams, stack diagrams show the value of each variable, but they also show the function each variable belongs to.

Each function is represented graphically by a frame. A frame is a box with the name of a function beside it and the parameters and variables of the function inside it. The stack diagram for the previous example is shown in Figure ??.

Figure 3.1: Stack diagram.

The frames are arranged in a stack that indicates which function called which, and so on. In this example, print-twice was called by cat_twice, and cat_twice was called by main, which is a special name for the topmost frame. When you create a variable outside of any function, it belongs to main.

Each parameter refers to the same value as its corresponding argument. So, $part1 has the same value as start, $part2 has the same value as $end, and $value has the same value as $cat.

3.11  Fruitful Functions and Void Functions

Some of the functions we have used, such as the math functions, return results and are useful only insofar we use that return value; for lack of a better name, we may call them fruitful functions. Other functions, like print-twice, perform an action but don’t appear to return a value (it does in fact return a value, True, but we don’t care about it). They are sometimes called empty or void functions in some other programming languages.

In some programming languages, such as Pascal or Ada, there is a strong distinction between a function (which returns a value) and a procedure (which doesn’t); they are even defined with different keywords. This distinction does not apply to Perl and to most modern programming languages.

In fact, from a pure syntactic standpoint, Perl functions always return a result. So the distinction between “fruitful” and “void” functions does not really exist syntactically, but only semantically, i.e., from the standpoint of the meaning of the program: maybe we need to use the return value, or maybe we don’t.

Another distinction commonly made is between functions and mutators: functions do not change the initial state of the arguments they were called on, and mutators do modify it. We will not use this distinction here, but it is useful to keep it in mind.

When you call a fruitful function, you almost always want to do something with the result; for example, you might assign it to a variable or use it as part of an expression:

my $height = sin $radians;
my $golden = (sqrt(5) + 1) / 2;

When you call a function in interactive mode (under the REPL), Perl usually displays the result:

> sqrt 5;

But in a script, if you call a fruitful function all by itself, the return value is lost forever! In some cases, the compiler will be able to warn you, but not always. For example, consider the following program:

my $five = 5;
sqrt $five;
say $five;

It produces the following warning:

WARNINGS for /home/Laurent/perl6_tests/sqrt.pl6:
Useless use of "sqrt $five" in expression "sqrt $five" in sink context (line 2)

This script computes the square root of 5, but since it doesn’t store or display the result, it is not very useful.

Void functions might display something on the screen, save some data to a file, modify a variable or an object, or have some other effect, but they generally don’t have a return value, or at least not a useful one. If you assign the result to a variable, you may get the return value of the subroutine, the value of the last expression which was evaluated in the function, or a special value such as Any, which essentially means something that has not been defined, or Nil.

The subroutines we have written so far were essentially printing things to the screen. In that case, they usually return True, at least when the printing was successful. Although they return a true value, what they return isn’t very useful and we can consider them all void for our practical purposes.

The following is an example of a very simple fruitful subroutine:

> sub square($number) { return $number ** 2 }
sub square ($number) { #`(Sub|118134416) ... }
> say square 5;

The Sub|118134416 message displayed by the REPL is just an internal identifier for the subroutine we’ve just defined.

The return statement instructs the function to terminate the execution of the function at this statement and to return the value of the following expression to the caller. In such a simple case where the program is in fact running the last statement of a function, the return keyword can be omitted since the function will return the value of the last evaluated statement, so that the square subroutine could be written this way:

sub square($number) { 
    $number ** 2 

We will be using fruitful functions more intensively in a few chapters.

3.12  Function Signatures

When a function receives arguments, which are stored into parameters, the part of the function definition describing the parameters between parentheses is called the function signature. The function signatures we have seen so far are very simple and consist only of one parameter or possibly a parameter list.

Signatures can provide a lot more information about the parameters used by a function. First, you may define the type of the parameters. Some functions make sense only if their parameters are numeric and should probably raise an error if they get a string that cannot be converted to a numeric value. For example, if you define a function half that computes a value equal to its argument divided by 2, it does not make sense to try to compute half of a string that is not numeric. It could be written as follows:

sub half(Int $number) { 
    return $number / 2 
say half 84; # -> 42

If this function is called with a string, we get the following error:

> say half "Douglas Adams"
===SORRY!=== Error while compiling <unknown file>
Calling half(Str) will never work with declared signature (Int $number)
at <unknown file>:1
------> say <HERE>half "Douglas Adams"

The Int type included in the function signature is a type constraint that can help prevent subtle bugs. In some cases, it can also be an annoyance. Consider this code snippet:

sub half(Int $number) {  $number / 2 }
say half "84"; # -> ERROR

Because the argument to the half subroutine is "84", i.e., a string, this code will fail with a type error. If we had not included the Int type in the signature, the script would have converted (or coerced) the "84" string to a number, divided it by two, and printed out the expected result:

sub half( $number) { $number / 2 }
say half "84"; # -> 42

In some cases, you want this conversion to occur, in others you don’t. It is up to you to decide whether you want strict typing or not, depending on the specific situation and needs. It is probably helpful to use parameter typing in many cases, but it can also become a straitjacket in some situations. Perl 6 lets you decide how strict you want to be about these things.

Our original half subroutine has another limitation: it can work only on integers. But a function halving its argument should presumably be useful for rational or even other numbers. You can use the Real or Numeric types to make the function more general (the difference between the two types is that the Numeric type will accept not only Real but also Complex numbers2). As it turns out that this half function will also work correctly with complex numbers, choosing a Numeric type opens more possibilities:

sub half(Numeric $number) { $number / 2 }
say half(3+4i); # -> 1.5+2i

The following table sums up and illustrates some of the various types we have seen so far.

String"A string", 'Another string', "42"
Integer -3, -2, 0, 2, 42
Rational 1/2, 0.5, 3,14159, 22/7, 42.0
Realπ, pi, √2, e, log42, sin0.7
Complex5.4 + 3i

3.13  Immutable and Mutable Parameters

By default, subroutine parameters are immutable aliases for the arguments passed to the subroutine. In other words, they cannot be changed within the function and you cannot accidentally modify the argument in the caller:

sub plus-three(Int $number) { $number += 3}
my $value = 5;
say plus-three $value; # ERROR: Cannot assign to an immutable value

In some other languages, this behavior is named a “call by value” semantic: loosely speaking, the subroutine receives (by default) a value rather than a variable, and the parameter therefore cannot be modified.

If you want to change the value of the parameter within the subroutine (but without changing the argument in the caller) you can add the is copy trait to the signature:

sub plus-three(Int $number is copy) { $number += 3}
my $value = 5;
say plus-three $value;  # 8
say $value;             # 5 (unchanged)

A trait is a property of the parameter defined at compile time. Here, the $number parameter is modified within the subroutine and the incremented value is returned to the caller and printed as 8, but, within the caller, the variable used as an argument to the function, $value, is not modified (it is still 5).

Although this can sometimes be dangerous, you may also want to write a subroutine that modifies its argument at the caller side. For this, you can use the is rw trait in the signature:

sub plus-three(Int $number is rw) { $number += 3}
my $value = 5;
say plus-three $value;  # 8
say $value;             # 8 ($value modified)

With the is rw trait, the $number parameter is now bound to the $value argument, so that any change made using $number within the subroutine will immediately be applied to $value at the caller side, because $number and $value are just different names for the same thing (they both refer to the same memory location). The argument is now fully mutable.

In some other languages, this is named a “call by reference” parameter passing mechanism, because, in those languages, if you pass to a function a reference (or a pointer) to a variable, then it is possible for the function to modify the variable referred to by the reference.

3.14  Functions and Subroutines as First-Class Citizens

Subroutines and other code objects can be passed around as values, just like any variable, literal, or object. Functions are said to be first-class objects or sometimes first-class citizens or higher-order functions. This means that a Perl function (its code, not the value returned by it) is a value you can assign to a variable or pass around as an argument. For example, do-twice is a subroutine that takes a function as an argument and calls it twice:

sub do-twice($code) {

Here, the $code parameter refers to a function or some other callable code object. This is an example that uses do-twice to call a function named greet twice:

sub greet {
    say "Hello World!";
do-twice &greet;

This will print:

Hello World!
Hello World!

The & sigil placed before the subroutine name in the argument list tells Perl that you are passing around a subroutine or some other callable code object (and not calling the subroutine at the moment).

In fact, it would be more idiomatic to also use the & sigil in the do-twice subroutine definition, to better specify that the parameter is a callable code object:

sub do-twice(&code) {

or even:

sub do-twice(&code) {

The syntax with the & sigil has the benefit that it will provide a better error message if you make a mistake and pass something noncallable to do-twice.

All the functions we have seen so far had a name, but a function does not need to have a name and can be anonymous. For example, it may be stored directly in a scalar variable:

my $greet = sub {
    say "Hello World!";
$greet();               # prints "Hello World"
do-twice $greet;        # prints "Hello World" twice

It could be argued that the above $greet subroutine is not really anonymous, since it is stored into a scalar variable that could in a certain way be considered as its name. But the subroutine really has no name; it just happens to be assigned to a scalar variable. Just to show that the subroutine can really have no name at all, consider this:

do-twice(sub {say "Hello World!"} );

It will happily print "Hello World" twice. If the $do-twice function was declared earlier, you can even simplify the syntax and omit the parentheses:

do-twice sub {say "Hello World!"};

For such a simple case where there is no need to pass an argument or return a value, you can even omit the sub keyword and pass a code block directly to the function:

do-twice {say "Hello World!"};
do-twice {say "what's up doc"};

As you can see, do-twice is a generic subroutine in charge of just performing twice any function or code block passed to it, without any knowledge about what this function or code block is doing. This is a powerful concept for some relatively advanced programming techniques that we will cover later in this book.

Subroutines may also be passed as return values from other subroutines:

> sub create-func ($person) { return sub { say "Hello $person!"}}
# Creating two greeting functions
sub create-func ($person) { #`(Sub|176738440) ... }
> my $greet_world = create-func "World";
sub () { #`(Sub|176738592) ... }
> my $greet_friend = create-func "dear friend";
sub () { #`(Sub|176739048) ... }
# Using the greet functions
> $greet_world();
Hello World!
> $greet_friend();
Hello dear friend!

Here, create-func returns a subroutine greeting someone. It is called twice with two different arguments in order to create two different functions at runtime, $greet_world and $greet_friend. A function such as create-func is sometimes a function factory because you may create as many functions as you like by just calling create-func. This example may seem to be a slightly complicated way of doing something quite simple. At this point, it is just a bit too early to give really useful examples, but this is also a very powerful programming technique.

We’ll come back to these techniques in various places in this book and even devote an entire chapter (chapter ??) to this subject and related topics.

3.15  Why Functions and Subroutines?

It may not be clear why it is worth the trouble to divide a program into functions or subroutines. There are several reasons:

  • Creating a new subroutine gives you an opportunity to name a group of statements, which makes your program easier to read and debug. Subroutines also help making the flow of execution clearer to the reader.
  • Subroutines can make a program smaller by eliminating repetitive code. Later, if you make a change, you only have to make it in one place.
  • Dividing a long program into subroutines allows you to debug the parts one at a time and then assemble them into a working whole.
  • Well-designed subroutines are often useful for many programs. Once you write and debug one, you can reuse it.

  • Creating subroutines is one of the major ways to break up a difficult problem into smaller easier subtasks and to create successive layers of abstraction, which are the key to solve complex problems.

  • Writing good subroutines lets you create black boxes, with a known input and a known output. So you don’t have to think about them anymore when you’re working on something else. They’ve become a tool. Once you’ve assembled an electric screwdriver, you don’t need to think about how it works internally when you use it to build or repair something.
  • In the current open source world, chances are that your code will have to be understood, maintained, or enhanced by people other than you. Coding has become much more of a social activity than before. Breaking up your code into small subroutines whose purpose is easy to understand will make their work easier. And you’ll be even more delighted when the person having to maintain or refactor your code is... you.

3.16  Debugging

One of the most important programming skills you will acquire is debugging. Although it can sometimes be frustrating, debugging is one of the most intellectually rich, challenging, and interesting parts of programming.

In some ways debugging is like detective work. You are confronted with clues and you have to infer the processes and events that led to the results you see.

Debugging is also like an experimental science. Once you have an idea about what is going wrong, you modify your program and try again. If your hypothesis was correct, you can predict the result of the modification, and you take a step closer to a working program. If your hypothesis was wrong, you have to come up with a new one. As Sherlock Holmes pointed out, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” (A. Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four).

In cases where you are not able to come up with a hypothesis on what’s wrong, you can try to introduce code that you expect to create a certain type of error, a “negative hypothesis” if you will. Sometimes you can learn a lot from the fact that it didn’t create the error that was expected. Making a hypothesis does not necessarily mean you have an idea about how to make it work, it could also be a hypothesis on how it should break.

For some people, programming and debugging are the same thing. That is, programming is the process of gradually debugging a program until it does what you want. The idea is that you should start with a working program and make small modifications, debugging them as you go.

For example, Linux is an operating system that contains millions of lines of code, but it started out as a simple program Linus Torvalds used to explore the Intel 80386 chip. According to Larry Greenfield, “One of Linus’s earlier projects was a program that would switch between printing AAAA and BBBB. This later evolved to Linux.” (The Linux Users’ Guide Beta Version 1).

3.17  Glossary

A named sequence of statements that performs some useful operation. Functions may or may not take arguments and may or may not produce a result. Perl comes with many built-in functions, and you can also create your own. In Perl, user-defined functions are often called subroutines.
Function definition
A statement that creates a new function, specifying its name, parameters, and the statements it contains.
The first line of a function definition.
The sequence of statements inside a function definition, usually in a code block delimited by braces.
A name used inside a subroutine to refer to the value passed as an argument.
Function call
A statement that runs a function. It consists of the function name followed by an argument list, which may or may not be enclosed within parentheses.
A value provided to a function when the function is called. This value is assigned to the corresponding parameter in the function.
Lexical variable
A variable defined inside a subroutine or a code block. A lexical variable defined within a function can only be used inside that function.
Return value
The result of a function. If a function call is used as an expression, the return value is the value of the expression.
A special value typically found in variables that haven’t been assigned a value. It is also a special value returned by some functions that we have called “void” (because they return something generally useless such as “Any”).
Also a special value sometimes returned by some “void” subroutines.
A file that contains a collection of related functions and other definitions.
Use statement
A statement that reads a module file and usually imports some functions.
Using an expression as part of a larger expression, or a statement as part of a larger statement.
Flow of execution
The order in which statements run.
Stack diagram
A graphical representation of a stack of subroutines, their variables, and the values they refer to.
A box in a stack diagram that represents a subroutine call. It contains the local variables and parameters of the subroutine.
Fruitful function
A function or subroutine that returns a useful value.
Void function
A function or subroutine that does not return a useful value.
Function signature
The part of the definition of a function (usually between parentheses) that defines its parameters and possibly their types and other properties.
Immutable parameter
A function or subroutine parameter that cannot be changed within the function body. By default, subroutine parameters are immutable.
A property of a function or subroutine parameter that is defined at compile time.
First class object
Perl’s subroutines are said to be higher order objects or first-class objects, because they can be passed around as other subroutines’ arguments or return values, just as any other objects.
Anonymous function
A function that has no name.
Function factory
A function that produces other functions as return values.

3.18  Exercises

Exercise 1  

Write a subroutine named right-justify that takes a string named $input-string as a parameter and prints the string with enough leading spaces so that the last letter of the string is in column 70 of the display.

> right-justify('Larry Wall')
                                                           Larry Wall

Hint: use string concatenation and repetition. Also, Perl provides a built-in function called chars that returns the length of a string, so the value of chars 'Larry Wall' or 'Larry Wall'.chars is 10. Solution: ??.

Exercise 2  

We have seen that functions and other code objects can be passed around as values, just like any object. Functions are said to be first-class objects. For example, do-twice is a function that takes a function as an argument and calls it twice:

sub do-twice($code) {
sub greet {
    say "Hello World!";
  1. Type this example into a script and test it.
  2. Modify do-twice so that it takes two arguments, a function and a value, and calls the function twice, passing the value as an argument.
  3. Copy the definition of print-twice from earlier in this chapter to your script.
  4. Use the modified version of do-twice to call print-twice twice, passing “What’s up doc” as an argument.
  5. Define a new function called do-four that takes a function and a value and calls the function four times, passing the value as a parameter. There should be only two statements in the body of this function, not four.

Solution: ??.

Exercise 3  

Note: This exercise should be done using only the statements and other features we have learned so far.

  1. Write a subroutine that draws a grid like the following:
    + - - - - + - - - - +
    |         |         |
    |         |         |
    |         |         |
    |         |         |
    + - - - - + - - - - +
    |         |         |
    |         |         |
    |         |         |
    |         |         |
    + - - - - + - - - - +

    Hint: to print more than one value on a line, you can print a comma-separated sequence of values:

      say '+', '-';

    The say function prints its arguments with a newline at the end (it advances to the next line). If you don’t want to go to the next line, use the print function instead:

      print '+', ' ';
      print '-';

    The output of these statements is “+ -”.

    A say statement with an empty string argument ends the current line and goes to the next line.

  2. Write a subroutine that draws a similar grid with four rows and four columns.

Solution: ?? .

Credit: this exercise is based on an exercise in Oualline, Practical C Programming, Third Edition, O’Reilly Media, 1997.

We will see rare exceptions to this rule later
 Complex numbers are a powerful concept of mathematics. They are numbers of the form a + bi, where a and b are usual real number and i an imaginary number such that i2 equals −1.

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