Perl Subroutines

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Remarks[edit | edit source]

Subroutines get their arguments to magic variable called @_. While it doesn't have to be unpacked, it's recommended, as it helps readability, and prevents accidental changes as arguments of @_ are passed by reference (can be modified).

Creating subroutines[edit | edit source]

Subroutines are created by using the keyword sub followed by an identifier and a code block enclosed in braces.

You can access the arguments by using the special variable @_, which contains all arguments as an array.

sub function_name {
    my ($arg1, $arg2, @more_args) = @_;
    # ...

Since the function shift defaults to shifting @_ when used inside a subroutine, it's a common pattern to extract the arguments sequentially into local variables at the beginning of a subroutine:

sub function_name {
    my $arg1 = shift;
    my $arg2 = shift;
    my @more_args = @_;
    # ...

# emulate named parameters (instead of positional)
sub function_name {
    my %args = (arg1 => 'default', @_);
    my $arg1 = delete $args{arg1};
    my $arg2 = delete $args{arg2};
    # ...

sub {
    my $arg1 = shift;
    # ...


Alternatively, the experimental feature "signatures" can be used to unpack parameters, which are passed by value (not by reference).

use feature "signatures";

sub function_name($arg1, $arg2, @more_args) {
    # ...

Default values can be used for the parameters.

use feature "signatures";

sub function_name($arg1=1, $arg2=2) {
    # ...

You can use any expression to give a default value to a parameter – including other parameters.

sub function_name($arg1=1, $arg2=$arg1+1) {
    # ...

Note that you can't reference parameters which are defined after the current parameter – hence the following code doesn't work quite as expected.

sub function_name($arg1=$arg2, $arg2=1) {
    print $arg1;  # => <nothing>
    print $arg2;  # => 1

Subroutines[edit | edit source]

Subroutines hold code. Unless specified otherwise, they are globally defined.

# Functions do not (have to) specify their argument list
sub returns_one {
  # Functions return the value of the last expression by default
  # The return keyword here is unnecessary, but helps readability.
  return 1;

# Its arguments are available in @_, however
sub sum {
  my $ret = 0;
  for my $value (@_) {
    $ret += $value
  return $ret;

# Perl makes an effort to make parens around argument list optional
say sum 1..3;     # 6

# If you treat functions as variables, the & sigil is mandatory.
say defined &sum; # 1

Some builtins such as print or say are keywords, not functions, so e.g. &say is undefined. It also does mean that you can define them, but you will have to specify the package name to actually call them

# This defines the function under the default package, 'main'
sub say {
  # This is instead the say keyword
  say "I say, @_";

# you can call it like this: 
main::say('wow'); # I say, wow.


Since Perl 5.18, you can also have non-global functions:

use feature 'lexical_subs';
my $value;
  # Nasty code ahead
  my sub prod {
    my $ret = 1;
    $ret *= $_ for @_;
  $value = prod 1..6; # 720 
  say defined &prod; # 1
say defined &prod; # 0


Since 5.20, you can also have named parameters.

use feature 'signatures';
sub greet($name) {
  say "Hello, $name";

This should not be confused with prototypes, a facility Perl has to let you define functions that behave like built-ins. Function prototypes must be visible at compile time and its effects can be ignored by specifying the & sigil. Prototypes are generally considered to be an advanced feature that is best used with great care.

# This prototype makes it a compilation error to call this function with anything 
# that isn't an array. Additionally, arrays are automatically turned into arrayrefs
sub receives_arrayrefs(\@\@) {
   my $x = shift;
   my $y = shift;

my @a = (1..3);
my @b = (1..4);
receives_arrayrefs(@a, @b);    # okay,   $x = \@a, $y = \@b, @_ = ();
receives_arrayrefs(\@a, \@b);  # compilation error, "Type … must be array …"
BEGIN { receives_arrayrefs(\@a, \@b); }

# Specify the sigil to ignore the prototypes. 
&receives_arrayrefs(\@a, \@b); # okay,   $x = \@a, $y = \@b, @_ = ();
&receives_arrayrefs(@a, @b);   # ok, but $x = 1,   $y = 2,   @_ = (3,1,2,3,4);

Subroutine arguments are passed by reference (except those in signatures)[edit | edit source]

Subroutine arguments in Perl are passed by reference, unless they are in the signature. This means that the members of the @_ array inside the sub are just aliases to the actual arguments. In the following example, $text in the main program is left modified after the subroutine call because $_[0] inside the sub is actually just a different name for the same variable. The second invocation throws an error because a string literal is not a variable and therefore can't be modified.

use feature 'say';

sub edit {
    $_[0] =~ s/world/sub/;

my $text = "Hello, world!";
say $text;      # Hello, sub!

edit("Hello, world!"); # Error: Modification of a read-only value attempted

To avoid clobbering your caller's variables it is therefore important to copy @_ to locally scoped variables (my ...) as described under "Creating subroutines".