Lists, and Things Made Of Lists

In the post , we talked about how some of Perl's data types are aggregate types, while others are not. We differentiated them as whether the type holds one scalar, or any number of scalars. The scalar data type is not aggregate—it holds but one thing—and arrays and hashes are aggregate.

This post is intended to explain how lists are used in the context of these data types.


Perl's aggregate data types are the array and the hash. Each is constructed from a list. The actual definition of a list covers quite a lot of cases—a lot of ways in which these can be constructed. However, the basic concept of "a list" is pretty simple; it's an ordered sequence of (zero or more) scalars.

When you assign a value to a scalar you usually either populate it with input data or assign it a literal value:

my $input = <>
my $limit = 100;
my $user = 'user';

When you assign a value to an aggregate data type you populate it with a list:

my @lines = <>;
my @days  = ('Mon', 'Tue', 'Wed', 'Thu', 'Fri', 'Sat');
my %colour = (
  red => '#ff0000',
  green => '#00ff00',
  blue => '#0000ff',

A list is a sequence of scalars. The most basic way of constructing a list is with the comma operator.

The Comma Operator

Little did you, the new Perl developer, know, but the humble comma is also an operator like all others. It has low precedence, and its job is to concatenate two lists together. Things are lists when they are in list context.

A common misconception is that parentheses form list context. After all, every time you see a list, you see parentheses! Not strictly true. The parentheses are simply there to make sure the comma operator happens first; it is the context of the whole expression that determines context. Stay with me and I'll try and make it clearer.

To create a list we use the comma operator.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

This fragment of code makes no sense on its own and thus needs some context to make sense. However, it is an expression—it's called that because it returns a value.

Where we use the expression determines the value it returns.

my @array = (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6);

This is the example we're familiar with. The context of the expression is determined by the assignment operator. When we assign to an array, the expression on the right-hand-side of the assignment operator is in list context; thus the comma operator in our expression is in list context, and hence creates a list.

Why the parentheses? This looks perfectly innocuous and, indeed, perfectly legible to any newcomer to Perl:

my @array = 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6;

But that's because the newcomer who reads it is not as educated as you are about to become, and is not aware that the assignment operator = has higher precedence than the comma operator. That means it's evaluated first. That means you get this:

(my @array = 1), 2, 3, 4, 5, 6;

Because you are an honourable and competent Perl developer you have enabled warnings. Thanks to this, you are warned not once but five times that you have "Useless use of a constant in void context".

In the latter example, no comma operator is evaluated in list context, because the assignment operator is evaluated first. It consumes the array (or hash) and the 1, and is then done. The remaining comma operators are then evaluated in void context, which is the context anything is evaluated in when there is no operator or other syntax imposing a different context. Just saying 2 is useless in void context, so Perl tells you you have done it.

In other list contexts, there are already parentheses:

for my $i (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) { ... }

And in some, there is no operator with higher precedence, so we don't need parentheses:

push @array, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6;

In scalar context (remember: this is determined by what you're assigning to), the comma operator will return its right-hand operand. That is to say, if you try to build a list with commas and assign it to a scalar, you will get the last item.

my $scalar = (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6); # $scalar = 6

And of course if you forget the parentheses, the assignment happens first, and you get warnings.

my $scalar = 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; # $scalar = 1

Generally there is no reason to do this.


We didn't mention hashes above, to keep it simple. Hashes are also aggregate data types and are also constructed from lists. However, the most common way of seeing a hash constructed in code is like this:

my %colour = (
  red => '#ff0000',
  green => '#00ff00',
  blue => '#0000ff',
  ...  # etc

What is this? In some languages you will find that there is a specific syntax required to create a hash (or associative array—but that's a ) but in Perl the syntax is merely convenience. There is nothing particularly special about the syntax above; you can construct a hash from any list (but of course you will be warned if you use an odd number of elements, since hashes are paired).

my %colour = (
  'red',  '#ff0000',
  'green', '#00ff00',
  'blue', '#0000ff',
  ...  # etc

This operator => is known as the fat comma, because it has the same effect and precedence as the comma, but it is 2 characters and, hence, fat. Other than that, you'll notice the other difference is that in the first example I didn't have to quote the string keys. The syntactic benefit of the fat comma is that it quotes the bareword to its left for you, which covers the majority of cases, and means you only have to quote keys that don't look like identifiers.

But, ultimately, you have still created a list. You still have to use parentheses, and as we will learn further down, you can construct the hash by using anything that returns a list.


Yes. We use this term when we give a variable a value. We might say we use this term when we create a new variable, but of course we can reconstruct an existing variable at any time.

When we declare a new array or hash but don't perform an assignment at the same time, we are implicitly constructing it from an empty list.

my @array;        # These two
my @array = ();   # are equivalent
my @array = 1 .. 5;            # These two are
my @array = (1, 2, 3, 4, 5);   # also equivalent

Constructing a hash does impose the requirement that the provided list be even in length, or else a warning will be generated. Otherwise, there is no special requirement to constructing a hash.

my %hash;        # These two
my %hash = ();   # are equivalent
my %hash = 1 .. 6;               # These two are
my %hash = (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6);   # also equivalent
my %hash = ( 'a', 1, 'b', 2 );   # And these two are 
my %hash = ( a => 1, b => 2 );   # also equivalent

List Unpacking

List unpacking is the principle of doing what you just did, but with a list on the left hand side of the assignment operator as well as the right.

Just to confuse you, parentheses on the left hand side of the assignment operator do create list context.

List unpacking takes sequential items from the source list, and assigns them in order into the scalar or aggregate values in the destination. This example involves just scalars:

my ($first, $second) = @days;

In this example, the rest of @days is ignored if it is more than 2 items long. $first and $second get undef if @days is not long enough to populate them. Using our example from earlier we will expect $first and $second to have 'Mon' and 'Tue' in them, respectively.

This next example uses one scalar and one aggregate. If any of the items on the left is an array, it gobbles up all the rest of the list on the right.

my ($mon, @tue_to_sun) = @days;

That means this doesn't work:

my ($mon, @tue_to_sat, $sun) = @days;

While the Perl hackers could feasibly make this work, there are logical problems that are essentially unsolvable. Since Perl uses the concept of DWIM as much as possible, it is better to avoid trying to make this work than to make it not do what you meant.

Logically, this brings us back to the copying of an array that we've seen before, simply by not using that scalar:

my (@days_copy) = @days;

Because the @days_copy puts the assignment operator in list context anyway, we can lose the parentheses, and we're back to square one.

You can also swap existing variables around using the same syntax. Here's an example that makes sure $x is always greater than (or equal to) $y:

if ( $y > $x ) {
  ($x, $y) = ($y, $x);

This list unpacking idea is usually used to fetch the parameters to a function out of the special array @_. We'll see that later.


The fact that most newcomers to Perl don't immediately grasp is that whenever a list is required, either an array or hash can be used in its place. Both an array and a hash, used as a list, will yield their contents as such a list. Being unordered, the list you get out of a hash may not be in the same order as the list you put into the hash, but it'll have the same contents, and the pairs will maintain their association.

In that vein, all of the following are valid, albeit of debatable usefulness.

my @dirs = ('.', '..', '/', '/home');
my %pointless_hash = @dirs;
my @dirs_copy = @dirs;
my @hash_pairs = %pointless_hash;
my @useless_variable = (@dirs, @hash_pairs, @dirs);
my $count = @dirs;   # You know about this of course

push @dirs, @dirs;
push @dirs, %pointless_hash;

for my $item (@dirs) { ... }
for my $key_or_value (%pointless_hash) { ... }

for my $item ('/opt', @dirs, 1, 2, 3, 
@hash_pairs, %pointless_hash, $count) {

Both the aggregate data types simply become a list again when you use them as lists. Of course, a scalar becomes a list as well when you use it as a list:

my $cur_dir = '.';
my @dirs_to_scan = $cur_dir;

In the previous example you can see the comma operator being used with scalars, literals (also scalar, of course), arrays and hashes, all at once. Although a confusing and contrived example, it endeavours to show that the aggregate data types can be used in any list situation and will behave consistently; i.e., as a list of the scalars they contain.

The Compound Data Structure Confusion

All this helps to explain the confusion of newcomers to Perl when it comes to trying to create complex data structures, which is when they don't use references to make hashes or arrays of hashes or arrays.

With this new-found knowledge, it should be clear what is wrong with the following code:

my @dirs = ('.', '..', '/', '/home');
my %options = (
  dirs => @dirs

Of course the hash constructor is a list. The fat comma => is just a normal comma with style, and the array is just an array! It's in list context, so it behaves consistently—i.e. just as we've seen it behave so far.

The above hash assignment is exactly equivalent to this:

my %options = (
  'dirs', '.', '..', '/', '/home'

... which is a 5-element list—which is a warning, as we already know. This problem is solved by the use of references, which would turn, in this example, @dirs into a single scalar, essentially wrapping up the whole array as a single value in the list.

Other List Constructors

The comma operator is not the only way of constructing a list. The range operator .. constructs a list of all numbers between two integers, or all alphabetically sequential strings between two strings of a particular length.

my @array = 1 .. 6;
my %hash = 1 .. 6;
my @letters = 'a' .. 'z';

The qw operator makes a list of strings by splitting on whitespace:

my @animals = qw/cat mouse dog rat monkey/;
my %genus = qw/
  cat felis
  dog canis
  mouse mus
use Module qw/this is a list as well/;

Note that none of these list constructors requires parentheses—because there isn't a comma in the syntax. You can use parentheses—qw()—but that is the syntax of the qw operator, and not treated as actual parentheses at all.

keys and values

A hash is an aggregate data structure that is paired. Half of its scalars are keys, and the other half are the values associated with those keys.

You can query the hash for either list separately from the other. Both keys and values return a list.

my %colour = (
  red   => '#ff0000',
  green => '#00ff00',
  blue  => '#0000ff',
my @colour_names = keys %colour;
my @colour_hexes = values %colour;

for my $colour_name ( keys %colour ) {
  my $hex = $colour{$colour_name};

As long as you don't change the hash, both keys and values will return the list in the same order—that is to say, if you were to interleave them again, the pairs would match up.

map, grep and sort

These three operators act on lists and return another list. Everything you have seen up to now applies to both the list you input, and the list you get back.

That is to say, wherever you use a list, you can use map, grep or sort on that list instead.

my $dir = '.';
opendir my $dirh, $dir;
my @files = readdir $dirh; #all files

# loop all files
for my $file ( @files ) {...} 

# loop some files
for my $file ( grep { $_ !~ /\.\.?/ } @files ) {...} 

# loop files in alphabetical order
for my $file ( sort @files ) {...} 

# loop files without their extensionsF<4>
for my $file ( map { s/\..+$//r } @files ) {...} 

We can use @files as a list directly; or we can perform a sort, map or grep on it to return a different list. sort alters order of the elements; map alters the elements themselves; and grep reduces the number of elements.

Since everything at this point is a list, you can chain them together.

for my $file ( sort map { s/\..+$//r } grep { $_ !~ /\.\.?/ } @files ) { ... }

The input list for sort is the output list of map; the input list to map is the output list from grep; and the input list to grep is the list you get by using an array in list context.


Now that we've seen lots of different uses of lists, arrays and hashes in list context, and we've seen a few different ways of constructing them,we can tackle the final confusion of newcomers to Perl: function arguments.

When you pass arguments to a function they appear in the special array @_ inside the function. Let's look at how we call a function.

sub add {
  my ($x, $y) = @_;
  return $x + $y;

add 1, 2;  # returns 3

The parameter list to a function is in list context. It is a parameter , after all. The parameters to the add function above are 1 and 2. Look familiar? It's the comma operator in list context, creating a list out of the scalars 1 and 2. There are no parentheses because they are optional for function calls in Perl; there is no other operator on this line, so we don't need to override the precedence of the comma operator like we did at the start of the post when constructing aggregates.

Since the parameter list is Just A List this means everything we've talked about so far also applies.

sub add {   
  my ($x, $y) = @_;
  return $x + $y; 

my @numbers = (1, 2); 
add @numbers;  # returns 3

The array @numbers is used as a list because it is in list context, and hence its values are sent into the function and appear, as usual, in @_.

This, therefore, explains how you can do things like this:

sub cat_noise {
  my %options = @_;

  if ($options{meow}) {
    say $options{meow};
  else {
    say "Meow.";

my %opts = qw/ meow purr /; 
cat_noise( %opts );

I put parentheses in here for clarity, but let's reduce this hideously contrived example using the rules we've already mapped out so far.

First, we know that the traditional way of constructing a hash, with =>, is just a tidy way of constructing a list. So a hash is just constructed from a list.

We also learned that qw is an operator that creates a list by splitting on whitespace, and can use any character to delimit its argument. This time we chose /. This, therefore, is what Perl sees:

my %opts = ('meow', 'purr');

We then send %opts into cat_noise. Again, we've seen that if you use a hash where a list is expected, a list is what you get. So Perl unpacks the hash again and sends the resulting list to cat_noise:

cat_noise( 'meow', 'purr' );

Inside cat_noise, the first thing we do is unpack the list provided by @_ into an aggregate data type—a hash called %options. Then %options is the basis for the body of the function, wherein we check for the existence of the meow key, and say its value if it exists, and "Meow." if not.

We can see therefore that the way we pass a hash into a function is to use it as a list, and then convert it back into a hash by using @_ as a list. Some people advocate passing this as a hash ref so that you avoid constructing a new hash, which is theoretically slightly faster.

More Common Examples

A hash from a map

Sometimes you may see a construct like this:

my %uniq = map { ($_ =&gt; 1) } @array;
my @array_uniq = keys %uniq;

What is happening here? As we know, map returns a list and you construct a hash from a list. map also accepts a list, and you can use an array as a list too. In the block we give to map, we actually also return a list—a 2-item list. That means that the list we get out of map will have 2 items for every 1 item we put into it. That one item is represented by the $_, and the second item is simply 1.

So if @array were a list of colours:

my @array = qw( red green blue yellow red );

Then Perl would create a 2-item list for each of these, and our output would be:

( red => 1, green => 1, blue => 1, yellow => 1, red => 1 );

And so we create the hash:

my %uniq = ( red => 1, green => 1, blue => 1, yellow => 1, red => 1 );

Since the key 'red' is repeated, the latter is accepted as the de facto pairing—not that it matters because both values are 1—but 'red' still only appears once in the hash (because keys are unique).

Now if we run keys on it, we get back a list that contains the unique elements of the original @array

my @array_uniq = keys %uniq; # red, green, blue, yellow

Default options

That leads us onto this:

my %opts = (%defaults, %options);

This ought to now be clear. Both hashes are expanded to their representative lists; the contents of the %options hash must come after the contents of the %defaults hash. That means their values take precedence, and any missing values in %options are still in the list because of %defaults.

Further Considerations

Left as an exercise to the reader are the ideas of building an array bit-by-bit and using that as a function parameter list, and of returning a list from a function and using that as another function's parameter list.

Having seen what happens when you try to put an array or a hash into another array or hash—the list-flattening effect—you should now read . These are the mechanism by which the entire array or hash can be stored as a single scalar, thus providing the logical boundaries between the list that is in the array, and the list that is in the sub-array. Or hash.

The technically-minded may wish to now read about , being a way of changing the way Perl understands the parameter list you provide. The curious reader should be aware that prototypes are not a general tool, and can cause much confusion and inconsistency in the way you and others expect things to work if they are misused.
1 It may confuse you to see that 1; is often used to return from functions and, indeed, from modules. Note that functions are evaluated in the context of where they are called, which means this could be evaluated in a non-void context. Therefore, you do not get a warning about that. This is true of modules too, which is why you can use any true value as the module's return value.
1 In fact you don't get a warning about 1; because 0 and 1 are exempt from this warning (see ). However, the warning does apply to all other constants, including strings.
1 If you don't use the parentheses you get scalar context when assigning to a scalar, and the comma on the left suffers the same problems as it did before, i.e. the precedence is wrong. If the item immediately before the equals sign is a scalar, you get scalar context, which is the last element when you use the comma operator: my $x = (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6); # x = 6
1 The /r in the substitution here (s///r) is introduced in Perl 5.14, and is used to return the altered string instead of altering the actual string. Prior to 5.14, you can do this by applying the regex to a copy of the string: map { (my $x = $_) =~ s/\..+$//; $x } LIST
1 Function prototypes are out of the scope of this post.