Perl on the command line (part 2)

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Our last tip discussed many of the common command line switches in Perl: -e, -E, -p, -n, and -M. In this tip we'll discuss some of the other switches you can use.

In-place switch (-i)

Perl can be used to edit a file ``in place''. This means you don't need to handle making your changes to a temporary file and then renaming it.

        perl -i -pe 's/freind/friend/' file
        perl -i.old -pe 's/freind/friend/' file

Using -i on its own edits the file in place, overwriting the original version. This can be dangerous, as a bug in your program can result in data-loss, and if your program terminates unexpectedly your file can be left in an inconsistent state.

A better solution is to provide an argument to the switch: -i.old. This creates a backup copy of the original file file.old and then overwrites the original upon successful completion of your program.

This is equivalent to:

        mv file file.old
        perl -pe 's/freind/friend/' file.old > file

If the backup file contains an asterisk, then it is replaced with the current filename. This allows you to add a prefix instead of a suffix if needed. For example:

        perl -i'badly_spelled_*' -e's/freind/friend/' file

would create a backup called badly_spelled_file. You can get fancy and place the asterisk in the middle of the backup name, or even have multiple asterisks if you prefer.


If your operating system or file-system does not allow an opened file to be removed, then you must specify a backup extension when using -i. In particular, Windows systems always require an extension.

Autosplit switch (-a)

-a is Perl's autosplit switch. When using autosplit (with -n or -p), Perl automatically does a split on whitespace and assigns the result to the @F variable.

Let's say that we want to parse the output of ls -l from a Unix system. It consists of a series of lines in the following format:

        -rw-r--r--  1 pjf pjf   10201 Jul 17 13:52 command.pod
        -rw-r--r--  1 pjf pjf   17739 Jul 17 15:51 command.sgml
        -rw-r--r--  1 pjf pjf 1320760 Jul 18 14:57
        -rw-r--r--  1 pjf pjf    2010 Jul 14 17:31 sysadmin.sgml

If we want to print all lines which have a file-size greater than 1MB we could use:

        ls -l  | perl -ane 'print if $F[4] > 1_000_000;'

Note that Perl always counts fields starting from zero. The above code run over our sample input would display the single line:

        -rw-r--r--  1 pjf pjf 1320760 Jul 18 14:57

The above Perl code is equivalent to:

        while (<>) {
                our @F = split(" ", $_, 0);
                print if $F[4] > 1_000_000;

Passing 0 as a final argument to split means that empty fields are simply discarded; the effect of this is that any sequence of space characters is considered a separator. The -F switch can also be used to specify an alternative pattern on which to split.


Parsing the results of ls -l to get file information is not a recommended way to gain information about files. It's both slow and prone to error. A better way is to use glob and Perl's in-built stat function, or file test operators.

You might use an example similar to the above if you were parsing the output of ls that has been stored in a file.

Other switches

Perl has many other switches. Below are some others you are probably familiar with.

Check switch (-c)

        perl -c

-c causes Perl to check the program for syntactic errors and to exit without executing the main body of code. Code in BEGIN and CHECK blocks, as well as use lines will still be executed.

Warnings switch (-w)

        perl -w

The -w switch runs your program with warnings turned on. Running with warnings helps catch common mistakes, and is highly recommended.

Taint switch (-T)

        perl -T

Turns on taint mode. Any input from outside the program must be cleaned before being used to cause effects outside the program. For example data received from a user must be cleaned before being passed as an argument to a system call.

We cover taint in another tip and also in our Perl Security course notes.

Debugging switch (-d)

        perl -d

Runs the program under the Perl debugger. You can learn more about the Perl debugger by using perldoc perldebug

Include switch (-I)

        perl -I/home/pjf/perl/lib/

Specifies which additional directories should be searched when looking for modules. This modifies Perl's special @INC variable. For full programs you should use the lib pragma instead.

Further information

For more information on these switches read perldoc perlrun.

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