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Recipe 1.6 Processing a String One Character at a Time

1.6.1 Problem

You want to process a string one character at a time.

1.6.2 Solution

Use split with a null pattern to break up the string into individual characters, or use unpack if you just want the characters' values:

@array = split(//, $string);      # each element a single character
@array = unpack("U*", $string);   # each element a code point (number)

Or extract each character in turn with a loop:

while (/(.)/g) {         # . is never a newline here
        # $1 has character, ord($1) its number

1.6.3 Discussion

As we said before, Perl's fundamental unit is the string, not the character. Needing to process anything a character at a time is rare. Usually some kind of higher-level Perl operation, like pattern matching, solves the problem more handily. See, for example, Recipe 7.14, where a set of substitutions is used to find command-line arguments.

Splitting on a pattern that matches the empty string returns a list of individual characters in the string. This is a convenient feature when done intentionally, but it's easy to do unintentionally. For instance, /X*/ matches all possible strings, including the empty string. Odds are you will find others when you don't mean to.

Here's an example that prints the characters used in the string "an apple a day", sorted in ascending order:

%seen = ( );
$string = "an apple a day";
foreach $char (split //, $string) {
print "unique chars are: ", sort(keys %seen), "\n";
unique chars are:  adelnpy

These split and unpack solutions give an array of characters to work with. If you don't want an array, use a pattern match with the /g flag in a while loop, extracting one character at a time:

%seen = ( );
$string = "an apple a day";
while ($string =~ /(.)/g) {
print "unique chars are: ", sort(keys %seen), "\n";
unique chars are:  adelnpy

In general, whenever you find yourself doing character-by-character processing, there's probably a better way to go about it. Instead of using index and substr or split and unpack, it might be easier to use a pattern. Instead of computing a 32-bit checksum by hand, as in the next example, the unpack function can compute it far more efficiently.

The following example calculates the checksum of $string with a foreach loop. There are better checksums; this just happens to be the basis of a traditional and computationally easy checksum. You can use the standard[1] Digest::MD5 module if you want a more robust checksum.

[1] It's standard as of the v5.8 release of Perl; otherwise, grab it from CPAN.

$sum = 0;
foreach $byteval (unpack("C*", $string)) {
    $sum += $byteval;
print "sum is $sum\n";
# prints "1248" if $string was "an apple a day"

This does the same thing, but much faster:

$sum = unpack("%32C*", $string);

This emulates the SysV checksum program:

# sum - compute 16-bit checksum of all input files
$checksum = 0;
while (<>) { $checksum += unpack("%16C*", $_) }
$checksum %= (2 ** 16) - 1;
print "$checksum\n";

Here's an example of its use:

% perl sum /etc/termcap

If you have the GNU version of sum, you'll need to call it with the —sysv option to get the same answer on the same file.

% sum --sysv /etc/termcap
1510 851 /etc/termcap

Another tiny program that processes its input one character at a time is slowcat, shown in Example 1-1. The idea here is to pause after each character is printed so you can scroll text before an audience slowly enough that they can read it.

Example 1-1. slowcat
  # slowcat - emulate a   s l o w   line printer
  # usage: slowcat [-DELAY] [files ...]
  $DELAY = ($ARGV[0] =~ /^-([.\d]+)/) ? (shift, $1) : 1;
  $| = 1;
  while (<>) {
      for (split(//)) {
          select(undef,undef,undef, 0.005 * $DELAY);

1.6.4 See Also

The split and unpack functions in perlfunc(1) and Chapter 29 of Programming Perl; the use of expanding select for timing is explained in Recipe 3.10

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