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1.2. Establishing a Default Value


You would like to give a default value to a scalar variable, but only if it doesn't already have one. It often happens that you want a hard-coded default value for a variable that can be overridden from the command-line or through an environment variable.


Use the || or ||= operator, which work on both strings and numbers:

# use $b if $b is true, else $c
$a = $b || $c;              

# set $x to $y unless $x is already true
$x ||= $y

If 0 or "0" are valid values for your variables, use defined instead:

# use $b if $b is defined, else $c
$a = defined($b) ? $b : $c;


The big difference between the two techniques (defined and ||) is what they test: definedness versus truth. Three defined values are still false in the world of Perl: 0, "0", and "". If your variable already held one of those, and you wanted to keep that value, a || wouldn't work. You'd have to use the clumsier tests with defined instead. It's often convenient to arrange for your program to care only about true or false values, not defined or undefined ones.

Rather than being restricted in its return values to a mere 1 or 0 as in most other languages, Perl's || operator has a much more interesting property: It returns its first operand (the left-hand side) if that operand is true; otherwise it returns its second operand. The && operator also returns the last evaluated expression, but is less often used for this property. These operators don't care whether their operands are strings, numbers, or references - any scalar will do. They just return the first one that makes the whole expression true or false. This doesn't affect the Boolean sense of the return value, but it does make the operators more convenient to use.

This property lets you provide a default value to a variable, function, or longer expression in case the first part doesn't pan out. Here's an example of ||, which would set $foo to be the contents of either $bar or, if $bar is false, "DEFAULT VALUE":

$foo = $bar || "DEFAULT VALUE";

Here's another example, which sets $dir to be either the first argument to the program or "/tmp" if no argument was given.

$dir = shift(@ARGV) || "/tmp";

We can do this without altering @ARGV:

$dir = $ARGV[0] || "/tmp";

If 0 is a valid value for $ARGV[0], we can't use || because it evaluates as false even though it's a value we want to accept. We must resort to the ternary ("hook") operator:

$dir = defined($ARGV[0]) ? shift(@ARGV) : "/tmp";

We can also write this as follows, although with slightly different semantics:

$dir = @ARGV ? $ARGV[0] : "/tmp";

This checks the number of elements in @ARGV. Using the hook operator as a condition in a ?: statement evaluates @ARGV in scalar context. It's only false when there are 0 elements, in which case we use "/tmp". In all other cases (when the user gives an argument), we use the first argument.

The following line increments a value in %count, using as the key either $shell or, if $shell is false, "/bin/sh".

$count{ $shell || "/bin/sh" }++;

You may chain several alternatives together as we have in the following example. The first expression that returns a true value will be used.

# find the user name on Unix systems
$user = $ENV{USER}
     || $ENV{LOGNAME}
     || getlogin()
     || (getpwuid($<))[0]
     || "Unknown uid number $<";

The && operator works analogously: It returns its first operand if that operand is false; otherwise, it returns the second one. Because there aren't as many interesting false values as there are true ones, this property isn't used much. One use is demonstrated in Recipe 13.11 or 14.11.

The ||= assignment operator looks odd, but it works exactly like the other binary assignment operators. For nearly all Perl's binary operators, $VAR OP= VALUE means $VAR = $VAR OP VALUE; for example, $a += $b is the same as $a = $a + $b. So ||= is used to set a variable when that variable is itself still false. Since the || check is a simple Boolean one - testing for truth - it doesn't care about undefined values even under -w.

Here's an example of ||= that sets $starting_point to "Greenwich" unless it is already set. Again, we assume $starting_point won't have the value 0 or "0", or that if it does, it's okay to change it.

$starting_point ||= "Greenwich";

You can't use or in place of || in assignments because or's precedence is too low. $a = $b or $c is equivalent to ($a = $b) or $c. This will always assign $b to $a, which is not the behavior you want.

Don't extend this curious use of || and ||= from scalars to arrays and hashes. It doesn't work because the operators put their left operand into scalar context. Instead, you must do something like this:

@a = @b unless @a;          # copy only if empty
@a = @b ? @b : @c;          # assign @b if nonempty, else @c

See Also

The || operator in perlop (1) or Chapter 2 of Programming Perl; the defined and exists functions in perlfunc (1) and Chapter 3 of Programming Perl

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