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Tue, 12 Feb 2013

Pattern Matching and Unpacking

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When talking about pattern matching in the context of Perl 6, people usually think about regex or grammars. Those are indeed very powerful tools for pattern matching, but not the only one.

Another powerful tool for pattern matching and for unpacking data structures uses signatures.

Signatures are "just" argument lists:

sub repeat(Str $s, Int $count) {
    #     ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^  the signature
    # $s and $count are the parameters
    return $s x $count

Nearly all modern programming languages have signatures, so you might say: nothing special, move along. But there are two features that make them more useful than signatures in other languages.

The first is multi dispatch, which allows you to write several routines with the name, but with different signatures. While extremely powerful and helpful, I don't want to dwell on them. Look at Chapter 6 of the "Using Perl 6" book for more details.

The second feature is sub-signatures. It allows you to write a signature for a sigle parameter.

Which sounds pretty boring at first, but for example it allows you to do declarative validation of data structures. Perl 6 has no built-in type for an array where each slot must be of a specific but different type. But you can still check for that in a sub-signature

sub f(@array [Int, Str]) {
    say @array.join: ', ';
f [42, 'str'];      # 42, str
f [42, 23];         # Nominal type check failed for parameter '';
                    # expected Str but got Int instead in sub-signature
                    # of parameter @array

Here we have a parameter called @array, and it is followed by a square brackets, which introduce a sub-signature for an array. When calling the function, the array is checked against the signature (Int, Str), and so if the array doesn't contain of exactly one Int and one Str in this order, a type error is thrown.

The same mechanism can be used not only for validation, but also for unpacking, which means extracting some parts of the data structure. This simply works by using variables in the inner signature:

sub head(*@ [$head, *@]) {
sub tail(*@ [$, *@tail]) {
say head <a b c >;      # a
say tail <a b c >;      # b c

Here the outer parameter is anonymous (the @), though it's entirely possible to use variables for both the inner and the outer parameter.

The anonymous parameter can even be omitted, and you can write sub tail( [$, *@tail] ) directly.

Sub-signatures are not limited to arrays. For working on arbitrary objects, you surround them with parenthesis instead of brackets, and use named parameters inside:

multi key-type ($ (Numeric :$key, *%)) { "Number" }
multi key-type ($ (Str     :$key, *%)) { "String" }
for (42 => 'a', 'b' => 42) -> $pair {
    say key-type $pair;
# Output:
# Number
# String

This works because the => constructs a Pair, which has a key and a value attribute. The named parameter :$key in the sub-signature extracts the attribute key.

You can build quite impressive things with this feature, for example red-black tree balancing based on multi dispatch and signature unpacking. (More verbose explanation of the code.) Most use cases aren't this impressive, but still it is very useful to have occasionally. Like for this small evaluator.

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