Recipe 4.3 Changing Array Size

4.3.1 Problem

You want to enlarge or truncate an array. For example, you might truncate an array of employees that's already sorted by salary to list the five highest-paid employees. Or, if you know how big your array will get and that it will grow piecemeal, it's more efficient to grab memory for it in one step by enlarging just once than to keep pushing values onto the end.

4.3.2 Solution

Assign to $#ARRAY :

# grow or shrink @ARRAY

Assigning to an element past the end automatically extends the array:


4.3.3 Discussion

$#ARRAY is the number of the last valid index in @ARRAY. If we assign it a number smaller than its current value, we truncate the array. Truncated elements are lost forever. If we assign $#ARRAY a number larger than its current value, the array grows. New elements have the undefined value.

$#ARRAY is not @ARRAY, though. Although $#ARRAY is the last valid index in the array, @ARRAY (in scalar context, as when treated as a number) is the number of elements. $#ARRAY is one less than @ARRAY because array indices start at 0.

Here's some code that uses both. We have to say scalar @array in the print because Perl gives list context to (most) functions' arguments, but we want @array in scalar context.

sub what_about_that_array {
    print "The array now has ", scalar(@people), " elements.\n";
    print "The index of the last element is $#people.\n";
    print "Element #3 is `$people[3]'.\n";

@people = qw(Crosby Stills Nash Young);
what_about_that_array( );


The array now has 4 elements.
The index of the last element is 3.
Element #3 is `Young'.


what_about_that_array( );


The array now has 3 elements.
The index of the last element is 2.
Element #3 is `'.

Element #3 disappeared when we shortened the array. If we'd turned on warnings (either with the -w command-line option to Perl or with use warnings inside the program), Perl would also have warned "use of uninitialized value" because $people[3] is undefined.

$#people = 10_000;
what_about_that_array( );


The array now has 10001 elements.
The index of the last element is 10000.
Element #3 is `'.

The "Young" element is now gone forever. Instead of assigning to $#people, we could have said:

$people[10_000] = undef;

although this isn't exactly the same. If you have a three-element array, as in:

@colors = qw(red blue green);

and you undef its last element:

undef $colors[2];        # green is gone

you still have a three-element array; its last element is just undefined. If you pop the array, either via the function or manually by changing $#colors:

$last_color = $colors[ $#colors-- ];

then the array grows shorter by one element.

Perl arrays are not sparse. In other words, if you have a 10,000th element, you must have the 9,999 other elements, too. They may be undefined, but they still take up memory. For this reason, $array[time( )], or any other construct that uses a very large integer as an array index, is a really bad idea. Use a hash instead.

4.3.4 See Also

The discussion of the $#ARRAY notation in perldata(1), also explained in the "List Values and Arrays" section of Chapter 2 of Programming Perl