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6.20. Matching Abbreviations


Suppose you had a list of commands, such as "send" , "abort" , "list" , and "edit" . The user types one in, but you don't want to make them type out the whole thing.


You can use the following technique if the strings all start with different characters or if you want to arrange the matches so one takes precedence over another, as "SEND" has precedence over "STOP" here:

chomp($answer = <>);
if    ("SEND"  =~ /^\Q$answer/i) { print "Action is send\n"  }
elsif ("STOP"  =~ /^\Q$answer/i) { print "Action is stop\n"  }
elsif ("ABORT" =~ /^\Q$answer/i) { print "Action is abort\n" }
elsif ("LIST"  =~ /^\Q$answer/i) { print "Action is list\n"  }
elsif ("EDIT"  =~ /^\Q$answer/i) { print "Action is edit\n"  }

Or you can use the Text::Abbrev module:

use Text::Abbrev;
$href = abbrev qw(send abort list edit);
for (print "Action: "; <>; print "Action: ") {
    my $action = $href->{ lc($_) };
    print "Action is $action\n";


The first technique switches the typical order of a match. Normally you have a variable on the left side of the match and a known pattern on the right side. We might try to decide which action the user wanted us to take by saying $answer =~ /^ABORT/i , which is true if $answer begins with the string "ABORT" . It matches whether $answer has anything after "ABORT" , so "ABORT LATER" would still match. Handling abbreviations generally requires quite a bit of ugliness: $answer =~ /^A(B(O(R(T)?)?)?)?$/i .

Compare the classic "variable =~ pattern" with "ABORT" =~ /^\Q$answer/i . The \Q escapes any characters that would otherwise be treated as regular expression, so your program won't blow up if the user enters an invalid pattern. When the user enters something like "ab" , the expanded match becomes "ABORT" =~ /^ab/i after variable substitution and metaquoting. This matches.

The standard Text::Abbrev module takes a different approach. You give it a list of words, and it returns a reference to a hash whose keys are all unambiguous abbreviations and whose values are the fully expanded strings. So if $href were created as in the Solution example, $href->{$var} would return the string "abort" .

This technique is commonly used to call a function based on the name of the string the user types in. Do this by using a symbolic reference, like:

$name = 'send';

But that's scary, because it allows the user to run any function in our program, assuming they know its name. It also runs afoul of that pesky use strict 'refs' pragma.

Here's a partial program that creates a hash in which the key is the command name and the value is a reference to the function to call for that command:

# assumes that &invoke_editor, &deliver_message,
# $file and $PAGER are defined somewhere else.
use Text::Abbrev;
my($href, %actions, $errors);
%actions = (
    "edit"  => \&invoke_editor,
    "send"  => \&deliver_message,
    "list"  => sub { system($PAGER, $file) },
    "abort" => sub {
                    print "See ya!\n";
    ""      => sub {
                    print "Unknown command: $cmd\n";

$href = abbrev(keys %actions);

local $_;
for (print "Action: "; <>; print "Action: ") {
    s/^\s+//;       # trim leading  white space
    s/\s+$//;       # trim trailing white space
    next unless $_;
    $actions->{ $href->{ lc($_) } }->();

The last statement could have been written like this if you're not into tight expressions or need practice typing:

$abbreviation = lc($_);
$expansion    = $href->{$abbreviation};
$coderef      = $actions->{$expansion};

See Also

The documentation for the standard Text::Abbrev module (also in Chapter 7 of Programming Perl ); interpolation is explained in the "Scalar Value Constructors" section of perldata (1), and in the "String literals" section of Chapter 2 of Programming Perl