In this article we are going to see how we can sort an array of strings or numbers in Perl.

Perl has a built-in function called sort that can, unsurprisingly, sort an array. In its most simple form, you just give it an array, and it returns the elements of that array in a sorted order. @sorted = sort @original.

Sort based on ASCII order

#!/usr/bin/perl
use strict;
use warnings;
use 5.010;

use Data::Dumper qw(Dumper);

my @words = qw(foo bar zorg moo);

say Dumper \@words;

my @sorted_words = sort @words;

say Dumper \@sorted_words;

The above example will print

$VAR1 = [
        'foo',
        'bar',
        'zorg',
        'moo'
      ];

$VAR1 = [
        'bar',
        'foo',
        'moo',
        'zorg'
      ];

The first output shows the array before sorting, the second output after sorting.

This is the most simple case, but it is not always what you want. For example, what happens if some of the words start with an upper case letter?

my @words = qw(foo bar Zorg moo);

The result in @sorted_words is going to be:

$VAR1 = [
        'Zorg',
        'bar',
        'foo',
        'moo'
      ];

As you can see, the word that starts with an upper-case letter became first. That's because sort, by default, sorts according to the ASCII table, and all the upper case letters are located earlier than the lower case letters.

Comparison function

The way sort works in Perl is, that it goes over every two elements of the original array; In every turn it puts the value from the left side into the variable $a, and the value on the right side in the variable $b. Then it calls a comparison function. That "comparison function" will return 1 if the content of $a should be on the left, -1 if the content of $b should be on the left, or 0 if it does not matter as the two values are the same.

By default you don't see this comparison function and sort compares the values according to the ASCII table, but if you want, you can write it explicitly:

sort { $a cmp $b } @words;

This code will provide the exact same result as the one without the block: sort @words.

Here you can see that, by default, perl uses cmp in the comparison function. That's because cmp is doing exactly what we need here. It compares the values on its two sides as strings, returns 1 if the left argument is "less than" the right argument; returns -1 if the left argument is "greater than" the right argument; and returns 0 if they are the same.

Sorting in alphabetical order

If you want to disregard the case in the strings - what is usually called alphabetical order - you can do so as given in the next example:

my @sorted_words = sort { lc($a) cmp lc($b) } @words;

Here, for the sake of comparison, we call the lc function that returns the lower case version of its argument. Then cmp compares those lower case versions and decides which of the original strings must go first and which second.

The result is

$VAR1 = [
        'bar',
        'foo',
        'moo',
        'Zorg'
      ];

Sorting numbers in Perl

If we take an array of numbers and sort them with the default sorting, the result is probably not what we are expecting.

my @numbers = (14, 3, 12, 2, 23);
my @sorted_numbers = sort @numbers;
say Dumper \@sorted_numbers;

$VAR1 = [
        12,
        14,
        2,
        23,
        3
      ];

If you think about it, of course, this is not surprising. When the comparison function sees 12 and 3 it compares them as strings. That means comparing the first character in both strings. "1" to "3". "1" is ahead of "3" in the ASCII table and thus the string "12" will come before the string "3".

Perl does not magically understand that you want to order these values as numbers.

No problem though as we can write a comparison function that will compare the two values as numbers. For that we use the <=> (also called spaceship operator) that will compare its two parameters as numbers and return 1, -1 or 0.

my @sorted_numbers = sort { $a <=> $b } @numbers;

Results in:

$VAR1 = [
        2,
        3,
        12,
        14,
        23
      ];

For other interesting examples see how we can sort mixed strings.