Ruby: On The Perl Origins Of “&&” And “||” Versus “and” And “or”.

Overview

Avdi Grimm has a recent post noting the use of “and” and “or” Ruby keywords as essentially control flow operators, and hinting on their Perl origins. This instantly recalled several mental notes of old Perl programs, so I though I’d put out a few quick notes on the Perl equivalents for Ruby programmers not versed in Perl 5.

Perl Semantics

Perl actually borrows the precedence rules of “&&” and “||” from C, though I’m not entirely convinced the Perl and Ruby semantics of “and” and “or” are identical. We have to remember that Larry Wall is a linguist, and that some of Perl’s idiosyncrasies are due more to human considerations than machine. Programming Perl has several pages of great content on “and” and “or”. For example, here’s an excerpt from the circa 2000 version of Programming Perl:

But you can’t just up and replace instances of || with or. Suppose you change this:

$xyz = $x || $y || $z;

to this:

$xyz = $x or $y or $z; # WRONG

That wouldn’t do the same thing at all! The precedence of the assignment is higher than “or” but lower than ||, so it would always assign $x to $xyz, and then do the ors. To get the same effect as ||, you’d have to write:

$xyz = ($x or $y or $z);

The moral of the story is that you must still learn precedence (or use parentheses) no matter which variety of logical operator you use.

What Avdi says about precedence and control flow seems correct, though the reasons for it–in Perl at least–is to differentiate between two subtly distinct human linguistic semantics. For example, consider the following two English statements.

  1. I’m either traveling by car or just staying home.
  2. I’m either traveling by car or by train.

At first glance the semantics seem identical, but on closer inspection they are completely different. Let’s look at each.

I’m either traveling by car or just staying home.

In Perl, this is the equivalent of:

$traveling_by_car = can_use_car($me) or stay_home($me);

The semantics of or is to describe consequence (aka control flow) in a specific order. Either I’m traveling_by_car(), or else screw the whole thing and I’ll just stay_home() instead, in which case it makes little difference what the value of $traveling_by_car is. In other words, the semantics of the assignment trump that of the consequence, and should the consequence occur (which in this case probably has side effects), the assignment probably doesn’t matter. This is why Perl users often use or in the following context instead of ||:

open FOO, $file or die “a horrible death: $!”;
@lines = <FOO> or die “$file is empty?”;

I’m either traveling by car or by train.

In English, this is a misleading statement of truth for several reasons.

  1. What we mean is that one of the two options is true, but one and only one. As programmers we know this better as an xor statement–A is true if and only if B is false, and vice versa–but since there is no colloquial English equivalent of xor, we instinctively infer the meaning from the speakers misstatement.
  2. As programmers we tend to look at || as a short-circuit operator evaluated left to right. But this English statement defines no explicit evaluation order. This could have been written “I’m either traveling by train or by car” (notice “car” and “train” are reversed), but it means the same thing. In other words, we are evaluating the arguments for truth, not consequence. Thus, order should not affect truth.

Closing Thoughts

In most real-world Ruby contexts these operators will work interchangeably so long as precedence order is considered. But even so, keep in mind that mixing the two styles in different contexts is not necessarily a sign of inconsistency. Using the appropriate operator may actually be a sign of maturity: a way of communicating slightly different semantics in an otherwise logically equivalent context.