Two Perl documentation time-savers

If you are a Perl developer and you only think of perldoc as the command that formats embedded POD (Plain Old Documentation) and lets you read it like a man page, you’re missing two huge time-savers this versatile command can give you.

Function documentation

Suppose you’re programming and you’ve forgotten the exact return values of localtime(). What do you do?

  • Get out your Camel book, open it to the alphabetical function reference, and hunt for localtime (it’s on page 738 and took me 15 seconds to find, but I got lucky and found the right page with only four flips).
  • Open your web browser and go to the online Perl documentation, click, click, click, there it is (took another 15 seconds, but my browser was already open).
  • Open a terminal and type man perlfunc, type /localtime, and press ‘n’ four times (8 seconds).

If you do any of the above, you’re missing a shortcut that works for any of Perl’s built-in functions:

  • Type perldoc -f localtime.

This command extracts the localtime section from the perlfunc man page and shows it to you. Elapsed time: a second or two.

Perl FAQs

If you haven’t used the Perl FAQs, you’re missing a treasure trove of answers to just about any question you might have about Perl. (Sometimes I have what I think is an obscure question, and it’s in the FAQ; I have begun to doubt that these questions are all frequently asked).

How do I prompt the user for a password? How do I write a switch statement? How do I convert from textual date-time formats back to a UNIX timestamp?

These questions and hundreds more are in the FAQ. To get to them, you can type man perlfaq, which is just an index into the detailed FAQ pages, and search for a keyword, such as “switch.” When you find it, you can scroll up a few pages and see it’s in Perl FAQ 7, General Perl Language Issues. Now you can quit this FAQ page and type man perlfaq7, then search again for “switch.”

By this time you’re probably asking “how is this a timesaver, with all those steps just to get to the answer?” It took me 15 seconds to do. Compared to a Google search and reading through things that make it sound like I’ll need to upgrade my Perl or download some CPAN module, it is a timesaver, but you can do even better.

Try typing perldoc -q switch. Oooh, is that neat or what? It searches the FAQ pages and pulls out any entries that match your term. Elapsed time: a second or two.


Documentation is one of Perl’s greatest strengths, but knowing how to use it well is even better.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go write some Perl :-)

I'm Baron Schwartz, the founder and CEO of VividCortex. I am the author of High Performance MySQL and many open-source tools for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. I contribute to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB.