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Beautifiers and syntax highlighters

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Prettyprinting is a weak side of Perl: syntax is too complex. There are several approaches to this problem:

***** DzSoft Perl Editor   by Sergey Dzyubenko, Alexander Dzyubenko, DzSoft Ltd.

The idea of using  C beautifier for Perl
by preprocessing Perl into the form useable for C beautifier

This is an interesting idea which probably should be exploited further.  It was first published by Tim Maher in Jul, 1998] (Perl Beautifier Home Page - Google Groups)

See  the description from his now defunct  Web page A Beautifier for Perl

Note: the site is not defunct and domain was bought by  domain-grabber.

But I figured it could not be as difficult as this makes it sound. For one thing, Perl knows how to parse Perl programs, and the Perl source code is freely available, so Perl could conceivably be reworked into a Perl beautifier.

Alternatively, the GNU source code for the popular C language beautifier "indent" is also available, so another approach would be to rework its 7k lines of C to handle the Perl language.

But I knew there was an easier approach, that would not require reworking anybody else's existing code, or the use of a language other than Perl. I knew this because my quest for beauty had already led me to write a rudimentary C++ beautifier in a three command (sed | indent| sed) shell script (UNIX/World, August 1991, p. 134.), and later a more robust C++ beautifier in 140 lines of C and shell code (Dr. Dobbs' Journal, Dec. 1992, pp. 23s-27s).

These beautifiers certainly don't qualify as "standalone parsers" for C++, because they don't classify the program elements into meaningful units. But that doesn't prevent them from doing for C++ everything that indent and cb do for C! The trick is realizing that programs written in Language B can be successfully processed by beautifiers for Language A, if Language B bears a syntactic similarity to Language A, and if the Language B program can be temporarily disguised as Language A.

So with this C++ beautification experience under my belt, and a stubborn determination to prove that "Perl Beautification" could be accomplished if sufficient Hubris, Impatience, and Laziness could be mustered, I began writing in Perl the first fully functional "Perl Beautifier", pbeaut,   in April of 1998 [1].

Beautification Strategy

As with its C++ predecessors, I approached the problem of writing pbeaut by capitalizing on the existence of mature beautification utilities for the C language, which has some fortunate syntactic similarities to Perl, and milking the UNIX filter model for all it's worth.

The basic approach, borrowed from my C++ beautifiers, is to use a pre-processor to disguise Perl code as C code, effect the beautification using standard C tools, and then convert the disguised Perl back to its original form using a post-processor.

The basic model is therefore:

Here is a listing of the first pbeaut program:

The encoder, pencode, examines every character of the Perl program, from first to last, and rewrites certain character sequences as necessary to disguise the Perl code as C.

The C beautifier, in this case GNU indent, inserts tabs to properly represent nesting levels, aligns parentheses and braces, inserts newline characters to split long lines into shorter ones, and generally fools around with the layout of the code to make it look more orderly and to emphasize the program's structure.

The decoder, pdecode, undoes the disguises crafted by pencode to reveal the hidden Perl program elements in their newly beautified context.

The current "production" version of pbeaut (version .62; 412 lines of code) communicates various types of information to and from the encoder and decoder and does extensive error checking, but its basic function is the same as the simple version shown above.

De-Obfuscation Testing

Where should one look to find the ugliest Perl code on the planet? Why the archives of past Obfuscated Perl Contests, of course, where contestants are rewarded for making their programs as inscrutable as possible (

In this section, we'll examine the effects on Perl programs of C-style beautification using indent, as well as Perl-style beautification using pbeaut.

Here's a prize-winning entry from the 1996 contest:

After beautification with indent, it looks like this:

$ indent -npro -br -nce -npcs  < caton  # -br: brace on line with keyword
#F. First place: Russell Caton
$ -= 100;
while ((($ @) = (getpwent())[2])) {
        push(@@, $ @);
        $a <=> $b
        @@) {
        (($_  <= $ -) || ($_  == ($ - +++1))) ? next : die "$-\n";

Perhaps surprisingly, the program layout looks pretty good, owing to the fact that Perl inherited many of its basic features from C (brace-delimited blocks, &&/|| conjunctions, semicolon line-termination, operator syntax, etc.).

On the other hand, the representations of two variables ( $- , $@ ) were altered by the insertion of a space between the symbols. Does this bother Perl?

It doesn't bother Perl a bit! The program still produces the next available number from the /etc/passwd file (or NIS database). However, having the depictions of those variables messed up is definitely likely to annoy most (non-obfuscatory) Perl programmers!

After beautification with pbeaut, the program looks like this:

As you can see, the preservation of variable names has been achieved, along with a much more Perlish representation of the foreach loop.

Here's another unattractive winning entry from the 1996 contest:

Let's try beautifying this one with indent:

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[Jan 19, 2011] pb


# 'pb' Perl Beautifier

# Written by P. Lutus Ashland, Oregon [email protected] 5/20/96

# This script processes Perl scripts, cleans up and indents, like cb does for C

# Be careful with this script - it accepts wildcards and processes every text file
# that meets the wildcard criteria. This could be a catastrophe in the hands of the unwary.

$tabstring = "  "; # You may place any tab-stop characters you want here

if($ARGV[0] eq "") {
  print "usage: file1 file2 etc. or wildcards (replaces originals in place)\n";
else {
  foreach $filename (@ARGV) {
    if(-T $filename) {

sub process {
  $fn = $_[0];
  undef $/; # so we can grab the entire file at once
  undef @infa; # prevent left-overs
  print STDERR "$fn";
  open (INFILE,$fn);
  @infa = split(/\n/,<INFILE>);
  close INFILE;
  $/ = "\n"; # restore default
  open (OUTFILE,">$fn");
  $tabtotal = 0;
  for (@infa) {
    s/^\s*(.*?)\s*$/$1/; # strip leading and trailing spaces
    $a = $_; # copy original string
    $q = $a; # i plan to modify this copy for testing
    $q =~ s/\\\#//g; # remove escaped comment tokens
    $q =~ s/\#.*?$//g; # remove Perl-style comments
    $q =~ s{/\*.*?\*/} []gsx; # remove C-style comments
    $q =~ s/\\\{//g; # remove escaped left  braces
    $q =~ s/\\\}//g; # remove escaped right braces
    $q =~ s/\\\(//g; # remove escaped left  parentheses
    $q =~ s/\\\)//g; # remove escaped right parentheses
    $q =~ s/\'.*?\'//g; # remove single-quoted lines
# now the remaining braces/parentheses should be structural
    $delta = -($q =~ s/\}/\}/g); # subtract closing braces
    $delta += ($q =~ s/\{/\{/g); # add opening braces
    $delta -= ($q =~ s/\)/\)/g); # subtract closing parens
    $delta += ($q =~ s/\(/\(/g); # add opening parens
    $tabtotal += ($delta < 0)?$delta:0; # subtract closing braces/parentheses
    $i = ($tabtotal > 0)?$tabtotal:0; # create tab index
    $tabtotal += ($delta>0)?$delta:0; # add opening braces/parentheses for next print
    if(substr($a,0,1) ne "#") { # don't tab comments
      print OUTFILE $tabstring x $i; # "tab" out to position
    print OUTFILE "$a\n"; # print original line
  } # -- for (@infa)
  close OUTFILE;
  if($tabtotal != 0) {
    print STDERR " Indentation error: $tabtotal\n";
  else {
    print STDERR "\n";
} # sub process


Beautifier (previously known as PSH, the PHP Syntax Highlighter) highlights and indents source code using highlight configuration files which are similar to Ultraedit highlighting files.

It supports C, C#, Java, Perl, PHP, Pascal, Lisp, Mumps, Eiffel, Euphoria, and x86 Assembler, amongst others.

It handles line/block comments, keyword highlighting, correct indentation, string highlighting, language contexts (allowing embedded languages), and selection highlighting. It is available in PHP and Perl versions.

[Dec 7, 2007] Project details for perltidy

Perltidy is a Perl script indenter and beautifier. By default it approximately follows the suggestions in perlstyle(1), but the style can be adjusted with command line parameters. Perltidy can also write syntax-colored HTML output.

Release focus: Minor feature enhancements

GNU Source-highlight - GNU Project - Free Software Foundation (FSF) v1.6 by Lorenzo Bettini

This program, given a source file, produces a document with syntax highlighting.

At the moment this package can handle

as source languages, and

as output format.

NOTICE: now the name of the program is source-highlight: there are no two separate programs, namely java2html and cpp2html, anymore. However there are two shell scripts with the same name in order to facilitate the migration (however their use is not advised).

GNU Source-highlight is free software. Please see the file COPYING for details. For documentation, please read this file.

GNU Source-highlight is a GNU program and its main home page is at GNU site:

You can download it from GNU's ftp site: or from one of its mirrors (see

I do not distribute Windows binaries anymore; since, they can be easily built by using Cygnus C/C++ compiler, available at However, if you don't feel like downloading such compiler, you can request such binaries directly to me, by e-mail ([email protected]) and I can send them to you.
An MS-Windows port of Source-highlight is available from

You may also want to check the md5sum of the archives, which are also digitally signed by me (Lorenzo Bettini) with GNU gpg ( My GPG public key can be found at my home page (see at the end of this doc).

You can also get the patches, if they are available for a particular release (see below for patching from a previous version).

[Jul 12, 1998] Perl Beautifier Home Page - Google Groups by Tim Maher


I've got my Perl Beautifier running, with a reasonable set of default options, on

It's been tested primarily with the 66 modules of the standard Perl distribution, so I'm interested to see what happens when it's confronted with other programming styles.

Please help me test it by whipping some of your code at it! I'll be Emailed any syntax errors that my beautifier introduces, which could help me improve it, prior to making
it more generally available.



JAPT (Just Another Perl Trainer)
| Tim Maher, Ph.D. Head PERL Trainer & CEO, CONSULTIX |
| Email: [email protected] |
| Board, Seattle UNIX Group: |
| Leader, Seattle Perl Group: |

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