“The stat preceding -l _ wasn’t an lstat”

I ran into a fatal error that I haven’t previously encountered and I couldn’t find a good explanation where I expected it. The -l file test operator can only use the virtual _ filehandle if the preceding lookup was an lstat.

The file test operators, all documented under the -X entry in perlfunc, can use the virtual filehandle _, the single underscore, to reuse the results of the previous file lookup. They don’t just look up the single attribute you test, but all of it (through stat) which it filters to give you the answer to the question that you ask. The _ reuses that information to answer the next question instead of looking it up again.

I had a program that was similar to this one, where I used some filetest operators, including the -l to test if it’s a symbolic link.

use v5.14;

my $filename = join ".", $0, $$, time, 'txt';
my $symname  = $filename =~ s/\.txt/-link.txt/r;

open my $fh, '>', $filename
	or die "Could not open [$filename]: $!";
say $fh 'Just another Perl hacker,';
close $fh;

symlink $filename, $symname 
	or die "Could not symlink [$symname]";

# http://perldoc.perl.org/functions/-X.html
foreach( $filename, $symname ) {
	say "\texists"           if -e;
	say "\thas size " . -s _ if -z _;
	say "\tis a link"        if -l _;

I get this fatal error:

The stat preceding -l _ wasn't an lstat at test_link_test.pl line 19

The entry in perlfunc doesn’t say anything about this, but it hints that -l is a bit special:

If any of the file tests (or either the stat or lstat operator) is given the special filehandle consisting of a solitary underline, then the stat structure of the previous file test (or stat operator) is used, saving a system call. (This doesn’t work with -t , and you need to remember that lstat() and -l leave values in the stat structure for the symbolic link, not the real file.) (Also, if the stat buffer was filled by an lstat call, -T and -B will reset it with the results of stat _ ).

Adding the diagnostics pragma has the answer that isn’t in perlfunc:

The stat preceding -l _ wasn't an lstat at test_link_test.pl line 19 (#1)
    (F) It makes no sense to test the current stat buffer for symbolic
    linkhood if the last stat that wrote to the stat buffer already went
    past the symlink to get to the real file.  Use an actual filename

The other file test operators will perform a stat. If the file is a symlink, the stat follows the symlink to get the information from its target. A symlink to a symlink will even keep going until it ultimately gets to a non symlink. With a stat, the -l _ will never be true because it always ends up at the target, even if it doesn’t exist.

The lstat doesn’t follow the link, so it can answer the -l _ question because it might have returned the information for a link and in the case of a non-link, it works just like stat.

As the long version of the warning says, it’s probably better to never use the _ filehandle and use the full filename instead. Sure, it has to redo the work, but you won’t be surprised by a fatal error if you did the wrong type of lookup before.