Perl vs Python

Not only beginners, but also pros and experts still continue to debate whether Perl or Python is better. Of course, since there are so many programming languages available, such comparisons are inevitable. Newcomers ask about which is the best to learn first, whereas experts discuss about which is the most effective and efficient. As the computation technologies continue developing, the answers can change over time.

Perl and Python actually evolved from different intentions – Perl was intended to make report processing easier whereas Python was ‘merely’ a successor to the ABC programming language as a ‘hobby’ project. But they are both cross-platform, general-purpose languages. Thus, people wonder whether they should go for Perl or Python. Still, Perl and Python are the opposite of each other in terms of principle. Below, we are going to see the differences and comparisons between these two popular programming languages.

Historical Background

Perl is not officially an acronym, but there are many circulating, most notably “Practical Extraction and Reporting Language”. It was initially developed in 1987 by Larry Wall as a general-purpose Unix scripting language intended to make report processing easier. The filename extensions are .pl, .pm, .pod, .t. Today, Perl has evolved into a family of programming languages, including Perl 6 which began as a redesign of Perl 5 but eventually stood out to be a separate language. (Read also : Jython vs Python)

Python was created by Guido Van Rossum in 1991. It was initially just a ‘hobby’ project that is meant to be a successor to the ABC programming language, but eventually attracted Unix/C hackers. Python has been developed continuously by its community, but Van Rossum’s continual central role is reflected by the title given to him from the community: Benevolent Dictator For Life (BDFL). The filename extensions are .py, .pyo, .pyd, .pyc, .pyw, .pyz.

Principle Differences

Perl and Python have very different principles. Perl has little to no constraints. Perl’s philosophy is “there is more than one way to do it” (TIMTOWTDI). On the other hand, Python virtually restricts what you can do. In contrast with Perl, you can say that the philosophy of Python is ‘there should be only one way to do it’.

In a sense, Python is Perl with training wheels. There are guides and restrictions, the training wheels. For a beginner, training wheels are good. They ensure that you walk on the right path safely. Without training wheels, you can wreck and mess yourself. However, you will eventually have to outgrow your training wheels. Without training wheels, you will be able to do interesting, useful tricks that can make things faster or more efficient. But with great power comes great responsibility.

One of Python’s superiorities is that the language forces you to write clean code. This is a good thing that will form a good habit. Meanwhile, Perl simply provides the tools to help you write clean code and gently encourages you to use them. But it also gives more than enough rope to hang yourself. If you know what you are doing, the extras can be useful; if you don’t, you may possibly hurt yourself.

Feature Comparisons

In terms of code readability, Python has a distinctive advantage over Perl. Python’s code is a lot cleaner and thus easier to understand. One distinction is that in Python, indentation represents the block of code. As the effect, it forces proper structuring. On the other hand, Perl borrows syntaxes of other programming languages such as C, shell scripting, awk, and sed for regular expressions. Curly brackets and semicolons are needed, and they make the allowance for ugly scripting.

Python has third-party libraries for regex and OS operations. There are a lot of third-party libraries for Python available, so you will not find much of a problem. Still, these third-party libraries will require you to remember some additional functions, and are generally slower than built-in functions. On the other hand, since Perl borrows the syntax of C and other Unix commands from awk, sed, etc., Perl has powerful built-in regex support without requiring you to import any third-party modules. Perl can handle OS operations using built-in functions. Its regex operations have a sed-like syntax that allows for easy search, replace, substitute, and other string operations. Thus, it will allow you to do things easily and swiftly.

Nevertheless, if you are going for object-oriented programming (OOP), Python is generally more suitable than Perl. Python comes with extensive OOP support, and the clean, consistent syntax also makes a plus point. On the other hand, Perl shines for its one-liners that allow you to perform various tasks with few lines of code, but it is never recommended for OOP. This is because Perl still uses packages to substitute classes. The code will be even more difficult to read, and programming subroutines in Perl will be a huge challenge. Threading is also not a pronounced thing in Perl.

When to Use Perl/Python

In general, Perl is recommended whenever you need to write a quick, dirty script that uses regular expressions or executes system commands. It has been designed to automate operations on file systems and files without having to import anything. Perl is also the way to go whenever you have to use a library that is only available for Perl. Due to being older, Perl has more mature modules available. The Ensembl APIs are only available for Perl, not Python. Perl has more bioinformatics modules than Python, and BioPerl is so far still more complete than BioPython.

Python is more recommended for beginners because of the better readability and the ‘forced’ good programming habits. Python is recommended whenever you need to use the script more than once and whenever there is a possibility that someone else will use your script. Python is the way to go for object-oriented programming. In addition, Python now has excellent supports for tabular-like data structures (data frames), machine learning algorithms, and data analysis in general.

- Developed in 1987- Developed in 1991
- Filename extensions are .pl, .pm, .pod, .t- Filename extensions are .py, .pyo, .pyd, .pyc, .pyw, .pyz
- Has very few constraints, “there is more than one way to do it”- Has lots of constraints that virtually restricts what you can do
- The code is harder to read, uses curly brackets and semicolons- The code is cleaner and easier to read, distinctively uses indentation for the block of code
- Built-in regex and OS functions, more mature modules- Much more suitable for OOP, handling tabular-like data structures, machine learning, and data analysis


Perl and Python have different advantages and disadvantages. Python’s code is cleaner and easier to read, making it more recommended for beginners and if somebody else will use your code. Python is more recommended for OOP, handling tabular-like data structures, machine learning, and data analysis. Meanwhile, Perl’s code is harder to read. The one-liners make a distinctive advantage. Perl is more recommended for handling file systems and files because of the better performance on regex and OS operations. Perl also has some more mature modules for specific purposes, such as the Ensembl APIs and BioPerl.

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