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The Versatile Colon

5 for the price of 1! The colon has several uses in SAS, all of them worth knowing about.  

1. In a “name prefix list” of variables  

In contexts where a list of variables is required, the colon is a wildcard character denoting any number of characters up the end of the variable name.  For example:  

  keep w: ;
  drop tmp: ; 

This code will keep all variables whose names begin with “w” and drop all variables who names begin with “tmp”.  

2. As an operator modifier  

The colon behaves in a similar way when modifying operators used in character comparisons, for example:  

  if string =: 's' then put 'Begins with "s"';
  if string in: ('r','s','t') then put 'Begins with "r", "s" or "t"' ;
  if string >=: 's' then put 'Begins with "s" or a later letter' ;  

3. As an input format modifier

The colon means “start reading at the next non-blank column”, for example:  

data _null_;
  infile cards truncover;
   input name :$20. value :2.;

  tom 23 
           dick                        54
    harry  9  


4. As an output format modifier

The colon means “take as much space as you need and no more”.  For example: 

put name :$20 value 2.;  

This code strips both leading and trailing blanks from NAME, and leaves a single space before printing the numeric VALUE. It’s a bit like using the CATX function.

5. For creating a macro variable in PROC SQL  

The following code creates a macro variable WDSCOUNT containing a count of data sets in the WORK library:  

proc sql; 
  select count(*) into :wdscount
  from dictionary.tables
  where libname='WORK' and memtype='DATA';

data _null_;
  put "Currently &wdscount datasets in WORK library.";