Jerome's Adventures in Rubyland

An online novel of code and romance

Ruby: How to Iterate "the Right Way"

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If any of you have written code in the last year that had an explicit loop […], you don’t understand collections.

You may be baffled by this quote if you come from a C-flavored language such as C++ and Java, where explicit loops like for and foreach are part of your everyday life.

Luckily, collection methods come built-in with Ruby. Once you realize how powerful they are compared to explicit loops, there is no going back!

each

Let’s begin with the collection method that has the least added value.
each is the equivalent of a for loop. Use it when you need to iterate on a collection with side effects.

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['a', 'b', 'c'].each do |e|
  # do side effects, such as printing to the console, writing to a file, persisting in database, etc.
end

For your information, Ruby also has a for statement (nobody uses it though).

map

(alias to avoid: collect)
Whenever you need to transform some values into some other values, map is your friend.

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[1, 2, 3].map { |e| e * 2 } # returns [2, 4, 6]

['a', 'b', 'c'].map { |e| e.upcase } # returns ['A', 'B', 'C']

['a', 'b', 'c'].map(&:upcase) # same result as before, for experienced lazy Ruby programmers

map is your bread and butter. I probably use it more than each.

select

(alias to avoid: find_all)
Very useful when you need to filter (i.e. “select”) multiple values.

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[1, 2, 3, 4].select { |e| e % 2 == 0 } # returns [2, 4]

reject

The contrary of select

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[1, 2, 3, 4].reject { |e| e % 2 == 0 } # returns [1, 3]

partition

select + reject

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[2, 3, 4, 5].partition { |e| e.even? } # returns [[2, 4], [3, 5]]

find

(alias to avoid: detect)
Very useful when you need to find a single value.

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[4, 6, 8, 13].find { |e| e > 7 } # Returns 8 (the first found element)

reduce

(alias to avoid: inject)
reduce is very important in functionnal programming, where it is also known as fold. Indeed, it can be used to build everything else: map, select, find, min, max, sums, etc.
The idea is to use an accumulator that will contain the final result. This accumulator can be anything: a number, an array, a hash, etc.

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[1, 2, 3].reduce(0) { |acc, e| acc + e } # returns 6 (0 + 1 + 2 + 3).
                                         # 0 is the initial value of the accumulator.

[1, 2, 3].reduce { |acc, e| acc + e } # same result as before. When we omit the accumulator initial
                                      # value, the first element of the array is chosen.
                                      # So in our case, 1 is the initial value of the accumulator.
                                      # What is computed is 1 + 2 + 3.

[1, 2, 3].reduce(:+) # same result as before, for experienced lazy Ruby programmers.
                     # Reduce accepts :+, but you can also use &:+

[2, 3, 4].reduce { |acc, e| acc * e } # returns 24 (2 * 3 * 4)

[0, 2, 3, 4].reduce { |acc, e| acc * e } # returns 0 (0 * 2 * 3 * 4)

I rarely use reduce in practice, but it is fun and good to know for your computer science culture.

all?

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[2, 4, 6].all? { |e| e.even? } # returns true

Self-explanatory.

any?

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[3, 8, 42].any? { |e| e > 10 } # returns true

Self-explanatory.

By the way, I like using the “no block” form of any? to ask if something “has any” significant element:

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[3, 4].any? # returns true
[].any? # returns false
[nil].any? # returns false
[false].any? # returns false

I find it more expressive than !some_array.empty?. This is just a matter of personal taste: feel free to use whichever you want.

times

This is a funny one!

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3.times { puts 'Hello world!' } # prints 'Hello world!' 3 times

3.times { |i| puts i } # prints '0', '1' and '2'

In practice I don’t use it very often though.

Sorting methods

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[7, 2, 5].sort # returns [2, 5, 7]
['c', 'b', 'a'].sort # returns ['a', 'b', 'c']

employees.sort_by {|e| e.last_name} # sort your employees by last name

But… I want indexes!

On top of the current element, you also need the current index? Worry not, fellow citizen. Ruby has it all.

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['a', 'b', 'c'].each_with_index do |e, i|
  # do stuff
end

['a', 'b', 'c'].map.with_index do |e, i|
  # do stuff
end

In practice I don’t use each_with_index very often. I never had to use map.with_index, but I put it for the sake of being comprehensive.

Explicit loops

Collection methods will probably cover 90% of your needs. What is certain is that you won’t need to use a for loop ever again.

However, there are cases when the number of iterations in not known in advance: if you work on an algorithm or low-level code, for example. This is a typical job for while and until. In this case, these explicit loops are ok to use.

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finished = false
until finished
  # do stuff
end

x = 100
while x > 0
  # do stuff
end

You may want to use an infinite loop: for example the main infinite loop of a video game. Here is the syntax:

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loop do
 # do stuff.
 # You can still exit the loop with break.
end

Same as while true, but terser.

Going further

Ruby collection methods become even more powerful if you combine them:

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['coconut', 'lemon', 'banana', 'apple'].select { |e| e.size > 5 }
                                       .map    { |e| e.upcase }
                                       .sort

# returns ['BANANA', 'COCONUT']

Don’t do this to excess though!

This article covers the main collection methods: feel free to dive into the Ruby Core documentation for more.
Finally, if you are wondering why I avoid aliases such as collect and inject, you can read this community-driven Ruby style guide and submit a bug if you don’t agree. :–)

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