Ruby User's Guide

Nuts and bolts

This chapter addresses a few practical issues.

Statement delimiters

Some languages require some kind of punctuation, often a semicolon (;), to end each statement in a program. Ruby instead follows the convention used in shells like sh and csh. Multiple statements on one line must be separated by semicolons, but they are not required at the end of a line; a linefeed is treated like a semicolon. If a line ends with a backslash (\), the linefeed following it is ignored; this allows you to have a single logical line that spans several lines.


Why write comments? Although well written code tends to be self-documenting, it is often helpful to scribble in the margins, and it can be a mistake to believe that others will be able to look at your code and immediately see it the way you do. Besides, for practical purposes, you yourself are a different person within a few days anyway; which of us hasn't gone back to fix or enhance a program after the passage of time and said, I know I wrote this, but what in blazes does it mean?

Some experienced programmers will point out, quite correctly, that contradictory or outdated comments can be worse than none at all. Certainly, comments shouldn't be a substitute for readable code; if your code is unclear, it's probably also buggy. You may find that you need to comment more while you are learning ruby, and then less as you become better at expressing your ideas in simple, elegant, readable code.

Ruby follows a common scripting convention, which is to use a pound symbol (#) to denote the start of a comment. Anything following an unquoted #, to the end of the line on which it appears, is ignored by the interpreter.

Also, to facilitate large comment blocks, the ruby interpreter also ignores anything between a line starting with "=begin" and another line starting with "=end".

#!/usr/bin/env ruby

  This is a comment block, something you write for the benefit of
  human readers (including yourself).  The interpreter ignores it.
  There is no need for a '#' at the start of every line.

Organizing your code

Ruby's unusually high level of dynamism means that classes, modules, and methods exist only after their defining code runs. If you're used to programming in a more static language, this can sometimes lead to surprises.

# The below results in an "undefined method" error:

puts successor(3)

def successor(x)
  x + 1

Although the interpreter checks over the entire script file for syntax before executing it, the def successor ... end code has to actually run in order to create the successor method. So the order in which you arrange a script can matter.

This does not, as it might seem at first glance, force you to organize your code in a strictly bottom-up fashion. When the interpreter encounters a method definition, it can safely include undefined references, as long as you can be sure they will be defined by the time the method is actually invoked:

# Conversion of fahrenheit to celsius, broken
# down into two steps.

def f_to_c(f)
  scale(f - 32.0)  # This is a forward reference, but it's okay.

def scale(x)
  x * 5.0 / 9.0

printf "%.1f is a comfortable temperature.\n", f_to_c(72.3)

So while this may seem less convenient than what you may be used to in Perl or Java, it is less restrictive than trying to write C without prototypes (which would require you to always maintain a partial ordering of what references what). Putting top-level code at the bottom of a source file always works. And even this is less of an annoyance than it might at first seem. A sensible and painless way to enforce the behavior you want is to define a main function at the top of the file, and call it from the bottom.

#!/usr/bin/env ruby

def main
  # Express the top level logic here...

# ... put support code here, organized as you see fit ...

main # ... and start execution here.

It also helps that ruby provides tools for breaking complicated programs into readable, reusable, logically related chunks. We have already seen the use of include for accessing modules. You will also find the load and require facilities useful. load works as if the file it refers to were copied and pasted in (something like the #include preprocessor directive in C). require is somewhat more sophisticated, causing code to be loaded at most once and only when needed.

That's it...

This tutorial should be enough to get you started writing programs in Ruby. As further questions arise, you can get more help from the user community, and from an always-growing body of printed and online resources.

Good luck, and happy coding!

Copyright (c) 2005 Mark Slagell

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.

A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License."