Intro To Ruby Iterators


  1. Understand the difference between looping and iterating.
  2. Learn how to pass a block to an iterator.
  3. do;end block syntax.
  4. { } block syntax.
  5. Capture a value yielded to the block by the iterator in | | (pipes).
  6. Use a captured yield value within the iterator's block.

Looping vs. Iteration

Looping is a programming construct that allows you to tell your program to do something a certain number of times, or until a certain condition is met. It is a mechanism to repeat a selection of code.

Iteration, on the other hand, is a way to operate on a collection object, like an array, and do something with each element in that collection.

Let's say that we are writing a program to annoy our little brother. We don't want to annoy him too much though, or else we might get grounded. So, our program, when it runs, will #puts "Stop hitting yourself!" seven times, and then stop. For a task like this, in which we need to perform a task a certain, discrete number of times, we would use a loop.

Let's take a look:

7.times do
  puts "Stop hitting yourself!"

What if we want to output the phrase only until our little brother calls out "Mommmm!!"? We can stick with a loop construct like while:

input = ""
while input != "Mommmm!!"
  puts "Stop hitting yourself!"
  input = gets.chomp

However, what if we have three little brothers: Tom, Tim and Jim, and we want to output "Stop hitting yourself, #{little brother's name}!" once for each brother? Let's try that out using a loop with the while construct:

brothers = ["Tom", "Tim", "Jim"]

count = 0
while count <= brothers.length-1
  puts "Stop hitting yourself #{brothers[count]}!"
  count += 1

In order to output a simple phrase using each brother's name from our collection with a while loop we need to:

  1. Establish a counter
  2. Set the condition for the while loop
  3. Read data out of the array by index using the counter
  4. Increment the counter at the bottom of the loop

That's a lot of code to accomplish such a simple task. In fact, a loop isn't a good tool for this job. Since we are now operating on a collection of data and seeking to do something with each element of that collection, we want to use an iterator.

Iterators are methods that you can call on a collection, like an array, to loop over each member of that collection and do something to or with that member of the collection. Let's take a look in the next section.

Using #each

The #each method is a prime example of an iterator. Here's a boilerplate example of its usage:

primary_colors = ["Red", "Yellow", "Blue"]
primary_colors.each do |color|
  puts "Primary Color #{color} is #{color.length} letters long."

#each is called on the collection primary_colors, which is an array containing 3 individual strings.

A block is passed to #each, opened by the code that starts with do and closed by the end. Every do needs a closing end.

primary_colors = ["Red", "Yellow", "Blue"]
primary_colors.each do |color| # do begins a block
  # the lines between the do/end are the block's body
  puts "Primary Color #{color} is #{color.length} letters long."
end # end terminates the block

The output from this code is:

Primary Color Red is 3 letters long.
Primary Color Yellow is 6 letters long.
Primary Color Blue is 4 letters long.

We can see that the block passed to each is executed once for each element in the original collection. If there were 5 colors in primary_colors, the block would have run 5 times. We call each run, each execution, of the block passed to the iterator (#each in this case), an iteration. It's a word used to refer to each 'step', or each 'execution', of a block. An iteration is the singular execution of a sequence of code (that we call a block) within a loop.

When we iterate over a collection of elements using #each (and also in other iterators and enumerables we'll soon learn about), the iterator #each yields each element one at a time to every iteration via a variable declared with the opening of the block.

After the opening do of our code above, we see |color|. | is called a pipe. After do, we declare a local variable color by enclosing it in | | pipes. This variable's value is automatically assigned the element from the array for the current iteration. So on the first iteration of the each above, the variable color would be equal to "Red". But on the next iteration of the block, color will be reassigned the value of the next element in the primary_colors array, "Yellow".

Let's take a closer look at some of these concepts.

What is a block?

A block is a chunk of code between braces, { } or between do/end keywords that you can pass to a method almost exactly like you can pass an argument to a method. There are some methods, like iterator methods, that can be called with a block, i.e. accompanied by a block denoted with { } or do/end. Such a method would run and pass, or yield, data to the code in the block for that code to operate on or do something with.

Blocks are part of what make the Ruby language special, powerful, and loved.

What are the | |?

Those are called "pipes". When invoking an iterator like #each, the variable name inside the pipes acts as an argument that is being passed into the block. The iterator will pass, or yield, each element of the collection on which it is called to the block. Each element, as it gets passed into the block, will be equal to the variable name inside the pipes. Think of it like this:

  • Call, or run, the code in the block once for each element of the collection.
  • Pass a single element of the collection into the block every time the code in the block is called, or run. Start with the first element in the collection, and then move on to the second element, then the third, etc.
  • Every time you call the code in the block and pass in an element from the collection, set the variable name from between the pipes equal to that element.

This is exactly what happens when you define a method to accept an argument and then call that method with a real argument:

def hi_there(name)
  puts "Hi, #{name}"

hi_there("Sophie") # > "Hi, Sophie"
# => nil 

Think of the variable between the pipes like the name variable we are using to define our argument.

The variable name inside the pipes is more or less arbitrary. For example:

brothers = ["Tim", "Tom", "Jim"]
brothers.each do |brother|
  puts "Stop hitting yourself #{brother}!"

Will output the same thing as:

brothers = ["Tim", "Tom", "Jim"]
brothers.each do |hippo|
  puts "Stop hitting yourself #{hippo}!"

Which is:

Stop hitting yourself Tim!
Stop hitting yourself Tom!
Stop hitting yourself Jim!

We should, however, be reasonable and sensical when we name our variables. If your collection is called brothers, name the variable between the pipes brother. If your collection is called apples, name your variable apple.

A Closer Look

Let's revisit our example from above and break it down, step by step:

brothers = ["Tim", "Tom", "Jim"]
brothers.each do |brother|
  puts "Stop hitting yourself #{brother}!"

Here, the #each method takes each element of the brothers array, one at a time, and passes, or yields, it into the block of code between the do/end keywords. It makes each element of the array available to the block by assigning it to the variable brother. It does so by placing that variable name in between the pipes | |.

In summary, #each yields each item of the collection on which it is called to the block with which it is called. It keeps track of which element of the collection it is manipulating as it moves through the collection. During the first step of the iteration, #each will yield the first array element to the block. At that point in time, inside the block, brother will equal "Tim". During the second step of the iteration, brother will equal "Tom" and so on.

Iterators like #each are smart – they don't need a separate counter variable and manual incrementation of that variable to know how many times to do something. They use the number of items in the collection on which they are called to determine how many times they will do something.

Let's set a counter variable and manually increment it in order to see the #each method in action:

brothers = ["Tim", "Tom", "Jim"]
counter = 1
brothers.each do |brother|
  puts "This is loop number #{counter}"
  puts "Stop hitting yourself #{brother}!"
  counter += 1

Copy and paste the above code into IRB. You should see this output:

This is loop number 1
Stop hitting yourself Tim!
This is loop number 2
Stop hitting yourself Tom!
This is loop number 3
Stop hitting yourself Jim!
#=> ["Tim", "Tom", "Jim"]

See that, during loop number 1, the string "Tim" was yielded to the block and the variable name brother, when interpolated into the string we #putsed out, was set equal to "Tim". During loop number 2, the same thing happened with "Tom", and during loop number 3, the same thing happened with "Jim". There was no loop number four because the #each iterator operated on each member of the array on which it was called and then stopped.

A Note on Return Values

Different iterators have different return values. Notice that the return value of the call to #each above returned ["Tim", "Tom", "Jim"] – the original array. The #each method will always return the original collection on which it was called.

The { } Syntax

Another way of establishing a code block that you may encounter is to use curly brackets, { }, instead of the do/end keywords. Let's take a look:

brothers = ["Tim", "Tom", "Jim"]
brothers.each{|brother| puts "Stop hitting yourself #{brother}!"}

It is appropriate to use the { } syntax when the code in the block is short and can fit on one line.


Both loops and iterators are powerful tools in Ruby, but they're not right for every job. Loops are useful when you need to tell your program to do something a certain number of times or to do something based on a certain condition. Iterators are useful for operating on a collection of objects, and even performing complex operations on the members of that collection. Because iterators are called with blocks, it's easy to carry out complex logic or tasks using each individual member of a collection of objects.

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