Arrays are like bags that contain things

While numbers, Strings, true, false, and nil all represent simple, primitive things, Arrays are more interesting, and very useful.

Arrays are things that store (or “hold”) other things. You can think of an Array as a collection or list of things. Or better yet, as a bag that you can throw things in: The bag itself is a thing (an object), too.

An Array is an object that stores other objects.

An Array is created by separating values by commas, and enclosing this list with square brackets, like so:

[1, 2, 3]

This is a simple Array that holds three numbers.

An Array is created by listing objects, separated by commas, and enclosed by square brackets.

Arrays can contain all kinds of things:

["A string", 1, true, :symbol, 2]

This creates an Array with 5 elements, i.e. a bag that contains 5 things: a string, a number, true, a symbol, and another number.

Arrays can contain all kinds of objects.

Note that in Ruby Arrays always keep their order: Unlike a real bag, where, when you throw in a bunch of apples, they might come out in a different order, an Array always keeps its objects in the same defined order (unless you do something to change the order).

Also note that in Ruby you can store any kind of object in an Array. For example, you can also store Arrays in an Array: that’s a 2-dimensional Array, like a table that has many rows, and each row has many cells (“things”).

Arrays have a defined order, and can store all kinds of objects.

Retrieving an element from an Array

Arrays can be used in a lot of different, and useful ways, but the most basic one is to retrieve a certain element by the way of referring to its position: Please get me the element at position 1!

In Ruby, you can do this with square brackets like so:

words = ["one", "two", "three"]
puts words[1]

Do you recognize how we use a variable to assign a name to our Array here?

words[1] means: from the Array words get the element at position 1. puts will then print this value out to the screen. (By the wayputs stands for “(out-) put string”.)

So, as you can see square brackets [] mean different things when used in different contexts. The same is true for other punctuation, too.

In our case here the square brackets on the first line are used to create an Array object with the given elements. On the second line the square brackets are now appended to a variable name. This means we want look up an element from the Array that (at this moment) is called words (i.e. assigned to the variable words).

Punctuation (such as square brackets) has different meanings in different contexts.

Arrays are zero based

What do you think our example code will print out to the terminal? Funnily, it’s two, and not one. Huh?

The reason for this is: The first position in an Array is 0, not 1. So the position 1 refers to the second element, not the first one.

In programming books and the Ruby documentation you’ll often find the word “index” to be used instead of “position” in this context.

Arrays start with the index 0, not 1.

Appending an element to an Array

In order to add an element to the end of an existing Array you can use the operator <<, called “shovel operator”, like so:

words = ["one", "two", "three"]
words << "four"
puts words[3]

This prints out four: The string "four" has been “shoveled” into, that means, appended to the Array. And since it now sits at position 3 we can access it using words[3].

Setting an element to a position

You can also set an element to a specific index, like so:

words = ["one", "two", "three"]
words[3] = "four"
puts words[3]

This also prints out four.

You could also overwrite existing elements the same way. For example this would set the word "uno" to the position 0 (i.e. overwrite "one"):

words = ["one", "two", "three"]
words[0] = "uno"
puts words[0]

So, this would now output uno.

On formatting: Note that there are no spaces inside the square brackets, and there’s one space after each comma.

Missing elements

What if we try to retrieve an element that does not exist, for example the element at the fourth, or fifth position (index)?

Right, we get back nil, meaning “nothing”:

> words = ["one", "two", "three"]
> words[3]
=> nil
> words[4]
=> nil

You’ll learn later that every operation (“method”) in Ruby always returns exactly one thing (i.e. one object), and that’s why there needs to be a “thing” that represents “nothing”.

This will start to feel pretty natural to you pretty soon.

Nested Arrays

As said before, Arrays can contain all sorts of things. So, they can also contain more Arrays.

This is quite a common thing to use when you need to represent some data that has the characteristics of a table, like an spreadsheet.

The outer Array represents the table, and each inner Array represents one row. Each value then represents a cell. For example:

  [1, 2, 3],
  [4, 5, 6],
  [7, 8, 9],

This is a nested Array that represents the structure of number keys on a phone.

Things you can do with Arrays

Here are a few things you can do with Arrays.

Look at them, and play with them in irb. Don’t necessarily try to memorize all of them … you can always look things up in the documentation when you actually need these. It might be useful if you’ve seen some of them before though.

Funnily, you can “calculate” with Arrays. Remember set theory from your math classes? This is pretty similar.

You can add Arrays:

$ irb
> [1, 2] + [3, 4]
=> [1, 2, 3, 4]

Subtract them from each other:

$ irb
> [:one, :two, :three, :four] - [:three, :four]
=> [:one, :two]

Multiply with a number:

$ irb
> ["Ruby", "Monstas"] * 3
=> ["Ruby", "Monstas", "Ruby", "Monstas", "Ruby", "Monstas"]

And find the intersection:

$ irb
> [1, 2, 3] & [2, 3, 4]
=> [2, 3]

first and last are alternative ways to retrieve the first and last element:

$ irb
> [1, 2, 3].first
> [1, 2, 3].last

Some other things that you can do with Arrays that you can try yourself in irb:

> [1, 2, 3].length
=> 3

> [3, 1, 2].sort
=> [1, 2, 3]

> [1, nil, 2, 3, nil].compact
=> [1, 2, 3]

> [1, 2, 3].index(3)
=> 2

> [1, 2, 3, 4].rotate(2)
=> [3, 4, 1, 2]

> [[1, 2, 3], [4, 5, 6], [7, 8, 9]].transpose
=> [[1, 4, 7], [2, 5, 8], [3, 6, 9]]

In these examples compact removes all nil values from the Array. transpose works with a nested Array and “flips” the table, i.e. turns columns into rows, and rows into columns.

Exercises: Now would be a good time to do some of the exercises on Arrays.