Naming things

In order to refer to the “things” (objects) that our program deals with we want to assign names to them.

Every practical programming language has a feature to do this, called variables. This is basically the same concept that you might know from math, although in Ruby there are different kinds of variables (you will get to know another one in a couple chapters).

We’ll discuss this concept quickly because you already need to know it in the next chapter, and the respective exercises.

If some of this seems rather abstract to you, don’t fret. It will become very practical, and you won’t even think a lot about it any more, as soon as you actually work with variables while learning other things.

Alright. Let’s jump right in:

In Ruby you can assign a name to something (an object) by using the so called assignment operator =. Like so:

number = 1

This will assign the name number to the “thing” (object) that is the number 1. From now on we can refer to this object by using the name number. For example the following code would output the number 1:

A name on the left side of the assignment operator = is assigned to the object on the right side.

number = 1
puts number

One important thing to note here is that a variable is not a “thing” an object by itself. Instead it’s just a name for an actual object. In our example the number 1 is an object, while number is a name for it because we’ve assigned it.

A variable itself is not a “thing”. It’s just a name for a thing (an object).

You can think of it like a post-it note with the name number written on it, and stuck on the actual thing, which is an object (in this case, a number).

Imagine you were in the middle of learning some Spanish, and sticked post-its onto things in your apartment: the name nevara onto the refrigerator, cama onto your bed, and puerta del baƱo onto the bathroom door.

Now, whenever you use one of these terms, as in abrir la nevera (open the refrigerator) in order to learn the language and rehearse vocabulary, you’ll obviously refer to the object, and open its actual, physical door.

That’s pretty much how variable assignment works in Ruby. There’s a “thing”, the object on the right side of the assignment operator =, and the name on the left side is being assigned to it.

Whenever we use a variable name that has been defined before we refer to the actual object that it has been assigned to. E.g. on the second line of the code example above number refers to the actual object, the number 1 that it has been assigned to on the first line. Therefore puts number outputs the number.

You can pick whatever variable names you want, they’re just names, like post-it notes stuck onto actual objects.

Since names are just names, the following examples would do exactly the same:

a = 1
puts a

large_number = 1
puts large_number

apples = 1
puts apples

However, also note that it makes sense to try and pick names that reveal your intention. The chapter Using the right words at the end of this book will talk more about this. Feel free to jump ahead if you are curious. In short, the first example using a as a name would be frowned upon because it’s wasting the opportunity to use a meaningful name. The second and third examples are just trying to be stupid, and pick names that don’t match the “thing” (the object, number 1) at all.

There are a two more things about variable assignments that we’d like to point out before we move on.