Ruby Metaprogramming Part 1

define_method, Kernel.eval, instance_method, instance_eval, class_eval, instance_exec, send, bind. Have you seen Ruby programs with these methods or haven't been sure what each of them do exactly?

By the end of this post you will be able to confidently read Ruby code that contains these metaprogramming constructs.

We will answer the following questions for each of these: how does it work? why does it work? and when to use it?

Let's zoom out and define some terms so that we are on the same page (if you're thinking I don't want to read definitions...fine you can skip to the code snippets below!).

Using all those methods is called doing metaprogramming and in Ruby we are using the reflection API.

Reflection (aka introspection) just means a program can examine its own state and structure. And also modify it at runtime. For example, a Ruby program can define new classes and new methods at runtime, get a list of methods of a given class, get a list of all objects of a given class currently known to the interpreter, etc.

Metaprgramming in Ruby is a set of techniques for extending Ruby's syntax in a way that makes programming easier. Metaprogramming is used in defining Domain Specific Languages (DSLs) in Ruby for example.

Domain Specific Language is basically when we use method invocations and blocks as if they were task specific keywords in an extension of the language. Testing library RSpec is an example of a DSL.

Now let's see all of the things we can do with Ruby's 'meta' or reflection methods.

Ruby Reflection API

Ruby reflection methods like define_method, eval, instance_method, instance_eval and such are defined by either Kernel, Object, or Module.

Let's see how each of them works with some code.

Types and Classes

o.instance_of? c check whether an object is an instance of class

o.respond_to? name check whether an object has a method

o.class and o.superclass return the class and superclass of an object.

o.is_a? c returns true if o is an instance of c or any of its subclasses.

Get all the ancestors of a class

> String.ancestors

=> [String, Comparable, Object, PP::ObjectMixin, Kernel, BasicObject]

We can even define new classes and modules at runtime. The code below defines a new module, a new class, then a subclass that includes the module.

my_module =
my_class =
my_subclass = {
  include my_module

Evaluating Strings and Blocks

Before we get to what instance_eval and class_eval do, we need to learn about the Binding object.

Binding object represents the state of Ruby's variable bindings at some moment. So if we write

n = 40
eval "n + 2"

the value of n is part of the binding for eval. By the way, eval is from Kernel and it can evaluate any string of valid ruby code. It's not something we'd use in our regular programs but it's powerful.

Okay back to Binding.

Kernel.binding returns the bindings in effect at a given location in our program. And we can pass a Binding object as the second argument to eval. In that case, the string we pass will be evaluated in the context of those bindings. Here is an example

class Pizza
  def initialize(type)
    @type = type

p ="margherita")
eval ("@type", p.bindings) # returns "margherita"

Proc Object and Bindings

The Proc object defines a binding method that returns a Binding object. That Binding object represents the binding in effect for the body of that Proc.

eval method allows us to pass in a Proc object instead of a Binding object as the second argument.

instance_eval and class_eval

There are two main differences between the regular eval from Kernel and instance_eval/class_eval.

  1. instance_eval and class_eval can accept a block of code to evaluate, instead of just strings.
  2. The context in which they evaluate the specified string or block. instance_eval evaluates the code in the context of the specified object and class_eval does in the context of a specified module.

o.instance_eval("@x") returns the value of o's instance variable @x.

Here is an example that involves defining methods on an object.

String.class_eval {
  def my_size

String.instance_eval {
  def secret_knock
    "Say friend and enter"

The first defines an instance method called my_size which is an alias for String's existing size method. The second one actually defines a singleton or class method String.secret_knock. (If you noticed that the name of the meta method and the kind of method they define seem 'backwards', you're right. I was surprised too.)

There are two other methods (starting Ruby 1.9) instance_exec and class_exec. They only evaluate blocks (not string) and they accept arguments and pass them to the block. So the block code is evaluated in the context of the specified object, with parameter from the outside.

That is all for Part 1. We looked at Ruby reflection methods for types, classes, and modules as well as evaluating string and blocks. In Part 2, we look at metaprogramming around variables, constants and methods.

If you like short explanations of common concepts, come back here often. We plan to publish these regularly in the coming months. Or if you prefer to be notified, subscribe via RSS or drop your email below. I will email a round up of posts once or twice a month.