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Working with constants in Ruby

By Brian Buchalter · December 5, 2011

Tags: ruby

Ruby is designed to put complete power into the programmer's hands and with great power comes great responsibility! This includes the responsibility for freezing constants. Here's an example of what someone might THINK is happening by default with a constant.

class Foo
  DEFAULTS = [:a, :b]

default = Foo::DEFAULTS
default << :c
Foo::DEFAULTS #=> [:a, :b, :c]  WHOOPS!

As you can see, assigning a new variable from a constant lets you modify what you thought was a constant! Needless to say, such an assumption would be very difficult to track down in a real application. Let's see how we might improve on this design. First, let's freeze our constant.

class Foo
  DEFAULTS = [:a, :b].freeze

default = Foo::DEFAULTS
default << :c #=>  ERROR can't modify frozen array

Now we'll get very specific feedback about offending code. The question is how can we use our constant now as a starting point for array, and still be able to modify it later? Let's look at some more code.

Foo::DEFAULTS.frozen? #=> true
Foo::DEFAULTS.clone.frozen? #=> true, this was my first guess, but it turns out we need...
Foo::DEFAULTS.dup.frozen? #=> false

It's worth reading the docs on clone and dup to understand there difference, but in short, clone replicates the internal state of the object while dup creates a new instance of the object. There was one more question I needed to answer; what would happen when I wanted to append another frozen array to a non-frozen array? Let's look to the code again!

default = Foo::DEFAULTS.dup  #not frozen
new_default = default + [:c].frozen
new_default.frozen? # false

So it seems that the initial state of the object carries the frozen state, allowing you to append frozen arrays without having to dup them. The moral of the story here is don't make assumptions about Ruby! One of the best ways to challenge your assumptions is with unit tests.