The Basics


A literal is any notation that lets you represent a fixed value in source code. For instance, all of the following are literals in Ruby:

'Hello, world!'          # string literal
375                      # integer literal
3.141528                 # float literal
true                     # boolean literal
{ 'a' => 1, 'b' => 2 }   # hash literal
[ 1, 2, 3 ]              # array literal
:sym                     # symbol literal
nil                      # nil literal

We will meet these literals and others soon.


A string is a list of characters in a specific sequence. In programming, we often have to work with text data like names, messages, and descriptions. Ruby uses strings to represent such data. You write string literals with either single quotes ('hi there') or double quotes ("hi there") on either side of the text; note that the quotes are syntactic components, not part of the value. Both single and double quote formats create a string. However, there are some subtle differences.

If you'd like to include single quotes within your string then you have two options. You can either use the double quote method or the single quote method with escaping:

# Ex. 1: with double quotes
"The man said, 'Hi there!'"

# Ex. 2: with single quotes and escaping
'The man said, \'Hi there!\''

The backslash, or escape (\) character, tells the computer that the quotes that follow it are not meant as Ruby syntax but only as simple quote characters to be included in the string.

Double quotes allow something called string interpolation. To try it out, type the following into an irb session:

irb :001 > a = 'ten'
=> "ten"

irb :002 > "My favorite number is #{a}!"
=> "My favorite number is ten!"

String interpolation is a handy way to merge Ruby code with strings. The basic syntax is: #{ruby expression goes here}, and the returned expression will be concatenated with the surrounding string. String interpolation only works within double quotes. You'll get quite familiar with this technique over time.


Ruby symbols are created by placing a colon (:) before a word.

# Examples of symbols
:"surprisingly, this is also a symbol"

Symbols don't have to be valid variable names if the symbol name is enclosed in quotes, as the last example above demonstrates.

Basically, a symbol is used when you want to reference something like a string but don't ever intend to print it to the screen or change it. It is often referred to as an immutable (i.e. unchangeable) string. While not 100% technically correct, it is a useful mnemonic device for now.


Numbers are represented many ways in Ruby. The most basic form of a number is called an integer. It is represented by the whole number only, with no decimal point. A more complex form of a number is called a float. A float is a number that contains a decimal.

# Example of integer literals
1, 2, 3, 50, 10, 4345098098

# Example of float literals
1.2345, 2345.4267, 98.2234


In programming, we need a way to express "nothing", and in Ruby, we do this through something called nil. A variable with a value of nil could be described as having 'nothing' or being 'completely empty', or even just simply 'not any specific type'. A situation where this may occur is where output is expected but none is returned, such as:

irb :001 > puts "Hello, World!"
Hello, World!
=> nil

The puts method prints out a string and returns nothing, so we see nil being returned after the string is displayed.

You can explicitly refer to the nil value by using the nil literal in our code:

irb :002 > x = nil            # nil literal used here
=> nil

It is possible to check if something is a nil type by using .nil?. For example:

irb :001 > "Hello, World".nil?
=> false

An important property of the nil type is that when used in an expression, such as an if statement, it will be treated as false, as it represents an absence of content.

irb :001 > if nil
irb :002 > puts "Hello, World!"
irb :003 > end
=> nil

In the above example, the return value (as shown by the hash rocket =>) is nil, and the code contained within the if is not run, as nil is interpreted as being a false condition. If instead you were to do the following:

irb :001 > if 1
irb :002 > puts "Hello, World!"
irb :003 > end
Hello, World!
=> nil

Since 1 is not "nothing" or a false value, the code within the if is run and we see the output. We'll talk more about conditionals and if statements later, but just remember that nil can be used within a conditional statement, and will be treated as false.

There's an important caveat to this which can best be illustrated by the following example:

irb :001 > false == nil
=> false

While both false and nil are treated as negative when evaluated in an expression, they are not equivalent, as demonstrated by the above.


Adding, Subtracting, and Multiplying Integers

Basic mathematical operations in Ruby are quite simple. To add two integers together just use the + operator as shown below in irb. Make sure to type these examples into irb and feel free to play with other integers as well.

irb :001 > 1 + 1
=> 2

Subtraction works the same way.

irb :001 > 1 - 1
=> 0

To multiply use the * operator.

irb :001 > 4 * 4
=> 16

Division vs. Modulo

You can divide integers with the / operator.

irb :001 > 16 / 4
=> 4

There is also an operator called the modulo operator. This is represented by the % symbol. It can be referred to as the remainder operator as well, though that is not strictly correct. (There are some subtle differences between modulo and remainder operations). In modulo expressions, the value to the left of the % is called the dividend, and the value to the right is called the modulus.

When working with positive integers, the modulo operator returns the remainder of a division operation. Let's test this.

irb :001 > 16 % 4
=> 0

That's not very interesting. What about this?

irb :001 > 16 % 5
=> 1

There we go! Since 16 divided by 5 equals 3 with a remainder of 1, the 1 is what we get returned. Pretty fancy, huh?

Now, notice what happens when I try to divide integers that don't divide evenly.

irb :001 > 15 / 4
=> 3

When dividing integers, you will only receive an integer in return. We need a different data type if we want more precision. That's where floats come in, which we'll get to in a moment. First, though, we need to talk about something that sometimes ends up confusing students: the difference between modulo and remainder.

Modulo vs. Remainder

The #remainder method computes and returns the remainder of an integer division operation:

irb :001 > 16.remainder(5)
=> 1

Hmm... that's exactly the same result as 16 % 5. However, you can't count on that always being true, as we'll see momentarily.

There is also a #divmod method that computes both the integer result of the division and its modulo value.

irb :001 > 16.divmod(5)
=> [3, 1]

In mathematics, there is a subtle, but important, difference between modulo and remainder operations. We won't get into the mathematical definitions, but the effect can be summarized as follows:

  • Modulo operations return a positive integer when the second operand is positive, and a negative integer when the second operand is negative.
  • Remainder operations return a positive integer when the first operand is positive, and a negative integer when the first operand is negative.

We can see this definition at work in this table:

a b a % b (modulo) a.remainder(b) a.divmod(b)
17 5 2 2 [3, 2]
17 -5 -3 2 [-4, -3]
-17 5 3 -2 [-4, 3]
-17 -5 -2 -2 [3, -2]

When working with positive integers, we don't need to worry whether we should use the modulo operator or the remainder method; the return value is positive and identical either way. However, if either number is negative, that's where things get confusing. It really isn't easy to keep the above rules in mind, especially when you don't encounter them often. To complicate matters even more, some languages use the % operator to compute the remainder instead of the modulo value.

In general, you want to avoid this problem -- if you need to determine the modulo or remainder of two integers, try to work with positive integers exclusively. If you can't, then make sure you know exactly which operator or method you need to use when working with negative integers.

Multiplying and Dividing Floats

In order to get a more accurate calculation of the above division problem, we can use floats.

irb :001 > 15.0 / 4
=> 3.75

Ah, that looks better. Whenever you use a float in an operation, Ruby always returns a float, even if one of the numbers is a plain integer.

You can also multiply floats to do more complex multiplication.

irb :001 > 9.75 * 4.32
=> 42.120000000000005

Equality Comparison

There are times when you want to check if the values of two objects are the same. To test the equality of two things you can use the == operator (read == as "is equal to" or, sometimes, as "equal equal"). This compares the object on the left of the == with the object on the right and returns either true or false. true and false are called boolean values in most programming languages. Let's try some comparisons out in irb. Don't forget to type these examples out as well!

irb :001 > 4 == 4
=> true

irb :002 > 4 == 5
=> false

You can use the == operator with strings as well.

irb :001 > 'foo' == 'foo'
=> true

irb :002 > 'foo' == 'bar'
=> false

What happens when you type the following command in irb?

irb :001 > '4' == 4

This comparison returns false because we are comparing two different types.

Because '4' is a string and 4 is an integer, the == operator returns false.

String Concatenation

String concatenation looks a lot like addition. When you use the + operator to join two strings together, you are performing a string concatenation. Back to irb!

irb :001 > 'foo' + 'foo'
=> "foofoo"

irb :002 > 'foo' + 'bar'
=> "foobar"

It's pretty simple, but feel free to play around with this functionality to get a better feel for it.

Let's try something a little different. What will the following return? Try it out for yourself.

irb :001 > '1' + '1'

If you were thinking 2, that definitely makes sense. But since '1' and '1' are both strings, they are concatenated, not added. That's why you ended up with '11'.

irb :001 > '1' + '1'
=> '11'

What happens if we try to concatenate a string with a number?

irb :001 > 'one' + 1
=> TypeError: no implicit conversion of Integer into String
   from (irb):1:in `+'
   from (irb):1
   from /usr/local/rvm/rubies/ruby-2.5.3/bin/irb:16:in `<main>'

Looks like we have an error message! The interpreter is complaining that it can't implicitly convert an Integer into a String. What does that mean? In this case, it looks like we cannot add an Integer and String together.

Type Conversion

But what if we need to add a String and an Integer together? Suppose we got some user input of '12', which is a String, but we want to increment this by 2. We know that we can't just do '12' + 2, as we'll get an error.

There's a handy method that we can call which will convert a String to a Integer, and it's called to_i. You can call it on any String like this:

irb :001 > '12'.to_i
=> 12

You can see that this returns an Integer. Ok, we've used some new words like method and returns. These are really important to understand, and you'll be exposed to them throughout this book. For now, just know that we can call to_i on strings and then we can perform integer operations, like adding and subtracting, on the result.

Play with to_i in irb on some strings and see what you get. You may be surprised by the results. There are also other useful conversion operators, like to_f, that you may be interested in testing out as well.

Below are some fun examples to try:

irb :001 > '4'.to_i
=> 4

irb :002 > '4 hi there'.to_i
=> 4

irb :003 > 'hi there 4'.to_i
=> 0

irb :004 > '4'.to_f
=> 4.0

irb :005 > '4 hi there'.to_f
=> 4.0

irb :006 > 'hi there 4'.to_f
=> 0.0

And if you guessed that there's a similar to_s method to convert integers and floats into strings, you would be right. We'll leave this method as an exercise for you to play around with in irb.

This is just scratching the surface of Ruby's built-in conversion methods, but it's good enough for now. Just know that there's probably a way to convert from one basic type to another, though there may be some side effects when you do the conversion. Always play around with it in irb to get a feel for the edge cases.

Basic Data Structures

Two very common data structures that you will use as a Ruby programmer are arrays and hashes. They will be covered in more depth later in this book, but we wanted to give you a taste of them early on for a smoother learning curve.


An array is used to organize information into an ordered list. The list can be made up of strings, integers, floats, booleans, or any other data type. In Ruby, an array literal is denoted by square brackets [ ]. Inside the brackets you can create a list of elements separated by commas. Let's make one in irb.

irb :001 > [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]
=> [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

We've created an array of integers 1 through 5. Each element in an array can be accessed via an index. The indexes are numbered starting at zero. Thus, if we wanted only the first element in the array we could do this.

irb :001 > [ 1, 2, 3, 4, 5][0]
=> 1

Don't worry if the [0] part threw you. We will cover arrays in much more detail later. This is just meant to show you that the first element, the number 1, is located in the 0 index of the array. Play around with the syntax above by swapping the value of 0 for another index. The key thing to remember about an array is that order is important, and elements within an array can be retrieved by their index, which starts at 0.


A hash, sometimes referred to as a dictionary, is a set of key-value pairs. Hash literals are represented with curly braces { }. A key-value pair is an association where a key is assigned a specific value. A hash consists of a key, usually represented by a symbol, that points to a value (denoted using a =>) of any type of data. Let's make some hashes to get the feel of it. Type along!

irb :001 > {:dog => 'barks'}
=> {:dog => 'barks'}

The above is a hash literal that specifies a single key-value pair. Like arrays, we can have multiple items in a hash if we separate them with commas, but they will not necessarily be in any specific order. Let's add some more items to our hash.

irb :001 > {:dog => 'barks', :cat => 'meows', :pig => 'oinks'}
=> {:dog => 'barks', :cat => 'meows', :pig => 'oinks'}

What if we wanted to find out what noise a cat makes? We can retrieve a value by its key:

irb :001 > {:dog => 'barks', :cat => 'meows', :pig => 'oinks'}[:cat]
=> "meows"

Once again, right now it's only important that you understand these basic data structures. They are the building blocks of programming and you'll be exploring these for a long time as you grow as a Ruby developer. The most important thing to remember about hashes is that you use keys to set or retrieve values. Let's move on for now and we'll visit these concepts again later on.

Expressions and Return

You may have noticed, indirectly at this point, that every time you enter something into irb you see the => back, which is called a hash rocket (cool name, huh?), followed by whatever your Ruby expression returns. When you type something in at the irb prompt you are creating an expression. An expression is anything that can be evaluated, and pretty much everything you write in Ruby is an expression. An expression in Ruby always returns something, even if that's an error message or nil. We'll talk in more depth about return as we move on, but remember that Ruby expressions always return a value, even if that value is nil or an error.

puts vs return

It's common for new Ruby programmers with little experience to become confused with the difference between puts and return. The confusion arises from a misunderstanding of what both puts and return are. When we call the puts method, we're telling Ruby to print something to the screen. However, puts does not return what is printed to the screen. Expressions do something, but they also return something. The value returned is not necessarily the action that was performed. Let's take a look in irb.

irb :001 > puts 'stuff'
=> nil

You can see that the word stuff was printed to the console and then a nil, which is Ruby's way of saying 'nothing', was returned. It's important to understand that distinction. For example:

a = puts "stuff"
puts a

What should we expect? a is assigned to the value returned by puts "stuff", which is nil. Therefore, puts a is the same as puts nil, which prints out an empty string. We are going to go much farther into puts and return later when we talk about methods, but we had to show you puts because we are going to be using it in future examples.


This chapter covered the basic building blocks of the Ruby language. You learned some basic data types and how to combine those types with operators. You also learned about data structures and how to use those structures to hold and access data. We'll dive much deeper into these in the coming chapters, but for now, let's "learn through our fingers" and do some exercises to deepen our understanding of the basics.

Some exercises, both here on this page and elsewhere in the curriculum, may use unfamiliar terms that aren't directly related to programming. For instance, we might refer to the squares of numbers, palindromes, and anagrams, all of which aren't directly pertinent to programming.

If you encounter an unfamiliar term, don't hestitate to search for their definitions elsewhere - in most cases, it's relatively easy to find a basic definition for the term. For instance, we use the term "factorial" in one of the exercises below - a google search for "factorial" should quickly lead you to a basic definition, such as the one on this page.

This is also good practice for the future. You may not always be writing code for a discipline that you're completely familiar with. For instance, if you're writing flight planning software, you may need to learn how to determine distances given the latitude and longitude of two points. (That is more complex than you might expect.) Fortunately, it's relatively easy to learn how to do so, even without a significant background in mathematics.


  1. Add two strings together that, when concatenated, return your first and last name as your full name in one string.

    "<Firstname> <Lastname>"

    For example, if your name is John Doe, think about how you can put "John" and "Doe" together to get "John Doe".


    "Bob " + "Smith"

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  2. Use the modulo operator, division, or a combination of both to take a 4 digit number and find the digit in the: 1) thousands place 2) hundreds place 3) tens place 4) ones place


    thousands = 4936 / 1000
    hundreds = 4936 % 1000 / 100
    tens = 4936 % 1000 % 100 / 10
    ones = 4936 % 1000 % 100 % 10

    Note that for the tens and ones, you can skip the extra % operations like this:

    tens = 4936 % 100 / 10
    ones = 4936 % 10

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  3. Write a program that uses a hash to store a list of movie titles with the year they came out. Then use the puts command to make your program print out the year of each movie to the screen. The output for your program should look something like this.



    movies = { :jaws => 1975,
               :anchorman => 2004,
               :man_of_steel => 2013,
               :a_beautiful_mind => 2001,
               :the_evil_dead => 1981 }
    puts movies[:jaws]
    puts movies[:anchorman]
    puts movies[:man_of_steel]
    puts movies[:a_beautiful_mind]
    puts movies[:the_evil_dead]

    We also show a solution that uses the new syntax for creating hashes (as of Ruby 1.9):

    movies = { jaws: 1975,
               anchorman: 2004,
               man_of_steel: 2013,
               a_beautiful_mind: 2001,
               the_evil_dead: 1981 }
    puts movies[:jaws]
    puts movies[:anchorman]
    puts movies[:man_of_steel]
    puts movies[:a_beautiful_mind]
    puts movies[:the_evil_dead]

    This syntax only works when using symbols (e.g., :jaws) as a key. We'll cover it in more detail later.

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  4. Use the dates from the previous example and store them in an array. Then make your program output the same thing as exercise 3.


    dates = [1975, 2004, 2013, 2001, 1981]
    puts dates[0]
    puts dates[1]
    puts dates[2]
    puts dates[3]
    puts dates[4]

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  5. Write a program that outputs the factorial of the numbers 5, 6, 7, and 8.


    puts 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1
    puts 6 * 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1
    puts 7 * 6 * 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1
    puts 8 * 7 * 6 * 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1

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  6. Write a program that calculates the squares of 3 float numbers of your choosing and outputs the result to the screen.


    puts 4.30 * 4.30
    puts 6.13 * 6.13
    puts 124.34 * 124.34

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  7. What does the following error message tell you?

    SyntaxError: (irb):2: syntax error, unexpected ')', expecting '}'
      from /usr/local/rvm/rubies/ruby-2.5.3/bin/irb:16:in `<main>'


    There is a closing ) somewhere in the program without a corresponding opening (, and an opening { without a corresponding closing }. It may have happened when creating a hash.

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