What is a Hash?

A hash is a data structure that stores items by associated keys. This is contrasted against arrays, which store items by an ordered index. Entries in a hash are often referred to as key-value pairs. This creates an associative representation of data.

Most commonly, a hash is created using symbols as keys and any data types as values. All key-value pairs in a hash are surrounded by curly braces {} and comma separated.

Hashes can be created with two syntaxes. The older syntax comes with a => sign to separate the key and the value.

irb :001 > old_syntax_hash = {:name => 'bob'}
=> {:name=>'bob'}

The newer syntax is introduced in Ruby version 1.9 and is much simpler. As you can see, the result is the same.

irb :002 > new_hash = {name: 'bob'}
=> {:name=>'bob'}

You can also have hashes with many key-value pairs.

irb :003 > person = { height: '6 ft', weight: '160 lbs' }
=> {:height=>'6 ft', :weight=>'160 lbs'}

Let's say you wanted to add on to an existing hash.

irb :004 > person[:hair] = 'brown'
=> "brown"
irb :005 > person
=> {:height=>'6 ft', :weight=>'160 lbs', :hair=>'brown'}

irb :006> person[:age] = 62
=> 62
irb :007> person
=> {:height=>'6 ft', :weight=>'160 lbs', :hair=>'brown', :age=>62}

And what if you want to remove something from an existing hash?

irb :008 > person.delete(:age)
=> 62
irb :009 > person
=> {:height=>'6 ft', :weight=>'160 lbs', :hair=>'brown'}

Now how do you retrieve a piece of information from a hash?

irb :010 > person[:weight]
=> "160 lbs"

What if you want to merge two hashes together?

irb :011 > person.merge!(new_hash)
=> {:height=>'6 ft', :weight=>'160 lbs', :hair=>'brown', :name=>'bob'}

Notice that we used the merge! method to make this change destructive. We could have chosen to use the merge method instead, which would have returned a new merged hash, but left the original person hash unmodified.

Iterating Over Hashes

Because hashes can have multiple elements in them, there will be times when you'll want to iterate over a hash to do something with each element. Iterating over hashes is similar to iterating over arrays with some small differences. We'll use the each method again and this time we'll create a new file to test this out.

# iterating_over_hashes.rb

person = {name: 'bob', height: '6 ft', weight: '160 lbs', hair: 'brown'}

person.each do |key, value|
  puts "Bob's #{key} is #{value}"

We use the each method like before, but this time we assign a variable to both the key and the value. In this example we are setting the key to the key variable and the value to the value variable. Run this program at the command line with ruby iterating_over_hashes.rb to see the results. The output is:

Bob's name is bob
Bob's height is 6 ft
Bob's weight is 160 lbs
Bob's hair is brown

Hashes as Optional Parameters

You may recall in chapter three on methods, we talked about the ability to assign default parameters to your methods so that the output is always consistent. You can use a hash to accept optional parameters when you are creating methods as well. This can be helpful when you want to give your methods some more flexibility and expressivity. More options, if you will! Let's create a method that does just that.

# optional_parameters.rb

def greeting(name, options = {})
  if options.empty?
    puts "Hi, my name is #{name}"
    puts "Hi, my name is #{name} and I'm #{options[:age]}" +
         " years old and I live in #{options[:city]}."

greeting("Bob", {age: 62, city: "New York City"})

We used Ruby hash's empty? method to detect whether the options parameter, which is a hash, had anything passed into it. You haven't seen this method yet but you can infer what it does. You could also check out the Ruby Docs to look up the method as well. At the end we called the method twice. Once using no optional parameters, and a second time using a hash to send the optional parameters. You can see how using this feature could make your methods much more expressive and dynamic.

And finally, to add a small twist, you can also pass in arguments to the greeting method like this:

greeting("Bob", age: 62, city: "New York City")

Notice the curly braces, { }, are not required when a hash is the last argument, and the effect is identical to the previous example. This convention is commonly used by Rails developers. Understanding this concept alone should help you decipher some previously cryptic Rails code!

Hashes vs. Arrays

This chapter and the last covered two very important and widely used data structures: hashes and arrays. It can be a bit overwhelming when you look at all of the different ways there are to represent data with code. Don't feel too daunted. Pick these things up in small parts and apply them. Then add more little parts as you move along. It's impossible to know everything in the beginning so put some effort into learning a few things well and then build from there.

When deciding whether to use a hash or an array, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Does this data need to be associated with a specific label? If yes, use a hash. If the data doesn't have a natural label, then typically an array will work fine.

  • Does order matter? If yes, then use an array. As of Ruby 1.9, hashes also maintain order, but usually ordered items are stored in an array.

  • Do I need a "stack" or a "queue" structure? Arrays are good at mimicking simple "first-in-first-out" queues, or "last-in-first-out" stacks.

As you grow as a developer, your familiarity with these two data structures will naturally affect which one you reach for when looking to solve specific problems. The key is to practice and experiment with each to find out which data structure works best in certain situations.

A Note on Hash Keys

Thus far, we have been using symbols as our keys in all of the hashes we've been creating. We have done this because it is the most common use case in the wild. However, it is possible to use a different data type for a key. Let's take a look.

irb :001 > {"height" => "6 ft"}     # string as key
=> {"height"=>"6 ft"}
irb :002 > {["height"] => "6 ft"}   # array as key
=> {["height"]=>"6 ft"}
irb :003 > {1 => "one"}             # integer as key
=> {1=>"one"}
irb :004 > {45.324 => "forty-five point something"}  # float as key
=> {45.324=>"forty-five point something"}
irb :005 > {{key: "key"} => "hash as a key"}  # hash as key
=> {{:key=>"key"}=>"hash as a key"}

Pretty bizarre. So you can see that hashes can be very diverse and you can pretty much store whatever you want to in them. Also notice that we are forced to use the old style (i.e., using =>) when we deviate from using symbols as keys.

Common Hash Methods

Let's look at some common methods that come with Ruby's Hash class.


The key? method allows you to check if a hash contains a specific key. It returns a boolean value.

irb :001 > name_and_age = { "Bob" => 42, "Steve" => 31, "Joe" => 19}
=> {"Bob"=>42, "Steve"=>31, "Joe"=>19}
irb :002 > name_and_age.key?("Steve")
=> true
irb :003 > name_and_age.key?("Larry")
=> false


The select method allows you to pass a block and will return any key-value pairs that evaluate to true when passed to the block.

irb :004 > name_and_age.select { |k,v| k == "Bob" }
=> {"Bob"=>42}
irb :005 > name_and_age.select { |k,v| (k == "Bob") || (v == 19) }
=> {"Bob"=>42, "Joe"=>19}


The fetch method allows you to pass a given key and it will return the value for that key if it exists. You can also specify an option for return if that key is not present. Take a look at the Ruby docs here to see what else is possible.

irb :006 > name_and_age.fetch("Steve")
=> 31
irb :007 > name_and_age.fetch("Larry")
=> KeyError: key not found: "Larry"
     from (irb):32:in `fetch'
     from (irb):32
     from /usr/local/rvm/rubies/ruby-2.5.3/bin/irb:16:in `<main>'
irb :008 > name_and_age.fetch("Larry", "Larry isn't in this hash")
=> "Larry isn't in this hash"


The to_a method returns an array version of your hash when called. Let's see it in action. It doesn't modify the hash permanently though.

irb :009 > name_and_age.to_a
=> [["Bob", 42], ["Steve", 31], ["Joe", 19]]
irb :010 > name_and_age
=> {"Bob"=>42, "Steve"=>31, "Joe"=>19}

keys and values

Finally, if you want to just retrieve all the keys or all the values out of a hash, you can do so very easily:

irb :0011 > name_and_age.keys
=> ["Bob", "Steve", "Joe"]
irb :0012 > name_and_age.values
=> [42, 31, 19]

Notice that the returned values are in array format. Because it's returning an array, you can do interesting things like printing out all the keys in a hash: name_and_age.keys.each { |k| puts k }.

A Note on Hash Order

In the oldest versions of Ruby, you could not rely on hashes maintaining order; that is, the order in which keys/value pairs are stored was not well-defined. On one call to name_and_age.keys, we might see ["Bob", "Steve", "Joe"]; in a subsequent run of the program, we might get ["Joe", "Bob", "Steve"].

In all modern Ruby versions (1.9 and higher), hashes maintain the order in which they're stored. Thus, the following code will always output the same results: ["Steve", "Joe", "Bob"]:

irb :013 > name_and_age = { "Steve" => 31, "Joe" => 19, "Bob" => 42 }
=> { "Steve" => 31, "Joe" => 19, "Bob" => 42 }
irb :014 > name_and_age.keys
=> ["Steve", "Joe", "Bob"]


Now you have a good start at knowing all of the wonderful things that hashes can do. The concept of key-value pairs will come up quite often in other technologies as well, so it's good to have a tight grasp on it. I think you know what's coming next...more exercises!


  1. Given a hash of family members, with keys as the title and an array of names as the values, use Ruby's built-in select method to gather only siblings' names into a new array.

    family = {  uncles: ["bob", "joe", "steve"],
                sisters: ["jane", "jill", "beth"],
                brothers: ["frank","rob","david"],
                aunts: ["mary","sally","susan"]


    immediate_family = family.select do |k, v|
      k == :sisters || k == :brothers
    arr = immediate_family.values.flatten
    p arr

    Video Walkthrough

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  2. Look at Ruby's merge method. Notice that it has two versions. What is the difference between merge and merge!? Write a program that uses both and illustrate the differences.


    The difference is merge! modifies permanently, while merge does not.

    cat = {name: "whiskers"}
    weight = {weight: "10 lbs"}
    puts cat.merge(weight)
    puts cat                  # => {:name=>"whiskers"}
    puts weight               # => {:weight=>"10 lbs"}
    puts cat.merge!(weight)
    puts cat                  # => {:name=>"whiskers", :weight=>"10 lbs"}
    puts weight               # => {:weight=>"10 lbs"}

    Note: In the video walkthrough, at around the 1:30 mark, the instructor uses the word "array" when it should be a "hash".

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  3. Using some of Ruby's built-in Hash methods, write a program that loops through a hash and prints all of the keys. Then write a program that does the same thing except printing the values. Finally, write a program that prints both.


    opposites = {positive: "negative", up: "down", right: "left"}
    opposites.each_key { |key| puts key }
    opposites.each_value { |value| puts value }
    opposites.each { |key, value| puts "The opposite of #{key} is #{value}" }

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  4. Given the following expression, how would you access the name of the person?

    person = {name: 'Bob', occupation: 'web developer', hobbies: 'painting'}



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  5. What method could you use to find out if a Hash contains a specific value in it? Write a program that verifies that the value is within the hash.


    # value?
    if opposites.value?("negative")
      puts "Got it!"
      puts "Nope!"

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  6. Given the following code...

    x = "hi there"
    my_hash = {x: "some value"}
    my_hash2 = {x => "some value"}

    What's the difference between the two hashes that were created?


    The first hash that was created used a symbol x as the key. The second hash used the string value of the x variable as the key.

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  7. If you see this error, what do you suspect is the most likely problem?

    NoMethodError: undefined method `keys' for Array

    A. We're missing keys in an array variable.

    B. There is no method called keys for Array objects.

    C. keys is an Array object, but it hasn't been defined yet.

    D. There's an array of strings, and we're trying to get the string keys out of the array, but it doesn't exist.



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