Loops & Iterators

Some operations in computer programming are best served with a loop.

A loop is the repetitive execution of a piece of code for a given amount of repetitions or until a certain condition is met. We will cover while loops, do/while loops, and for loops.

A Simple Loop

The simplest way to create a loop in Ruby is using the loop method. loop takes a block, which is denoted by { ... } or do ... end. A loop will execute any code within the block (again, that's just between the {} or do ... end) until you manually intervene with Ctrl + c or insert a break statement inside the block, which will force the loop to stop and the execution will continue after the loop.

Let's try an example of a loop by creating a file named loop_example.rb

# loop_example.rb

loop do
  puts "This will keep printing until you hit Ctrl + c"
end

Now we can run ruby loop_example.rb on the terminal and see what happens.

You'll notice the same statement keeps printing on the terminal. You'll have to interrupt with a Ctrl + c to stop it.

This will keep printing until you hit Ctrl + c
This will keep printing until you hit Ctrl + c
This will keep printing until you hit Ctrl + c
This will keep printing until you hit Ctrl + c
This will keep printing until you hit Ctrl + cInterrupt:
from (pry):2:in `puts'
[2] pry(main)>

Controlling Loop Execution

You'll hardly do something like this in a real program as it's not very useful and will result in an infinite loop. Eventually your system will crash.

Let's look at a more useful example with the break keyword by creating a file named useful_loop.rb:

# useful_loop.rb

i = 0
loop do
  i += 1
  puts i
  break         # this will cause execution to exit the loop
end

When you run useful_loop.rb in your terminal, the output should be:

$ ruby useful_loop.rb
1

The break keyword allows us to exit a loop at any point, so any code after a break will not be executed. Note that break will not exit the program, but only exit the loop and execution will continue on from after the loop.

Next, let's look at adding conditions within a loop by printing all even numbers from 0 up to 10. Let's create a file named conditional_loop.rb

# conditional_loop.rb

i = 0
loop do
  i += 2
  puts i
  if i == 10
    break       # this will cause execution to exit the loop
  end
end

Here's the output when we run the file:

$ ruby conditional_loop.rb
2
4
6
8
10

You can see from the above that break was not executed during the first 4 iterations through the loop, but on the 5th iteration, the if statement evaluated to true and so the code within the if statement was executed, which is just break, and execution exited the loop.

We'll talk explicitly about using conditionals within a loop later. Similar to how we use break to exit a loop, we can use the keyword next to skip the rest of the current iteration and start executing the next iteration. We'll use the same example as before to demonstrate. This time we'll skip 4.

# next_loop.rb

i = 0
loop do
  i += 2
  if i == 4
    next        # skip rest of the code in this iteration
  end
  puts i
  if i == 10
    break
  end
end

And here's the output when we run the file.

$ ruby next_loop.rb
2
6
8
10

Notice that the above code did not print out 4, because that was skipped over. Execution continued to the next iteration of the loop.

break and next are important loop control concepts that can be used with loop or any other loop construct in Ruby, which we'll cover one by one below. When combined with conditionals, you can start to build simple programs with interesting behavior.

While Loops

A while loop is given a parameter that evaluates to a boolean (remember, that's just true or false). Once that boolean expression becomes false, the while loop is not executed again, and the program continues after the while loop. Code within the while loop can contain any kind of logic that you would like to perform. Let's try an example of a while loop by creating a file named countdown.rb. We want this program to countdown from any number given by the user and print to the screen each number as it counts. Here we go!

# countdown.rb

x = gets.chomp.to_i

while x >= 0
  puts x
  x = x - 1
end

puts "Done!"

Now go to your terminal and run this program with ruby countdown.rb. You'll notice that the program initially waits for you to put in a number then executes the loop.

Initially the program evaluates the line x >= 0. This evaluates to true (unless you entered a negative number) and so the program enters the loop, executing puts x and the line after that, x = x - 1. Then the program returns to the top, now with the newly updated value of x and evaluates the x >= 0 again. This process repeats until the value of x is no longer greater than or equal to 0. It then exits the loop and continues with the rest of the program. You can see why it's called a loop. It loops over the logic within itself repeatedly.

We'd also like to take this opportunity to show you a small trick for refactoring this loop.

# countdown.rb

x = gets.chomp.to_i

while x >= 0
  puts x
  x -= 1 # <- refactored this line
end

puts "Done!"

We changed the line x = x - 1 to x -= 1. This is common to many programming languages and it's a nice succinct way to say the same thing with less typing. You can use it with any other operator as well (+, *, /, etc.).

You should also be aware that because we're using the x >= 0 expression as the test to see if we should execute the loop, the code within the loop must modify the variable x in some way. If it does not, then x >= 0 will always evaluate to true and cause an infinite loop. If you ever find your program unresponsive, it's possible that it is stuck in an infinite loop.

Until Loops

We didn't mention the until loop in the introduction paragraph. We do, however, need to mention them briefly so that you know about them. The until loop is simply the opposite of the while loop. You can substitute it in order to phrase the problem in a different way. Let's look briefly at how it works.

# countdown.rb

x = gets.chomp.to_i

until x < 0
  puts x
  x -= 1
end

puts "Done!"

There are instances when using until will allow you to write code that is more readable and logical. Ruby has many features for making your code more expressive. The until loop is one of those features.

Do/While Loops

A do/while loop works in a similar way to a while loop; one important difference is that the code within the loop gets executed one time, prior to the conditional check to see if the code should be executed. In a "do/while" loop, the conditional check is placed at the end of the loop as opposed to the beginning. Let's write some code that asks if the user wants to perform an action again, but keep prompting if the user enters 'Y'. This is a classic use case for a "do/while", because we want to repeatedly perform an action based on some condition, but we want the action to be executed at least one time no matter what.

# perform_again.rb

loop do
  puts "Do you want to do that again?"
  answer = gets.chomp
  if answer != 'Y'
    break
  end
end

Notice that we're using a simple loop, except the condition to break out of the loop occurs at the end, therefore ensuring that the loop executes at least once. Try copying and pasting the above code into irb and playing around with it yourself. Compare this with a normal "while" loop.

Side note: there's also another construct in Ruby that supports "do/while" loops, like this:

begin
  puts "Do you want to do that again?"
  answer = gets.chomp
end while answer == 'Y'

While the above works, it's not recommended by Matz, the creator of Ruby.

For Loops

In Ruby, for loops are used to loop over a collection of elements. Unlike a while loop where if we're not careful we can cause an infinite loop, for loops have a definite end since it's looping over a finite number of elements. It begins with the for reserved word, followed by a variable, then the in reserved word, and then a collection of elements. We'll show this using an array and a range. A range is a special type in Ruby that captures a range of elements. For example 1..3 is a range that captures the integers 1, 2, and 3.

# countdown3.rb

x = gets.chomp.to_i

for i in 1..x do
  puts i
end

puts "Done!"

The odd thing about the for loop is that the loop returns the collection of elements after it executes, whereas the earlier while loop examples return nil. Let's look at another example using an array instead of a range.

# countdown4.rb

x = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

for i in x do
  puts i
end

puts "Done!"

You can see there are a lot of ways to loop through a collection of elements using Ruby. Let's talk about some more interesting ways you can use conditions to modify the behavior of your loops. Most Rubyists forsake for loops and prefer using iterators instead. We'll cover iterators later.

Conditionals Within Loops

To make loops more effective and precise, we can add conditional flow control within them to alter their behavior. Let's use an if statement in a while loop to demonstrate.

# conditional_while_loop.rb

x = 0

while x <= 10
  if x.odd?
    puts x
  end
  x += 1
end

This loop uses the odd? method to decide if the current variable in the loop is odd. If it is, it prints to the screen. Next,x increments by one, and then the loop proceeds to the next iteration.

The reserved words next and break can be useful when looping as well.

If you place the next reserved word in a loop, it will jump from that line to the next loop iteration without executing the code beneath it. If you place the break reserved word in a loop, it will exit the loop immediately without executing any more code in the loop.

# conditional_while_loop_with_next.rb

x = 0

while x <= 10
  if x == 3
    x += 1
    next
  elsif x.odd?
    puts x
  end
  x += 1
end

We use the next reserved word here to avoid printing the number 3 in our loop. Let's try break as well.

# conditional_while_loop_with_break.rb

x = 0

while x <= 10
  if x == 7
    break
  elsif x.odd?
    puts x
  end
  x += 1
end

When you run this program you can see that the entire loop exits when the value of x reaches 7 in the loop. That is why the print out only goes to 5.

Loops are basic constructs in any programming language, but most Rubyists, where possible, prefer iterators over loops. We'll talk about iterators next.

Iterators

Iterators are methods that naturally loop over a given set of data and allow you to operate on each element in the collection.

We said earlier that arrays are ordered lists. Let's say that you had an array of names and you wanted to print them to the screen. How could you do that? You could use the each method for arrays, like this:

# practice_each.rb

names = ['Bob', 'Joe', 'Steve', 'Janice', 'Susan', 'Helen']

names.each { |name| puts name }

Isn't that concise! We've got a lot of explaining to do with this one.

We have called the each method using the dot operator (.) on our array. What this method does is loop through each element in our array, in order, starting from 'Bob'. Then it begins executing the code within the block. The block's starting and ending points are defined by the curly braces {}. Each time we iterate over the array, we need to assign the value of the element to a variable. In this example we have named the variable name and placed it in between two pipes |. After that, we write the logic that we want to use to operate on the variable, which represents the current array element. In this case it is simply printing to the screen using puts.

Run this program to see the output.

A block is just some lines of code ready to be executed. When working with blocks there are two styles you need to be aware of. By convention, we use the curly braces ({}) when everything can be contained in one line. We use the words do and end when we are performing multi-line operations. Let's add some functionality to our previous program to try out this do/end stuff.

# practice_each.rb

names = ['Bob', 'Joe', 'Steve', 'Janice', 'Susan', 'Helen']
x = 1

names.each do |name|
  puts "#{x}. #{name}"
  x += 1
end

We've added the counter x to add a number before each name, creating a numbered list output. The number x is incremented every time we go through the iteration.

Memorizing these small differences in syntax is one of the necessary tasks a Ruby programmer must go through. Ruby is a very expressive language. Part of what makes that possible is the ability to do things in more than one way.

There are many other iterator methods in Ruby, and over time, you'll get to use a lot of them. For now, know that most Rubyists prefer to use iterators, like the each method, to loop over a collection of elements.

Recursion

Recursion is another way to create a loop in Ruby. Recursion is the act of calling a method from within itself. That probably sounds confusing so let's look at some actual code to get a better idea.

A Simple Example

Let's say you wanted to know what the double of a number was, then the double of that number, etc. Let's say you wanted to double the number until the pre-doubled number is 10 or greater. You could create the following method:

def doubler(start)
  puts start * 2
end

And then you can use it like this:

irb(main):001:0> def doubler(start)
irb(main):002:1>   puts start * 2
irb(main):003:1> end
=> :doubler
irb(main):004:0> doubler(2)
4
=> nil
irb(main):005:0> doubler(4)
8
=> nil
irb(main):006:0> doubler(8)
16
=> nil

You can do this much more simply using recursion. Take a look at this version of the method:

def doubler(start)
  puts start
  if start < 10
    doubler(start * 2)
  end
end

This version of the method calls the doubler method again, passing it the doubled version of the value stored in the start variable. Once again, here is the declaration and use of the method using irb:

irb(main):001:0> def doubler(start)
irb(main):002:1>   puts start
irb(main):003:1>   if start < 10
irb(main):004:2>     doubler(start * 2)
irb(main):005:2>   end
irb(main):006:1> end
=> :doubler
irb(main):007:0> doubler(2)
2
4
8
16
=> nil

Another Example

We are using a method that uses recursion to calculate the nth number in the fibonacci sequence. You can learn more about the fibonacci sequence here. Basically, it is a sequence of numbers in which each number is the sum of the previous two numbers in the sequence.

Note: This example may take a few reads to really grasp what's happening at every point in the program. That's normal. Just take your time, and you'll be fine. Also, be excited! We are getting closer to reading more real-world examples!

Make the following file:

# fibonacci.rb

def fibonacci(number)
  if number < 2
    number
  else
    fibonacci(number - 1) + fibonacci(number - 2)
  end
end

puts fibonacci(6)

If you're panicking, don't be scared. Soon this will be simple to you. We just have to take it slow and understand everything that's going on, line-by-line. Recursion is a tricky subject for all programmers, so don't let this frustrate you any more than a healthy amount. When learning recursion, drawing diagrams can help. We can use a tree like structure to see what is happening. (We used f to abbreviate fibonacci to save space.)

Fibonacci Diagram

Each time the code branches off again you are calling the fibonacci function from within itself two times. If you take all of those ones and zeros and add them together, you'll get the same answer you get when you run the code. You can see why computer programs are handy now. Think if you had to draw that diagram out every time you wanted to know the fibonacci respresentation of a number. Yikes!

The key concept with recursion is that there is some baseline condition that returns a value, which then "unwinds" the recursive calls. You can think of the successive recursive calls building up, until some value is returned, and only then can the recursive calls be evaluated.

Summary

Loops and iterators are a great way to perform repeated operations on a data set. Often, in Ruby, you'll find yourself reaching for an iterator before a loop, but not all the time. Recursion, the ability to call a method inside of itself, can also do some powerful operations when solving problems. Let's test these out with some exercises!

Exercises

  1. What does the each method in the following program return after it is finished executing?

    x = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]
    x.each do |a|
      a + 1
    end
    

    Solution

    => [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]
    

    Video Walkthrough

    Please register to play this video
  2. Write a while loop that takes input from the user, performs an action, and only stops when the user types "STOP". Each loop can get info from the user.

    Solution

    x = ""
    while x != "STOP" do
      puts "Hi, How are you feeling?"
      ans = gets.chomp
      puts "Want me to ask you again?"
      x = gets.chomp
    end
    

    Video Walkthrough

    Please register to play this video
  3. Use the each_with_index method to iterate through an array of your creation that prints each index and value of the array.

    Solution

    top_five_games = ["mario brothers",
                      "excite bike",
                      "ring king",
                      "castlevania",
                      "double dragon"]
    
    top_five_games.each_with_index do | game, index |
      puts "#{index + 1}. #{game}"
    end
    

    Video Walkthrough

    Please register to play this video
  4. Write a method that counts down to zero using recursion.

    Solution

    def count_to_zero(number)
      if number <= 0
        puts number
      else
        puts number
        count_to_zero(number-1)
      end
    end
    
    count_to_zero(10)
    count_to_zero(20)
    count_to_zero(-3)
    

    Video Walkthrough

    Please register to play this video