on programming Rails for fun and profit...

How self Keyword Works in Ruby

Ruby's self keyword can be pretty confusing to understand, especially if you're new to Ruby. Not understanding it often leads to subtle programming bugs that can be difficult to debug. This post explains how it works under common, everyday situations.

Different forms of the self keyword
Different forms of the self keyword

Everything in Ruby is an object. The Ruby interpreter runs every line of code you write in the context of an object. The self keyword points to this object.

Here are the four important rules to keep in mind with the self keyword:

  • Only one object can be self at a given time.
  • self is constantly changing as a program executes.
  • When you call a method, the receiver of that method (i.e. the object on which you called the method) becomes self.
  • All methods without an explicit receiver are called on self.

Here are the different forms self can take, depending on where it's used.

Different forms of the self keyword
Different forms of the self keyword

Top-Level

At the top level, self points to the main object, which is an instance of Object class.

As soon as a Ruby program starts, the Ruby interpreter creates an object called main, and all subsequent code is executed in the context of this object.

puts self  # main
puts self.class  # Object

This context is also called top-level context.

Inside a Class or Module

Ruby lets you run any code inside the class or module definition, where the role of self is taken by the class or module itself.

class Language
  puts self  # Language
end

module Maths
  puts self # Maths
end

Inside a Class Method

The class method runs in the context of the class, not its instance. The class itself 'owns' that method.

In a class method, self points to the class.

class Language  
  def self.run
    puts self  # Language
  end
end

It works similarly for a module's class methods.

module Maths
  def self.calculate
    puts self  # Maths 
  end
end

Inside an Instance Method

All instance methods belong to the instance. Hence, self points to the specific instance of the class.

class Language
  def compile
    puts self  # #<Language:0x00007fc7c191c9f0>
  end
end

ruby = Language.new
ruby.compile

When you call a method, Ruby looks up the method in the object's ancestor chain and then executes the method with the receiver as self.

Inside a Module (Mixin) Method

Modules are one of Ruby's coolest features. They're somewhat similar to classes: they hold methods. However, you can't instantiate them directly. Modules let you mix these methods into another class (hence the word mixin💡).

When you include a module into a class, i.e. (mix in the module's methods as instance methods), the self object in that method points to the instance of that class.

module Task
  def execute
    puts self  # #<Project:0x0000000107fdce30>
  end
end

class Project
  include Task
end

p = Project.new
p.execute

When you extend a module into a class, i.e. (mix in the module's methods as class methods), the self object in that method points to the class.

module Task
  def execute
    puts self # Client 
  end
end

class Client
  extend Task
end

Client.execute

So that was a brief overview of how the self keyword works in Ruby. Understanding it will give you new powers to wield in your Rails apps.

I hope you found this article useful and that you learned something new. If you have any questions or feedback, please send me an email. I look forward to hearing from you.

Please subscribe to my blog below if you'd like to receive future articles directly in your email. If you're already a subscriber, THANK YOU 🙏

Subscribe to Akshay's Blog

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson
Subscribe