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What the Splat?

Flatiron School / 16 October 2013

The following is a guest post by Manuel Neuhauser and originally appeared on his blog. Manuel is currently in the Ruby-003 class at The Flatiron School. You can follow him on Twitter here.

The asterisk operator commonly known as splat can be a powerful ally in writing clean and highly functional code. The splat operator has a variety of behaviors depending on where it is used, and in this post I’ll focus on the use of splat in conjunction with methods in Ruby 1.9 and later.

Arbitrary Argument Length in Method Signature

Occasionally, we would like to define a method that will accept an undefined number of argument. Typically, we use an optionalHash as the last argument, which holds a variety of arguments. However, we can also take advantage of the splat operator by placing it in front of an argument variable name in the method definition. It will cause the argument variable to capture an Array of all arguments passed to the function that have not been matched to other arguments in the method signature. The splat operator can be used at the beginning or at the end of the argument list, though for the latter, the last argument that is passed into the function must be a Hash.

There is one more —for the lack of a better word— interesting use of the splat operator in the method signature at the end when it’s by itself. It allows for additional arguments to be accepted, but ignored by the method.

Calling Methods

The reason for this blog entry is actually this section. I recently worked on a project in which I wanted to use Object#send to dynamically call an instance method. The method #play takes an argument, while #list doesn’t. I quickly ran into a problem with this particular code:

When processing the input “list”, args is set to nil, which is still considered an argument and it triggers an ArgumentError because #list does not take any arguments.

Our little friend splat can actually help us resolve this issue. When calling a method and prepending the splat to an array variable, it will cause it to be distributed across the arguments of the method. In my case, the empty args variable was distributed across exactly no arguments. By adding the splat, we can now dynamically send either one or two arguments to the #send function.

When using splat to distribute the values to the arguments, the count must match exactly. Also, only a splat in front of an empty ArrayHash or nil will yield no value to argument assignment.

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