Useful Features of a Ruby Hash

Ruby's Hash is a Swiss-Army Knife

A Hash is a built-in data structure in Ruby that maps values to keys and has a constant-time O(1) lookup. This article shows the capabilities of this simple, but equally powerful tool. We’ll start with the basics but also cover some obscure but equally useful features of hash.

10 min read

When I used to program in C# (or even Java before that), one of the topics that always puzzled me was when to use which class. There are literally thousands and thousands of classes in the core language, framework, and the standard library. For example, here are the five types that implement the IDictionary interface in C#.

  • Hashtable
  • SortedList
  • SortedList<TKey, TValue>
  • Dictionary<TKey, TValue>
  • ConcurrentDictionary<TKey, TValue>

Of course, there's a use for each, and I don't doubt the decisions of the language and framework creators (huge respect for Anders Hejlsberg, creator of C#). But as a programmer building run-of-the-mill CRUD web applications, having so many choices can be really daunting and confusing. When do you choose which type? What if you made a wrong choice?

In contrast, Ruby has a single Hash class to manage key-value pairs. It's a very flexible data structure. It can act as a data object, a dictionary, a hash table, a sorted list, and much more. Like almost everything in Ruby, it's a sharp knife that you can use to cut yourself, but can also use to cook great food; I mean, write good programs.

This post explores the Hash data structure in-depth, and lists some of the obscure but useful operations in day-to-day programming.

What is a Hash?

A Hash is a general-purpose data structure for storing pairs of data. In programming terms, a Hash is a data type that associates (maps) values to keys.

Here's a simple Ruby hash that has two keys, :name and :price (both are Ruby symbols), with the values 'book' and 10 respectively.

product = { name: 'book', price: 10 }

An important thing to note with the above syntax is that it's actually a shorthand that was added in newer versions of Ruby, to simplify using symbol keys.

Here's the original hash syntax for the same code above:

product = { :name => 'book', :price => 10 }

In this case, the keys are explicitly created as Ruby symbols, i.e. :name and :price.

In addition to symbols, Ruby hashes can have almost any object as the key, e.g. strings and integers. If you want to have any other values as keys, then you have to use the older syntax, which uses arrows.

# older syntax

data = { "product" => "iPhone", 600 => "Price (in dollars)" }

values = { 0 => 'first', 1 => 'second' }  # just use arrays instead

You can also define user-defined objects as keys. But it's rare, and deserves a blog post of its own. Check out the documentation to learn more.

A Hash is similar to an Array, but stores a list of key-value pairs. In an array, each element has a positional index, but a Hash key can be anything, and the key has to be unique, and each key has a single mapped value.

Think of the hash as a function whose input is a key, and output is the data or the value stored for that key. 

A different way to think of a Hash as a chest with drawers that have a unique label (key) on them, and can store files (values). Whenever you need a file (value), just open the drawer with proper label.


Now, a drawer can't have duplicate labels, right? How would you know which drawer to open? Similarly, if you try to create a hash with duplicate keys, Ruby will warn you and only store the last key value pair.

person = { name: 'Akshay', name: 'AK' }

# Output

warning: key :name is duplicated and overwritten on line 20

To retrieve the data, use the array notation. If the key exists, it will return the value, otherwise it will return nil.

=> "Akshay"

=> "iPhone"

=> "One Hundred"

Alternatively, you can use the fetch method on a hash, as follows:


The fetch method also lets you provide a default value, if the key doesn't exist.

product.fetch(:name)            # key not found

product.fetch(:name, 'iPhone')  # iPhone

Prefer fetch over []

In addition to being able to provide a default value, another nice thing about fetch is that if a key doesn't exist, it will immediately let you know, instead of returning nil. This will prevent null reference errors further down the chain.


# `fetch': key not found: :names (KeyError)
# Did you mean?  :name

For example, if you use [] to access a non-existent key, you won't know it until you try to call a method on the nil object and it fails.

props = { width: '60', height: '40' }

shape = props[:shape]  # nil


# Output

main.rb:24:in `<main>': private method `print' called for nil:NilClass (NoMethodError)

Delete a Key

To delete a key, simply call the delete method on hash, passing the name of the key.

product = { name: 'iPhone', price: '500' }

product.delete(:price)  # "500"
product                 # { :name => "iPhone" }

If you try to delete a non-existent key, Ruby won't complain.

Nested Hash

A hash can be nested. To access the inner values, you can use the brackets, or use the dig method.

product = { phone: { model: 'iPhone' } }

puts product[:phone][:model]     # iPhone
puts product.dig(:phone, :model) # iPhone

Default Values

If a hash doesn't contain the key, it returns nil. However, you can set the default value for the hash using its default property. Alternatively, you can also use a block when initializing the hash object.

person = { name: "Akshay", age: 31 }

person[:city]         # nil
person.default = "-"  # "-"
person[:city]         # "-"

person = { |hash, key| "Default value for #{key}" }
person[:city]         # "Default value for city"

If you already have a bunch of variables, you can create a new hash with those variables as keys, as follows:

width  = '10px'
height = '20px'
border = 'rounded'

properties = { width:, height:, border: }

puts properties  # {:width=>"10px", :height=>"20px", :border=>"rounded"}

Iterating Over a Hash

The Hash class includes the Enumerable module. Additionally, a hash preserves the order of the entries. This effectively makes a hash act like a list (or an array). This is useful when you want to loop over a hash with each, each_key, each_pair, each_value, keys and values. Let's look at each method along with an example.

The each method lets you loop over the key-value pair. If you provide a single argument to the block, the pair will be passed as an array.

properties = { width: '30px', height: '10px', color: 'green' }

properties.each do |prop|
  p prop

# Output

[:width, "30px"]
[:height, "10px"]
[:color, "green"]

If you provide two arguments, the key-value pair will be spread over those two. If you want to be more expressive, use each_pair, which works the same.

properties = { width: '30px', height: '10px', color: 'green' }

properties.each do |prop, val|
  puts "#{prop}: #{val}"

# OR
properties.each_pair do |prop, val|
  puts "#{prop}: #{val}"

# Output

width: 30px
height: 10px
color: green

To access keys and values separately, use either keys, each_key, values or each_value method, which work as you expect.

properties = { width: '30px', height: '10px', color: 'green' }

p properties.keys
p properties.values

properties.each_key { |key| puts key }
properties.each_value { |value| puts value }

# Output

[:width, :height, :color]

["30px", "10px", "green"]

Passing Hash to Functions

You can pass a hash to a function (but you probably knew that).

def process_payment(payment)
  print payment.keys  # [:product, :price, :apple_care]

payment = {
  product: 'iPhone 13 mini',
  price: 800.00,
  apple_care: false


But did you know that the curly braces may be omitted when the last argument in a method call is a Hash?

def process_payment(user, payment)
  puts user
  p payment.keys

user = 'Akshay'
process_payment(user, product: 'iPhone 13 mini', price: 800.00, apple_care: false)

# Output

[:product, :price, :apple_care]

That said, just because you can, doesn't mean you should. In fact, this behavior is deprecated in the latest versions of Ruby. A better solution is to use the double-splat operator (**), which we'll see next.

For a great example demonstrating why it was deprecated, please check out this comment on Hacker News.

Double Splat Operator

This probably deserves a separate blog post of its own, but you can use the double splat operator to 'unpack' hashes into other hashes.

properties = { 
  width: '30px', 
  height: '10px'

style = { **properties, border: 'none' }

p style

# Output

{:width=>"30px", :height=>"10px", :border=>"none"}

Additionally, you can also use it to capture all keyword arguments to a method (which can also be a simple hash).

def process_payment(user, **payment)
  puts user
  p payment.keys

user = 'Akshay'
process_payment(user, product: 'iPhone 13 mini', price: 800.00, apple_care: false)

# Output

[:product, :price, :apple_care]

Useful Hash Methods

In this section, we'll take a look at some of the common but useful methods on Hash. For all the examples that follow, we'll use following properties hash.

properties = { 
  width: '30px', 
  height: '10px', 
  color: 'green',
  display: :flex,
  options: nil
  • any?(key)

Returns true if any key-value pair satisfies a given condition. Otherwise, returns false.

properties.any? { |key, value| value == :flex }  # true
  • compact

Returns a copy of the hash with all nil-valued entries removed. The original hash is not modified. To modify the original hash, use compact!.


# {:width=>"30px", :height=>"10px", :color=>"green", :display=>:flex}
  • empty?

Returns true if there are no hash entries, false otherwise.

properties.empty?  # false

h = {}
h.empty?           # true    # true
  • merge

Merges another hash into this hash. You can simply provide the key:value pairs as argument, too.

properties.merge({ radius: '5px' })

# OR

properties.merge(radius: '5px')

# {:width=>"30px", :height=>"10px", :color=>"green", :display=>:flex, :options=>nil, :radius=>"5px"}
  • hash.eql? obj

Returns true only if the following conditions are true:

  1. obj is a Hash
  2. hash and obj have the same keys (order doesn't matter)
  3. For each key, hash[key].eql? obj[key]

This is different from equal? which returns true if and only if both values refer to the same object.

new_props = { width: '30px', height: '10px', color: 'green', display: :flex, options: nil }

# false, as they're different objects

# true, their shape is same
  • except(*keys)

Returns a new Hash without the entries for the given keys

properties.except(:display, :options)

# Output

{:width=>"30px", :height=>"10px", :color=>"green", :options=>nil}
{:width=>"30px", :height=>"10px", :color=>"green"}
  • reject

This is similar to except, in the sense that it removes the keys from the hash. The main difference is that you can pass a block to it, which is executed for each key-value pair. All pairs satisfying the condition will be removed.

properties.reject { |key, value| value == :flex }

# {:width=>"30px", :height=>"10px", :color=>"green", :options=>nil}

As always, it won't change the original hash, for which you've to use reject!.

  • filter and select

These methods selectively filter key-value pairs satisfying a given condition and return a new hash.

properties.filter { |key, value| value == :flex }

# {:display=>:flex}
  • fetch_values(*keys) OR hash.values_at(:k1, :k2)

Returns an array containing the values for the given keys.

Additionally, you can pass a block to fetch_values. It will be called for each missing key. The return value of the block is used for the key's value.

properties.fetch_values(:width, :height) # ["30px", "10px"]
properties.fetch_values(:height, :radius) { |key| key.to_s } # ["10px", "radius"]

properties.values_at(:width, :height) # ["30px", "10px"]
  • has_key?, member?, include?, and key?

All of these methods check if the hash contains the given key.

properties.has_key? :width  # true
properties.key?     :shape  # false
properties.member?  :color  # true
properties.include? :object # false
  • has_value?, value?

Check if the hash contains the given value.

properties.has_value? 'green'  # true
properties.value? :flex        # true
properties.value? :random      # false
  • length or size

Returns the number of entries in the hash.

properties.length # 5

properties.size # 5
  • count

It returns the number of entries just like length and size, but it also takes a block and returns the count of entries satisfying the block condition.

properties.count # 5

properties.count { |k, v| v.to_s.include?('px') } # 2
  • slice(*keys)

Returns a new hash containing the entries for the given keys.

properties.slice(:width, :height)

# Output

{:width=>"30px", :height=>"10px"}
  • transform_values

Returns a new hash with the values transformed by a block that accepts each value. It doesn't modify the original hash. For changing the original hash, use transform_values! method.

data = { a: 100, b: 200 }

new_data =  data.transform_values { |v| v * 2 }

new_data  # {:a=>200, :b=>400}
data      # {:a=>100, :b=>200}
  • flatten

Returns an array that is a 1-dimensional flattening of the hash.


# [:width, "30px", :height, "10px", :color, "green", :display, :flex, :options, nil]

I'll stop now, but there're a whole lot of other operations you could perform on a hash. Check out the Hash and Enumerable documentation for a comprehensive reference.

By the way, if you found this article useful, you might enjoy these:

How to Access Hash Values with Methods Using OrderedOptions
Have you ever wanted to create a hash where you could access the values like methods on an object? The OrderedOptions class in Rails lets you do just that. This post shows you how. We’ll also explore how Rails implements this feature using Ruby’s metaprogramming features.
How to Access a Hash with both String and Symbol Keys in Rails
Sometimes, you receive a hash key as a method parameter or via user input, and you want to make your hash understand that key as-is, without worrying if it’s a string or a symbol. A good example is the params hash in Rails. You can access it using either a
How to Convert a Ruby Object to Hash
Let’s say you have a Product object with properties @name = “Table” & @price = 10. What’s the best way in Rails to convert this object to the Hash { name: “Table”, price: 10 }? Here’re a few different ways to achieve this. The as_json Method (Rails) The as_json method converts

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