Ruby - attr_accessor, attr_writer, and attr_reader
Posted February 24, 2022 - tagged ruby
6 min read
In Ruby, object methods are public by default, while data is private. To access data, we use the accessor method.
Let's start from a simple example.
1. Without any attr_accessor
class Book def initialize(title, author) @title = title @author = author end end
And then, create a new object of type Book :
# Create a book object book = Book.new("The book title", "Jane Doe")
This seems okay so far. When we create our book object, the
initialize function will execute, setting the instance variables @title and @author to the strings "The book title" and "Jane Doe" respectively.
But what happens if we try to print one of these attributes?
$> book.title Traceback (most recent call last): book.rb:9:in `<main>': undefined method `title' for #<Book:0x000055e35f3de580 @title="Ruby on Rails"> (NoMethodError)
this returns an undefined method error. Why is this the case when we have clearly set the title property?
This is because Ruby differs from some other languages when it comes to using dot notation to access object properties. In Ruby,
. is used specifically for accessing object methods. It can't be used for accessing properties directly.
To get around this, we can define a new method (with the same name as the property) that does one thing: return the property that we want to access. Such a method is known as a getter method — its sole purpose is to get the value of the property and return it. Going back to our Book class, such methods for accessing our title and author variable would look like this:
class Book def initialize(title, author) @title = title @author = author end # Getter methods def title return @title end def author return @author end end book = Book.new("The book title", "Jane Doe") puts book.title # "The book title" puts book.author # "Jane Doe"
Great! Now we can access the instance variables title and color with the dot (
We now want to change/update the title property. We might try to assign a new value to title as follows:
Another undefined method error! Why can't we assign a new value to this property?
Well, our title getter method will not allow us to update a variable, as its only job was to return the value. As we now want to change its value, it turns out we need to create another method to handle that (appropriately known as a setter method). In this case, the
title= method, as this is the method that gets called when we try to assign the value. This method takes the new value as an argument and updates the instance variable. For example, setter methods for our Book class may look like:
class Book def initialize(title, author) @title = title @author = author end ## Getter methods def title return @title end def author return @author end ## Setter methods def title=(new_title) @title = new_title end def author=(new_author) @author = new_author end end
We now have access to the
author= methods, which take an argument and assign it to the object's instance variable which we specify inside the setter method. Now, if we try to update our book object title variable, we will no longer get an error!
2. attr_reader, attr_writer & attr_accessor
You might be thinking that needing to create separate functions for each attribute that we want to be able to read and update is quite tedious — and it is. To make this process quicker and simpler Ruby includes some methods in its core API to help out.
We use this when we need a variable that should only be changed from private methods, but whose value still needs to be available publicly.
attr_reader method takes the names of the object's attributes as arguments and automatically creates getter methods for each. We can replace our getter methods with
attr_reader and our book class definition becomes much simpler:
class Book attr_reader :title, :author # <-- Getter methods def initialize(title, author) @title = title @author = author end ## Setter methods def title=(new_title) @title = new_title end def author=(new_author) @author = new_author end end book = Book.new("The book title", "Jane Doe") puts book.title # Read variable # => "The book title"
attr_writer, only the setter method is defined. The getter method is left out. Maybe we have a secret variable we don’t want other objects to be able to read
The same goes for updating our objects properties. For this however, we need to use the
attr_writer method. This method works similarly to
attr_reader, except that it will automatically create setter methods for our class. Replacing our setter method in our Book class with
attr_writer would look like this:
This has cleaned up our class definition significantly and saved us a lot of time and lines of code writing out separate getter and setter methods for each instance variable.
However, when using the
attr_writer methods, we still have to repeat all of the property names for each method twice.
attr_accessor is a shortcut method when you need both
This is where the
attr_accessor method comes in handy and allows us to take it one step further, creating all of the getter and setter methods in a single line as follows:
class Book attr_accessor :title, :author # <-- Creates both getter and setter method def initialize(title, author) @title = title @author = author end end
And that is why you will often see
attr_accessor in Ruby classes!
attr_writer in Ruby allow us to access and modify instance variables using the . notation by creating getter and setter methods automatically. These methods allow us to access instance variables from outside the scope of the class definition.
attr_accessor combines the functionality of these two methods into a single method.