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Ruby Bits: Spaceship Operator

This week on Ruby Bits we’ve decided to honour the Juno mission entering Jupiter’s orbit by discuss another special operator in Ruby, commonly known as the spaceship operator (because it looks like one). You’ve probably come across it at some point, but if not, here’s what I’m talking about: <=>.

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History

Perl was likely the first language to introduce this operator as it is seen in Ruby, but the same concept exists in Java or C# as part of their Comparable interfaces.

How it works in Ruby

The spaceship operator in Ruby has four possible return values, -1, 0, 1 or nil. It will return nil only if the two objects are not comparable. If they are comparable, it will return -1 if the caller object is considered less than the argument (whatever that means for these objects), it returns 0 if they are equal and 1 otherwise.

Sounds confusing? Let’s look at an example that will make it clearer:

1 <=> 4 #=> -1
4 <=> 4 #=> 0
8 <=> 4 #=> 1
7 <=> "hello" #=> nil

Where to use it?

If you’ve never used this operator directly, you might be wondering why would you care about it, or where should you use it. It turns out that <=> is the foundation to everything in the Comparable module. When it is implemented for a class, it allows you to use the more common comparison methods such as <, >=, between? or even sort.

As you can probably guess, Ruby already implements this for the core classes, even for Object which means your custom classes will also have a very basic (and usually not very useful) version of the spaceship operator.

Making my class comparable

As I’ve stated above, all objects can be compared with objects of the same class by default, that comparison might not be exactly what you want though. Let’s create a brand new Dummy class and see how it behaves:

class Dummy
end

d1 = Dummy.new
d2 = Dummy.new

d1 <=> d2 #=> nil
d1 < d2 #=> undefined method `<'

Woah! What just happened? Well, when the spaceship operator returns nil, none of the Comparable methods work, and the Object's version of <=> returns nil for every case, expect when the objects being compared are the exactly the same. For instance, d1 <=> d1 would return 0.

In order to make Dummy actually comparable we need to really implement the spaceship operator, like so:

class Dummy
  include Comparable

  def <=>(other)
    0
  end
end

d1 = Dummy.new
d2 = Dummy.new

d1 <=> d2 #=> 0
d1 < d2 #=> false

Notice that we included the Comparable module and then implemented the <=> method to always return 0, which means all instances of this class are considered equal. So that we can write a more interesting method, let’s also add a string attribute that we can compare:

class Dummy
  include Comparable

  attr_reader :name

  def initialize(name)
    @name = name
  end

  def <=>(other)
    name <=> other.name
  end
end

d1 = Dummy.new("hello")
d2 = Dummy.new("world")

d1 <=> d2 #=> -1
d1 < d2 #=> true

In this example we are simply delegating the <=> to String, which in turn will declare that "hello" is less than "world" because the unicode code point for h is 104 and the one for w is 119 and that’s what’s actually being compared.

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Luis Zamith

About Luis Zamith

Has worked on the web for a while now, mainly using Ruby and Ruby on Rails. Enjoys open source and giving back to the community, having taught Rails to hundreds of people.
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