What is a method? In OO programming, we don't think of operating on data directly from outside an object; rather, objects have some understanding of how to operate on themselves (when asked nicely to do so). You might say we pass messages to an object, and those messages will generally elicit some kind of an action or meaningful reply. This ought to happen without our necessarily knowing or caring how the object really works inside. The tasks we are allowed to ask an object to perform (or equivalently, the messages it understands) are that object's methods.
In ruby, we invoke a method of an object with dot notation (just as in C++ or Java). The object being talked to is named to the left of the dot.
Intuitively, this string object is being asked how long it
is. Technically, we are invoking the
of the object
Other objects may have a slightly different interpretation of
length, or none at all. Decisions about how to respond
to a message are made on the fly, during program execution, and the
action taken may change depending on what a variable refers to.
ruby> foo = ["abcde", "fghij"]
What we mean by length can vary depending on what object
we are talking about. The first time we ask
foo for its
length in the above example, it refers to a simple string, and there
can only be one sensible answer. The second time,
refers to an array, and we might reasonably think of its length
as either 2, 5, or 10; but the most generally applicable answer is of
course 2 (the other kinds of length can be figured out if wished).
ruby> foo.length + foo.length
The thing to notice here is that an array knows something about what it means to be an array. Pieces of data in ruby carry such knowledge with them, so that the demands made on them can automatically be satisfied in the various appropriate ways. This relieves the programmer from the burden of memorizing a great many specific function names, because a relatively small number of method names, corresponding to concepts that we know how to express in natural language, can be applied to different kinds of data and the results will be what we expect. This feature of OO programming languages (which, IMHO, Java has done a poor job of exploiting) is called polymorphism.
When an object receives a message that it does not understand, an error is "raised":
ERR: (eval):1: undefined method `length' for 5(Fixnum)
So it is necessary to know what methods are acceptable to an object, though we need not know how the methods are processed.
If arguments are given to a method, they are generally surrounded by parentheses,
but they can be omitted if doing so does not cause ambiguity.
There is a special variable
self in ruby; it refers to
whatever object calls a method. This happens so often that for
convenience the "
self." may be omitted from method calls from
an object to itself:
is the same as
What we would think of traditionally as a function call is
just this abbreviated way of writing method invocations by
self. This makes ruby what is called a pure object
oriented language. Still, functional methods behave quite
similarly to the functions in other programming languages for the
benefit of those who do not grok how function calls are really object
methods in ruby. We can speak of functions as if they
were not really object methods if we want to.