Name Thy Args - Named Arguments in Ruby
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Last updated 21 June 2015

Just like last time, where I wrote about the underused Object#tap method, I want to talk about a relatively new and underutilized feature in Ruby. Today it is named arguments.

Starting in Ruby 2.0, you could give your arguments names like so:

def method(argument: "default")
  argument.length
end

This was nice, but since you were forced to provide a default value it wasn’t always super useful. Starting in Ruby 2.1, though, the requirement for a default was dropped so now you can write:

def method(argument:)
  argument.length
end

Why is this so great? It provides documentation when a method is called. Have you ever run across a method call like do_thing(user, false) in an existing codebase? Don’t you immediately have to look up the do_thing method to figure out what that false means? What if, instead, you saw do_thing(user: user, async: false)? Now you don’t need to lookup the code for that method since it is clear what the false means.

Another benefit is that the order doesn’t matter. do_thing(async: false, user: user) works just as well. Just last week I spent almost an hour figuring out why a test wasn’t passing before I realized I had some positional arguments in the wrong order. Named arguments avoid that.

The name of the arguments can also give reminders about what type the arguments should be. If you are supposed to pass a user id to the method, do_thing(user, false) is a much easier mistake to make than do_thing(user_id: user, async: false). It is immediately obvious that it should be do_thing(user_id: user.id, async: false).

Finally, Ruby is much more helpful about what is wrong when you forget a named argument than positional arguments. If you try do_thing(user) you get an error like ArgumentError: wrong number of arguments (1 for 2). Then you have to look at the method definition to see what you forgot. With named arguments if you try do_thing(user: user), you get an error like ArgumentError: missing keyword: async, which is much more informative.

The only downsides to named arguments are that they make your method calls a little more verbose, and that it makes any gems or libraries you create not as backwards compatible. I think the verbosity is worth it, though, and I think once Rails 5 comes out and people have to switch to Ruby 2.2 to use it, backwards compatibility won’t be such a big issue. In a private codebase, of course, you don’t have to worry about compatibility with old Rubies, so there is no downside there.

I encourage you to use named arguments as much as possible. I think you’ll see the benefits right away!

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