# Reading and Writing to Instance Variables in Ruby: Self., @, or Nothing?

Today marked the end of my second week as an instructor at The Flatiron School, where I graduated just about two months ago. While working with a student this morning, I realized I had been taking for granted a piece of knowledge that I learned in week two of my own semester.

When I first was learning about object orientation, one of the most confounding things for me was when to use @, self., or no prefix at all when dealing with instance variables in class definitions.

After several conversations with classmates and instructors, I thought I had it all straightened out. My table mates and I even wrote an ‘Instance Variable Manifesto’ to make sure we’d retain this enlightenment for all time. Today, I was grappling with the issue once again. It’s funny how learning to program doesn’t always happen in a straight line. The experience reminded me not to take for granted things I “know”, and to savor the moments of re-learning.

Here’s the issue that led to my temporary existential crisis today (had I totally lost my grasp of object oriented programming, all knowledge of Ruby, and/or my mind entirely?):

• We have a class, Shoe.
• It has an attribute, condition, with an attr_accessor.
• It has a method, cobble, that sets a Shoe’s condition to "new".
• The Rspec test first made a new instance of Shoe and then set its condition to "old". Then, it had the expectation that the condition of the shoe will be equal to "new" after calling the cobble method.

This is the code my student had:

At first glance, the reason this code was not making the test pass eluded me. We put a binding.pry in the cobble method, and found that while condition was indeed set to 'new', the test was still failing. Wasn’t condition = "new" just making a call to the condition= method provided by the attr_accessor? Apparently not.

In fact, as I later re-realized, condition = "new" was creating a local variable, condition with the value "new", which has nothing to do with the value of @condition. I was able to come back to understanding this concept when I recalled that I had grappled with this very same thing almost exactly four months ago, when I was working on the exact same lab. I searched through the notes I had taken during those early Flatiron days and found the “manifesto.”

Four months later, here’s my distilled version of it.

• Use @ only in the initialize method or within a custom reader/writer method (this accesses the instance variable directly)

• If you intend to ever read or write to an instance variable, build the appropriate reader/writer methods or use attr_accessor, attr_writer, or attr_reader as you deem appropriate. This allows you to delegate getting and setting your instance variables to methods rather than having to manipulate the variable directly.

• When altering the value of an instance variable, use the writer method prefixed with self. Without giving the writer method an explicit receiver (self), the Ruby interpreter will assume you are setting a local variable rather than calling the writer method (this is what led to the bug in the code snippet above).

• When simply reading the value of an instance variable, the reader method may be called with no prefix. The receiver of the reader method is implicitly self.

Here’s a code example to demonstrate usage of the previous guidelines:

Note that you can also use self. when calling reader methods, and it sometimes feels semantically more natural to do so. Unlike using @, this still delegates responsibility to the reader method, exactly the same as calling the reader method with no self. prefix.

TL;DR

• Use @ in the initialize or reader/writer methods.

• It’s better to delegate to reader and writer methods rather than accessing instance variables directly.

• You cannot call a writer method without the explicit receiver, self. When Ruby sees the = (or -=, or +=), it assumes you are setting a local variable if no receiver is specified.