When to Use Symbols Instead of Strings in Ruby

When to use symbols instead of strings in Ruby?


A simple rule of thumb is to use symbols every time you need internal identifiers. For Ruby < 2.2 only use symbols when they aren't generated dynamically, to avoid memory leaks.

Full answer

The only reason not to use them for identifiers that are generated dynamically is because of memory concerns.

This question is very common because many programming languages don't have symbols, only strings, and thus strings are also used as identifiers in your code. You should be worrying about what symbols are meant to be, not only when you should use symbols. Symbols are meant to be identifiers. If you follow this philosophy, chances are that you will do things right.

There are several differences between the implementation of symbols and strings. The most important thing about symbols is that they are immutable. This means that they will never have their value changed. Because of this, symbols are instantiated faster than strings and some operations like comparing two symbols is also faster.

The fact that a symbol is immutable allows Ruby to use the same object every time you reference the symbol, saving memory. So every time the interpreter reads :my_key it can take it from memory instead of instantiate it again. This is less expensive than initializing a new string every time.

You can get a list all symbols that are already instantiated with the command Symbol.all_symbols:

symbols_count = Symbol.all_symbols.count # all_symbols is an array with all 
# instantiated symbols.
a = :one
puts a.object_id
# prints 167778

a = :two
puts a.object_id
# prints 167858

a = :one
puts a.object_id
# prints 167778 again - the same object_id from the first time!

puts Symbol.all_symbols.count - symbols_count
# prints 2, the two objects we created.

For Ruby versions before 2.2, once a symbol is instantiated, this memory will never be free again. The only way to free the memory is restarting the application. So symbols are also a major cause of memory leaks when used incorrectly. The simplest way to generate a memory leak is using the method to_sym on user input data, since this data will always change, a new portion of the memory will be used forever in the software instance. Ruby 2.2 introduced the symbol garbage collector, which frees symbols generated dynamically, so the memory leaks generated by creating symbols dynamically it is not a concern any longer.

Answering your question:

Is it true I have to use a symbol instead of a string if there is at least two the same strings in my application or script?

If what you are looking for is an identifier to be used internally at your code, you should be using symbols. If you are printing output, you should go with strings, even if it appears more than once, even allocating two different objects in memory.

Here's the reasoning:

  1. Printing the symbols will be slower than printing strings because they are cast to strings.
  2. Having lots of different symbols will increase the overall memory usage of your application since they are never deallocated. And you are never using all strings from your code at the same time.

Use case by @AlanDert

@AlanDert: if I use many times something like %input{type: :checkbox} in haml code, what should I use as checkbox?

Me: Yes.

@AlanDert: But to print out a symbol on html page, it should be converted to string, shouldn't it? what's the point of using it then?

What is the type of an input? An identifier of the type of input you want to use or something you want to show to the user?

It is true that it will become HTML code at some point, but at the moment you are writing that line of your code, it is mean to be an identifier - it identifies what kind of input field you need. Thus, it is used over and over again in your code, and have always the same "string" of characters as the identifier and won't generate a memory leak.

That said, why don't we evaluate the data to see if strings are faster?

This is a simple benchmark I created for this:

require 'benchmark'
require 'haml'

str = Benchmark.measure do
10_000.times do
Haml::Engine.new('%input{type: "checkbox"}').render

sym = Benchmark.measure do
10_000.times do
Haml::Engine.new('%input{type: :checkbox}').render

puts "String: " + str.to_s
puts "Symbol: " + sym.to_s

Three outputs:

# first time
String: 5.14
Symbol: 5.07
String: 5.29
Symbol: 5.050000000000001
String: 4.7700000000000005
Symbol: 4.68

So using smbols is actually a bit faster than using strings. Why is that? It depends on the way HAML is implemented. I would need to hack a bit on HAML code to see, but if you keep using symbols in the concept of an identifier, your application will be faster and reliable. When questions strike, benchmark it and get your answers.

What is the use of symbols?

Ok, so the misunderstanding probably stems from this:

A symbol is not a variable, it is a value. like 9 is a value that is a number.

A symbol is a value that is kinda of roughly a string... it's just not a string that you can change... and because you can't change it, we can use a shortcut -> all symbols with the same name/value are stored in the same memory-spot (to save space).

You store the symbol into a variable, or use the value somewhere - eg as the key of a hash.... this last is probably one of the most common uses of a symbol.

you make a hash that contains key-value pairs eg:

thing_attrs = {:name => "My thing", :colour => "blue", :size => 6}
thing_attrs[:colour] # 'blue'

In this has - the symbols are the keys you can use any object as a key, but symbols are good to use as they use english words, and are thus easy to understand what you're storing/fetching... much better than, say numbers. Imagine you had:

thing_attrs = {0 => "My thing", 1 => "blue", 2 => 6}
thing_attrs[1] # => "blue"

It would be annoying and hard to remember that attribute 1 is the colour... it's much nicer to give names that you can read when you're reading the code. Thus we have two options: a string, or a symbol.

There would be very little difference between the two. A string is definitely usable eg:

thing_attrs = {"name" => "My thing", "colour" => "blue", "size" => 6}
thing_attrs["colour"] # 'blue'

except that as we know... symbols use less memory. Not a lot less, but enough less that in a large program, over time, you will notice it.
So it has become a ruby-standard to use symbols instead.

When to use symbols in Ruby

Symbols, or "internals" as they're also referred to as, are useful for hash keys, common arguments, and other places where the overhead of having many, many duplicate strings with the same value is inefficient.

For example:

my_function(with: { arguments: [ ... ] })
record.state = :completed

These are generally preferable to strings because they will be repeated frequently.

The most common uses are:

  • Hash keys
  • Arguments to methods
  • Option flags or enum-type property values

It's better to use strings when handling user data of an unknown composition. Unlike strings which can be garbage collected, symbols are permanent. Converting arbitrary user data to symbols may fill up the symbol table with junk and possibly crash your application if someone's being malicious.

For example:

user_data = JSON.load(...).symbolize_keys

This would allow an attacker to create JSON data with intentionally long, randomized names that, in time, would bloat your process with all kinds of useless junk.

Why should I use a string and not a symbol when referencing object attributes?

Your instincts are right, IMHO.

Symbols are more appropriate than strings to represent the elements of an enumerated type because they are immutable. While it's true that they aren't garbage collected, unlike strings, there is always only one instance of any given symbol, so the impact is minimal for most state transition applications. And, while the performance difference is minimal as well for most applications, symbol comparison is much quicker than string comparison.

See also Enums in Ruby

Why use symbols as hash keys in Ruby?


Using symbols not only saves time when doing comparisons, but also saves memory, because they are only stored once.

Ruby Symbols are immutable (can't be changed), which makes looking something up much easier

Short(ish) answer:

Using symbols not only saves time when doing comparisons, but also saves memory, because they are only stored once.

Symbols in Ruby are basically "immutable strings" .. that means that they can not be changed, and it implies that the same symbol when referenced many times throughout your source code, is always stored as the same entity, e.g. has the same object id.

Strings on the other hand are mutable, they can be changed anytime. This implies that Ruby needs to store each string you mention throughout your source code in it's separate entity, e.g. if you have a string "name" multiple times mentioned in your source code, Ruby needs to store these all in separate String objects, because they might change later on (that's the nature of a Ruby string).

If you use a string as a Hash key, Ruby needs to evaluate the string and look at it's contents (and compute a hash function on that) and compare the result against the (hashed) values of the keys which are already stored in the Hash.

If you use a symbol as a Hash key, it's implicit that it's immutable, so Ruby can basically just do a comparison of the (hash function of the) object-id against the (hashed) object-ids of keys which are already stored in the Hash. (much faster)

Each symbol consumes a slot in the Ruby interpreter's symbol-table, which is never released.
Symbols are never garbage-collected.
So a corner-case is when you have a large number of symbols (e.g. auto-generated ones). In that case you should evaluate how this affects the size of your Ruby interpreter.


If you do string comparisons, Ruby can compare symbols just by comparing their object ids, without having to evaluate them. That's much faster than comparing strings, which need to be evaluated.

If you access a hash, Ruby always applies a hash-function to compute a "hash-key" from whatever key you use. You can imagine something like an MD5-hash. And then Ruby compares those "hashed keys" against each other.

Every time you use a string in your code, a new instance is created - string creation is slower than referencing a symbol.

Starting with Ruby 2.1, when you use frozen strings, Ruby will use the same string object. This avoids having to create new copies of the same string, and they are stored in a space that is garbage collected.

Long answers:




What's the difference between a string and a symbol in Ruby?

The main difference is that multiple symbols representing a single value are identical whereas this is not true with strings. For example:

irb(main):007:0> :test.object_id
=> 83618
irb(main):008:0> :test.object_id
=> 83618
irb(main):009:0> :test.object_id
=> 83618

Those are three references to the symbol :test, which are all the same object.

irb(main):010:0> "test".object_id
=> -605770378
irb(main):011:0> "test".object_id
=> -605779298
irb(main):012:0> "test".object_id
=> -605784948

Those are three references to the string "test", but are all different objects.

This means that using symbols can potentially save a good bit of memory depending on the application. It is also faster to compare symbols for equality since they are the same object, comparing identical strings is much slower since the string values need to be compared instead of just the object ids.

As far as when to use which, I usually use strings for almost everything except things like hash keys where I really want a unique identifier, not a string.

In Ruby, how to choose whether a symbol or string to be used in a given scenario?

a = :foo
b = :foo

a and b refer to the same object in memory (same identity)

a.object_id # => 898908
b.object_id # => 898908

Strings behave differently

a = 'foo'
b = 'foo'

a.object_id # => 70127643805220
b.object_id # => 70127643805200

So, you use strings to store data and perform manipulations on data (replace characters or whatnot) and you use symbols to name things (keys in a hash or something). Also see this answer for more use cases for symbol.

string vs symbols rails

When using a Hash in Ruby, any object such a string or a symbol can be used as the key. However, :email and "email" are different objects so to look up an object you must use the same object that was used to store the value.

What might be confusing you is that Rails uses a HashWithIndifferentAccess in some places. This is a customised hash where keys :foo and "foo" are considered to be the same. This allows you to use e.g. params[:user] and params["user"] interchangeably, however that is not the general case.

As Stefan spotted, the reason why strings were being used for the keys in the parsed JSON object was just down to a small typo in the option: symbilize_names where it should be symbolize_names.

When are symbols used in Rails?

Second one. Most methods take symbols as their arguments. Here is why: When to use symbols instead of strings in Ruby?

This is the method signature of before_action:

before_action(names, options)

As you can see, it takes first a name and then some options as its argument. By convention, options is a hash. Because Ruby allows you to drop a lot of "line noise", the brackets around the hash are implicit. You could write the same line as:

before_action(:find_course, { only: [:show, :edit, :update, :destroy] })

So :find_course is not the key for the hash, but only is.

Furthermore, :find_course is not the name of a model but the name of a method. By passing the method name (as a symbol) to before_action, the method will be executed before each request is processed (i.e. before #show for example). Through the options, it is possible to limit the action to certain operations. These are again provided as symbols, since they are internal identifiers. Technically, they all reference methods on the controller again.

Passing symbols that reference methods or classes is a very common practice in Rails. belongs_to uses the same convention to add association methods to your models (belongs_to :user). Rails will attempt to connect this method name to a model called User unless you specify otherwise. This is part of the magic of Rails that makes it very easy to use, but a bit hard to understand in the beginning.

Having a good understanding of Ruby and symbols vs. strings helps you make more sense of this.


To understand what "internal identifier" means, check out the question linked to by Deep in a comment to your question: Why do callbacks use symbols in Ruby on Rails It explains why you need to reference a method, instead of doing something like this:


In summary, this would execute find_course and pass its result to before_action, which is not what you want. So you need to reference the method somehow so that it can be called later.

In other languages, this could be done with strings or by passing in a function object. For example, in Python you could do something before_action(print). This would pass a reference to the function without calling it. Sadly, this is not possible in Ruby, so we need to pass in a string or symbol with the name of the method, which brings us back to the first linked question about the benefits of symbols over strings as references.

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