Everything you ever wanted to know about constant lookup in Ruby

Conrad Irwin — November 2012

One of the best things about Ruby is that it just does what you mean. The downside of this is that if you're dealing with a fiddly situation, it can be somewhat hard to work out exactly what it will do.

This is particularly true of constant lookup. To access a constant in ruby, you just use its name: FooClass. But how does that actually work?

Module.nesting

To a first approximation, Ruby looks for constants attached to modules and classes in the surrounding lexical scope of your code, for example:

module A
  module B; end
  module C
    module D
      B == A::B
    end
  end
end

It first looks for A::C::D::B (doesn't exist), then A::C::B (still doesn't exist), and then finally A::B (which does).

Like almost everything in Ruby, the chain of namespaces that will be searched (known to l33t hackers as the cref) is introspectable at runtime with Module.nesting:

module A
  module C
    module D
      Module.nesting == [A::C::D, A::C, A]
    end
  end
end

If you've ever tried to take a short-cut when re-opening a module, you may have noticed that constants from skipped namespaces aren't available. This is because the outer namespaces are not added to Module.nesting.

module A
  module B; end
end

module A::C
  B
end
# NameError: uninitialized constant A::C::B

In order to find B, Module.nesting would have to include A, but it doesn't. It only includes A::C.

Ancestors

If the constant cannot be found by looking at any of the modules in Module.nesting, Ruby takes the currently open module or class, and looks at its ancestors.

class A
  module B; end
end

class C < A
  B == A::B
end

The currently open class or module is the innermost class or module statement in the code. A common misconception is that constant lookup uses self.class, which is not true. (btw, it's not using the default definee either, just in case you wondered):

class A
  def get_c; C; end
end

class B < A
  module C; end
end

B.new.get_c
# NameError: uninitialized constant A::C

Object::

Module.nesting == [] at the top level, and so constant lookup starts at the currently open class and its ancestors. While there's no class or module statement that you can see, it is taken for granted that at the top level of a ruby file the currently open class is Object:

class Object
  module C; end
end
C == Object::C

Although I've not explicitly said it yet, you've probably noticed that newly defined constants also get defined on the currently open class. So constants you define at the top level end up attached to Object.

module C; end
Object::C == C

This in turn explains why top-level constants are available throughout your program. Almost all classes in Ruby inherit from Object, so Object is almost always included in the list of ancestors of the currently open class, and thus its constants are almost always available.

That said, if you've ever used a BasicObject, and noticed that top-level constants are missing, you now know why. Because BasicObject does not subclass Object, all of the constants are not in the lookup chain:

class Foo < BasicObject
  Kernel
end
# NameError: uninitialized constant Foo::Kernel

For cases like this, and anywhere else you want to be explicit, Ruby allows you to use ::Kernel to access Object::Kernel.

Ruby assumes that you will mix modules into something that inherits from Object. So if the currently open module is a module, it will also add Object.ancestors to the lookup chain so that top-level constants work as expected:

module A; end
module B;
  A == Object::A
end

class_eval

As mentioned above, constant lookup uses the currently open class, as determined by class and module statements. Importantly, if you pass a block into class_eval or module_eval (or instance_eval or define_method), this won't change constant lookup. It continues to use the constant lookup at the point the block was defined:

class A
  module B; end
end

class C
  module B; end
  A.class_eval{ B } == C::B
end

Confusingly however, if you pass a String to these methods, then the String is evaluated with Module.nesting containing just the class itself (for class_eval) or just the singleton class of the object (for instance_eval).

class A
  module B; end
end

class C
  module B; end
  A.class_eval("B") == A::B
end

Other gotchas

Finally I want to point out that if you're in a singleton class of a class, you don't get access to constants defined in the class itself:

class A
  module B; end
end
class << A
  B
end
# NameError: uninitialized constant Class::B

This is because the ancestors of the singleton class of a class do not include the class itself, they start at the Class class.

class A
  module B; end
end
class << A; ancestors; end
[Class, Module, Object, Kernel, BasicObject]

In a similar vein, it may also worth noting that superclasses of things in Module.nesting are ignored. For example:

class A
  module B; end
end

class C < A
  class D
    B
  end
end
# NameError: uninitialized constant C::D::B

Summary

Constant lookup in ruby isn't actually that hard after-all. It just looks at the lexical nesting of class and module statements. You can calculate the currently open class by using the first value in Module.nesting, or defaulting to Object if that array is empty.

Here's some code that accurately replicates Ruby's inbuilt constant lookup. You'll notice that I have to use binding.eval with a String so that Module.nesting is taken from the binding object and not the block :).

class Binding
  def const(name)
    eval <<-CODE, __FILE__, __LINE__ + 1
      modules = Module.nesting + (Module.nesting.first || Object).ancestors
      modules += Object.ancestors if Module.nesting.first.class == Module
      found = nil

      modules.detect do |mod|
        found = mod.const_get(#{name.inspect}, false) rescue nil
      end
      found or const_missing(#{name.inspect})
    CODE
  end
end