Books / Ruby for Beginners / Chapter 27

HashSet in Ruby

There is a way in Ruby language to list all the keys in a hash, here is how this method works:

$ pry
> hh = {}
=> {}
> hh[:red] = 'ff0000'
=> "ff0000"
> hh[:green] = '00ff00'
=> "00ff00"
> hh[:blue] = '0000ff'
=> "0000ff"
> hh.keys
=> [:red, :green, :blue]

We defined a hash and pushed a few key-value pairs in it. Keys are of a type of Symbol, and values are just strings (String). Just FYI, these strings (ff0000, 00ff00, 0000ff) are conventional three-byte representation of color code RGB, where first byte is responsible for red (R) color, second for green (G), and third one for the blue (B).

Getting the list of hash keys isn’t very often used operation. However, there is a need to use keys only in a hash.

A programmer is free to use hash data structure and arbitrary data for values (like true, for example), but there is a special hash-like data structure designed to keep keys only, without any values. The common name of this data structure is HashSet (in Ruby language represented by Set class):

Set implements a collection of unordered values with no duplicates

In other words, set is a collection of items that usually originate from the common source.

Let’s practice to understand HashSet a little bit more: given an English sentence, find out if all the letters of English alphabet were used in this particular sentence. For example, sentence “quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” is commonly used to test typewriters, printers, fonts, and so on - because it uses all the letters of English alphabet. And if we omit the first word (“quick”), we won’t find the letter “q”: “brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”.

We’ll create a method that will return “true” if all the letters of English alphabet were used for the provided string, otherwise “false”. How would you approach this problem?

Well, it’s actually pretty straightforward. We’ll iterate over the each character in given string, and if it’s not space, we’ll add it to hash (regardless of its existence in the hash, because keys in a hash are always unique and aren’t duplicated). Since there are no duplicates in a hash, we can only have 26 records maximum, one record for each letter of English alphabet.

But there is something that feels off in this challenge. If we use classic hash, we need to set keys and values. And value in this case will be useless:

hh[letter] = true

true, or false, one, zero or any string is fine as the value in the line above, because we just do not check it later. We rely on the hash data structure and check “size” property, but we never use the value. In other words, we’re wasting computer memory for the values we don’t need. It would be nice if we could avoid that, and the most important thing it would be nice to show our intention - “we don’t need values in hash for this particular purpose”.

And it is where HashSet data structure comes into play. Here is how our program listing looks when we use HashSet (represented by Set class in Ruby):

# Import namespace below, because "set"
# is not imported by default.
require 'set'

# The main that accepts a string (sentence).
def f(str)
  # Create set instance
  set =

  # Iterate over each character in a string
  str.each_char do |c|
    # Only if character is greater than "a" and less than "z"
    # (ignore other characters)
    if c >= 'a' && c <= 'z'
      # Add to set

  # result is true when all letters of English alphabet are present
  set.size == 26

# prints true, because we use all letters of English
# alphabet in the following sentence
puts f('quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog')

Question “What’s the difference between Hash and HashSet?” is one of the popular interview questions. Not knowing these details doesn’t indicate that you cannot write computer programs. But knowing that shows that you’re familiar with data structures, can understand subtle differences and probably you’re just more experienced developer.

One of mistakes you can make here is to start splitting the given string into individual characters (objects, represented by instances of String class) by using “split” method:

> "quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog".split('')
=> ["q", "u", "i", "c", "k", " ", "b", "r", "o", "w", "n", " ", "f", "o", "x", " ", "j", "u", "m", "p", "s", " ", "o", "v", "e", "r", " ", "t", "h", "e", " ", "l", "a", "z", "y", " ", "d", "o", "g"]

While this might work for relatively short strings, method “split” allocates N objects in memory, where N is the length of the string. But there is actually no need to allocate anything more than 26 objects inside of a HashSet, and we can use iteration over the string by using native String class methods (which, in fact, will allocate these objects anyway, but one by one. And these objects will be disposed by garbage collector on the way).

Another common pitfall here is iteration to the end of a string. In a normal block of text the probability of not meeting all the letters of English alphabet decreases with every iteration. So most likely you won’t need to iterate over each character in four-gigabyte string and update HashSet on the way.

Exercise 1 Program above has one of described pitfalls. Can you spot that?

Exercise 2 After reading this chapter try to implement this program by yourself without looking into the book.

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