Patterns of method missing

One of the more dynamic features of Ruby is method_missing, a way of intercepting method calls that would cause a NoMethodError if method_missing isn’t there. This feature is by no means unique to Ruby. It exists in Smalltalk, Python, Groovy, some JavaScripts, and even most CLOS extensions have it. But Ruby being what it is, for some reason this feature seem to have more heavily used in Ruby than anywhere else. It’s also a feature most Ruby developers seem to know about. Is this because Ruby people are power hungy, crazy monkey patchers? Maybe, but method_missing is also potentially very useful, if used correctly. But of course, it’s exceedingly easy to misuse. In almost all cases you think you need method_missing, you actually don’t.

The purposes of this post is to take a look at a few ways people are using method_missing in the wild, what the consequences are and what you can do to mitigate them. I’m bound to have missed a few use cases here, so please feel free to add more in the comments.

Adding better debug information on failure

One of the most simple but still very powerful ways of using method_missing is to allow it to include more information in the error message than you would usually have got. A simple example of that could look like this:

class MyFoo
  def method_missing(method, *args, &block)
    raise NoMethodError, <<ERRORINFO
method: #{method}
args: #{args.inspect}
on: #{self.to_yaml}

This usage is pretty common – and is in my opinion a very valid use of the functionality. The only thing you have to be careful about is to not introduce any recursive calls to method_missing. Say if you forget to require YAML in the above example – the error would be a stack overflow.

One of the places where you’ve almost certainly seen this used is in Rails, where the feature is called whiny nils. The idea is that nil will have a method missing that gives some extra information. It can guess based on the method name what object you were expecting. This could be a typical message from Rails whiny nil:

Loading development environment (Rails 2.2.2)
>> nil.last
NoMethodError: You have a nil object when you didn't expect it!
You might have expected an instance of Array.
The error occurred while evaluating nil.last
	from (irb):2

This functionality is exceedingly simple to implement, but gives you lots of leverage to find and debug your problem quicker and easier.

Encode parameters in method name

Another common pattern is to use the name of the method to encode parameters, instead of sending them in as explicit parameters. In some cases this can be used to good effect, but if possible it would be better to encode the possible names beforehand, or send in the parameters as actual parameters instead. Contrast a Rails-style find expression:

Person.find_by_name_and_age("Ola", 28)

With another way of creating the same API:

Person.find_by(:name => "Ola", :age => 28)

The difference here isn’t that large, and in the case of Rails I do think they are harmless – but creating these kinds of API’s make it much harder to debug and maintain an application, so care should be taken.


Creating XML, HTML, graphical UIs and other hierarchical data structures lend themselves very well to the builder pattern. The idea of a builder is that you use Ruby’s blocks and method_missing to make it easy to create any kind of output structure. The canonical example in Ruby is Jim Weirich’s Builder, that can be used to easily create complicated XML structures. A small example:

builder =
xml = builder.books { |b| :isbn => "124" do
    b.title "The Prefect" "Alastair Reynolds"
  end :isbn => "65565" do
    b.title "Against a Dark Background" "Iain M Banks"

The result of this code will be a properly formatted and escaped XML document. Most notable, all the finicky details of closing tags and escaping rules are taken care of for us.

In general, this approach is very pleasant to work with. It’s easy to test (since you don’t even have to generate the real XML to make sure it’s correct), and it works well with your existing Ruby tools. It’s also quite easy to implement a basic version of. For the fully general case you need to use a blank slate object, though.


The inversion of the builder pattern is to use a parser that slurps in an XML document (or a YAML, database or anything else really), and then allow you to access the elements of it by using regular Ruby method calls – intercepting these calls with method missing and looking them up. A usage could look something like this:

slurper = Slurp <<XML
  <book isbn="14134">
    <title>Revelation Space</title>
    <author>Alastair Reynolds</author>
  <book isbn="53534">
    <author>Charles Stross</author>


I’m not much of a fan of this approach. In almost all cases there are better ways of doing it than using method_missing. The only valid use case for something like this would be for a throwaway really hacky oneoff thing. But in general, Ruby allows you to define methods dynamically anyway, so you can do that instead for this case.


When you want to insert a proxy that resends method calls somewhere else, method_missing can be an easy way to get that to work. You can resend method calls to another object, you can resend to several objects, you can send method calls over the wire, to implement a crude RMI system. You can also record method calls and write them to disk. All of these can be achieved with just a few lines of code. But in many cases there are better options – especially if you want to do delegation. One of the dangers (and the power also, of course) of method_missing is that it can take any kind of method call. So if you misspell something, method_missing will happily treat it the same way.

But when delegating, you generally want to be explicit about what you delegate, to avoid this problem. There are several classes in the standard library that allow you to explicitly say what methods to delegate and where to delegate them – and if you can, try using this instead. Proxying and delegation should be explicit if possible.

Making parts of an API extensible and optional

In some cases you might want to create a base class for an API, but allow the subclasses to add additional API methods. In some cases it can make sense to ignore calls to these subclass API methods if called on something that doesn’t support it. By definition, the super class can’t actually know which API methods the subclasses might add, so it makes sense to use method_missing to open up the API and make it more convenient. This is not very common – and in most cases should probably not be done, but sometimes it can be a useful technique.

Test helpers

All kinds of test helpers can be created using method_missing. They can be used to implement factories, delegate and do all kinds of things. If you take a look at any open source Ruby project, the tests is the place where you are most likely to find implementations of method_missing. I can’t say that these implementations actually follow any specific patterns either.


Finally, remember. Method missing is a powerful powerful feature – it should not be used in almost all the cases. But if you do want to use it, don’t forget to implement responds_to? correctly. And if you’re designing your class for subclassing, it’s also important to design your method_missing usage for inheritance. Liskovs Substitution Principle applies here.

9 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Erik HetznerI

    I am not myself a big fan of the method_missing pattern. I agree with you the builder is probably the best use of it, but I still would prefer that it did not use it, if for no other reason that it prevents the generation of XML elements that conflict with existing methods (send, etc.) or are not valid method names (my-tree). What would be so wrong about, e.g.:

    b._ ‘book’, :isbn => “124” do
    b._ ‘title’, “The Prefect”
    b._ ‘author’, “Alastair Reynolds”

    Anyhow, thanks for the post outlining some of the pitfalls of using method_missing.

    April 23rd, 2010

  2. gruci

    Interesting post.
    Some more code would make it better.
    Perhaps a reference or link to some good code using method_missing?, I am not using rails

    April 23rd, 2010

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