Let’s start by looking at the usage comments at the top of the file.


# Summary: Display prefix for a Ruby version
# Usage: rbenv prefix [<version>]
# Displays the directory where a Ruby version is installed. If no
# version is given, `rbenv prefix' displays the location of the
# currently selected version.

So this command prints out the RBENV directory where a given Ruby version is installed.

Trying this out in my console, I try a few different versions of the command.

Entering a known-valid version number

$ rbenv prefix 2.7.5


When I enter a Ruby version that was installed using RBENV, I see the full path to the directory, as I’d expect from the usage comments.

Entering a known-invalid version number

$ rbenv prefix 2.7.1

rbenv: version `2.7.1' not installed

When I enter a Ruby version that I know I don’t have installed in my machine, I see an unsurprising error message.

Entering the word system

$ rbenv prefix system


I happen to know that RBENV uses the word system to refer to the default Ruby version that’s installed by your laptop’s manufacturer on your machine. When I pass the string system to rbenv prefix, I see the path /usr.

This is unsurprising, since /usr is a directory that contains many of my machine’s default executables.

Calling rbenv prefix without arguments

$ rbenv prefix


As mentioned in the usage comments, when I call rbenv prefix without any arguments, I see the path of my currently-selected Ruby version.

Simple enough. Let’s look at the specs now.


Running the command with no argument

After the bats shebang and the loading of test_helper, the first spec is:

@test "prefix" {
  mkdir -p "${RBENV_TEST_DIR}/myproject"
  cd "${RBENV_TEST_DIR}/myproject"
  echo "1.2.3" > .ruby-version
  mkdir -p "${RBENV_ROOT}/versions/1.2.3"
  run rbenv-prefix
  assert_success "${RBENV_ROOT}/versions/1.2.3"
  • To set up the test, we make (and then cd into) a new sub-direrectory of RBENV_TEST_DIR called myproject.
  • We then add a .ruby-version file to that new project dir containing the string “1.2.3”.
  • Next, we make a fake “1.2.3” directory in our RBENV versions/ directory, to simulate the act of installing Ruby v1.2.3 via RBENV.
  • Lastly, we run the rbenv-prefix command, and assert that
    • it ran successfully and that
    • it printed out the expected path to the installed Ruby version.

Running the command with an invalid version

Next spec:

@test "prefix for invalid version" {
  RBENV_VERSION="1.2.3" run rbenv-prefix
  assert_failure "rbenv: version \`1.2.3' not installed"

Here we don’t do any of the setup we did for the last test, we simply run the command with the RBENV_VERSION env var set. Because we didn’t do any of the setup (such as creating the fake directory under RBENV’s /versions directory), we assert that the test should fail, and that a specific error should be printed.

Running the command when only system is installed

Next test:

@test "prefix for system" {
  mkdir -p "${RBENV_TEST_DIR}/bin"
  touch "${RBENV_TEST_DIR}/bin/ruby"
  chmod +x "${RBENV_TEST_DIR}/bin/ruby"
  RBENV_VERSION="system" run rbenv-prefix
  assert_success "$RBENV_TEST_DIR"

As setup steps, we:

  • make a sub-directory named “bin/” inside RBENV_TEST_DIR, and
  • make a file inside that sub-directory named ruby (and making that file executable via chmod).

Then, to run the test, we

  • run the rbenv prefix command with “system” as the value set for RBENV_VERSION, and
  • assert that the command ran successfully and printed RBENV_TEST_DIR as its output.

This must mean that, if there are no sub-directories installed under "${RBENV_ROOT}/versions/", the default behavior is to fall back to the /bin/ruby subdirectory of RBENV_TEST_DIR`.

Ensuring prefix works with system Ruby

Next test:

@test "prefix for system in /" {
  mkdir -p "${BATS_TEST_DIRNAME}/libexec"
  cat >"${BATS_TEST_DIRNAME}/libexec/rbenv-which" <<OUT
echo /bin/ruby
  chmod +x "${BATS_TEST_DIRNAME}/libexec/rbenv-which"
  RBENV_VERSION="system" run rbenv-prefix
  assert_success "/"
  rm -f "${BATS_TEST_DIRNAME}/libexec/rbenv-which"

Here, the setup includes:

  • making a sub-directory within the BATS_TEST_DIRNAME directory,
  • adding a command within that sub-directory named rbenv-which (this is a stubbed-out version of a real RBENV command by the same name),
  • setting its contents equal to a shell script with a single command (echo /bin/ruby), and
  • updating the new command’s permissions so that it’s executable.

Once we have our fake rbenv-which command ready, we run the command with the RBENV_VERSION env var set to system, and we verify that the prefix command successfully exited with / (i.e. the home directory) as its output.

From looking at the Github history, it looks like this test was added as part of a bugfix where rbenv prefix didn’t work when pulling the Ruby version from the machine’s system version.

When no system version is installed

Last spec file is:

@test "prefix for invalid system" {
  PATH="$(path_without ruby)" run rbenv-prefix system
  assert_failure <<EOF
rbenv: ruby: command not found
rbenv: system version not found in PATH"
  • Here we first ensure that the executable for system Ruby will not be found in the value of $PATH because we’ve removed it with the call to path_without ruby (described below).
  • Then we run the rbenv prefix system command.
  • We then assert that:
    • the prefix command failed and that
    • a specific error message was output to STDERR.

The path_without helper function

This function comes from the test_helper file, and looks like this:

# Output a modified PATH that ensures that the given executable is not present,
# but in which system utils necessary for rbenv operation are still available.
path_without() {
  local exe="$1"
  local path=":${PATH}:"
  local found alt util
  for found in $(type -aP "$exe"); do
    if [ "$found" != "${RBENV_ROOT}/shims" ]; then
      alt="${RBENV_TEST_DIR}/$(echo "${found#/}" | tr '/' '-')"
      mkdir -p "$alt"
      for util in bash head cut readlink greadlink sed sort awk; do
        if [ -x "${found}/$util" ]; then
          ln -s "${found}/$util" "${alt}/$util"
  echo "${path%:}"

Let’s break down what’s happening here.

local exe="$1"

We create a local variable named exe, and set it equal to the first argument which is passed to path_without.

In the case of our last spec for rbenv-prefix, this was the string “ruby”.

local path=":${PATH}:"

We create another local variable called path, and set it equal to the current value of our shell’s $PATH variable. We surround $PATH with the : character on either side, because that is the character that PATH uses as its delimiter.

local found alt util

We create 3 more (uninitialized) local variables, named found, alt, and util, which will be assigned values further down in the path_without functions.

for found in $(type -aP "$exe"); do

We run the command type -aP "$exe" (which in the case of our spec, resolves to type -aP ruby) and iterate over all the results with a for loop.

What do the -a and -P flags do?

Be careful: the -P flag is not the same as the -p flag that we encountered earlier with type -p. If we run help type in a bash terminal, we see:

    The -P flag forces a PATH search for each NAME, even if it is an alias,
    builtin, or function, and returns the name of the disk file that would
    be executed.

So passing -P means that you’ll see the canonical file that would be executed, not any alias which points to that file.

Similarly, when we search for -a in the help docs, we see:

    If the -a flag is used, `type' displays all of the places that contain
    an executable named `file'.  This includes aliases, builtins, and
    functions, if and only if the -p flag is not also used.

This means the -a flag tells type to return any and all such files, whereas leaving -a off returns a max of one result. We can prove this with a quick experiment.

Experiment: passing -a to type

In Bash, I run type ls as a sanity check for the output I should expect:

bash-3.2$ type ls

ls is /bin/ls

I then make a quick shell function named ls (i.e. with the same name as the regular ls command):

bash-3.2$ ls() {
> echo "foo"
> }

I then run type ls to see how the command will interpret the ls command:

bash-3.2$ type ls

ls is a function
ls ()
    echo "foo"

As expected, Bash now interprets ls as a shell function, because it looks for shell functions before executables.

Now I run type -a ls:

bash-3.2$ type -a ls

ls is a function
ls ()
    echo "foo"
ls is /bin/ls

This time I see two results in the output. First, I see the ls is a function indicating that it still recognizes my shell function, but at the bottom I also see ls is /bin/ls, the same output I saw during my sanity check.

So in our for loop, we’re iterating over each of the results that are found for the executable command whose name we passed to path_without.

For example, in our test we say path_without ruby, so we’re iterating over each ruby executable that we have installed on our machine. On my machine, when I open a Bash shell and enter type -aP ruby, I get:

bash-3.2$ type -aP ruby


So I would be iterating over 2 values: /Users/myusername/.rbenv/shims/ruby and /usr/bin/ruby.

Each of the above results is referred to as a variable named found. From there:


We remove everything including and after the last / character. This leaves us with just the directory containing the “found” executable file.

For example, if type -aP ruby includes the result /Users/myusername/.rbenv/shims/ruby on my machine, then:

  • the updated value of “found” changes from /Users/myusername/.rbenv/shims/ruby to /Users/myusername/.rbenv/shims, and
  • the updated value of /usr/bin/ruby changes to /usr/bin.
if [ "$found" != "${RBENV_ROOT}/shims" ]; then

We then compare the new value of found to see if it is equal to "${RBENV_ROOT}/shims". For example, on my machine, this resolves to /Users/myusername/.rbenv/shims.

If the value of the path is not equal, we execute the logic inside the if block. For example, we would skip the 1st of my two values for found above (/Users/myusername/.rbenv/shims), and continue forward with the 2nd value (/usr/bin).

alt="${RBENV_TEST_DIR}/$(echo "${found#/}" | tr '/' '-')"

We set the alt local variable equal to "${RBENV_TEST_DIR}/$(echo "${found#/}" | tr '/' '-')". This consists of two strings, concatenated together with a /:

  • I added a logging statement to the path_without function. From this logging statement, I determine that ${RBENV_TEST_DIR} resolves to /var/folders/tn/wks_g5zj6sv_6hh0lk6_6gl80000gp/T/rbenv.eke on my machine.
  • Similarly, $(echo "${found#/}" | tr '/' '-'), resolves to usr-bin on my machine. Again, I learned this because by adding a logging statement which stored the contents of this command in a variable, and then echoed the variable.

We can further tell what’s going on here by looking up the man page for tr:

TR(1)                                                                General Commands Manual                                                               TR(1)

     tr – translate characters

     tr [-Ccsu] string1 string2
     tr [-Ccu] -d string1
     tr [-Ccu] -s string1
     tr [-Ccu] -ds string1 string2

     The tr utility copies the standard input to the standard output with substitution or deletion of selected characters.

From the man page, we see that tr reads from STDIN, and replaces each instance of string1 with string2.

In our case, we’re replacing each instance of / with - (except for the first / in $found, which was shaved off by the parameter expansion ${found#/}.

We therefore conclude that the value of the local variable alt is /var/folders/tn/wks_g5zj6sv_6hh0lk6_6gl80000gp/T/rbenv.zgI/usr-bin.

mkdir -p "$alt"

We then take the above new value for alt, and make a directory out of it, using the -p flag to create any sub-directories as well if they don’t already exist.

for util in bash head cut readlink greadlink sed sort awk; do

Then we iterate over a list of system utilities (bash head cut readlink greadlink sed sort awk).

if [ -x "${found}/$util" ]; then

For each of these utility programs, we check if ${found}/$util exists as an executable file. For example, if my value of $found is /usr/bin and the current util I’m iterating on is head, we check if /usr/bin/head exists as a file and is executable.

ln -s "${found}/$util" "${alt}/$util"

If that executable file exists, we create a symlink to it and place the symlink in our alt directory. This has the effect of ensuring that we still have access to these system utils, even though we’ve removed


We then use parameter expansion to replace occurrences of found with alt in our path variable.

echo "${path%:}"

Lastly, we trim the trailing : character off the beginning and end of path, and echo it to STDOUT, so that the caller of path_without can store the echod value in a variable.

Having read through the spec file for the prefix command, let’s turn to the command file itself.


First up is the 4 things that we always see at the beginning:

  • Bash shebang
  • “Usage” and “Summary” comments
  • the call to set -e, and
  • the check for the $RBENV_DEBUG env var.

Completions setup

Next block of code is:

# Provide rbenv completions
if [ "$1" = "--complete" ]; then
  echo system
  exec rbenv-versions --bare

This is the code to show the user the possible completions if they pass the --complete argument to rbenv prefix. If the user types rbenv prefix --complete, we print the string system plus any Ruby versions that RBENV knows about.

Setting RBENV_VERSION (so we can get the prefix)

Next block of code:

if [ -n "$1" ]; then
  export RBENV_VERSION="$1"
elif [ -z "$RBENV_VERSION" ]; then

If the user specified a first argument, then we assume it is the version number that the user wants to see the prefix for, so we set RBENV_VERSION equal to that first argument and export it as an environment variable, so that this process and any child processes can use it.

If the user did not specify a first argument, and if RBENV_VERSION is currently blank, we set RBENV_VERSION equal to the return value of the rbenv version-name command.

Based on a cursory run of rbenv version-name in my Bash terminal, this appears to be quite similar to running rbenv version, but only including the number itself (not including the path to the .ruby-version file that sets the version number, as does the rbenv version command). Note that we don’t export the environment variable in this case.

If neither the above if or elif conditions are met, that means that:

  • The user didn’t specify a first argument, AND
  • The user has previously set a value for `RBENV_VERSION.

This could happen if, for instance, the user runs the command as such:

$ RBENV_VERSION=3.0.0 rbenv prefix


Printing the prefix for system Ruby

Next block of code:

if [ "$RBENV_VERSION" = "system" ]; then
  if RUBY_PATH="$(rbenv-which ruby)"; then
    echo "${RBENV_PREFIX_PATH:-/}"
    echo "rbenv: system version not found in PATH" >&2
    exit 1

If the current version of Ruby is set to system, then we execute the code below:

  • If the command rbenv which ruby returns a result, then:
    • We store that result in a variable named RUBY_PATH.
    • We remove the last / character and anything after it (such as a filename) from the new RUBY_PATH value.
    • We create a new variable named RBENV_PREFIX_PATH, and set it equal to the value of RUBY_PATH, removing any /bin at the end.
    • We echo either the value of RBENV_PREFIX_PATH if it has been set, or a / character as a default.
    • We exit with a 0 (i.e. successful) return code.
  • If rbenv which ruby does not return a result:
    • We echo a helpful error message letting the user know system is not a valid Ruby version.
    • We exit with a non-successful return code.

Sad path- exiting if the user’s version was not found

Next block of code:

if [ ! -d "$RBENV_PREFIX_PATH" ]; then
  echo "rbenv: version \`${RBENV_VERSION}' not installed" >&2
  exit 1

All the conditional branches inside that last if block terminate with a call to exit. So if we’ve reached this above block of code, that means the if check in the previous block (i.e.if [ "$RBENV_VERSION" = "system" ]; then) was false.

Here we attempt to store a value in the RBENV_PREFIX_PATH variable, which should correspond to a valid directory on the user’s machine. If that variable does not correspond to a valid directory, we echo an error message explaining that the Ruby version that the user attempted to get a prefix for was not found on their machine, and we exit with a non-success return code.

Printing the prefix

Last line of code:


If we’ve reached this line of code, that means:

  • we were successful in setting a value for RBENV_PREFIX_PATH, and:
  • it does correspond to a directory containing a Ruby version which was installed via RBENV.

If this is the case, we simply echo the directory for that Ruby version, and exit the script.

That’s it for rbenv prefix. Now on to the next command.