JavaScript Functions

ipivanov No Comments JavaScript 47

Function Declarations and Expressions

Functions in JavaScript are first class objects. That means they can be passed around like any other value. One common use of this feature is to pass ananonymous function as a callback to another, possibly an asynchronous function.

The function Declaration

function foo() {}

The above function gets hoisted before the execution of the program starts; thus, it is available everywhere in the scope it was defined, even if called before the actual definition in the source.

foo(); // Works because foo was created before this code runs
function foo() {}

The function Expression

var foo = function() {};

This example assigns the unnamed and anonymous function to the variablefoo.

foo; // 'undefined'
foo(); // this raises a TypeError
var foo = function() {};

Due to the fact that var is a declaration that hoists the variable name foobefore the actual execution of the code starts, foo is already declared when the script gets executed.

But since assignments only happen at runtime, the value of foo will default to undefined before the corresponding code is executed.

Named Function Expression

Another special case is the assignment of named functions.

var foo = function bar() {
    bar(); // Works
bar(); // ReferenceError

Here, bar is not available in the outer scope, since the function only gets assigned to foo; however, inside of bar, it is available. This is due to howname resolution in JavaScript works, the name of the function is alwaysmade available in the local scope of the function itself.

How this Works

JavaScript has a different concept of what the special name this refers to than most other programming languages. There are exactly five different ways in which the value of this can be bound in the language.

The Global Scope


When using this in global scope, it will simply refer to the global object.

Calling a Function


Here, this will again refer to the global object.

Calling a Method; 

In this example, this will refer to test.

Calling a Constructor

new foo(); 

A function call that is preceded by the new keyword acts as a constructor. Inside the function, this will refer to a newly created Object.

Explicit Setting of this

function foo(a, b, c) {}

var bar = {};
foo.apply(bar, [1, 2, 3]); // array will expand to the below, 1, 2, 3); // results in a = 1, b = 2, c = 3

When using the call or apply methods of Function.prototype, the value ofthis inside the called function gets explicitly set to the first argument of the corresponding function call.

As a result, in the above example the method case does not apply, and thisinside of foo will be set to bar.

Common Pitfalls

While most of these cases make sense, the first can be considered another mis-design of the language because it never has any practical use.

Foo.method = function() {
    function test() {
        // this is set to the global object

A common misconception is that this inside of test refers to Foo; while in fact, it does not.

In order to gain access to Foo from within test, you can create a local variable inside of method that refers to Foo.

Foo.method = function() {
    var self = this;
    function test() {
        // Use self instead of this here

self is just a normal variable name, but it is commonly used for the reference to an outer this. In combination with closures, it can also be used to pass this values around.

As of ECMAScript 5 you can use the bind method combined with an anonymous function to achieve the same result.

Foo.method = function() {
    var test = function() {
        // this now refers to Foo

Assigning Methods

Another thing that does not work in JavaScript is function aliasing, which isassigning a method to a variable.

var test = someObject.methodTest;

Due to the first case, test now acts like a plain function call; therefore, thisinside it will no longer refer to someObject.

While the late binding of this might seem like a bad idea at first, in fact, it is what makes prototypal inheritance work.

function Foo() {}
Foo.prototype.method = function() {};

function Bar() {}
Bar.prototype = Foo.prototype;

new Bar().method();

When method gets called on an instance of Bar, this will now refer to that very instance.

Closures and References

One of JavaScript’s most powerful features is the availability of closures. With closures, scopes always keep access to the outer scope, in which they were defined. Since the only scoping that JavaScript has is function scope, all functions, by default, act as closures.

Emulating private variables

function Counter(start) {
    var count = start;
    return {
        increment: function() {

        get: function() {
            return count;

var foo = Counter(4);
foo.get(); // 5

Here, Counter returns two closures: the function increment as well as the function get. Both of these functions keep a reference to the scope ofCounter and, therefore, always keep access to the count variable that was defined in that scope.

Why Private Variables Work

Since it is not possible to reference or assign scopes in JavaScript, there is noway of accessing the variable count from the outside. The only way to interact with it is via the two closures.

var foo = new Counter(4);
foo.hack = function() {
    count = 1337;

The above code will not change the variable count in the scope of Counter, since foo.hack was not defined in that scope. It will instead create – or override – the global variable count.

Closures Inside Loops

One often made mistake is to use closures inside of loops, as if they were copying the value of the loop’s index variable.

for(var i = 0; i < 10; i++) {
    setTimeout(function() {
    }, 1000);

The above will not output the numbers 0 through 9, but will simply print the number 10 ten times.

The anonymous function keeps a reference to i. At the time console.loggets called, the for loop has already finished, and the value of i has been set to 10.

In order to get the desired behavior, it is necessary to create a copy of the value of i.

Avoiding the Reference Problem

In order to copy the value of the loop’s index variable, it is best to use ananonymous wrapper.

for(var i = 0; i < 10; i++) {
    (function(e) {
        setTimeout(function() {
        }, 1000);

The anonymous outer function gets called immediately with i as its first argument and will receive a copy of the value of i as its parameter e.

The anonymous function that gets passed to setTimeout now has a reference to e, whose value does not get changed by the loop.

There is another possible way of achieving this, which is to return a function from the anonymous wrapper that will then have the same behavior as the code above.

for(var i = 0; i < 10; i++) {
    setTimeout((function(e) {
        return function() {
    })(i), 1000)

The other popular way to achieve this is to add an additional argument to thesetTimeout function, which passes these arguments to the callback.

for(var i = 0; i < 10; i++) {
    setTimeout(function(e) {
    }, 1000, i);

Some legacy JS environments (Internet Explorer 9 & below) do not support this.

There’s yet another way to accomplish this by using .bind, which can bind athis context and arguments to function. It behaves identically to the code above

for(var i = 0; i < 10; i++) {
    setTimeout(console.log.bind(console, i), 1000);

The arguments Object

Every function scope in JavaScript can access the special variable arguments. This variable holds a list of all the arguments that were passed to the function.

The arguments object is not an Array. While it has some of the semantics of an array – namely the length property – it does not inherit fromArray.prototype and is in fact an Object.

Due to this, it is not possible to use standard array methods like push, popor slice on arguments. While iteration with a plain for loop works just fine, it is necessary to convert it to a real Array in order to use the standardArray methods on it.

Converting to an Array

The code below will return a new Array containing all the elements of thearguments object.;

Because this conversion is slow, it is not recommended to use it in performance-critical sections of code.

Passing Arguments

The following is the recommended way of passing arguments from one function to another.

function foo() {
    bar.apply(null, arguments);
function bar(a, b, c) {
    // do stuff here

Another trick is to use both call and apply together to turn methods – functions that use the value of this as well as their arguments – into normal functions which only use their arguments.

function Person(first, last) {
  this.first = first;
  this.last = last;

Person.prototype.fullname = function(joiner, options) {
  options = options || { order: "western" };
  var first = options.order === "western" ? this.first : this.last;
  var last =  options.order === "western" ? this.last  : this.first;
  return first + (joiner || " ") + last;

// Create an unbound version of "fullname", usable on any object with 'first'
// and 'last' properties passed as the first argument. This wrapper will
// not need to change if fullname changes in number or order of arguments.
Person.fullname = function() {
  // Result:, joiner, ..., argN);
  return, arguments);

var grace = new Person("Grace", "Hopper");

// 'Grace Hopper'

// 'Turing, Alan'
Person.fullname({ first: "Alan", last: "Turing" }, ", ", { order: "eastern" });

Formal Parameters and Arguments Indices

The arguments object creates getter and setter functions for both its properties, as well as the function’s formal parameters.

As a result, changing the value of a formal parameter will also change the value of the corresponding property on the arguments object, and the other way around.

function foo(a, b, c) {
    arguments[0] = 2;
    a; // 2

    b = 4;
    arguments[1]; // 4

    var d = c;
    d = 9;
    c; // 3
foo(1, 2, 3);

Performance Myths and Truths

The only time the arguments object is not created is where it is declared as a name inside of a function or one of its formal parameters. It does not matter whether it is used or not.

Both getters and setters are always created; thus, using it has nearly no performance impact at all, especially not in real world code where there is more than a simple access to the arguments object’s properties.

However, there is one case which will drastically reduce the performance in modern JavaScript engines. That case is the use of arguments.callee.

function foo() {
    arguments.callee; // do something with this function object
    arguments.callee.caller; // and the calling function object

function bigLoop() {
    for(var i = 0; i < 100000; i++) {
        foo(); // Would normally be inlined...

In the above code, foo can no longer be a subject to inlining since it needs to know about both itself and its caller. This not only defeats possible performance gains that would arise from inlining, but it also breaks encapsulation because the function may now be dependent on a specific calling context.

Making use of arguments.callee or any of its properties is highly discouraged.


Constructors in JavaScript are yet again different from many other languages. Any function call that is preceded by the new keyword acts as a constructor.

Inside the constructor – the called function – the value of this refers to a newly created object. The prototype of this new object is set to the prototypeof the function object that was invoked as the constructor.

If the function that was called has no explicit return statement, then it implicitly returns the value of this – the new object.

function Person(name) { = name;

Person.prototype.logName = function() {

var sean = new Person();

The above calls Person as constructor and sets the prototype of the newly created object to Person.prototype.

In case of an explicit return statement, the function returns the value specified by that statement, but only if the return value is an Object.

function Car() {
    return 'ford';
new Car(); // a new object, not 'ford'

function Person() {
    this.someValue = 2;

    return {
        name: 'Charles'
new Person(); // the returned object ({name:'Charles'}), not including someValue

When the new keyword is omitted, the function will not return a new object.

function Pirate() {
    this.hasEyePatch = true; // gets set on the global object!
var somePirate = Pirate(); // somePirate is undefined

While the above example might still appear to work in some cases, due to the workings of this in JavaScript, it will use the global object as the value ofthis.


In order to be able to omit the new keyword, the constructor function has to explicitly return a value.

function Robot() {
    var color = 'gray';
    return {
        getColor: function() {
            return color;

new Robot();

Both calls to Robot return the same thing, a newly created object that has a property called getColor, which is a Closure.

It should also be noted that the call new Robot() does not affect the prototype of the returned object. While the prototype will be set on the newly created object, Robot never returns that new object.

In the above example, there is no functional difference between using and not using the new keyword.

Creating New Objects via Factories

It is often recommended to not use new because forgetting its use may lead to bugs.

In order to create a new object, one should rather use a factory and construct a new object inside of that factory.

function CarFactory() {
    var car = {};
    car.owner = 'nobody';

    var milesPerGallon = 2;

    car.setOwner = function(newOwner) {
        this.owner = newOwner;

    car.getMPG = function() {
        return milesPerGallon;

    return car;

While the above is robust against a missing new keyword and certainly makes the use of private variables easier, it comes with some downsides.

  1. It uses more memory since the created objects do not share the methods on a prototype.
  2. In order to inherit, the factory needs to copy all the methods from another object or put that object on the prototype of the new object.
  3. Dropping the prototype chain just because of a left out new keyword is contrary to the spirit of the language.

In Conclusion

While omitting the new keyword might lead to bugs, it is certainly not a reason to drop the use of prototypes altogether. In the end it comes down to which solution is better suited for the needs of the application. It is especially important to choose a specific style of object creation and use itconsistently.

Scopes and Namespaces

Although JavaScript deals fine with the syntax of two matching curly braces for blocks, it does not support block scope; hence, all that is left in the language is function scope.

function test() { // a scope
    for(var i = 0; i < 10; i++) { // not a scope
        // count
    console.log(i); // 10

There are also no distinct namespaces in JavaScript, which means that everything gets defined in one globally shared namespace.

Each time a variable is referenced, JavaScript will traverse upwards through all the scopes until it finds it. In the case that it reaches the global scope and still has not found the requested name, it will raise a ReferenceError.

The Bane of Global Variables

// script A
foo = '42';

// script B
var foo = '42'

The above two scripts do not have the same effect. Script A defines a variable called foo in the global scope, and script B defines a foo in the currentscope.

Again, that is not at all the same effect: not using var can have major implications.

// global scope
var foo = 42;
function test() {
    // local scope
    foo = 21;
foo; // 21

Leaving out the var statement inside the function test will override the value of foo. While this might not seem like a big deal at first, having thousands of lines of JavaScript and not using var will introduce horrible, hard-to-track-down bugs.

// global scope
var items = [/* some list */];
for(var i = 0; i < 10; i++) {

function subLoop() {
    // scope of subLoop
    for(i = 0; i < 10; i++) { // missing var statement
        // do amazing stuff!

The outer loop will terminate after the first call to subLoop, since subLoopoverwrites the global value of i. Using a var for the second for loop would have easily avoided this error. The var statement should never be left out unless the desired effect is to affect the outer scope.

Local Variables

The only source for local variables in JavaScript are function parameters and variables declared via the var statement.

// global scope
var foo = 1;
var bar = 2;
var i = 2;

function test(i) {
    // local scope of the function test
    i = 5;

    var foo = 3;
    bar = 4;

While foo and i are local variables inside the scope of the function test, the assignment of bar will override the global variable with the same name.


JavaScript hoists declarations. This means that both var statements and function declarations will be moved to the top of their enclosing scope.

var bar = function() {};
var someValue = 42;

function test(data) {
    if (false) {
        goo = 1;

    } else {
        var goo = 2;
    for(var i = 0; i < 100; i++) {
        var e = data[i];

The above code gets transformed before execution starts. JavaScript moves the var statements, as well as function declarations, to the top of the nearest surrounding scope.

// var statements got moved here
var bar, someValue; // default to 'undefined'

// the function declaration got moved up too
function test(data) {
    var goo, i, e; // missing block scope moves these here
    if (false) {
        goo = 1;

    } else {
        goo = 2;
    for(i = 0; i < 100; i++) {
        e = data[i];

bar(); // fails with a TypeError since bar is still 'undefined'
someValue = 42; // assignments are not affected by hoisting
bar = function() {};


Missing block scoping will not only move var statements out of loops and their bodies, it will also make the results of certain if constructs non-intuitive.

In the original code, although the if statement seemed to modify the global variable goo, it actually modifies the local variable – after hoisting has been applied.

Without knowledge of hoisting, one might suspect the code below would raise a ReferenceError.

// check whether SomeImportantThing has been initialized
if (!SomeImportantThing) {
    var SomeImportantThing = {};

But of course, this works due to the fact that the var statement is being moved to the top of the global scope.

var SomeImportantThing;

// other code might initialize SomeImportantThing here, or not

// make sure it's there
if (!SomeImportantThing) {
    SomeImportantThing = {};

Name Resolution Order

All scopes in JavaScript, including the global scope, have the special namethis, defined in them, which refers to the current object.

Function scopes also have the name arguments, defined in them, which contains the arguments that were passed to the function.

For example, when trying to access a variable named foo inside the scope of a function, JavaScript will look up the name in the following order:

  1. In case there is a var foo statement in the current scope, use that.
  2. If one of the function parameters is named foo, use that.
  3. If the function itself is called foo, use that.
  4. Go to the next outer scope, and start with #1 again.


A common problem associated with having only one global namespace is the likelihood of running into problems where variable names clash. In JavaScript, this problem can easily be avoided with the help of anonymous wrappers.

(function() {
    // a self contained "namespace" = function() {
        // an exposed closure

})(); // execute the function immediately

Unnamed functions are considered expressions; so in order to be callable, they must first be evaluated.

( // evaluate the function inside the parentheses
function() {}
) // and return the function object
() // call the result of the evaluation

There are other ways to evaluate and directly call the function expression which, while different in syntax, behave the same way.

// A few other styles for directly invoking the 
// and so on...

In Conclusion

It is recommended to always use an anonymous wrapper to encapsulate code in its own namespace. This does not only protect code against name clashes, but it also allows for better modularization of programs.

Additionally, the use of global variables is considered bad practice. Any use of them indicates badly written code that is prone to errors and hard to maintain.

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