Seven JavaScript Quirks I Wish I’d Known About

If you are new to JavaScript or it has only been a minor part of your development effort until recently, you may be feeling frustrated. All languages have their quirks – but the paradigm shift from strongly typed server-side languages to JavaScript can feel especially confusing at times. I’ve been there! A few years ago, when I was thrust into full time JavaScript development, there were many things I wish I’d known going into it. In this article, I’ll share a few of these quirks in hopes that I might spare you some of the headaches I endured. This isn’t an exhaustive list – just a sampling – but hopefully it will shed some light on the language as well as show how powerful it can be once you get past these kinds of hurdles.

The Quirks We’ll look at:

  1. Equality
  2. Dot Notation vs Bracket Notation
  3. Function Context
  4. Function Declarations vs Function Expressions
  5. Named vs Anonymous Functions
  6. Immediately Invoked Function Expressions
  7. typeof vs Object.prototype.toString

1.) Equality

Coming from C#, I was well familiar with the == comparison operator. Value types (& strings) are either equal (have the same value) or they aren’t. Reference types are either equal – as in pointing to the same reference – or NOT. (Let’s just pretend you’re not overloading the == operator, or implementing your own Equals and GetHashCode methods.) I was surprised to learn that JavaScript has two equality operators: == and ===. Most of the code I’d initially seen used ==, so I followed suit and wasn’t aware of what JavaScript was doing for me as I ran code like this:

var x = 1;

if(x == "1") {
    console.log("YAY! They're equal!");
}

So what dark magic is this? How can the integer 1 equal the string “1”?

In JavaScript, there’s equality (==) and then there’s strict equality (===). The equality comparison operator will coerce the operands to the same type and then perform a strict equality comparison. So in the above example, the string “1” is being converted, behind the scenes, to the integer 1, and then compared to our variable x.

Strict equality doesn’t coerce the types for you. If the operands aren’t of the same type (as in the integer 1 and string “1”), then they aren’t equal:

var x = 1;

// with strict equality, the types must be the *same* for it to be true
if(x === "1") {
    console.log("Sadly, I'll never write this to the console");
}

if(x === 1) {
    console.log("YES! Strict Equality FTW.")
}

You might already be thinking of the kinds of horrors that could occur when type coercion is done for you – the sort of assumptions that you could make that misrepresent the true nature of the values in your app which lead to difficult-to-find-yet-hiding-in-plain-sight bugs. It’s no surprise, then, that the general rule of thumb recommended by experienced JavaScript developers is to always use strict equality.

2.) Dot Notation vs Bracket Notation

Depending on what other languages you hail from, you probably weren’t too surprised to see these forms of accessing a property on an object and accessing an element in an array in JavaScript:

// getting the "firstName" value from the person object:
var name = person.firstName;

// getting the 3rd element in an array:
var theOneWeWant = myArray[2]; // remember, 0-based index

However, did you know it’s possible to use bracket notation to reference object members as well? For example:

var name = person["firstName"];

Why would this be useful? While you’ll probably use dot notation the majority of the time, there are a few instances where bracket notation makes certain approaches possible that couldn’t be done otherwise. For example, I will often refactor large switch statements into a dispatch table, so that something like this:

var doSomething = function(doWhat) {
    switch(doWhat) {
        case "doThisThing":
            // more code...
        break;
        case "doThatThing":
            // more code...
        break;
        case "doThisOtherThing":
            // more code....
        break;
        // additional cases here, etc.
        default:
            // default behavior
        break;
    }
}

Can be transformed into something like this:

var thingsWeCanDo = {
    doThisThing      : function() { /* behavior */ },
    doThatThing      : function() { /* behavior */ },
    doThisOtherThing : function() { /* behavior */ },
    default          : function() { /* behavior */ }
};

var doSomething = function(doWhat) {
    var thingToDo = thingsWeCanDo.hasOwnProperty(doWhat) ? doWhat : "default"
    thingsWeCanDo[thingToDo]();
}

There’s nothing inherently wrong with using a switch (and in many cases, if you’re iterating and performance is a huge concern, a switch may outperform the dispatch table). However, dispatch tables offer a nice way to organize and extend behavior, and bracket notation makes it possible by allowing you to reference a property dynamically at runtime.

3.) Function Context

There have been a number of great blog posts about properly understanding the “this context” in JavaScript (and I’ll link to several at the bottom of this post), but it definitely makes my list of “things I wish I’d known” right away. It’s really not difficult to look at code and confidently know what this is at any point – you just have to learn a couple of rules. Unfortunately, many explanations I read about it early on just added to my confusion. As a result, I’ve tried to simplify the explanation for developers new to JavaScript.

First – Start With a Global Assumption

By default, until there’s a reason for the execution context to change, this refers to the global object. In the browser, that would be the window object (or global in node.js).

Second – the Value of this in Methods

When you have an object with a member that is a function, invoking that method from the parent object makes this the parent object. For example:

var marty = {
    firstName: "Marty",
    lastName: "McFly",
    timeTravel: function(year) {
        console.log(this.firstName + " " + this.lastName + " is time traveling to " + year);
    }
}

marty.timeTravel(1955);
// Marty McFly is time traveling to 1955

You might already know that you can take the marty object’s timeTravel method and create a new reference to it from another object. This is actually quite a powerful feature of JavaScript – enabling us to apply behavior (functions) to more than one target instance:

var doc = {
    firstName: "Emmett",
    lastName: "Brown",
}

doc.timeTravel = marty.timeTravel;

So – what happens if we invoke doc.timeTravel(1885)?

doc.timeTravel(1885);
// Emmett Brown is time traveling to 1885

Again – deep dark magic. Well, not really. Remember, when you’re invoking a method, the this context is the parent object it’s being invoked from. Hold on to your DeLoreans, though, cause it’s about the get heavy.

(Note: I’ve updated this section for clarity and to make some corrections from the original post.)

What happens when we save a reference to the marty.TimeTravel method and invoke our saved reference? Let’s look:

var getBackInTime = marty.timeTravel;
getBackInTime(2014);
// undefined undefined is time traveling to 2014

Why “undefined undefined”?! Why not “Marty McFly”?

Let’s ask an important question: What’s the parent/owning object when we invoke our getBackInTime function? While the getBackInTime function will technically exist on the window, we’re invoking it as a function, not a method of an object. When we invoke a function like this – with no owning object – the this context will be the global object. David Shariff has a great way of describing this:

Whenever a function is called, we must look at the immediate left side of the brackets / parentheses “()”. If on the left side of the parentheses we can see a reference, then the value of “this” passed to the function call is exactly of which that object belongs to, otherwise it is the global object.

Since getBackInTime‘s this context is the window – which does not have firstName and lastName properties – that explains why we see “undefined undefined”.

So we know that invoking a function directly – no owning object – results in the this context being the global object. But I also said that I knew our getBackInTime function would exist on the window. How do I know this? Well, unless I’ve wrapped the getBackInTime in a different scope (which we’ll investigate when we discuss immediately-invoked-function-expressions), then any vars I declare get attached to the window. Here’s proof from Chrome’s console:

jsquirks_afjq_1

This is the perfect time to talk about one of the main areas that this trips up developers: subscribing event handlers.

Third (really just an extension of #2) – The Value of this in Methods When Invoked Asynchronously

So, let’s pretend we want to invoke our marty.timeTravel method when someone clicks a button:

var flux = document.getElementById("flux-capacitor");
flux.addEventListener("click", marty.timeTravel);

With the above code, when the user clicks the button, we’ll see “undefined undefined is time traveling to [object MouseEvent]”. WAT?! Well – the first, and most obvious, issue is that we’re not providing the year argument to our timeTravel method. Instead, we subscribed the method directly as an event handler, and the MouseEvent argument is being passed to the event handler as the first arg. That’s easy to fix, but the real issue is that we’re seeing “undefined undefined” again. Don’t despair – you already know why this is the case (even if you don’t realize it yet). Let’s make a change to our timeTravel function to log whatever this is to help give us some insight:

marty.timeTravel = function(year) {
    console.log(this.firstName + " " + this.lastName + " is time traveling to " + year);
    console.log(this);
};

Now – when we click the button, we should see something similar to the following output in our browser console:

jsquirks_afjq_2

Our second console.log shows us the this context when the method was invoked – and it’s the actual button element which we subscribed to. Does this surprise you? Just like earlier – when we assigned the marty.timeTravel reference to our getBackInTime var – a reference to marty.timeTravel was saved as our event handler and is being invoked, but not from the “owning” marty object. In this case, it’s being invoked asynchronously by the underlying event emitting implementation of the button element instance.

So – is it possible make this what we want it to be? Absolutely! In this case, the solution is deceptively simple. Instead of subscribing marty.timeTravel directly as the event handler, we can use an anonymous function as our event handler, and call marty.timeTravel from within it. This also provides the opportunity to fix our issue with the missing year parameter.

flux.addEventListener("click", function(e) {
    marty.timeTravel(someYearValue); 
});

Clicking the button now will result in something similar to this output on the console:

jsquicks_afjq_3

Success! But why did this work? Think of how we’re invoking the timeTravel method. In our first button click example, we subscribed the method reference itself as the event handler, so it was not being called from the parent object of marty. In the second example, it’s our anonymous function that will have a this of the button element, and when we invoke marty.timeTravel, we’re calling it from the marty parent object, and the this will be marty.

Fourth – The Value of this Inside Constructor Functions.

When you use a constructor function to create a new instance of an object, the this value inside the function is the new object that’s being created. For example:

var TimeTraveler = function(fName, lName) {
    this.firstName = fName;
    this.lastName = lName;
    // Constructor functions return the
    // newly created object for us unless
    // we specifically return something else
};

var marty = new TimeTraveler("Marty", "McFly");
console.log(marty.firstName + " " + marty.lastName);
// Marty McFly

Using Call, Apply & Bind

You might already suspect, given the above examples, that there might be some language-level features that would allow us to invoke a function and tell it at runtime what this should be. You’d be right. The call and apply methods that exist on the Function prototype both allow us to invoke a function and pass in a this value.

call‘s method signature takes the this arg, followed by the parameters the function being invoked would take as separate arguments:

someFn.call(this, arg1, arg2, arg3);

`apply` takes `this` as the first arg, followed by an array of the remaining arguments:

someFn.apply(this, [arg1, arg2, arg3]);

Our `doc` and `marty` instances can time travel on their own, but Einstein needed their help to time travel. So let’s add a method to our `doc` instance from earlier (the one we copied the `timeTravel` method to), so that `doc` can cause an `einstein` instance to travel in time:

doc.timeTravelFor = function(instance, year) {
    this.timeTravel.call(instance, year);
    // alternate syntax if you used apply would be
    // this.timeTravel.apply(instance, [year]);
};

Now it’s possible to send Einstein on his way:

var einstein = {
    firstName: "Einstein", 
    lastName: "(the dog)"
};
doc.timeTravelFor(einstein, 1985);
// Einstein (the dog) is time traveling to 1985

I know this is a contrived example, but it’s enough to give you a glimpse of the power of applying functions to other objects.

There’s still one other possibility we haven’t explored. Let’s give our marty instance a goHome method that’s simply a shortcut to calling this.timeTravel(1985):

marty.goHome = function() {
    this.timeTravel(1985);
}

However, we know that if we subscribe marty.goHome as the event handler to our button’s click event, that this will be the button – and unfortunately buttons don’t have a timeTravel method. We could use our approach from earlier – where an anonymous function was the event handler, and it invoked the method on the marty instance – but we have another option, the bind function:

flux.addEventListener("click", marty.goHome.bind(marty));

The bind function actually returns a new function, with the this value of the new function set to what you provide as the argument. If you’re supporting older browsers (less than IE9, for example), then you’ll need to shim the bind function (or, if you’re using jQuery, you can use $.proxy; both underscore & lodash provide _.bind).

One important thing to remember is that if you use bind on a prototype method, it creates an instance-level method, which bypasses the advantages of having methods on the prototype. It’s not wrong, just something to be aware of. I write more about this particular issue here.

4.) Function Expressions vs Function Declarations

There are two main ways you will typically see functions defined in JavaScript (though ES6 will introduce another)): function declarations and function expressions.

Function Declarations do not require a var keyword. In fact, as Angus Croll says: “It’s helpful to think of them as siblings of Variable Declarations.” For example:

function timeTravel(year) {
    console.log(this.firstName + " " + this.lastName + " is time traveling to " + year);
}

The function name timeTravel in the above example is visible not only inside the scope it was declared, but inside the function itself as well (this is especially useful for recursive function calls). Function declarations are, by nature, named functions. In other words, the above function’s name property is timeTravel.

Function Expressions define a function and assign it to a variable. They typically look like this:

var someFn = function() {
    console.log("I like to express myself...");
};

It’s possible to name function expressions as well – though, unlike function declarations, a named function expression’s name is only accessible inside its scope:

var someFn = function iHazName() {
    console.log("I like to express myself...");
    if(needsMoreExpressing) {
        iHazName(); // the function's name can be used here
    }
};

// you can call someFn() here, but not iHazName()
someFn();

Discussing function expressions and declarations wouldn’t be complete without at least mentioning “hoisting” – where function and variable declarations are moved to the top of the containing scope by the interpreter. We’re not going to cover hoisting here, but be sure to read two great explanations by Ben Cherry and Angus Croll.

5.) Named vs Anonymous Functions

Based on what we’ve just discussed, you might have guessed that an “anonymous” function is a function without a name. Most JavaScript developers would quickly recognize the second argument below as an anonymous function:

someElement.addEventListener("click", function(e) {
    // I'm anonymous!
});

However, it’s also true that our marty.timeTravel method is anonymous as well:

var marty = {
    firstName: "Marty",
    lastName: "McFly",
    timeTravel: function(year) {
        console.log(this.firstName + " " + this.lastName + " is time traveling to " + year);
    }
}

Since function declarations must have a name, only function expressions can be anonymous.

6.) Immediately Invoked Function Expressions

And since we’re talking about function expressions, one thing I wish I’d known right away: the Immediately Invoked Function Expression (IIFE). There are a number of good posts on IIFEs (I’ll list a few at the end), but in a nutshell, it’s a function expression that is not assigned to a variable to be executed later, it’s executed immediately. It might help to see this take shape in a browser console.

First – let’s start with just entering a function expression – but not assigning it – and see what happens:

jsquirks_afjq_4

That’s not valid JavaScript syntax – it’s a function declaration missing its name. However, to make it an expression, we just need to surround it with parentheses:

jsquirks_afjq_6 jsquirks_afjq_5

Making this an expression immediately returns our anonymous function to the console (remember, we’re not assigning it, but since it’s an expression we get its value back). So – we have the “function expression” part of “immediately invoked function expression”. To get the “immediately invoked” aspect, we call what the expression returns by adding another set of parentheses after the expression (just like we’d invoke any other function):

jsquirks_afjq_6

“But wait, Jim! I think I’ve seen this before with the invocation parentheses inside the expression parentheses”. Indeed you probably have – it’s perfectly legal syntax (and is well known to be Douglas Crockford’s preferred syntax):

jsquirks_afjq_7

Either approach on where to put the invocation parentheses is usable, however I highly recommend reading one of the best explanations ever on why & when it could matter.

Ok, great – now we know what an IIFE is – why is it useful?

It helps us control scope – an essential part of any JavaScript endeavor! The marty instance we’ve looked at earlier was created in the global scope. This means that the window (assuming we’re in a browser), will have a marty property. If we write all of our JavaScript code this way, we’ll quickly end up with a metric ton of vars declared in the global scope, polluting the window with our app’s code. Even in the best case scenarios, it’s bad practice to leak that many details into the global scope, but what happens when someone names a variable the same name as an already existing property on the window? It gets overwritten!

For example, if your favorite “Amelia Earhart” fan site declares a navigator variable in the global scope, this is a before and after look at what happens:

jsquirks_afjq_8

OOPS!

Obviously – polluting the global scope is bad. JavaScript utilizes function scope (not block scope, if you’re coming from C# or Java, this is important!), so the way to keep our code from polluting the global scope is to create a new scope, and we can use an IIFE to do this since its contents will be inside its own function scope. In the example below, I’m showing you the window.navigator value in the console, and then I create an IIFE to wrap the behavior and data specific to Amelia Earhart. This IIFE happens to return an object that will serve as our “application namespace”. Inside the IIFE I declare a navigator variable to show that it will not overwrite the window.navigator value.

jsquirks_afjq_9

As an added bonus, the IIFE we created above is the beginnings of a module pattern in JavaScript. I’ll include some links at the end so you can explore module patterns further.

7.) The `typeof` Operator and `Object.prototype.toString`

Eventually, you’ll probably find yourself in a situation where you need to inspect the type of a value passed into a function, or something similar. The typeof operator might seem the obvious choice, however, it’s not terribly helpful. For example, what happens when we call typeof on an object, an array, a string and a regular expression?

jsquirks_afjq_10

Well – at least we can tell our strings apart from objects, arrays and regular expressions, right? Thankfully, we can take a different approach to get more accurate information about type we’re inspecting. We’ll use the Object.prototype.toString function and apply our knowledge of the call method from earlier:

jsquirks_afjq_11

Why are we using the toString on Object.prototype? Because it’s possible for 3rd party libraries, as well as your own code, to override the toString method with an instance method. By going to the Object.prototype, we can force the original toString behavior on an instance.

If you know what typeof will return and you don’t need to check beyond what it will give you (for example, you just need to know if something is a string or not), then using typeof is perfectly fine. However, if you need to tell arrays from objects, regexes from objects, etc., use Object.prototype.toString.

Where to Go Next

I’ve benefitted tremendously from the insights of other JavaScript developers, so please check these links out and give these people a pat on the back for teaching the rest of us!

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