First-class Functions in JavaScript

Posted on February 19, 2018 permalink comments

The notion of first-class functions can be somewhat puzzling for those who are just starting with JavaScript, especially if they come from a Java background (as Java has only introduced them in version 8).

Understanding first-class functions is crucial in the JavaScript world as they are unavoidable when dealing with event handlers, non-blocking (asynchronous) I/O and they are the fundamental to functional programming.

If a language has “first-class functions” then the language doesn’t make a difference between functions and data. This usually means that a function declaration is an expression instead of a statement. Any expression can yield any kind of value, like a boolean, or Object, or in our case a function - it makes no difference to the language.

Declaring functions

In JavaScript it’s a bit confusing that a function declaration can also be a statement, similar to the var keyword in some special cases. See the following example:

f();
function f() { console.log('hello, world!') }

In this case, the function keyword acts as a declaration statement, similar to var, let and others. Even the invocation of our function happens before the declaration, it can still be used thanks to declaration hoisting.

In the following example, we assign the function to a variable:

f(); // exception: f is not defined.
g(); // exception: g is not a function.
var g = function f() { console.log('hello, world!') }

What happens here? First of all, we notice that we don’t have a function f defined anymore. That’s because as soon as we use the value of it, the function keyword will act as an expression instead of a declaration statement. Hence the name f is not declared in our scope, but it’s returned as the result of the expression, which is assigned to our variable g.

How come g() doesn’t work? And why does it throw a different exception? To understand that, we have to check declaration hoisting again. The var g statement is hoisted, so our code will effectively turn into this:

var g = undefined
f()
g()
g = function f() { console.log('hello, world!') }

Remember, an assignment is an expression while variable declaration is a statement, and only the latter is hoisted. That explains the different exception: when we say g(), in fact, we say undefined() which is invalid as undefined is not a function.

We could drop the name f here because the only reference we’ll have for the function is g. However, f is still the name of the function (g.name will yield "f"), and it will appear in the debugger as f. Modern JavaScript engines can infer the name of functions declared in function expressions, so if we dropped the f and went with function() {}, they would set the function’s name to "g". That means it’s no longer necessary to awkwardly name anonymous functions just to ease the debugging (unless you plan to debug in IE of course :)).

Since ES2015, there’s an alternative way to declare anonymous functions (a.k.a. lambdas) called arrow functions:

    const f = a => a + 1
    const g = (a, b) => {
        console.log(b);
        return a;
    }

Note that we used the const keyword to declare variables that hold our function. Unless you want to change the implementation of f and g later, you should always use const, as the function itself won’t change. Making this clear will help the JavaScript runtime to optimise your code better (and will aid your fellow developers understanding your work).

Using the () => {} syntax, fat arrow functions work just like regular functions (except their context, more on that later). If you have exactly one parameter, the parentheses are optional. You can define one-liners by omitting the curly braces: in this case, the return statement is implied (f = a => { return a + 1 } would have the same meaning as the above).

Higher-order functions

Any expression can yield a function, and any expression can be used as an argument or returned from a function, which implies that we can create functions which take other functions as parameters and return functions. Such functions are called higher-order functions.

Perhaps the most common higher-order function is the map array method. In the following example, we create a function which returns an arbitrary field of an object (usually called pluck) and map it to an array of objects.

const pluck = field => item => item[field]
const objects = [ { a: 5, b: 1 }, { a: 'asd', x: 1 } ]
objects.map(pluck('a')) // yields [ 5, 'asd' ]

Our definition of pluck might look strange, so let’s convert it to the usual function syntax:

const pluck = function(field) {
    return function(item) {
        return item[field]   
    }
}

Our pluck function takes a field name and returns a function which takes the actual object and extracts that field. Since it returns a function, it is a higher-order function. We could use our function to extract a field from a single object like this: pluck({ a: 5, b: 1 })('a'). This is what we call a curried function: if we call it with just one parameter, it yields a function which takes the second parameter only, if it’s called with both parameters, it yields the actual result. We can also say that if we call it with only one argument, we partialy apply the first argument to our function.

Unfortunately, JavaScript doesn’t support currying natively, so we have to use this weird ()() syntax when calling curried functions, which also means they are not interchangeable with regular functions. Much cooler languages such as Haskell or ML support curried functions (in fact they support only curried functions) natively, so no special syntax is needed.

To understand how pluck works, we need to understand lexical scoping. In JavaScript, every function creates a new scope (actually, since ES2015, every block surrounded by curlies creates one, but with slightly different rules). A function can “see” not only the variables defined in its own scope but also it’s surrounding scope, the surrounding scope of that scope and so on, all the way up to the global scope. Even if we call the function from another scope, it is still evaluated in the scope it has been declared in (instead of the scope it has been called in, which is called dynamic scoping).

Without lexical scoping, higher-order functions wouldn’t be possible. A function and it’s outer scopes together are called a closure. Inside objects, closures can be used to emulate private methods.

Dynamic scoping with the this keyword

Besides lexical scoping, JavaScript also offers dynamic scoping using the this keyword. this is a special object which points to a scope defined by the caller, called the context.

The following example demonstrates how function contexts work when applied manally and with method invocation:

const incrementBy = function(by) { return this.value += by }
const decrementBy = by => this.value -= by
const counter = { value: 0, inc: incrementBy, dec: decrementBy }

incrementBy.apply(counter, [1]) // yields 1
incrementBy.call(counter, 5) // yields 6
counter.inc(1) // yields 7
counter.dec(5) // yields NaN

You can set the dynamic scope for a function using Function#call or Functon#apply. Both take the context as the first parameter, and then the parameters are passed as arguments to the function (either as separate parameters or as an array of parameters).

The . (dot) operator has a special meaning when followed by a method invocation: it passes the object before it as a context to the method after it. So counter.inc(5) === incrementBy.call(counter, 5), given that we assigned the incrementBy function to the field inc previously. Methods are nothing special in JavaScript, they are just functions assigned to a field of an object.

What’s wrong with decrementBy? It is an arrow function, not a regular function, and here’s where they differ from each other. When we define an arrow function, the resulting function is bound to the dynamic scope of it’s enclosing scope, and cannot be overridden later. This change was introduced so developers can use object methods as callbacks while using their original this. As callbacks are usually passed as functions, the context is lost when the caller invokes it, which made it hard to pass them around (and developers resorted to using hacks like var that = this). The same context binding can be achieved with regular functions, using the higher-order function Function#bind, which returns a copy of a function bound to a specific context.

As we don’t specify the context, it will either point to the global scope or be undefined (depending on strict mode). In the former case, this.value evaluates to undefined which is cast to NaN (not-a-number), so subtracting a number from it will also be NaN.

Let’s see our example the other way around to demonstrate it. Here we will use a constructor so the this context is set to our new object:

function Counter() {
    this.value = 0
    this.incrementBy = function(by) { return this.value += by }
    this.decrementBy = by => this.value -= by
}

const counter = new Counter()
const incBound = counter.incrementBy.bind(counter)
const inc = counter.incrementBy
const dec = counter.decrementBy

inc(1) // yields NaN
incBound(2) // yields 2
dec(1) // yields 1

Here, as we call Counter#incrementBy through inc, we do not use the dot operator so the context is not set. However, if we call dec, or the bound version of incrementBy, it works, because the context is bound to the function.

It’s easy to misunderstand JavaScript and think that it’s inconsistent. In fact, it’s the opposite: if you take the effort to understand it’s fundamentals instead of assuming it works like some other language you’re used to, you’ll see that it’s a highly flexible and robust dynamic language.