JavaScript LogoJavaScript Fat Arrow Functions solve the “this” problem by maintaining a reference to the object to which a method belongs. This is the case even with nested functions.

One of the most popular aspects of JavaScript is the fact that functions are first-class citizens. So, this aspect of the ECMAScript specification provides a great deal of power. Now when a function is a property of an object, it is also considered a method. That is, it is a method of that object. And inside of a method, the JavaScript “this” keyword is important, because it allows us to access the object to which the method belongs, as well as its other properties.

Now, when nesting functions, the JavaScript “this” keyword, one of the more frustrating aspects of the language, can be a bit tricky to deal with. So, in this article, I will discuss this very problem and how to solve it using fat arrow functions. If you’d like to run the code examples locally on your computer, clone the following github repository: Using fat arrow functions in your Node module.

(Instructions on how to run the code are available in the Github page.)

One important note about the code examples: the title of this article references “…Node Modules” to keep things simple, so I did not use a node module for the context of the code examples. Most Node applications keep the main file code minimal. Taking a modular approach is almost always a best practice, but for this article, I have put the code in the main JavaScript file.

The problem with “this” – Example # 1

Run Example # 1 in your terminal with the following command: node example-1.js. The result of this is: “THE MESSAGE IS: undefined“.

We have created a tools object in Example # 1, and that name is “tools“, which is arbitrary. It could have been any name, we just need an object to work with. The “tools” object has a “message” property, and there is also a method named “asyncTask“. The asyncTask method simulates an asynchronous task by using the setTimeout method. There is a reference to the JavaScript “this” keyword inside of the anonymous function passed to the setTimeout method. Now here’s where it gets a little dicey: the anonymous function passed to the setTimeout method is not executed in the context of the “tools” object, and therein lies the problem. The resulting console.log message is: “THE MESSAGE IS: undefined“.

So, we need a way to reference the “tools” object inside of the anonymous function that we passed to the setTimeout method. Well, the best approach is still to reference the “this” keyword. A common and popular approach in the past has been to set a reference to “this” before calling the setTimout method. For example: “var me = this;”. Okay, so while that is still a possible technique, there now is a far more elegant approach.

Fat arrow functions solve the “this” problem – Example # 2

Run Example # 2 in your terminal with the following command: node example-2.js. The result of this is: “THE MESSAGE IS: Hello from this.message!”

We made a small change in Example # 2. We converted the anonymous function passed to the setTimeout method to a fat arrow function. Fortunately, this action solved our problem. One of the advantages of fat arrow functions is that they preserve the meaning of the JavaScript “this” keyword. Because of this, when we reference this.message we no longer have an error, and we also see the expected message in the console.

Fat Arrow Function – One Argument – Example # 3A

Fat Arrow Function – Multiple Arguments – Example # 3B

A few things to keep in mind:

  • In Example # 2, the fat arrow function takes no arguments, but, it still has a pair of opening and closing parentheses. This is because when a fat arrow function takes no arguments, you must include a pair of opening and closing parentheses.
  • In Example # 3A, there are no parentheses in the fat arrow function. This is because when there is one argument, you do not need to include parentheses.
  • In Example # 3B, there are two arguments contained inside of parentheses. This is because when there is more than one argument, you must include parentheses.

Summary

In this article we saw that fat arrow functions solve the “this” problem because they provide access to the object to which the containing function belongs, and you can access that object at all times by using the “this” keyword. And even when nesting fat arrow functions, the “this” reference is preserved, eliminating the need to set a temporary reference to “this”. Just keep in mind the importance of how the syntax can differ, depending on the number of arguments that the fat arrow function takes. In other words, with zero or multiple arguments, parentheses are required, and with only one argument parentheses are not required. Pretty simple, once you get used to it.

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