The JavaScript “this” Keyword Deep Dive: An Overview

JavaScript

JavaScript LogoLearn the subtle yet critical details that allow you to leverage the JavaScript “this” keyword.

In JavaScript, the “this” keyword is one of the most overly-used yet under-utilized aspects of the language. It is also one of the most mis-understood topics. While it facilitates more readable, expressive object-oriented JavaScript, improper use is a catalyst for confusing code that is difficult to debug.

Personally, I’ve struggled to understand the mystery. I’ve heard many unusually long-winded explanations, which I feel only contribute to the silliness. Simply put: In JavaScript, “this” refers to the object upon which a function is invoked. That’s it.

In JavaScript, “this” refers to the object upon which a function is invoked.

This means that “this” can only be used in a function, or globally. When used in either of these cases, “this” refers to the window object. When the function is a method of an object, then “this” refers to the object that the method is a member of. When the function is a constructor, then “this” refers to the instance object. There is much more to talk about with regards to what “this” means in varying scenarios, but these are the most common situations.

Example # 1

In Example # 1, we have added a property to the window object, named it: “music”, and assigned the value “classical”. In the line that follows, we output the value of “this.music”, and the result is: “classical”.

The reason for the output is simple: If you execute arbitrary code in the global context (i.e. outside of a function), then “this” refers to the window object. Executing arbitrary code in the global context is highly discouraged, but it is important to understand this behavior from a theoretical standpoint; in the global context: “this” will evaluate to the window object.

Example # 2

In Example # 2, we have added a function named foo, and then logged the output of that function’s execution. The resulting value is: “classical”. Some may have expected the output to be “blues”. This is a common mistake.

In the function “foo”, “music” is a variable. The “this” keyword has to do with objects, never variables (there is a very subtle scenario where “this” refers to a variable, which we will address in a later post). So the fact that there is a variable named “music” is completely meaningless in this example. The function “foo” does only one thing: it returns the value of this.music. In that function, “this” is the widow object, and the value of window.music is: “classical”. So, the variable “music” is completely ignored.

Example # 3

In Example # 3, we have added an object named “bar”. This object has two properties: “music”, which has a value of “jazz” and “getMusic”: a method that returns the value of bar’s “music” property.

The “getMusic” method has a line of code that you have seen in previous examples: “return this.music”. But why does that line of code return: “jazz”? The reason for this behavior is that when a function is a method of an object, the “this” keyword refers to the object upon which that function is invoked. In this case, the object is “bar”, and bar’s “music” property is equal to “jazz”, so “this.music” is equal to “jazz”.

Example # 4

In Example # 4, we have added the constructor function: “Baz”. “Baz” has a property named “music”, and it is equal to “rock”. It also has a property named “getMusic”, which is a method. The “getMusic” method returns the value of Baz’s “music” property.

You may be thinking that inside of the “Baz” constructor, the “this” keyword refers to the window object, as discussed in Example # 2. If we were to simply execute “Baz” (e.g. Baz() ), then yes, the property window.music would be overwritten and given the value of “rock”, and there would be a new global property named “getMusic”, which would return “rock”.

But that’s not what happens. After we create the constructor: “Baz”, we instantiate it, which results in a variable named “bif”, an instance of “Baz”. When you instantiate a JavaScript constructor function, the “this” keyword inside of that function refers to the instance object that the constructor returns.

HERE IS THE JS-FIDDLE.NET LINK

FOR EXAMPLE # 3:

Summary

In this article we discussed the high-level details of the JavaScript “this” keyword. We learned that it refers to the object upon which a function is invoked, and how it means different things in different scenarios. The scenarios we covered are: the window object, inside of a function, inside of a method, and inside of a constructor function.

What is the Difference Between Scope and Context in JavaScript?

JavaScript

scope and contextIn JavaScript, scope and context are not the same thing, and it’s important to understand the difference between them. Fortunately, the answer is short and simple.

Why Should We Care About Scope and Context ?

When interviewing front-end developers, I usually try to include a question about scope and context in JavaScript. I always ask what the difference is, and I am often surprised by the answers I get. It seems that even those with some experience have difficulty answering this question.

The answer is short and simple: Scope pertains to the visibility of variables, and context refers to the object within which a function is executed.

Scope

Scope has to do with the the visibility of variables. In JavaScript, scope is achieved through the use of functions. When you use the keyword “var” inside of a function, the variable that you are initializing is private, and cannot be seen outside of that function. But, if there are functions inside of this function, then those “inner” functions can “see” that variable, and that variable is said to be “in-scope”. Functions can “see” variables that are declared inside of them. They can also “see” any that are declared outside of them, but never those declared inside of functions that are nested in that function. This is scope in JavaScript.

Context

Context is related to objects. It refers to the object within which a function is executed. When you use the JavaScript keyword “this”, it refers to the object that the function is executing in.

Scope refers to the visibility of variables, and content refers to the object within which a function is executed.

For example, inside of a function, when you say: “this.accoutNumber”, you are referring to the property “accoutNumber”, that belongs to the object within which the function is executing. If the object “foo” has a method called “bar”, when the JavaScript keyword “this” is used inside of “bar”, it refers to “foo”. If the function “bar” were executed in the global scope, then “this” refers to the window object. It is important to keep in mind that by using the JavaScript call() or apply() methods, you can alter the context within which a function is executed. This, in-turn, changes the meaning of “this” inside of that function when it is executed.

Summary

As a front-end developer, you can surely appreciate what an important topic this is, and how critical it is to understand the difference between scope and context in JavaScript. These two subjects become very important as soon as you have to write or edit even intermediate-level JavaScript, and your ability to comfortably and confidently write / edit JavaScript will only improve once you have a good working knowledge of the difference between scope and context. The good news is, it’s not that difficult to understand and once you get it, you’ve got it.

Helpful Links for understanding the difference between scope and context in JavaScript

What’s the Difference Between Scope and Context in JavaScript ? | Skillshare

Understanding Scope in JavaScript – Function Level Scope | Kevin Chisholm – Blog

Understanding Context in JavaScript – Object Literals | Kevin Chisholm – Blog

 

 

Making Your JavaScript Code Easier to Understand: Object Literals

JavaScript

JavaScript LogoWhen it comes to organizing your object literals, there are multiple approaches you can take

Object Literals are a very useful feature of JavaScript. They allow you to easily build structures of data or functionality (or both mixed together), without too much fuss and drama. The syntax is simple and they make it easy to name-space your code. But, when your object literals start to grow in size, they can become a bit difficult to manage. And, it can sometimes make your code harder to follow.

In the next few examples, I will cover a couple of  alternate ways to organize your JavaScript Object Literals. This can make your code easier to manage and understand.
Example # 1

In Example # 1, we have an object literal that has been assigned to the variable “mathFuncs”. This object has three members: “add”, “subtract” and “multiply”. Each is a function. This is not too bad, but what if each function was tens or even hundreds of lines of code? The entire “mathFuncs” object itself would grow to become thousands of lines long. This can become unwieldy. Also, if while making edits, one semicolon gets knocked out of place, the entire object is likely to become defective, which will pretty much kill the script.

Example # 2

In Example # 2, “mathFuncs” is initially one line of code: an empty object. We then extend the object by adding more properties. In this case, the three properties we add are “add”, “subtract” and “multiply”. Functionally, there is no difference between this approach and Example # 2. These anonymous functions will perform no differently. What is different is that the code is a little bit easier to follow. First you see that “mathFuncs” is an empty object, and then we add properties to it. These properties are all functions, so they should be referred to as “methods”. Also, if you have a bug in one of the anonymous functions, it is less likely to break the entire script, and could be easier to track down.

Since these functions are very small, there is yet another level of optimization that we can apply:

Example # 3

In Example # 3 we tightened up the first three functions because there is so little going on in them, so it’s no harm to make them all one line each. Again, it’s just easier for someone else to quickly read and understand. We added two new properties, both anonymous functions as well. Since these are bigger functions (let’s pretend they are each 50+ lines of code), we put them last so that they are a bit out of the way, and we only have to see all that implementation code if we care to.

This is all a matter of preference. From time to time, I think that not everyone realizes that there are options when it comes to object literals and how you choose to write them out. The approach taken in Example # 1 is fine, especially when the objects are small. But when you have many properties in your object, and those properties are anonymous functions that contain tens or hundreds of lines of code, it can make your logic hard for someone else to follow.

Summary

There are many ways to skin a cat, and as many ways to organize your JavaScript code. The purpose of this post was to offer a few suggestions that can make your object literals a little bit easier to read, especially for someone else who, in the future, might have to read, understand and then make changes to your code.

Understanding Context in JavaScript – Object Literals

JavaScript

JavaScript Logo - context

Why is the word “this” so important in JavaScript?

In the post: “Understanding Scope in JavaScript,” I covered the basics of how scope works when dealing with functions. Sometimes the words “scope” and “context” are used interchangeably, which only leads to confusion because they are not the same thing.

In JavaScript, “context” refers to an object. Within an object, the keyword “this” refers to that object (i.e. “self”), and provides an interface to the properties and methods that are members of that object. When a function is executed, the keyword “this” refers to the object that the function is executed in.

Here are a few scenarios:

So, as you can see, “this” can easily give you a headache. But hang in there; we are getting to the good stuff now.

In a nutshell, in Object-literals, you don’t have local variables; you have properties of the object. So, where inside of the function foo() I might say “var drink = ‘beer’; “, for an object literal called “bar”, I would say “bar.dink = ‘beer’. “ The difference is that “beer” is a property of “bar”, whereas when a function is executing, a local variable is defined by the “var” keyword and cannot be seen by anyone or anything outside of the function.

Example # 1

Here is the jsFiddle.net link for Example # 1: http://jsfiddle.net/Q9RJv/

In Example # 1, we first create a global variable named “drink”, and set it equal to “wine”. We’ll come back to that in a minute.

Next, we create an Object Literal named “foo”, with a property “drink” that is equal to “beer”. There is also a method that simply returns “drink”. But why does it return “wine”, and not “beer”? This is because in the object “foo”, “drink” is a property of foo, not a variable. Inside of functions, when reference is made to a variable, the JavaScript engine searches the scope chain and returns the first match it finds.

Although this function executes in the context of “foo”, “foo” does not have a variable named “drink”. It has a property named “drink”, but not a variable. So the JavaScript engine searches the next level of the scope chain. The next level of the scope chain is the global object, which contains a variable named “drink”, so the value of that variable (“wine”), is returned.

But wait a minute Kevin, how can we make reference to the property “drink” that is in the context of the object “foo”?

I’m glad you asked.

Example # 2

Here is the jsFiddle.net link for Example # 2: http://jsfiddle.net/HGM93/

In Example # 2, the only change we have made is that in the anonymous function that is assigned to “getDrink”, we return “this.drink” instead of “drink

This is an important detail. When a function executes in the context of an object , the keyword “this” refers to that object. You can access any of the properties of the object by using the “this” keyword, add new ones (e.g. this.color = “blue”), and change existing ones (e.g. this.drink = “juice).

Using Dot Notation to Create a JavaScript Object Literal

Example # 3

Here is the jsFiddle.net link for Example # 3: http://jsfiddle.net/ZA77k/

In Example # 3, we have the exact same functionality as Example # 2. From the JavaScript engine’s perspective, we have achieved the same goal, and the console output is exactly the same.

The difference is how we organized our code. In Example # 2, we created the properties “drink” and “getDrink” at the exact same time that we created the object literal “foo”. It is all one expression. In Example # 3, we create an empty object named “foo” first, and then use dot notation to add properties to the object one-by-one. I just wanted to point out that there is more than one way to go about all of this from a syntax perspective.

Object Literals Can Contain Other Object Literals, and those Objects Have Their Own Context

Example # 4

Here is the jsFiddle.net link for Example # 4: http://jsfiddle.net/8p38y/

In Example # 4, we have added a new property to “foo”, and that property is yet another object. At first it is empty (i.e. foo.under21 = {}), and then we add two properties to it. The first property is “drink”, which is set equal to “soda”. Don’t’ confuse this with the property “drink” that is set in the context of “foo” which is equal to “beer”. In the context of “foo.under21”, “drink” is equal to “soda”.

The second property of “foo.under21” has an anonymous function assigned to it. That anonymous function returns “this.drink”. In the context of “foo.under21”, “drink” is equal to “soda”, so calling that function returns “soda”.

So the point of this example is that object literals can have properties that are themselves objects, and those objects have their own context. When functions execute in the context of those objects “this” refers to the object, and so on. I am aware of no limit to this kind of object nesting.

The JavaScript .call() and .apply() Methods Allow You to Dynamically Change the Context In Which a Function is Executed

Example # 5

Here is the jsFiddle.net link for Example # 5: http://jsfiddle.net/A5ydt/

Ok, so here is the bonus question: In Example # 5, why does a call to “foo.under21.getDrink()” now return “wine” ?

This is because we changed the inner-workings of that function. Instead of simply returning “this.drink”, we use the JavaScript “.call()” method, which allows you to execute any function in the context of another object. When you do not specify the context in which that function is to be “called”, it executes in the context of the global object. In the global context, there is a variable named “drink” and it is equal to “wine”, so “wine” is returned.

Example # 6:

Here is the jsFiddle.net link for Example # 6: http://jsfiddle.net/cS4cv/

In Example # 6, “soda” is returned because when we used the JavaScript “.call()” method, we specified the context in which the function is to execute. In this case, the context we specify is “this”. “this” refers to the context of “foo.under21”, and “foo.under21” has a property named “drink”, so the value “soda” is returned.

Summary

The last two examples may seem like overkill, but I wanted to point out that just when you start to get a handle on the concept of context in JavaScript object literals, you must realize that there is a bit more to consider. JavaScript Object Literals can have properties that are also objects, and those objects have their own context.

In each case, when a function executes within that context, inside of the function, the “this” keyword refers to the object that the function is a property of, because the function executes in the context of that object. By using the JavaScript “.call()” method (or “.apply()” method), you can programmatically change the context in which that function executes, which changes the meaning of the “this” accordingly.

How to Create a JavaScript Object Literal

JavaScript

JavaScript LogoLearn how to quickly and easily create your first Object Literal, and give it properties and methods

There seems to be a bit of mystery surrounding the subject of JavaScript Object Literals. It is actually a simple concept and it’s easy to get started. There is a great deal of depth to the subject, but creating your first JavaScript Object Literal does not need to be complicated.

The simplest way to create an object literal is to assign an empty object to a variable. For example: var foo = {}; That is it. In that one line, you have created an object literal.

Now, that object is empty. Objects have two kinds of “things”: properties and methods. A property can be any valid JavaScript type (i.e. string, number, boolean, function, array, etc.). A method is essentially a property of the object to which you have assigned an anonymous function. So the property is now equal to a function. It is still a property of the object, but because it “does” something, we now call it a “method”.

Example # 1

Here is the JSFiddle Link for Example # 1: http://jsfiddle.net/jzrDw/

In Example # 1, we create a new Object Literal by assigning an empty object to the variable “foo”. Next, we give foo a property named “drink” and assign a value of “beer” to it. In this case the value of “drink” is a string (“beer”), but it could easily have been a number (i.e. foo.drink = 5) or a boolean (foo.drink = true) or any valid JavaScript type.

Example # 2

In Example # 2, we have added a second property to foo. This property, “say” has an anonymous function assigned to it, so now we call it a “method”. That method: foo.say does not do too much; it just outputs “hello world!” to the console. But nonetheless, it is a method of foo.

Here is the JSFiddle Link for Example # 2: http://jsfiddle.net/PWHM5/

Here is an important note: In the first two examples, technically, we created an object literal by assigning an empty object to the variable “foo”. Then we added a property and a method using dot notation (i.e. foo.property = value). But true “Object Literal” syntax involves creating the object properties as you create the object.

Example # 3

In Example # 3, we use Object Literal Notation. In the end, we have the same result as the previous example, but we achieve it using true Object Literal Notation. The difference is that in the previous example, we created an empty object, and then added properties to it. In Example # 3, we created those properties as we created the object itself.

Here is the JSFiddle Link for Example # 3: http://jsfiddle.net/sGY7E/

Summary

There is plenty more to talk about here. For example, there is the subject of “context” in Object Literals. But this post is about getting started, and to show that creating a JavaScript Object Literal is no mystery. What you do with that object is up to you. But you can be sure that objects in JavaScript are important features of the language, as they allow you to write more powerful and expressive code.

A Video Tutorial About JavaScript Object Literals

Helpful Links for JavaScript Object Literals

https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/JavaScript/Guide/Working_with_Objects

http://blog.kevinchisholm.com/javascript/difference-between-object-literal-and-instance-object/

http://www.dyn-web.com/tutorials/obj_lit.php

Associative Arrays in JavaScript

JavaScript

JavaScript LogoYou may be finding conflicting information about associative arrays in JavaScript. Well, the answer is quite simple… and then things start to get a little odd

If you are frustrated because you have been getting different answers on this subject, I”ve got good news and bad news. The good news is, the answer is simple: associative arrays are not supported in JavaScript. Arrays in JavaScript are index-based. Plain and simple, end of conversation. But the bad new is, it’s not quite the end of the conversation. The reason for this is that the following code actually works just fine:

[insert shrugged shoulders here]  “…ok Kevin, so what’s the problem ?

The problem is: you do not have an array with five elements. You have an array with three elements, and two properties.

Huh?

Yup, this is the part where JavaScript array objects behave in an unexpected way. But hang in there, it’s actually kind of cool once you understand what is happening.

Arrays are Objects

Arrays in JavaScript are numerically indexed: each array element’s “key” is its numeric index. So, in a way, each element is anonymous. This is because when you use methods of the Array object such as array.shift() or array.unshift(), each element’s index changes. So, after using array.shift(), array element # 2 becomes array element # 1, and so on. (array.pop() and array.push() may change the length of the array, but they don’t change the existing array element’s index numbers because you are dealing with the end of the array.)

All this is to say that in a JavaScript array, each element can only be identified by an index, which will always be a number, and you always have to assume that this number can change, which means that the whole “key/value” idea is out the window (i.e. no associative arrays in JavaScript. Sorry.).

OK smarty-pants, if you can’t have associative arrays in JavaScript, why does this work: arr[“drink”] = “beer” ?

Glad you asked. This is because in JavaScript, arrays inherit from Object(). Whether you use an array literal or instantiate the array constructor, you are creating an object, plain and simple. Consider the following:

Example # 1

In Example # 1, we create an array in three different ways. The first line creates a new array with three elements, but they are all undefined. The second line creates a new array, but it is empty, with no elements (this is an array literal). The third line creates an array literal, but we provide values for the elements as we define the array. In all three cases, you are creating an instance of the Array() constructor, which inherits from Object(). So, these are ALL objects.

Example # 2:

 

In Example # 2, we create an array literal, but it is empty. (var arr = []; works just fine, but it is an empty array.) When we check the length property and try to inspect the object with console.dir(arr), we can clearly see that it is empty. Then we add elements to the array, and add named properties (e.g. arr[“drink”] = “beer”). But when checking the array’s length property, and inspecting the object, we can see that the actual “array” part of the array still has only three elements (i.e. “music” and “drink” are NOT elements in the array), and that “music” and “drink” are properties of the array object.

Arrays are Objects with their own special “array-ish” properties

What is happening, is that the Array() constructor returns an instance object that has some special members that other objects such as Function() and Date() do not. So when your code says:  arr[“drink”] = “beer” you are simply adding a new property to your object, which happens to be an array, and that property has a name of “drink”, and you have assigned the value of “beer” to it.

You could have easily assigned a number, an object, an anonymous function, or one of JavaScript’s other data types. This property “drink” has no connection to the elements in the array. It does not increase the value of the array’s “length” property, and it cannot be accessed via the array-ish methods such as pop() or shift().

Let’s see what happens when we take advantage of this object’s “array-ness.”

Example # 3:

OK, so things are gettin’ pretty weird, right? Yep, but it’s all cool stuff, and at the end of the day, it’s no big deal. It just illustrates the way objects work in JavaScript. Let’s run it down:

  • First, we use the JavaScrpt Array() object’s push() method to dynamically add an element to the array. It just so happens that this new element is an object literal, with two properties. Its index becomes 3.
  • Next, we use the same push() method to dynamically add another element to the array. This new element is an anonymous function. Its index becomes 4.
  • Next, we create a new property for our array called “testMe”. This new property happens to be an anonymous function. It has NO index, because it is NOT an element in the array, just a new property that we have added.
  • Next, we use the console to check the array’s length property, which is now “5”, and we inspect it.
  •  Dont’ forget it is an array, but it is also sill an object; Array() inherits from Object(). When inspecting the object, we see that our two uses of push() did, in fact, add two new elements to the array; one is an object, the other is an anonymous function. We also have “testMe”, wich is a new property of arr.
Ok, so what happens if we attempt to access the two functions that we added? Oh, they will run just fine, but remember: one is an element in the array, the other is a property of the arr object. So we access them differently:

Example # 4:

The output for Example # 4 would be:

In each case, we are simply executing a function. It’s just that in the first case, that function is an element in the “arr” array. So, we have to access it using its index, which happens to be “4”. This can get tricky fast, and care should be taken in doing this kind of thing, but just to illustrate a point: array elements in JavaScript can be of any data type. In the second case, we access the function by its name “testMe”, because it is a PROPERTY of the array, not an element. Much easier, and there are no issues, because “testMe” will always be “testMe”, so it’s easy to access.

Summary

This is all pretty overboard. I mean, don’t we usually want this: var arr = [“mon”,”tues”,”wed”] ? Well, yes. Most of the time we do. But the point of this post is two-fold:

  1. JavaScript does NOT support associative arrays. Period.
  2. Arrays are objects, so properties can be added any time. Those properties can be any data type.

In JavaScript, arrays are best used as arrays, i.e., numerically indexed lists. The great thing is that those elements in the array can be of any data type. Index # 0 can be a string, # 1 can be an object, # 2 can be an anonymous function, and # 3 can be another array.

But once you start doing things like this: arr[“drink”] = “beer”, you are swimming in somewhat dangerous waters. Unless you really know what you are doing, you will get odd behavior because arr[“drink”] is NOT a numerically indexed “member” of the array (it is not an array “element”), and does NOT have the relation to arr[0] and arr[1] that you may think it does.

As soon as you start doing things like: arr[“drink”] = “beer”, it is time to consider putting this key-value pair in an object literal. You don’t have to, but it’s a better way to manage your data, and the approach leverages JavaScript’s strengths, instead of wrestling with the somewhat odd nature of it’s underlying architecture.

P.S.: If you really wanna see some odd JavaScript array behavior, try this:

The strange output of this one is for another discussion : – )

Helpful links for associative arrays in JavaScript

JavaScript Interview Questions: Object-Oriented JavaScript

Object-Oriented JavaScript

QUESTION:

True or False: the terms “scope” and “context” refer to the same thing in JavaScript.

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QUESTION:

If you omit the “var” keyword when creating a variable in a function, it becomes a property of what object?

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QUESTION:

How do you determine if a JavaScript instance object was created from a specific constructor or not?

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QUESTION:

True or False: Once you create an object, you can add, remove or change properties of that object at any time.

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QUESTION:

True or False: You can only instantiate a JavaScript constructor function once.

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QUESTION:

When you create a function inside of a method, what does the “this” keyword refer to when used in that function?

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QUESTION:

Name two ways two change the context of a JavaScript method

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QUESTION:

Can a JavaScript constructor return a primitive value (e.g. a number or a string)?

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QUESTION:

In JavaScript, are objects passed by reference or by value?

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QUESTION:

What is the difference between a constructor function and a non-constructor function with respect to the word “this”

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QUESTION:

What is the name of the property that allows you to add properties and methods to an object, as well as every object that inherits from it?

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QUESTION:

True or False: An object literal can be used to create private variables.

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QUESTION:

What is the name of the object that refers to the application used to view a web page?

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QUESTION:

True or False: The object returned by the document.getElementsByTagName() method is an array.

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QUESTION:

Which object.property combination provides a reference to the protocol used to view the current web page?

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QUESTION:

Given the below code, what line of JavaScript would allow foo.getColor to return the value of foo.color, without using the word “foo”?

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QUESTION:

What is the difference between using dot notation and bracket notation when accessing an object’s property?

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QUESTION:

What is important to remember about the last property’s value in a JavaScript object literal?

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QUESTION:

Given the following code, what is very likely the reason that the programmer made the first letter of “Foo” a capital letter?

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QUESTION:

Given the following code, how would you instantiate the function “Foo” and assign it to the variable “bar”?

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QUESTION:

What are two ways in which the variable “foo” can be assigned to an empty object?

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QUESTION:

True or False: When you create an object literal, you must first instantiate the Object() constructor.

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QUESTION:

When using the addEventListener() method to create a click-handler for a DOM element, what is the value of “this” inside of the callback you specify?.

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QUESTION:

True or False: A JavaScript array is not an object

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QUESTION:

If a string is a primitive value, why does it have a split() method?

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QUESTION:

True or False: A function can have its own properties and methods.

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What is the difference between an Object Literal and an Instance Object in JavaScript ?

JavaScript

JavaScript LogoAlthough a JavaScript object literal and a JavaScript instance object are both objects, they differ in their inherent nature and features


Object Literals

An object literal is “flat”. You create it, you add properties and methods to it, and all of those properties and methods are public. You can mutate any members of that object at any time. A JavaScript object literal does not, by nature, provide private scope. But any of the members of an object literal can certainly be a function that is capable of private scope. Object literals are useful because they allow you to create clean name-spaced code that is easy to pass around and consume.

Example # 1

In example # 1, we have defined a JavaScript object literal and assigned it to the variable “data”. This object has two members: the property “fname” and the method “addOne”. At run time, we can mutate this object very easily and add new properties (e.g. “lname”) and methods (i.e. “say”). The upside is that this object is totally exposed and we can access or mutate any of its members any time we like, with no problem. (Remember that if an object member is a function, then that function does provide its own private scope.) The downside of this object is that it does not inherently have a private scope. It also doesn’t have the kind of initialization that is provided by a constructor upon creation.

The output for example # 1 is:

foo
5
bar
baz
this is the say function

Instance Objects

An instance object is what is returned when instantiating a JavaScript constructor function, using the JavaScript “new” keyword. When you say “var bar = new Foo()”, “bar” becomes an “instance” of the function “Foo()”. Any expressions within Foo() are executed, any local variables in Foo() are copied and provided in “bar”, and the value of “this” inside of “bar”, refers to “bar”. The function “Foo” is never changed in any way; it simply acts as a “blueprint” for “bar”, and “bar” is an “instance” of “Foo”. Any local variables inside of “bar” are completely private and can only be muted by privileged members of that object.

Example # 2

In example # 2, we have created a constructor function. A JavaScript constructor function is a function that is not meant to be executed directly. For example, we never plan to do the following: “Foo()”. Instead, a constructor is meant to be instantiated. This means that you create an “instance” of that function using the JavaScript “new” keyword. We have created an instance of Foo() by saying “var bar = new Foo()”. So, now we have a variable named “bar” that is an exact copy of Foo().

What makes “bar” differ from our JavaScript Object Literal that we defined in Example # 1, is that when our instance object (“bar”) is created, any execution code in the constructor (i.e. “Foo()” ) runs. In addition, any private variables defined in the constructor remain private in the instance object (i.e. “_color”).

What makes this scenario a little more special than that of the object literal is that we can have privileged methods. These are methods that are made public by the use of the “this” prefix, but they have access to the instance object’s private members (i.e. “_color”). So, when we run this code, the constructor function code runs (“welcome to your new instance object”). We attempt to output the value of “_color”, but “undefined” is returned, because “_color” is private and cannot be accessed outside of “bar”. We then use the privileged method “getColor()” to get the value of _color the correct way, and “blue” is returned. We then change the value of “_color” using the privileged memer “setColor()”, and return its value using “getColor()” again (“red”).

Summary

Both Object Literals and Instance Objects have their place and purpose in JavaScript. The power of Object Literals is in their lightweight syntax, ease of use, and the facility with which they allow you to create name-spaced code. Instance Objects are powerful because they are derived from a function, they provide private scope when they are created, and expressions can be executed on instantiation.

Helpful links for JavaScript Objects

http://www.w3schools.com/js/js_objects.asp

http://www.javascriptkit.com/javatutors/oopjs.shtml

http://www.dyn-web.com/tutorials/obj_lit.php

http://www.davidpirek.com/blog.aspx?n=JavaScript-Class-Constructor-vs.-Object-Literal:-Difference-in-Implementation-and-Inheritance

Using an Immediate Function to Create a Global JavaScript Variable That Has Private Scope

JavaScript

JavaScript LogoKeeping the global namespace clean is a good idea. Immediate functions allow the JavaScript programmer to do so with a great deal of power.

In a previous post, we discussed the topic of the JavaScript Immediate Function. Now let’s re-visit this topic with a focus on creating a private scope with which we can interact.

Most JavaScript programmers know that you can create an object, and then extend that object by simply assigning a new property to it. In fact, you can even do so at run time. Well, this is all very nice, but as you do so, these new properties are public. Which means, of course, that they are accessible to anyone and mutable at any time. So, while this can have it’s uses, there is a downside, because any line of code has access to these properties and can change them. Sometimes, that can get messy.

Example # 1

In Example # 1, we created a global variable named “foo”. We then added two properties to it: “name” and “say”. There is no reason why at a later point in our code, we couldn’t intentionally (or even worse, accidentally) do the following:  foo.name = “marge”. If this is intentional, no problem, but if it is done by accident, it creates cases that become frustrating to debug and manage. So, obviously, what we need is a way to store values inside of foo that have a clearly defined interface for retrieval and mutation.

Example # 2

{ var _name = “bart”; var MyConstructor = function(){ this.getName = function(){ return _name; }; this.setName = function(newName){ _name = newName; }; } return new MyConstructor(); })(); console.log( foo.getName() ); console.log( foo.setName( “simpson” ) ); console.log( foo.getName() );

In Example # 2, we have drastically altered our global variable so that it is an immediate function. Inside of that immediate function, we have a private variable called “_name”. We return an instance of our constructor function, which allows us to use the “this” keyword to create privileged members. These two functions allow us to set, and get the value of name. If you paste Example # 2 in your JavaScript console, and run it, you will see that the value of our private variable “_name” changes over the course of the two “get” statements. This is because in between these two get statements, we use the “setName” method to change the value of that private variable.

Summary

The JavaScript immediate function can be used to create a global variable that has its own private scope. This is useful when creating functionality that requires storing data for the life of the page and managing access to that data.

Helpful links for Immediate Functions in JavaScript

http://dreaminginjavascript.wordpress.com/2008/07/03/immediate-execution/

http://lostechies.com/derickbailey/2011/12/04/achieving-block-scope-with-immediate-functions-in-javascript/

http://www.jameswiseman.com/blog/2011/02/17/jslint-messages-wrap-an-immediate-function-invocation-in-parentheses/

http://www.jspatterns.com/self-executing-functions/

 

 

The JavaScript “for…in” Statement – Don’t Leave Home Without It

JavaScript

JavaScript LogoObjects in JavaScript are first class types that have become a critical component to modern front-end web development. The “for…in” statement allows you to fully examine any object at run-time<

Making objects, instantiating objects, and enjoying all the wonderful properties and methods that we baked into our objects is what advanced JavaScript is all about these days. Let’s face it… it’s hard to imagine a useful JavaScript-based application that does not, in some way, implement object oriented technology. The “for…in” statement is one of the most essential tools in our belt when it comes to introspection in JavaScript.

“Introspection” in JavaScript is the act of “looking into” an object, to discover what it has inside. The answer is: “properties and methods.” But, the thing is, you don’t always know the name of the object that you will want to “look into” or exactly when you will have to do it. Also, as we know, an object member can itself be an object, which has properties and methods, and one or more of those properties might be another object with its own properties and methods… or a method might return an object, that has properties and methods…. and so on.

So, add this all up and what you get is the need to “look into” an object without knowing anything about it. It may be an object that you did not create, so our introspection tool cannot look for a specific set of named members; it just has to be able to say:  “the object that you told me to look into contains the following properties and methods,” and based on the object that we fed to that tool, the answer can vary.

The JavaScript “for…in” loop is incredibly simple and equally powerful. With its basic syntax, we can easily say: “for each X in Y… do this…”. X is the object’s property and Y is the object. So, if I had an object named “foo”, I could say “for X in foo”. If foo had 5 properties, then the loop would run 5 times. In each iteration of the loop, “X” will represent the current property that is being “looked at”. To access the property name, simply refer to X (i.e. alert(x) ), and to access the property value, refer to object[x] (i.e. alert(foo[x]) ). The reason that we use the bracket notation, and not dot notation, is that dot notation requires a string literal (i.e. foo.name), whereas with bracket notation, we can place any valid expression inside the brackets, such as a variable (e.g. foo[X] ).

Now what follows this is the “loop”, which is a set of curly brackets. So, our syntax looks as follows:

Inside “the loop”, we can do whatever we like. Typical scenarios are to do something with either the property name (i.e. X) or the property value (i.e, foo[X]). Let’s look at an example of a JavaScript “for in” loop that does something.

Example # 1

The output for Example # 1 would be:

the value of color, is: blue
the value of name, is: fred
the value of say, is: function (){ return “this is the say function” }

In Example # 1, the object “foo” has three members: two properties and one method. So, the “loop” executes three times. In each case, we output the name of the member “prop” and the value of the member “foo[prop]”.

Hmmm… ok, but what if one of the members is a function? Can’t we do more than just output what the name of the function is?

Sure! Functions are meant to be executed, so let’s execute a function if we find one!

Example # 2

In Example # 2, we examine each property courtesy of the “typeof” operator. If the property currently being “looked at” is a function, we assign the value of the property (the actual function code) to a variable, and then execute that variable. The output of Exmple # 2 is:

the value of color, is: blue
the value of name, is: fred
we found a function, and here it comes: hello from is the say function

Summary

So, as you can see, the sky is pretty much the limit with regard to the JavaScript for…in statement. It’s a very powerful introspection tool, i.e., one that gives us the ability to examine the properties and methods that an object contains. The reason that this statement is so important is that you may not always know the name of the object that you want to “look into” or much about it at all. This means that the JavaScript for…in statement allows you to abstract away the details of the future object that you will want to examine, and just say: “whatever object I reference, find out what is inside that object and tell me all  about it!”

Helpful links for the JavaScript “for…in” statement

 http://www.w3schools.com/js/js_loop_for_in.asp

http://javascriptweblog.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/exploring-javascript-for-in-loops/

http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/55wb2d34(v=vs.94).aspx

How to return an object literal from a JavaScript constructor

JavaScript

JavaScript object LogoWhile it is easy enough to create an object literal, there are cases in which you may want to return one from a constructor. When doing so, you return an object literal that has added value.

Everyone knows that creating a JavaScript object literal is as simple as: var foo = {}. No problem at all. In fact, we can even add properties and methods to this object with such expressions as:

or…

While these approaches are both simple, there is a difference between an object literal and an instance of a class. For example, var foo = new Foo() is not quite the same thing as our previous var foo = {}. The question is, can we have it both ways? On the whole, the answer is: “Yes!

Because of the very expressive nature of JavaScript, what we return from a function is really up to us. So, if we want to have a constructor function that returns an object literal, we can literally (sorry : – ) just use the “return” statement, and put an object on the other side of that.

Example # 1 – Return a simple object

In example # 1, the bar variable becomes an instance of our Foo() constructor. As a result, bar is an object literal. When we run its say() method we get the expected output, and if we were to run the following command: console.log(bar.color), we would get “blue“. But there is really not much added value here. Of course we could have accomplished the same end result by simply saying var bar = {} and including the same exact properties and methods.

But there is, in-fact, great potential for some pretty serious added value here. For example, the difference between simply assigning an object literal to bar and returning an object literal from our Foo() class is that when we instantiate Foo(), we sill have access to the outer function. This closure provides a scope in which we can store private members, to be accessed later if we wish, which is very important.

Example # 2 – Return an object with a privileged method

In example # 2, we still return an object literal, and as a result, the resulting instance is just an object literal. The added value is that we also defined one private variable:  _acctNum. In fact, translates to a new level of functionality: the _acctNum variable is not available to the outside world. Therefore, we have complete control over how it is mutated. Here we have defined two methods _getAcctNum and _SetAcctNum. Therefore, these privileged members have access to our private variable _acctNum. So, most importantly, we can change or retrieve the value of _acctNum using these two privileged methods.

Finally, we can do the following:

Summary

The added value of returning an object literal from a constructor is that while you have a very simple hash table to work with as your instance, you also have access to private variables that were defined within the constructor. As a result, in this case, you can think of the returned value as bar = {}, but with added value.

Helpful Links about JavaScript Objects

http://www.w3schools.com/js/js_objects.asp

http://www.quirksmode.org/js/associative.html

http://www.javascriptkit.com/javatutors/oopjs.shtml

How to Include a Function as a JavaScript Object Literal Member

JavaScript

JavaScript LogoJavaScript object literals can contain not only properties, but methods too

Some may automatically think of a JavaScript object as a name / value pair scheme with flat members that are essentially just scalar values. Fortunately, this is not quite the case. An object literal can also include functions among its members. Those functions can do everything that any function would otherwise do; it just happens to be a member of an object. You define a function as an object member simply by assigning an anonymous function to the key, instead of the usual scalar value.

Example # 1:

The output for Example # 1 would be: “Hi, my name is: Don Draper, my address is: 123 E. Maple Ave., and I am 36, years old” The reason for this is that in addition to the properties we have defined, we define a member that is a reference to an anonymous function. That function takes two arguments: the current year and the year Don was born. It calculates Don’s age, and then returns the result.

Some might say: “Why not just declare a function and use it?” You can certainly do that, but as I have covered in previous posts, it is usually best practice to create name-spaced objects in order to keep the global space clutter free. When doing so, you can define your members within your object. And, one or more of those members can be a function. I can think of few circumstances when this is not a good idea. It makes your code more readable and easy to manage.

Summary

There are many useful things you can do when making a function a member of an object literal. This post simply covers the basics.

Helpful Links about JavaScript Objects

http://www.w3schools.com/js/js_objects.asp

http://www.quirksmode.org/js/associative.html

http://www.javascriptkit.com/javatutors/oopjs.shtml

Immediate Functions in JavaScript – The Basics

JavaScript

JavaScript LogoFunctions are a very powerful feature in JavaScript; they provide modularity and scope. The immediate function, WHICH offers a heightened level of functionality, is an often overlooked feature of JavaScript

An immediate function is one that executes as soon as it is defined. Creating an immediate function is simple: you add the open/close parentheses after the closing curly bracket, and then wrap the entire function in parentheses. That’s it!

Example # 1:

In Example # 1, we have a very simple function. If you were to paste this function into your code and run it, nothing would happen. This is because the function is assigned to a variable, and that is it. We have only the function declaration here, but we never call the function. But if you were to add the line “myFunc();” to this code and run it, the output would be: “I am a simple function”.

Example # 2:

In order to turn this function into an immediate function, we add the open/close parentheses after the closing curly bracket and then wrap the entire function in parentheses. After we do this, we run the code and whatever happens in that function is executed immediately after the function declaration is complete.

So the output for Example # 2 would be: hello, I am an immediate function

Example # 3:

In Example # 3, we first declare a variable called “myName” before declaring our function. When declaring our immediate function, we take one argument: “thisName”. At the end of the immediate function declaration, the open/close parentheses pass the variable “myName” to our immediate function. So, not only does this set of open/close parentheses execute the function, it also allows you to pass an argument to that function.

The output for Example # 3 would be: “hello, my name is: bart Simpson”

Summary:

In this article, we touched on what immediate functions in JavaScript are, how to construct one, and how to pass parameters into them. But immediate functions in JavaScript can get very deep, very quickly. There is a world of power and subtlety that is available to you via immediate functions. Since that is out of the scope of this post, however, it will be covered in more detail in later posts.

Helpful Links for JavaScript Immediate Functions

http://nandokakimoto.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/javascript-immetiate-object-initialization/

http://stackoverflow.com/questions/939386/javascript-immediate-function-invocation-syntax

http://dreaminginjavascript.wordpress.com/2008/07/03/immediate-execution/

 

How to Create a Custom Object with Public and Private Members

JavaScript

JavaScript LogoBy making a distinction between what members of your object will be accessible to the  outside world, you can enforce a much higher degree of control and avoid unpredictable behavior

In a previous post, I discussed how to create your own name-spaced JavaScript object. This is a highly recommended approach that keeps the global name space free of clutter and helps make your code easier to read and manage. When you create your own custom JavaScript object, by default, all members are public. This is generally not to your advantage. While wrapping all of your functionality in a custom object is a smart move, because all of its members are public, other code in the page that might be out of your control has full access to your object, which cold lead to problems.

Best practice is to make a clear distinction between which members of your object are public, and which members are private. The goal is to provide the absolute minimum access possible in order to allow your code to work as intended.  This is known as “Principle of least privilege” or “Principle of least authority” (POLA).

In some programming languages, there are reserved words that easily provide scope for object or class members, such as “private”, “public”, “static” or “protected”.  There is no built-in syntax that provides scope in JavaScript. Functions are the tool you use to provide scope and they do so very well. But because there is only one tool we have in-hand to create the desired scope for object members (or variables in general), there are a few techniques you need to use that allow you to use functions to create scope.

Example # 1:

The output for Example # 1 would be:  “My name is: Foo, My address is: 123 E. Bar St.”

This is not an optimal situation because all the members of our object are public. In order to create the desired scope, we can wrap all of the objects members in a function.

Example # 2:

The output for Example # 2 would be: “undefined, undefined”

While we have made progress by wrapping the members in a function to provide scope, we have created another problem because these members are no longer publicly accessible. By using “var” when declaring the variables, they remain local to the function (good), but un-available to the outside world. The way to correct this is to create a public member that has privileged access to these private members.

Example # 3:

The output for Example # 3 would be: “Foo, 123 E. Bar St.”

In Example # 3, the variable “obj” is set to the data member, inside of our object: “myObj”.  By using the “this” keyword, we expose the members “getMyName” and “getMyAddress” publicly. While “getMyName” and “getMyAddress” are public methods, the variables “myName” and “myAddress” are still local, which means that they are private and not available outside of the member “data”. But, and here is the part that makes all work, “getMyName” and “getMyAddress” have complete access to all the private members of “data”. So “getMyName” and “getMyAddress” can  return these private members, while they and anything else we want to protect, remain privately scoped.

Summary:

This is a very basic example, but the building blocks you need are all there. Creating a name-spaced global variable is a great approach that keeps the global name space clutter free. But, it is generally good practice to keep your object’s properties and methods private to whatever degree makes sense. Exposing the minimal number of members publicly is known as “Principle of  least privilege” or “Principle of least authority”. By taking this approach, you keep your code safe from harm, easier to manage and also keep a tight leash on the behavior of your application.

Helpful Links regarding public and private Object members in JavaScript

http://javascript.crockford.com/private.html

http://stackoverflow.com/questions/55611/javascript-private-methods

http://stackoverflow.com/questions/483213/javascript-private-member-on-prototype

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle_of_least_privilege