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Some Nuances of JavaScript Types

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Some Nuances of JavaScript Types

Not everything in JavaScript is an object, and some things are objects that you wouldn't expect to be.

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I was once teaching a class on JavaScript to a group of C# developers when someone asked the very logical question, "Are JavaScript Types all derived from Object?"

I loved teaching this particular group because they were actively engaged in the material. So many times when I teach, the students simply absorb what I say but they don’t interact with it. They never ask the question, "What are the implications of what is being said?"

My initial instinct was to say 'no' based on my experience with the language. But then as I thought about it later, I thought, "But when I use the debugger on what seems to be a primitive, don’t I see it as an object?" And as it turns out, my instinct was right. Not everything in JavaScript is an object. Although there are things that you wouldn’t think were an object that are.

Image title

Now that we’ve covered JavaScript Objects and JavaScript Object Fields, it is time to move on to the specifics of JavaScript types.

So, why is it when I look at some primitive values I see them as objects? And which types are objects and which are primitives?

A Review of JavaScript Types

The fundamental types available to us in JavaScript are:

  • undefined
  • boolean
  • number
  • string
  • object
  • null

However, if you use the typeof operator on null, you’ll get back "object" as the type. While null is a unique type, it makes sense for typeof to return "object" since the only kind of variable that could return a null would be an object.

When is an Object Not an Object?

There is one other common type that is a bit of an odd ball—the function type.

What makes function odd is that it is technically a sub-type of object. This is good to know and will put you light years ahead of your peers once you realize the implications. Because a function is an object, you can give a function additional fields. In fact, a common way to override a function looks like this:

a = 'abc';

var originalSubstring;
var substringOverload = function(a,b){
    return originalSubstring(a,b);
}

originalSubstring = a.substr;
a.substr = substringOverload;

console.log(a.substr(0,1));

(Note: the code above won’t really work, I’m just illustrating a point).

You may have done something like the above using functions in libraries. As long as the field is not read-only, you can do this kind of overload of a function.

But a better way, now that we know that a function is just an object, is to assign the old function as a field of the original function:

a = 'abc';

var substringOverload = function(a,b){
    return substringOverload.substr(a,b);
}

substringOverload.substr = a.substr;
a.substr = substringOverload;

console.log(a.substr(0,1));

What About Arrays?

Another place you may not be used to thinking clearly about variable types is with Arrays. You might think an array is its own type. That an Array is an Array.  But in reality, Arrays are a type of Object. In fact, if you were to run the typeof operator against a variable that holds an Array, you would see that it is an object.

Once again, because you know this, you can use this information to your advantage.

You could provide your array, its own implementation of each:

Array.prototype.each = function(callback){
    for(var i = 0;i < this.length;i++){
        callback(this[i]);
    }
}

var a = [1,2,3];

a.each(function(item){
    console.log(item);
});

This is essentially how polyfills are created. If you write one, make sure you put in the additional code to make sure the function isn’t already implemented. And, don’t ever add a function to a native object like this without it having been declared by the standards committee as a function that is part of the spec. Polyfills exist so that you can make older JavaScript implementations work as though they were using newer standards, not so we can add our own new functions to the language. If you do, you could find yourself having a maintenance nightmare on your hands some day in the future.

Newing a Type

You can also write JavaScript that looks like this:

var someNumber = new Number(3);
var someString = new String('abc');
var someBool = new Boolean(true);

This will give you an Object that contains the value we passed in. And, each of those Objects will have Number, String, or Boolean functions available to it.

But, you don’t have to new a Number, String, or Boolean to get those functions. You can get the same ability by simply assigning the value to the variable. Under the hood, when you want to use the function that are available to all objects, the JavaScript runtime will "box" the number, string, or boolean as an object so that you can access, for example, hasOwnProperty().

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Topics:
javascript ,types

Published at DZone with permission of Dave Bush, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.

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